Beginners' guide to digital TV

Learn the basics of digital television including options, equipment, bundles, connecting to mobile devices, and comparing and switching providers.

Key points

  • Choose an appropriate package based on your TV-watching habits
  • Free-to-view services may already be built into your television
  • Analogue TVs can still be used if connected to a set-top box
  • Consider bundling your TV service with your broadband and/or landline

Since analogue TV was phased out in 2012 as part of the 'digital switchover', digital TV has been the reality for broadcasters and providers.

It's easy to record your favourite shows to watch later, pause live TV while you make a cuppa and access on-demand programmes through your television set, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Electronic programme guides allow viewers to organise their television schedule accordingly, with some packages able to record clashing shows at the press of a button and give access to catch-up TV.

With better picture quality, a huge range of channels, parental controls and interactive menus, the digital revolution shows no signs of slowing down.

If you're late to digital TV it can prove overwhelming, so do your research to get the right package from the right provider...

Digital TV providers

All this innovation doesn't mean that digital TV has to be expensive - services such as Freesat and Freeview offer free-to-air digital television channels.Digital television

You'll either need to buy a digital box (a one-off payment) or have a TV which comes with Freeview and/or Freesat already installed.

There are a number of premium digital TV providers in the UK if you're willing to pay more - Sky, Virgin Media, BT Vision and TalkTalk.

If you choose a paid-for service, your provider will deliver a set-top box that connects to its broadcasts and feeds into your TV.

Monthly payments will vary depending on the selection of channels and level of service you choose.

Digital TV equipment

Almost all old analogue sets (even black and white ones) can receive digital signals, providing they're connected to a digital box.

Did you know...?

  • It's possible to access certain digital TV services on mobile devices such as phones, laptops and tablets

This digital box could be a Freeview or Freesat one, or a box provided by one of the premium services if you're subscribed to them.

Such boxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and with many different names, and new products continue to come onto the market, but some of the most common references you hear could be to the Virgin TiVo box or the Sky Box.

If you've bought your TV in recent years, it'll almost certainly be digitally compatible - look for the 'digital tick' logo if you want to be sure.

Remember that, if you want one of the premium TV services, you'll still need one of their set-top boxes.

Digital TV bundles

When you shop for digital TV it's quite likely that you'll be offered it as part of a bundle, which means that other services (usually broadband and/or a landline) are tied in with your television for one set monthly fee.Broadband bundles

The main attraction of bundled products tends to be their cost and convenience.

It should prove cheaper when compared to sourcing each service separately, and bundling means that you should only have to deal with one company rather than several.

Make sure to check the broadband speed included in the bundle before taking it out, and that it's suitable for your household's needs.

Connecting digital TV to mobile devices

Providers such as Sky and Virgin offer services allowing customers to access their digital TV channels on their mobile devices.

To do this you need a broadband connection, and you'll have to download the appropriate app to your mobile device.

Did you know...?

  • If you're planning to cancel a subscription to a premium channel, your provider may ask for 30 days' notice

This software typically includes a guide for scheduling TV shows to record in advance using the internet.

These services come as part of your digital TV package, and will require a pre-existing subscription.

Otherwise, to view digital TV on a mobile device or computer, viewers need to buy a USB HDTV tuner.

These allow users to capture free digital TV, using an indoor or outdoor antenna.

The USB tuner connects from the antenna to the HDTV USB Device, which then connects to a free USB slot on your computer or device.

Once broadcasts are captured, software that comes bundled with the card is then used to view, record and time-shift the HDTV channel(s) that your antenna can pick up.Laptop

On-demand digital TV

On-demand TV - or video on demand (VoD) - enables you to watch what you like, when you like, depending on what the programmer has made available.

Some on-demand services require a telephone connection, but many can be accessed using the right device and a broadband internet connection.

Streaming sites like Netflix and Lovefilm are also now available through your television via some paid-for digital television packages.

Catch-up TV

Catch-up digital TV is similar to on-demand, but these are typically programmes that have been recently broadcast on regular schedules.

Services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 are all examples of catch-up/on-demand television.

Choosing your channels

Before taking out a digital TV package, think about what television you and your family watch regularly.

Things to consider

  • Re-tuning
    The nature of digital TV means there'll be occasions when you’ll have to re-tune. This is pretty straightforward and your box will come with appropriate instructions
  • Energy savers
    Many new digital and HD TVs offer high energy efficiency standards, so they cost less to power than old analogue sets
  • Beware of scams
    Make sure you only contact reputable providers and purchase equipment from respected retailers. If you suspect that you’ve been a victim of a scam, contact Citizens Advice

If you're sports mad then getting a package which includes sports channels may be worthwhile, but if not then you'll want to avoid paying out for premium channels.

The same goes for movies and other add-on channels.

Once you've taken out a package you can always reassess your viewing habits a few months down the line, and cancel your access to additional channels.

If you're only interested in football you could cancel your subscription over the summer, but be aware that your provider may ask for 30 days' notice.

If you're not bothered about watching sports or hundreds of extra channels, Freeview may be the right option for you - and this could be already built into your TV.

Similarly, if you're interested in recording TV but don't want to pay for a premium package, Freeview Plus boxes have the ability to do this.


Haggling with your current or future provider could be a simple way to get a better deal on your digital TV package.Wallet

As always, be polite and go to them informed with the opposition's deals to hand. That way, you're the one with the power.

Compare has partnered with Digital Choice[1] – its preferred digital TV comparison service – to help you find the perfect TV package.

Whether you’re a reality show addict, documentary lover, or can’t get enough of the footie, we’ll help you find the right package based on your location, equipment and budget.

By Emily Bater