Which is the right UK HDTV service for you?

With Freeview HD landing from March this year, suddenly the high resolution TV format is available as a choice for the masses as well as for those who've been happy to pay for it up 'till now. But just because it's free, does that mean it's the best option? Here's our guide to what's available on all UK HD platforms and exactly how much it'll cost you for each.

 

Freeview

No. of HD channels
4

Cost for Year One
£90 approx (£22.50/channel)

Cost thereafter
free

Growth potential
limited


We know it, we're familiar with it but the problem is that we're all going to need new boxes to get it. It's hard to tell what the most basic set up cost will be. Toshiba has just announced the 500GB HDR5010 Freeview+ HD PVR but doubtless there'll be plenty more basic offerings by the time March arrives. The big two bonuses with Freeview are that it's free, once you've made the initial outlay, and that even though there are just four channels, they're some of the very best.

The elephant in the corner though is that there isn't enough bandwidth in the current frequency range on which Freeview operates to support many more HD channels. There is always the chance that some of the redundant parts of the electromagnetic will be re-farmed for this purpose, but there's no guarantees. More pressingly, only 50% of the country will be able to access the service by June. The 98.5% figure will be reached by the end of digital switchover in 2012. Find out when it comes to your area.

HD Channels - BBC, ITV, Channel 4 & Five

 

Freesat

No. of HD channels
2

Cost for Year One
£67/£147 (£33.50/£73.50 per channel)

Cost thereafter
free

Growth potential
High


For many, Freesat has always been the budget option of choice, but with the arrival of Freeview HD this year it doesn't look that viable for the HD consumer in its present state. First, you need a satellite dish on your roof. Now, that might be okay if you happen to be a Sky customer fed up of the monthly bill, but the majority of houses don't have one.

Installation costs you around £80 plus an ugly lump tacked on to your home. Next you need a decoder but these are mercifully cheap, starting at £67, but you might even find that if you have a relatively new set that there's already a Freesat decoder built in.

The real trouble with Freesat is that there's just two channels in HD available at the moment. They're both good channels and, as it goes, the only two channels you'll need if you're looking to watch the World Cup this summer in HD, but that's still the least out of any of the HD platforms. On the plus side, Freesat currently has the exclusive with ITV HD - possibly crucial for attracting football fans this year - and, as a satellite service, not only is the coverage almost total but there's almost limitless opportunity for the growth of the HD offering.

HD Channels - BBC & ITV


Virgin Media XL

No. of HD channels
12 (9 live, 3 OD)

Cost for Year One
£465 (£38.75/channel)

Cost thereafter
£32.50/month (£2.71/channel)

Growth potential
Good (20-30)


Virgin Media has been a really good HD choice for those who haven't wanted or couldn't put up a dish until now, but the launch of Freeview HD rather micturates on its fried potato products. The on demand channels are a nice touch and the growth potential of the platform is good - although ultimately limited to how much data you can fit down the fibre optic pipe. The trouble is that the HD channels on offer aren't mind blowing.

There's the same BBC and C4 that you get on most others and Discovery and Nat Geo are ripe for HD viewing, but Living is not exactly ideal for high-def entertainment and what's on Europsport and ESPN is no match for the content that sports fans can enjoy on Sky. Also, the £5 users pay for Virgin's on demand movie service, which we have included into the cost, doesn't always mean you'll be getting an HD movie. Some in the library are plain old SD as well.

Relatively speaking, the cost per HD channel is also pretty high. You can save a few pennies by going for a Virgin phone line instead of BT. That both lowers the cost per month with line rental factored in and there's also a massive bonus in that the first 2 months of the year long agreement are also free, but that's not going to be an option for those already tied in on a fixed line telephone contract.

There's been no news, as yet, that Virgin Media will be adding ITV HD to its portfolio meaning an extra decoder for those after that service in time for the World Cup, but on the plus side Virgin is the only one of the four so far to have direct TV access to BBC iPlayer.

HD Channels - BBC, Channel 4, Discovery, National Geographic, FX, Living, Eurosport, ESPN, MTVN, Catch up TV, Picture Box, Movies


Sky

No. of HD channels
37 (35 live 2 OD)

Cost for Year One
£810 (£21.89/channel)

Cost thereafter
£67.50/month (£1.82/channel)

Growth potential
High


If you want all the HD you can get your hands on now and into the future, then the only option is Sky. The full monty package is a serious wedge, but you are getting a whole 37 HD channels for the privilege. It's very possible to spec the choice down some if you ditch the movie and sports packages but, once you've done this, what's left doesn't nearly look quite so impressive in terms of entertainment.

On the plus side, the annual £810 does give you access to the basic 2Mbps broadband for free as well as some phone calls too and there's even an offer at the moment of a £25 M&S voucher thrown in as a sweetener when you sign up.

Like Virgin, though, there is the ITV HD thorn in the side for the moment, which is a bigger problem for a platform that has built itself and its customer base largely on the success of its sports bonanza. So, don't assume that you're getting the creme de la creme of football coverage if you sign up for Sky in 2010 - not for 6 weeks anyway.

Of course, there is the carrot of 3DTV that you can shortly get as a Sky customer. That's a big pull and, like Freesat, the growth potential and coverage of a satellite service is much better as far as getting more and more HD channels go. So, that's worth considering too. 

HD Channels - C4, BBC, Sky One, FX, Bio, SCI FI, E4, Sky Arts 1, Sky Arts 2, Luxe TV, Sky Real Lives, Sky Premier, Sky Screen 1, Sky Screen 2, Sky Comedy HD, Sky Action, Sky Family, Sky Drama, Sky SciFi/Horror, Sky Modern Greats, Sky Indie, MGM, MTVN, Sky Sports 1, Sky Sports 2, Sky Sports 3, ESPN, Rush, Eurosport, Discovery, National Geographic, Nat Geographic Wild, History Channel, Crime, Disney, Sky Box Office 1, Sky Box Office 2


Conclusions

The only question you really have to ask yourself before you make your choice is what do you want to watch in HD? If the answer is sport, then pick up the phone order Sky and bite the bullet of buying the world's cheapest Freeview HD decoder come June - that or an entire new TV set that already has it built in.

If the answer is movies, and you want them coming out of your ears, then it's going to be Sky again. However, Virgin would be a better choice if you didn't require quite so many. And if you're not bothered by either, then you might do best to just stick with Freeview HD - provided switchover comes your way sooner rather than later, otherwise you might want to opt for Freesat.

Additionally, consider this. None of these services offers the full, true 1080p resolution HD that you can get with a Blu-ray disc or a top-end download. All the outputs from the various boxes and decoders are either in 720p or 1080i and, good as that is, it's not quite the tip top.

For those totally thrown by the last sentence, don't worry, just buy whichever one you'd made up your mind on by the end of the paragraph before. Your TV might even upscale the resolution to some degree anyway, but for those who know what we're taking about, then, well, just know that we know as well.