What is Freeview Play? the next generation of television explained

Freeview is going online at last

If you've bought a Panasonic TV in the last few months then you might get Freeview Play as a free upgrade: the Viera CR730B, CR852B, CX680B, CX700B and CX802B sets are all eligible. Otherwise, you're going to need to look out for Freeview Play when you next buy a television or a set-top box.

What is Freeview Play?

Freeview Play advert

You're no doubt already familiar with Freeview, the digital TV service that gives you BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 services over the air for free. What Freeview Play brings to the mix is catch-up capabilities, so you can go back in time if you've missed your favourite show - there's no need to remember to hit the record button in advance.

With its connected, on-demand video technology, it's similar to the capabilities already offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin Media and YouView. The emphasis is on ease-of-use, with one unified interface covering all the channels; that interface may change between devices, because manufacturers can tweak the look of Freeview Play if they wish to (just like Samsung and HTC tweak Google's Android).

What's more, manufacturers are free to add extra services on top of Freeview Play, so you might see some differences between the technology on a smart TV from one brand compared with a Blu-ray player from another. The service only launched in October and so far Panasonic and Humax are the two manufacturers on board - expect to see a few more arrive in the future.

A brief history of Freeview

Freeview promo

Freeview is largely responsible for the switch from analogue to digital TV in the UK. It's a collaboration between a group of companies - the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and transmitter operator Arqiva - and it first went live way back in October 2002. Our terrestrial channels now all broadcast in digital form, as you'll know if you've bought a new TV in the last 13 years, and the analogue signals were switched off in 2012.

We've seen various features and extras bolted onto Freeview down the years: Freeview HD has added high-definition quality for a select number of channels, while the Freeview+ service allows for digital recordings to be stored on a set-top box (you might see the logo when you're out shopping for new devices).

There have been major retunings of the Freeview service in 2009 and 2014 as the channels and signals were shuffled around, but most early teething problems are now sorted. Freeview Play adds internet connectivity to the mix: it doesn't affect Freeview itself or Freeview equipment, which will still work as it always has.

Freeview Play key features

Freeview Play app

If you're familiar with the BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5 catch-up apps on your computer or phone then you already know what Freeview Play is: it's these apps wrapped in an unified interface that's accessed through your smart television set or a separate set-top box. These broadcasters offer catch-up capabilities over the web for free, so there's no subscription cost apart from the initial cost of your hardware. Typically, the last week's worth of programming is available.

Other smaller channels are included too, so you get up to 60 standard channels and up to 12 HD channels in total. That's for starters, because Freeview Play is promising to add extra capabilities in the future: think apps like BBC News and BBC Sport right there on your TV. You get access to red button services and there's also an accompanying app for Android and iOS that lets you view what's coming up and set programme reminders.

As we've already mentioned, TV makers can add extra apps on top of Freeview Play, so expect to see the likes of Netflix and YouTube included as well (even if they're not technically part of Freeview Play itself). You need to have a decent broadband Wi-Fi connection of 2Mbps or above to use the catch-up services.

Why would you want it?

Freeview Play TV

Freeview Play isn't a revolution in TV watching - as we've said, its features are already available on other services and through your web browser - but it brings Freeview into the modern age and is well worth having if you're shopping around for new kit for your living room. We'll have to wait for the first reviews to appear to see if the system is slick and intuitive enough to take on the likes of YouView and the individual on-demand apps.

It some ways it negates the need for a separate recording box, because you can just go back in time (up to seven days' worth) and start streaming the programme you're interested in from the web (think Netflix rather than iTunes). That said, boxes will be available if you want to be able to save shows for a longer period, and long-time Freeview partner Humax is going to be building the first one.

There's now a lot of choice out there for people who want catch-up and on-demand services on their living room TV. You could get a Chromecast dongle and stream video through a smartphone app, for example, and if you already subscribe to Sky or Virgin Media then you already have just about everything Freeview Play offers. But, as far as the Freeview channels are concerned, Freeview Play promises to be one of the simplest solutions yet for making sure you never miss a programme.

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