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Digital TV: Freeview, satellite or cable?

04 March 2022

There are so many ways to watch digital TV, from aerial to cable, satellite and even over the internet. Here’s a simple guide to your digital TV options.

Flat screen TV
You can now watch TV programmes on your tablet

Digital TV has revolutionised the way we watch TV. Not only does digital TV provide superior picture quality, better sound quality and a wider range of channels, it also has the advantage of interaction, allowing viewers to access further interactive content such as catch up TV and programme guides.

There are many ways of watching digital TV and our handy guide looks at the main options and their pros and cons.   

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Aerial TV

Traditional TV broadcasts received via a home TV aerial are still the most common way to view live television, although the signal is now digital instead of analogue. Whereas an analogue signal was transmitted straight to the TV the digital signal must be decoded. The decoding can happen within the TV itself in the case of more modern televisions, or with a low-cost Freeview machine you can plug in. Some set-top boxes (such as Humax brand) have built-in hard drives that allow you to easily record programmes to watch later.

Using services, such as Freeview, you can get 70 TV channels and 30 radio stations.

Freeview advantages:

• All modern TVs include a Freeview tuner or you can buy a Freeview set-top box for under £30.

• Once connected to your TV aerial and television set, you can view live TV in crystal-clear digital quality.

• With no monthly subscription, it’s one of the cheapest ways to watch TV.

Freeview disadvantages:

• Signal coverage for Freeview isn’t 100% – some areas of the UK have patchy coverage or not the full number of channels.

• While 70 seems like a lot of channels, it’s less than some of the other TV services.

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Satellite TV

Satellite TV services use a satellite dish attached to your home to receive television broadcasts. 

One of the most popular satellite TV providers is Sky, which charges a monthly fee. 

The Freesat TV service offers Freeview TV using a satellite dish for a one-off cost of buying a Freesat receiver.

Satellite TV advantages:

• Services from Sky can be expensive, but you’ll get a huge range of channels – many in HD – as well as exclusive Sky channels such as Sky Atlantic for viewing popular TV shows.

• Install a dish, and you’re likely to get great coverage wherever you live. You can even opt for the subscription-free Freesat service that delivers more channels than Freeview and on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer.

Satellite TV disadvantages:

• You’ll need to install a satellite dish, which can be difficult on rented homes or flats.

• For the widest choice of channels, you’ll need to sign up with Sky, which can be pricey depending on the TV package.

• Some atmospheric conditions can degrade the TV signal, but this is rare.

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Cable TV

With cable TV, the television signal is delivered via fibre optic cables in the ground, which result in great picture quality and a (usually!) reliable service. 

Cable services are offered by Virgin Media and BT, and you’ll need to have the service installed at your home before you can use it.

Cable TV advantages:

• Fibre optic cable’s ability to handle lots of channels means lots of choice. Virgin Media offers the widest-range of TV channels – over 280 channels, including some in 4k  – covering movies, sport and entertainment.

• Cable also excels at on-demand TV, so you can watch movies, documentaries and TV boxsets whenever you choose.

Cable TV disadvantages:

• Only around 50% of UK homes can get cable, although some specialist cable companies serve uncabled areas including WightFibre in the Isle of Wight.

• If you opt for cable, you’ll need to sign a contract for 12 months with the cable TV provider.

• Cable TV also lacks a handful of exclusive channels found on satellite TV.

• Cable TV packages can be pricey, and you may end up paying for programming you don't even watch.

Internet TV

A fourth way to watch TV has become increasingly popular as streaming services have taken off. By using a computer or tablet, or a device plugged into your television, such as Roku, Amazon Fire Stick or a games console, you can watch TV over your home broadband. 

All you need is a fast broadband service (8Mbps and higher) and a the right devices.

Internet TV advantages:

• Most internet TV services, such as BBC iPlayer, are a mix of catch up TV with some live broadcasts, and are subscription free (although a TV licence is required for live broadcasts). There's also a host of free apps for TV and films, such as Pluto TV, although you can expect some advertising breaks. 

• Access to the main channels, such as BBC, ITV and Channel 4 are via dedicated websites or apps, and include a mixture of classic boxsets and more recently broadcast programming, as well as live broadcasts.

• Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Now and Britbox allow you to build a package that suits your viewing habits by picking the services you want. These services can often be paid monthly and cancelled when you like, so you can mix and match as it suits, or temporarily subscribe, perhaps over summer holidays when you might have children or grandchildren to entertain.

Internet TV disadvantages:

• You’ll need fast broadband, and watching TV on a computer isn’t the same as viewing on a large HD TV, so you'll need to figure out what device is best for your needs.

• Most services are geared to serving catch up TV, and changing channels can mean having to launch and navigate through different apps rather than flicking through with one button.

• If your broadband has lots of traffic – such as other family members using it – the TV stream can stutter or stop, so you may end up wanting to upgrade your internet service.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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