With rising subscription prices and limitations on account sharing, users increasingly have to make tough choices between which streaming and TV services are worth shelling out for in an increasingly crowded marketplace. But for UK viewers, there's always the option of ditching pay-for-TV for the egalitarian simplicity of Freeview Play, where live TV, catch-up apps and box sets for your favourite channels are all packaged together in one easily navigable and accessible place.
Freeview Play is a best-of-both-worlds TV service, giving you access to over 70 live channels (including 15 in HD) and 10 UK TV catch-up apps offering 40,000 hours of on-demand content for no monthly cost. It requires both an aerial for broadcast channels and an internet connection for streaming, but as long as you have access to both and a compatible TV or device, Freeview Play can be all yours.
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What is Freeview Play?
Freeview’s connected TV platform, launched in the UK in 2015, has had growing support from manufacturers since its launch and now features on almost all TVs and many set-top boxes.
Freeview Play stands out from regular Freeview by adding the extra ‘connected’ element to TV viewing. The Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) can not only be used to access live programming but also, thanks to a clever roll-back function, programmes that have aired in the past seven days. So if you missed an episode of your favourite show, you can scroll back in time and get your fill.
Alternatively, you can catch missed shows on the service’s TV catch-up service apps; BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, Demand 5, and UKTV Play are all present, but there are plenty more besides. There’s also a dedicated Box Sets area to make it easier for viewers to get the most out of Freeview’s vast on-demand content library.
Freeview Play is also the only UK TV service where you can watch catch-up on-demand programmes from CBS' UK channel portfolio, which comprises CBS Reality, CBS Reality +1, CBS Drama, CBS Action. Access to Horror Channel and Horror Channel +1 on-demand programming is also available thanks to the Horror Bites player. As with similar services, programmes are available for 30 days following their initial broadcast.
The service has integrated on-demand content into the live TV experience, too, launching a dedicated Channel 100, where users can see curated content recommendations from those TV services. And that's not all, most Freeview Play devices also support other video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Sky's NOW TV.
Ultimately, Freeview Play's grand plan is to save viewers the effort of going into separate catch-up apps to search for what to watch. Instead, everything is presented everything in one place with recommendation genres, including Comedy, Drama & Soaps, Entertainment, Factual, Food Entertainment, Factual, Movies, Lifestyle, Food, Music & Arts, Science & Nature, and History. Viewers can keep track of all that content and curate their own watch lists via the My Shows feature.
How can I get Freeview Play?
While there were a limited number of ways to get Freeview Play when it launched in 2015, the service is now edging closer to ubiquity. According to Freeview, the service has been installed onto over 13 million devices and is the UK’s fastest-growing TV platform, with over 11 million users.
You have two options: buy a TV with Freeview built-in, or you can upgrade an existing TV with a Freeview Play set-top box, with prices starting at £70. The full list of supported devices can be found here (opens in new tab).
On the latter, there are several models from brands such as Humax and Manhattan TV. Some receivers not only use the Freeview platform but also support 4K and HDR as well as storage for downloads and saved episodes too.
On the TV front, a huge number of manufacturers have now incorporated Freeview Play into their UK models since 2016, to the point that it's almost universal.
However, it's worth checking before buying, especially if buying an older or second model, because Freeview Play isn't a downloadable service and needs to be pre-installed on equipment. It's now built into TVs from most leading manufacturers, including LG, Panasonic, Philips, Sony, Toshiba and the Android TV OS, as well as a number of retailers' own brands.
Unfortunately, LG's 2020 models do not include the service as, during that particular year, the two companies failed to come to an agreement, which has since been rectified. Similarly, Sony's 2018 models instead feature the rival YouView platform (which you can read about below), though more recent TVs do include the Freeview Play.
There's also a Freeview Play app for iOS and Android devices where viewers can stream live channels, access on-demand content, set reminders for shows, and curate their own personal weekly watch list.
Freeview is constantly evolving its service to grow device support and make content easier for users to discover and watch. The service has launched an Accessible TV Guide to help people with visual and hearing impairments more easily find and watch programmes, offering text-to-speech, screen magnification, a high-contrast interface, content highlighting, and subtitles, audio description and sign language functionality. To change these options, users should head to Freeview channel 555, where they can alter their preferred accessibility settings as well as filter the guide to show only content that suits them.
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Freeview Play vs. YouView: What's the difference?
You may think Freeview Play sounds pretty similar to YouView... and you’d be right. YouView also offers a connected TV service with a seven-day scrolling EPG. But there are some differences between the two platforms.
If you have a NAS drive, use DLNA to stream content between devices, and like the idea of adding TV shows to the streaming mix, Freeview Play can help. Or perhaps you like the sound of streaming TV shows to different devices around your home - again, is the service for you. This is another way Freeview is cost-effective when compared to the likes of Sky, which offers a multi-room service but only for an extra fee. With Freeview Play, multi-room is free.
Compared to YouView, it's this streaming functionality that looks likely to make the difference for Freeview Play. It's not something YouView can currently offer. YouView does, however, punch back by offering a wider selection of third-party apps...
It's worth noting not all Freeview Play boxes have always included apps for all the on-demand services. As Freeview Play is an open platform, TV and set-top box manufacturers can shape the service to offer what they like. Our advice: always check before buying, especially with older models
YouView, on the other hand, always has the Netflix app on its platform by default, along with Now TV and (for those with a BT TV subscription) BT Player.
Should you get Freeview Play?
Freeview Play is aimed, first and foremost, at people who don't want to shell out for a TV subscription service from BT, Sky or Virgin. If you're ditching one of those, need a new Freeview box or are looking to upgrade your free TV experience, the service is certainly worth considering. In fact, chances are you already have access to it if you own a big-brand TV from the last few years, so there's really nothing to lose by giving it a try.
It may be competing in a crowded market, but given that 95 per cent of the nation’s most-watched TV is available subscription-free on Freeview, it hopes that users will want to take advantage of the free, on-demand access to some of the UK's best quality programming.
While plenty of award-winning shows, including It's a Sin, Derry Girls, Killing Eve, Fleabag and Peaky Blinders can be found on subscription services, UK viewers are fortunate to have on-demand access to high-quality content available for free. With its slick interface and discovery features, Freeview Play is a service that seeks to help viewers find and enjoy TV in the simplest and most affordable way possible.
In the fight to sustain free-to-air TV in a landscape dominated by the likes of Netflix (opens in new tab) and Disney Plus, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and network operator Arqiva (the four shareholders of Digital UK) pledged £125m in 2018 to see Freeview Play become the ‘fully hybrid platform’ that it is today. Funding for the BBC and Channel 4 may be increasingly under threat, but one thing's for sure, Freeview Play isn't going anywhere anytime soon.