What is Freeview Play? The next generation of television explained

Live, catch-up and on demand programmes all in one place

Freeview Play is the latest version of the renowned free-to-air digital TV platform, building on the success of those cheapo Freeview boxes that old people had to get when they switched off analogue TV.

You, of course, bought a brand-spanking new TV which had Freeview built in. Or you subscribed to a service that gave you digital TV anyway (like Sky).

But do you have Freeview Play? Or why should you get it? For the answers to these questions and more, read on below. 

What is Freeview Play?

Freeview Play advert

Freeview Play launched in 2015 and comes integrated in many TVs and set-top boxes. In fact, it comes pre-installed on around a third of smart TVs in the UK. 

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 and on demand 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. Over a million Freeview Play devices have now been sold and over 20 tech brands support the platform. 

With its connected, on-demand video technology, it's similar to the capabilities already offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin Media and BT or TalkTalk with 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.

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, 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 is supported by Blaupunkt, Bush, Digihome, Finlux, Goodmans, Hisense, Hitachi, Humax, JVC, Laurus, LG, Linsar, Luxor, Manhattan, Mitchel & Brown, Panasonic, Polaroid, Sharp, techwood, Telefunken and Toshiba. 

Freeview Play features

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 working alongside Freeview. 

You get up to 70 standard channels, up to 15 HD channels and 25 radio stations in total. 

Everything is wrapped in a unified interface that's accessed through your smart television set or a separate set-top box (from around £80 if you want to upgrade an existing TV). If it's integrated into your new TV, you don't need a separate box. 

Similar to YouView, the scroll-back TV guide provides instant access to the last seven days’ worth of programming. And like YouView, Sky and Virgin, Freeview Play also enables you to search live and on demand content in one unified search interface. 

There's also an accompanying app for Android and iOS that lets you view what's coming up and set programme reminders.

You need to have a broadband connection of 2Mbps or above to use the catch-up services. Many Freeview Play devices also feature separate apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV, though this isn't part of the Freeview Play specification so devices don't have to carry these apps. 

 The 2017 updates to Freeview Play include support for Ultra HD 4K and HDR content for programmes delivered via broadband (depending on your equipment and connection speed). More features are slated for later this year.  

Why would you want it?

Freeview Play TV

Freeview Play is well worth having if you're shopping around for new kit for your living room. 

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 are, of course, available if you want to be able to save shows for a longer period.

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 your smartphone app, for example, and if you already subscribe to Sky, BT TV or Virgin Media then you already have everything Freeview Play offers.

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Dan Grabham

Dan is a previous Editor for T3.com and covered the latest in computing, home entertainment and mobile tech. He's also the former Deputy Editor of TechRadar and former Editor of Lifehacker UK. Dan has written for numerous computing and lifestyle magazines and has also written a book, too. You'll see him pop up in numerous places, having been quoted in or on The Sun, BBC World Service, BBC News Online, ITN News, BBC Radio 5Live, BBC Radio 4 and Sky News Radio.