On-demand TV has been around for some time through computers, with BBC's iPlayer leading the way in streaming hundreds of hours of programmes. But the concept is now becoming a mainstream offering through traditional television sets, says Charlie Ponsonby of comparison site Simplifydigital.com.
"For the last couple of years high definition has been the big battle ground for the major TV players like Sky, Virgin Media and BT – but now the battle is shifting to on-demand content, with the result that they all now offer ever-growing on-demand libraries for their customers," he says.
On-demand viewing is already a major attraction of the internet for many - whether legal viewing from BBC iPlayer for example, or illegal viewing from peer-to-peer file shares. The great majority of this web content is free and sites like 123webTV.com provide a good guide to what's legally available where.
The key attraction is that you can choose from a library of stored programmes and watch them whenever is convenient for you. You have complete control over when you watch most programmes which means you can effectively ignore the standard TV programme schedule.
However, not all programmes are available though catch-up services or accessible libraries, which means you still need to press the record button in some instances. But a series link will ensure you never miss an episode of your favourite shows.
On-demand content is available through all the television suppliers. Your TV must be connected to the internet either via wi-fi or directly via an ethernet connection. This may be via a SmartTV (which connects directly to the internet) or via a web-enabled set top box (as is the case with Sky, Virgin Media and BT).
Virgin Media says on-demand viewing is growing at about 20 per cent per year and are likely to hit one billion on-demand views in 2011. There were 258 million hours watched on demand in the first quarter of the year, 60 per cent of the 2010 total.
In addition, the arrival of web-enabled SmartTV's and the impending launch of Youview next year, means that you don't necessarily have to take a subscription television service to enjoy on-demand viewing. However the quality and range of viewing is likely to be less satisfactory with the new free services.
What is key, is the speed of your broadband connection and the method of delivery of content over the internet. Both may compromise the quality of the picture you receive, warns Ponsonby. He's looked at the main options for us.
The main deals
Size M+ (with TiVo 500GB box) costs £235.95 in the first year, including a £49.95 installation charge.
On-demand content includes catch-up TV from BBC i Player, ITV Player, 4oD and demandFive. There's also a library of complete series'. The service offers 65 channels.
TV Essential+ (including broadband and evening and weekend calls) costs £302 in the first year, including £120 line rental.
On-demand content includes catch-up television from BBC, ITV Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus a library of more than 5,500 programmes. The service has 70 Freeview channels.
Anytime+ (including HD, broadband, and SkyTalk Freetime) costs £479.40, including £119.40 line rental and a £30 installation fee. If you subscribe to the Sky sports channel or Sky movies channel, you also get their on-demand channels.
The service has about 240 channels, and 20mb download speeds.
New SmartTVs offer some free content. They cost from around £329. Freesat offers iPlayer and ITVplayer. Freesat+ boxes cost from £209.99, plus installation from £60.
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