Freeview TV is a wonderful service for UK cord cutters: you get more than 80 channels, without a monthly subscription, with some relatively cheap equipment. But to make it work, you need a Freeview Receiver/Tuner – and if you don’t have one built into your TV, you would need to buy a separate set-top box.
Our Editor’s Choice Freeview Recorder is the Manhattan T3-R, being the best Freeview box currently available, with most of the popular VOD catch-up apps, an incredibly fast interface, 4K support – and all for a reasonable price.
Read ahead for more of the best Freeview boxes and recorders for 2021, and learn some of the things you need to consider if you’re going to watch Freeview.
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What Is Freeview?
Freeview, first established in 2002, is the commercial name for the United Kingdom’s digital terrestrial television platform. It is operated by a joint venture of the BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4.
The service provides access to free-to-air TV channels and radio stations, including more than 80 standard channels and 15 HD channels – and that number keeps growing every year. The range goes from all the BBC channels (including HD), ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, The Food Network, CBS Action, QVC and many others.
The best part is that unlike pay-TV services such as Sky or BT, Freeview has no monthly costs – you buy the equipment once, and can enjoy the free programming forever. You do, however, need to pay the yearly TV licence fee in most cases – but you would have had to pay that with any type of broadcast TV service.
How To Get Freeview
Many people wrongly believe they need a Sky (or similar) subscription if they want to watch Freeview. That is NOT the case: In order to be able to watch the Freeview channels, you need two main components:
- A TV Aerial: Freeview channels are broadcast over the air, so you need an aerial that can intercept those signals. It can either be an outdoor aerial (on your roof), or a cheap, indoor aerial. If you need one, take a look at our guide to buying the best indoor aerials.
- A Freeview Receiver: The aerial needs to connect to a device that can translate those signals into TV channels.
What Is A Freeview Box – Do I Need One?
All TVs manufactured and sold in the UK since 2010 should already have Freeview built-in. That means that if you bought a telly in the past few years, it should already be capable of showing Freeview channels without a separate box (you would still need an aerial, though).
However, if your TV is older, you would have to get a Freeview Box.
Another reason to buy a Freeview Box is if you want better features than the ones available on your TV. For example, some TVs don’t have the full Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) that can show you the Freeview TV guide for up to 8 days in advance.
Other TVs have very slow interfaces, which can get annoying, and most TVs can’t record programmes from Freeview – so if you plan to record live TV, you would need a Freeview PVR (Personal Video Recorder.)
What Are Freeview HD, Freeview Recorder And Freeview Play?
When you’re in the market for the best Freeview Box, the different terms can get a bit confusing – so let me explain them for you:
- Freeview HD is the basic Freeview service, and a box that supports Freeview HD will be able to show you all the available free channels – the standard ones, and the High Definition ones.
- Freeview+ / Freeview HD Record: Lets you record live programmes for later viewing, or pause and rewind live TV. Using the EPG, you can also set recordings up to eight days in advance, and even automatically record the same series every week. So if you want to record programmes, you need a Freeview Box that supports this.
- Freeview Play: A combination of over-the-air channels and programmes on-demand via the internet, giving you access to BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5 and a few other catch-up apps, all in one device. With some devices, you can also “scroll back” and watch programmes that you’ve missed up to 7 days backwards. (See our full Freeview Play guide)
Alternatives To Freeview
If things weren’t confusing enough, Freeview isn’t the only service in the UK that lets you watch free TV.
What Is YouView?
A “hybrid” service that combines the regular, over-the-air Freeview channels, and catch-up TV from those same channels, streamed to you via your broadband connection.
Some YouView boxes also offer additional pay-per-view channels and programmes, but with many Freeview boxes also offering catch-up TV these days (with Freeview Play), the two services have become almost identical.
What Is Freesat?
Unlike Freeview, which sends its signals over-the-air via transmitters, Freesat sends its signal via satellites. The channels selection is similar, though Freesat offers a wider variety of channels.
For Freesat, you would need a satellite dish on your roof, and a Freesat receiver, either built-in to your TV or as a separate Freesat set-top box.
What Are Internet Streamers?
Streamers that connect to your TV (Amazon Fire TV 4K, Google’s Chromecast, Roku and many others) can be used to view some Freeview Channels, not through the air, but via the internet (So you might need a WiFi Range Extender in a big house).
You can either use dedicated channel apps (such as BBC iPlayer or the ITV Hub) or apps like TV Player, that stream “live” channels to you, via the internet.
As mentioned, some Freeview boxes combine these two services – they offer you direct over-the-air channels, as well as catch-up apps that use your broadband connection, saving you a box (And room… so it might be time to look at a TV wall bracket).
Another option is the Netgem Netbox 4K (see our review), which combines Freeview Play with a subscription that adds a few more channels (mainly sports and cooking). While I don’t recommend it just as a Freeview box – because of its high price – it’s still an interesting third option.
Buying The Best Freeview Box: Things To Consider
As you will see on our chart, the range of prices between the different Freeview Boxes is pretty wide – you can get a simple box for less than £40, and a known-brand box, with almost every possible feature, for £200 and upwards. How do you choose?
First, ask yourself what you’re going to do with your Freeview Box.
If you already have a TV with Freeview, but you want more features and a faster interface, you should probably go for the higher-priced boxes, as they indeed offer more features and sometimes have more powerful processors which help with the speed.
If you’re on a budget, and just want a basic cheap box that’ll let you watch Freeview channels – one of the cheaper ones will do just fine. (So by combining a cheap box and a cheap indoor aerial, and assuming you already have a TV, you can get all these free channels for less than £50.)
Do I Need A Freeview Recorder?
The next question to ask is whether you want to be able to record live TV from the Freeview channels.
While some of the budget boxes include a recording option, you would have to buy and connect a separate USB stick.
The higher-priced Freeview Boxes that include a PVR, will let you record into an internal hard drive, and it’s super-convenient – you choose shows to record via the Freeview Electronic Programme Guide, and they get recorded automatically at the right time.
There are even Freeview boxes that include a built-in Blu-Ray player. So yes, let’s face it, Blu-Ray (and physical media in general) is on its way out, making way for streaming media. But you still get excellent quality with Blu-Ray discs, and even more so with 4K Blu-ray players, and there are a lot of movie bargains out there.
I haven’t included it in the general list, but I would recommend this Panasonic model. (If you’re in the market for a cheap, stand-alone DVD player, I reviewed the best ones here.)
How To Connect The Freeview Box
Most Freeview boxes these days connect to your TV via an HDMI port. If you don’t have enough free HDMI ports, you can use a good HDMI switcher.
But if your TV is particularly old, you might need a box with a SCART connection or even an old composite (red/white/yellow) connection.
If the box you get only has HDMI, you can buy a SCART/Composite converter – but that’s another purchase that you will have to make.
Freeview Reception Problems
Freeview relies on over-the-air reception. If your indoor aerial isn’t good enough, or – more commonly – if you live in an area where the Freeview signal is too weak – you won’t get a high-quality picture on your TV, or – in worst case scenarios – won’t be able to watch Freeview at all.
You can check the estimated coverage in your house with the Digital UK Postcode Checker. You put in your postcode and house number, and the site gives you some details about reception in your area. Take these numbers with a grain of salt, though, as they’re only estimates.
Because reception is such an issue with Freeview, many buyers blame their newly purchased Freeview Boxes or indoor aerials for their lack of reception – while often it’s just weak over-the-air signals that are at fault. You can also try an aerial signal amplifier – see my review here.
The bad news? There’s really no way to know for sure what reception looks like in your house until you buy the devices and give it a try. The good news? When you buy from Amazon, it’s usually very easy to return stuff if you’re having problems.
Cord Busters’ Best Freeview Boxes 2021
- Apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, UKTV Play, CBS Catchup, Horror Bites, BBC Sounds, STV Player, YouTube, Britbox
- EPG: 8 Days Forward (7 days backwards)
- Recording: Yes, 500GB model and 1TB model
- Connections: HDMI, S/PDIF, Aerial Input
- Internet: Ethernet / WiFi
- Extra Features: Record three channels at once, smart HD recording and switching, cast YouTube from phone, Learning remote
The best Freeview recording device you can buy today, when you consider all the important features AND the cost: You get Freeview Play catch-up apps, 4K support (though it’s mainly used for YouTube, for now), and a VERY fast, modern interface.
The “smart” recording features are useful (such as finding an HD alternative automatically, or the ability to pause and rewind live channels), and navigating your recordings is easy. Picture quality is great, but – as always – depends a lot on your aerial reception.
Our one quibble? Currently, the T3-R doesn’t have Netflix / Amazon Prime / NOW TV apps, so you can’t use it to completely replace a streaming device. (And if you don’t need apps at all, you can check the slightly cheaper Manhattan T2-R)
If you’re in the market for an upgraded Freeview Play experience and recording (or your older telly doesn’t have Freeview at all), the T3-R ticks most of the boxes for an excellent price. (There are two models – the 500GB one, and the 1TB model). Plus, they keep updating it – a recent free software update brought new features and Britbox app, for example.
- Apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, YouTube, STV Player, BBC Sounds, UKTV, Netflix
- EPG: 8 Days (7 days backwards)
- Recording: Yes, 500GB/1TB/2TB Hard Drive (up to 500 HD hours)
- Connections: HDMI, Composite, S/PDIF
- Internet: Ethernet + WiFi
- Extra Features: Stream media from PC, Phone remote control app
Humax is a big name in the Freeview Box market, as they have been producing various models for years. As such, they know what they’re doing – but they charge extra for it.
This is one of the most advanced devices on this list when it comes to features. The Humax FVP-5000T will give you excellent picture quality, several Smart TV apps (including Netflix), and a huge hard drive for recording your favourite programmes (There’s a 500GB version, a 1TB version, and even a 2TB version).
The feature-set is impressive – from “Smart” HD switching and recordings, to tight integration between the live TV guide and the catch-up apps. The FVP-5000T also has three tuners, so you can record up to 4(!) different programmes while watching a fifth.
The main fault we could find – other than the price – is the sluggish interface. It’s a bit slow, and takes a second or two to perform every action. If you don’t mind that, and you’re willing to pay extra for all the bells and whistles – this is a great Freeview device, with a Netflix app as the cherry on top.
(Update: Humax recently launched the Aura, their 4K Android TV based Freeview recorder and streamer. It’s a very promising device, but I’m waiting for them to iron all the kinks out before I fully recommend it. For now, you can already read my full review of the Humax Aura here.)
- Apps: None
- EPG: 8 Days forward
- Recording: No
- Connections: HDMI
- Internet: Ethernet (Mostly for software updates)
If you don’t need any flashy features other than good Freeview HD reception and a fast, easy-to-use interface – this is the box to go for, as it’s also one of the cheapest ones out there.
As with the more expensive Manhattan models, the T1 has a snappy interface which makes using the Electronic Programme Guide a joy. You can see 8 days ahead, and while there’s no recording (not even via a USB stick, which is a shame), you can ask to be reminded on-screen when a future show is on.
There are no streaming/catch-up apps, and the Ethernet connection is used mostly for software updates. (For apps, check out the Manhattan T3 Freeview Play box.) Note that it only has an HDMI connection, and you would need a separate kit to connect to SCART or composite – which is disappointing for a box aimed at adding Freeview to older tellies.
Best Value, Runner-Up
- Apps: None
- EPG: 7 Days forward
- Recording: Yes, via USB stick
- Connections: HDMI / SCART
- Internet: No
- Extra Features: Hinged design
One of the cheapest Freeview Recorders you can get, and for such a low price – it does its job well, but with a few issues.
Recording is done by connecting an external USB stick, which means you need to buy another device. You can schedule TV recording directly from the EPG, or record what you’re watching right now. (But you can’t watch a different channel at the same time as there’s only one tuner).
The cheap price comes with a cost, of course – the interface (switching channels, moving around the EPG) is rather slow and some have had issues with the EPG occasionally showing garbled text, picture quality degrades fast with bad reception, the remote is small with too many tightly-spaced buttons, and there’s no internet connection or apps – so no catch-up TV.
It’s not the most feature-packed, but if you’re looking for a very basic Freeview Box that can also record and does the job – this is a cheap, solid choice.
- Apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, UKTV Play, CBS Catchup, Horror Bites, BBC Sounds, STV Player, YouTube
- EPG: 8 Days (7 days backwards)
- Recording: NO
- Connections: HDMI, S/PDIF
- Internet: Ethernet + WiFi
- Extra Features: 4K (2160p), HDR10 & HLG Support, Learning remote, YouTube casting from phone
An excellent FreeviewPlay box with a speedy, slick interface that also serves as an advanced – but limited – streaming device. You get most of the popular UK streaming apps, but you won’t find Netflix, Amazon Video or NOW TV.
Picture quality support is currently the best out there with 4K, however, it only works with YouTube and some limited BBC iPlayer content – for now.
It’s not the cheapest out there, and it has no recording capabilities – but it makes up for that with how fast and easy to use the interface is. If you’re only looking for Freeview channels and the major catchup apps, the T3 will serve you well.