Freeview’s Future Uncovered: Freely Hands-On Review

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The highly anticipated launch of Freely is almost upon us – and the future of Freeview, Freesat and the TV market in the UK is about to undergo major changes.

Freely, the new venture from Everyone TV (the company behind Freeview and Freesat) promises to transform the way we watch free TV, and I recently had the opportunity to get hands-on with it.

I sat down with Everyone.TV’s Chief Product Officers, Carl Pfeiffer and Sarah Milton, to discuss their vision for Freely and to see the platform in action.

So, is Freely the game-changer it promises to be? Will it replace Freeview as the go-to platform for free TV?

After spending some time with the platform, I have some thoughts. So, let’s explore Freely’s upcoming features, potential, and challenges as it prepares for launch in the next few months.

Freely on a TV

Freely, which was first announced in September 2023, is a collaboration between the UK’s major broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5.

It aims to revolutionize the free-to-air television landscape by merging live and on-demand content through a broadband-based platform.

According to research, more than half of UK homes will watch TV exclusively over broadband by 2030, so Freely is looking to bridge the gap between aerial (or satellite)- based, over-the-air TV and broadband-based IP channels that eliminate the need for those old-school transmissions.

However, Freely has also been designed to ensure both backwards and forward compatibility.

Freely devices will operate like a standard DTT (aerial-based) device if only connected to an aerial and not broadband, or (at a later stage) like a Freesat device if just connected to DSat. 

If you connect your Freely TV to both broadband and an aerial – Freely will seamlessly combine the two into a single EPG (Electronic Programmes Guide), with over-the-air and IP-based channels living next to each other.

Freely: First Impressions

Ahead of Freely’s upcoming launch, I was given a demonstration of some of its features, user interface, and future plans.

Freely home screen side

Let’s start with the bottom line: while the concept is very promising, my main takeaway is that Freely currently feels like a prototype for a future broadband-based replacement for Freeview.

The building blocks are all there, and they work well and look nice, but the question remains: did we really need yet another way to access BBC iPlayer and ITVX?

Is Freely that different from the current Freeview Play implementations on Smart TVs? Not really. But hopefully, it will get there.

Limited Selection Of Channels

One of the major disappointments is the very limited number of broadband-based channels available at launch (see Freely’s full channels list).

Only the major broadcasters (who also happen to own Everyone TV) – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, along with STV – will be included.

Freely TV guide

Discussions with additional broadcasters, such as UKTV, are ongoing, but the smaller Freeview channels will not be a part of Freely at launch.

This means that, for now, Freely is essentially a more refined, built-into-TVs version of Freeview Play, rather than a true broadband-based replacement for Freeview.

Compare that with platforms like Sky Stream and Virgin Media Stream, which stream most (not all) Freeview channels over broadband.

We were hoping Freely will do just that, and provide a solution for smaller Freeview broadcasters that don’t have the infrastructure to do their own streaming – but alas, that is not the case, at least not at launch.

However, Freely will seamlessly integrate with DTT (digital terrestrial television) over-the-air channels.

So if you connect an aerial and have decent reception, you will get all the over-the-air channels currently available on Freeview, along with the broadband-based channels and features – and they will all live side-by-side on the same EPG (Electronic Programmes Guide).

But it’s worth noting that the channel numbers will differ from Freeview, which is why they’re not treating this as Freely+Freeview, but rather Freely+DTT channels.

Only On TVs For Now

At launch, Freely will be available on new Hisense TVs across their entire UHD/4K range, with Vestel TVs following later.

Freely with hisense remote

Unfortunately, Everyone TV indicated that it’s unlikely older TVs and set-top boxes will ever receive Freely support.

Furthermore, for now, they’re focusing solely on TVs, with the possibility of expanding to new set-top boxes at a later date.

Integration with streaming devices like Amazon Fire TV or Roku is a distant future prospect – so you won’t be finding a standalone Freely app on streaming sticks anytime soon.

Even a brand-new Freeview box – like the Manhattan T4-R, which is expected to arrive next month – will not support Freely at launch. It may add that in the future, but even that’s not certain.

Freely will have a mobile app, but it will function similarly to the current Freeview app, acting as a gateway to other broadcasters’ apps on your phone (BBC iPlayer, ITVX, etc.) without any direct streaming capabilities of its own.

Freely’s User Interface And Features

Having played with Freely on a Hisense TV, it’s worth noting that the platform is totally baked into the TV’s operating system.

It’s not just a separate ‘Freeview Play’ section – as it currently is on Roku TVs, for example – instead, Freely’s TV Guide becomes the TV’s main TV Guide, live channel recommendations and content recommendations are shown on the main TV home screen, etc. 

Freely app on Hisense home screen

To use Freely’s advanced features (restart a live programme, watch more episodes from a show, etc.), you will need to be logged in to each of the separate apps – iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4, Channel 5, etc. – on the supported TVs, as those features stream via the external apps.

When watching IP (streaming) channels, you can live-pause them for up to 15 minutes, but this feature won’t be available on DTT (over-the-air) channels – so only on the BBC’s channels, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, for now – and other broadband-based channels that will be added in the future.

The restart function, which instantly restarts the currently airing programme, will only be available on BBC and ITV at launch, with Channel 4 and Channel 5 to follow later.

Freely ITV live

The Freely UI felt relatively snappy during the demonstration, although the actual performance will depend on the TV model being used.

Channel flipping was a bit slow, taking 2-3 seconds each time you switch a channel – a noticeable delay compared to over-the-air channel flipping and even compared to Sky Stream, which is also broadband-based and managed to improve this delay over time.

The main Freely homepage, accessible via a dedicated button on the TV’s remote, displays content recommendations from participating channels. These are currently editorial picks, but Freely plans to introduce more personalized recommendations in the future.

The TV Guide offers a 7-day forward view, but at launch, it won’t have the 7-day backwards functionality that Freeview and Freesat have offered for years.

Freely intends to add this feature in the near future, along with the ability to mark shows for notifications and improved TV-watching planning.

A global text search will be available at launch, similar to the one on Freeview Play, with a voice search planned for the future.

The End Of TV Recordings

Notably, Freely is moving away from recording capabilities. There won’t be any recording options, either to the cloud or to local storage.

While they might reconsider this in the future, it’s unlikely, as they believe people are shifting away from recordings and towards streaming, where most content is available on-demand (although this also means you won’t be able to fast-forward through adverts).

Freely recommendations

We’ve been seeing this change across similar devices – Virgin Media Stream offers no recording at all, and Sky Stream / Sky Glass offer very limited recording capabilities to the cloud – but most of the content still streams directly on-demand, from the broadcasters.

BT / EE TV’s 4K Pro Box is the only box that still allows recording, even from its broadband-based IP channels. 

The Bottom Line

Freely shows a lot of potential as a future-forward platform for free-to-air television, but it still has a long way to go before it can truly replace Freeview or Freesat.

The seamless integration of live and on-demand content is a step in the right direction, but the limited number of channels at launch and the lack of support for older devices may hinder its widespread adoption.

Perhaps I was hoping for too much at such an early stage – and it’s worth remembering that Freeview isn’t going anywhere for at least the next few years (and possibly longer) – so there’s still time for big changes. 

But at this point, aerial-based TV is beginning to feel like ancient technology.

So, as Freely continues to develop and expand its offerings, it will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether it can live up to its promise of taking free TV in the UK into the future.

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29 thoughts on “Freeview’s Future Uncovered: Freely Hands-On Review”

  1. I’d be very surprised if the likes of Humax doesn’t have a Freely PVR Recorder in the works.

    Seems like a fair chance to build on.

    No backwards compatible is a given. Implementing and entirely different system into an existing device just wouldn’t make sense.

    A tonne of Freeview boxes don’t have Internet capabilities too.

    This is “playing the long game” initiative.

    Only useful for households that can’t have an aerial or dish at launch and don’t want to pay for subscription TV.

    More to come.

    Reply
  2. Don’t get me wrong, like many of you, I really dislike the idea of not being able to record programs. However, whether programs can be easily recorded would depend upon many factors, not least the video codecs that are being used to deliver via IP.

    If new codecs such as MPEG H (h265) are being used to deliver the IP channels, then that makes recording a lot more complicated because whilst many devices have the ability to decode various video formats. Encode is a different matter. Encode is something that is far more difficult to achieve, especially for the more advanced codecs like the one mentioned above, realistically, in order to be able to record a recording device has to have hardware accelerated encode capability for the codecs concerned. Hardware accelerated encode isn’t always available for newer video codecs. Not unless hardware manufacturers are all of a sudden willing to put much better SOC’s is into their hardware . I can see this happening. Can you?

    Reply
    • I don’t think there’s really any “rocket science” behind this!
      Just look at what’s going on in Europe! I’ve been using countless services from Switzerland(Swisscom, Zattoo, Sunrise,etc) and Czech(Telly, Skylink, O2, etc) for years now where you can easily record into cloud, go back 7days, subtitles/2nd audio provided, some even let you download any recordings into your device for later! All of these providers have developed apps for variety of devices ranging from Samsung Tizen to any Android TV box, etc. No need to buy any new equipment! No restrictions on the internet connection (wifi/4g). And at the same time they are complying with all content protection technologies that let them carry all sports/movie contents from likes of HBO,etc.
      I’d say the only reason that it’s been possible in those countries for years and not in the UK is the unfriendly greedy copyright laws, in addition to other agendas, that doesn’t put viewer’s experience in their top 1000 when deciding to develop their IP solutions!

      Reply
  3. As with other comments in its current form Freely does not appear to offer anything of value that will improve people’s viewing experience and in some ways may even hinder them.
    I have no issues with accessing programmes on-line if I’ve missed an episode, I was even part of the beta test group for BBC iplayer but no has addressed tge question of it potentially adding yet another bill to people’s budgets as not everyone has Internet access. We saw reports uf many families struggling with accessibility during the pandemic. I can see how this service is a big plus for commercial broadcasters with the removal of recording options so you’ll have to watch the ads or pay additional fees as with ITVX to not gave them. Also as someone who is a bit of a geek and who enjoys creating their own archive of favourite shows and identity the removal of being able to choose to record a programme is a a real backwards step. There is obviously a real appetite for vintage shows as made apparent by shows on ITV 3 and 4, the TharsTV channels and the wonderful Talkkng Pictures TV not to mention vintage content available through ITVX/Britbox and BBC iplayer.
    A lot more thought needs to be applied to make any future versions more user friendly as from my personal perspective its a panic driven reaction to the onslaught of current streaming services in what is already an overly saturated market place.

    Reply
  4. They didn’t even mention what the picture bit rates would be. If all broadcasted in 4k that would be something new.
    It would be like going back to the 80s with adverts where you still would nt watch them. It was time to make a cup of tea and a toilet break.

    Reply
  5. Mat asked “….Can anyone explain what solutions ”freely” is addressing …”.
    Simples,
    1.its designed to enable adverts specifically tailored to what the advertisers know about us individually from tracking viewing habits. and to stop us skipping over adverts.
    2.Moving us from the licence fee to a more protected subscription based environment for BBC.
    Personally I’d prefer to continue with the licence fee arrangement for BBC.

    Reply
  6. The other downside to not being able to record programmes is that I tend to miss them.
    I have a Humax Aura (crap) and record all the programmes I want and watch everything when I want. However BBC has now started pushing you straight to the iPlayer for some programmes and not allowing you to record.
    The result is that I have to remember that I wanted to watch that programme, which I seldom do and so I don’t ever watch it.
    I know that iPlayer lets you tag programmes to watch later but you have to go looking for it and if all the other channels start doing the same, I am going to spend more time looking for programmes than watching them.

    Reply
  7. Any mention of whether the Freely live channel streams are identical to the current Freeview channel streams in terms of bit-rate/audio quality? Really want to know if they’ll offer 5.1 audio more than anything – that’s what lets the current iPlayer streams down.

    Reply
  8. It’s another brick in the ‘we must get rid of FF the ads’ wall. All the commercial operators, with the connivance of the BBC, are now working to this end.

    It’s why my Sky Stream is going back in July, and I shall be digging out my YouView box.

    It needs a skilled commercial company to come along with a box designed to record these programmes, to enable FF, but I fear that is going to be impossible.

    In the meantime, I thing Freely looks to be a bit of a duffer, and can see nothing to attract customers. They will come by default when they buy one of the Chinese TV sets.

    Reply
  9. Like many others, I had seen this as an opportunity to fill some of the gaps in the current infrastructure and move us onto a new beneficial technology. I live in an area where we can only receive a small proportion of the Freeview offering through an aerial and feel peeved at having to pay the same licence while getting a second class offering. Fibre is similarly limited. So it looks like this a long-term answer and I will have to stick with the TvLauncher app until a proper solution arrives.

    Reply
  10. I’ll be holding onto my Youview recording box for as long as possible. Freely’s biggest negative is having to watch the adverts! Something I have avoided for many years now.

    Reply
  11. Can anyone explain what solutions ”freely” is addressing to what problems?! Or what is their value added/creative offering?

    The only redeeming feature that this service could have offered would have been to be a free OTT service available on all streaming devices which is clearly not the plan!

    Freely sounds more like free in name only when their strategy is to sell unnecessary equipment when in Europe other broadcasters have incorporated far more advanced features by just designing an Android/iOS app!

    Reply
      • Yes, of course! These initiatives tend to cut costs on one hand for broadcasters by putting the onus on viewers to pay for high-speed internet connections to be able to receive TV&Radio services previously delivered free of charge via transmitters/satellites. On the other hand creating new money making avenues such as forcing adverts on viewers by removing recording possibilities.
        In reality they’re not really doing anything to help viewers but to only help themselves! At least I don’t find any added value in IP over terrestrial/satellite and in fact there are serious negatives for an average viewer.
        Of course IPtv could also be better as there are much better consumer friendly environments in some European countries such as Switzerland where on OTT services you can skip adverts, record easily on cloud, watch on any device, download to your device, etc.

        Reply
  12. This sounds rubbish, and just a cobbled together collection of features that are already present on most modern TV’s or STB’s. Press a button to restart current programme has been on BBC for years.

    And this sounds worse in many other ways – delays to channel flipping, no 7 day back view, no local recording.

    Haven’t we had enough attempts at ‘convergence’ already? Freeview, Youview, Freeview Play et al.

    Reply
    • Having spent a lot of my life testing software (it’s more fun that it sounds) and, if this is indeed a beta release of the platform then it doesn’t surprise me it has bugs, sluggish response, missing functionality is all to be expected in a pre-release candidate version. I would guess they are still standing up their CDNs which will also improve functionality. Basically, don’t get too worried about performance based on where the platform is today. Also, whilst you won’t have to upgrade just yet, as per a comment further up, the ITU are moving the frequency allocation for DTT to mobile spectrum so you will have to move over and probably by 2035 (the original move date was pipped for 2030).

      info on the move of frequency allocation here: https://rxtvinfo.com/2023/reprieve-for-freeview-as-frequencies-retained-for-broadcasting/

      Reply

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