When you’re choosing a set-top box – which, by the way will almost certainly sit under your TV set rather than on top, despite the name – you need to think about whether you want to watch terrestrial TV, satellite or cable. Of course, many of the channels are the same.
Terrestrial channels are free, so the simplest way to find them is through Freeview, if you have a regular TV aerial, with 70-plus digital channels and 15 HD channels.
Freeview Play is the latest service from Freeview and is set to become the standard for catch-up TV services for BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 plus UKTV. All are free and available when your Freeview Play recorder or Freeview Play-compatible TV are connected to the internet.
If you want more, then Sky has many more channels and a lot of content available on demand, as well as catch-up. There’s also Virgin, which offers the fastest internet connection but requires you to live in a cabled place. And there’s Freesat, if you have a satellite dish but don’t want to pay for your TV. Freesat channels are broadly similar to Freeview.
Freeview doesn’t have any 4K channels. For those you’ll need Sky, Virgin or BT – or one of the streaming-only boxes like Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV 4K.
There is some crossover here between set-top boxes and streaming boxes. If you want a device that focuses mainly on streaming apps like Netflix or Amazon Prime, check out our round-up of the best streaming boxes and sticks.
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1. Sky Q: Free box with monthly subscription (from £20 a month), Sky
Sky’s latest machine is superbly capable with multiple tuners so you can record six programmes simultaneously while watching a seventh – if you can find that many programmes worth watching at once. There’s a sizeable hard drive capacity for recordings, either 1TB (500 hours) or 2TB (1000 hours) and access to a lot of on-demand content. It also includes a lot of 4K (or UHD) movies and shows available to rent, buy or watch according to your subscription, assuming you have a 4K-compatible TV. A microphone in the remote control makes searching for a movie or show easy and means you can even turn subtitles on and off quickly. The Sky Q system lets you start watching a programme on TV, and finish it on your iPad, say. Choosing a subscription with sports and movie channels is not cheap, mind. From this autumn, Sky is also selling a box, devised in conjunction with high-end audio company Devialet, to offer pumped-up sound. The Soundbox will sell for £799 or £299 for Sky subscribers.
2. Humax FVP-5000T: From £229, Humax
The latest Freeview Play box from Humax comes in three hard drive capacities, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB. The smallest, costing £229, has enough space for around 250 hours of recordings. As well as over 70 Freeview channels, it has Freeview Play, which includes an electronic programming guide for the next seven days. Scroll backwards and you can watch programmes you missed from the last seven days on catch-up and there’s also other on-demand programming. The remote control has a button to take you straight to Netflix (separate subscription required). It’s simple to set up and is an effective machine. It’s available from late October.
3. Virgin TV V6: Free plus subscription (from £35 a month for new customers), Virgin
The latest box from cable providers Virgin is smaller and faster than previous models. It allows you to record six shows while you watch a seventh, like Sky Q. And, like that box, this one is also 4K-capable. It has a distinctive peanut-shaped remote because it uses the excellent TiVo system, which is great for recordings and finding content. Unlike Sky’s box, this one is capable of HDR (High Dynamic Range) as well as 4K, which will be of interest to those with a 4K HDR TV. And this box has access to Netflix, unlike Sky. You can, with the right subscription, access both Sky Sports and BT Sport channels. The box, which looks a little bland but works well, is free assuming you opt for a Mix TV subscription or above. Mix TV includes 35 channels. If you want to watch 4K TV you’ll need a Virgin broadband subscription as well. There are also one-off set-up costs of around £70.
4. NOW TV Smart: From £39.99, NOW TV
NOW TV is a sub-brand of Sky, though for this box no satellite dish is needed. Unlike earlier NOW TV boxes, this one includes an aerial socket to access over 60 Freeview channels as well as streaming content via the internet. It also allows you to pause and rewind live TV for up to 30 minutes. The box has access to apps like BBC iPlayer (but not Netflix). However, it comes into its own when you sign up for Sky channels such as Sky Cinema or Sport. Unlike a Sky box, you can subscribe for just a month at a time. This box can plug into your home broadband, or a home broadband router, and home phone tariff is also available from NOW TV. As well as the latest movies, Sky Cinema Pass also has movies and TV box sets on demand.
5. BT TV: From free, plus subscription (from £3 a month), BT
BT’s YouView+ box is slick and easy to use. It has a similar EPG to Freeview Play – that is, you can scroll backwards to yesterday, and beyond, to find programmes you’ve missed. You can also subscribe to Netflix with the BT box. If your broadband is fast enough you can upgrade to the YouView Ultra HD box which gives access to BT Sport in 4K. Subscription services start at £3 a month, though note that all BT TV subscriptions require a BT Broadband connection. You also need a regular TV aerial for Freeview channels.
6. EE TV: Free, with subscription (from £32.50 a month for 18 months), EE
EE’s box is subtle and effective. It has a 1TB storage capacity and access to all the regular Freeview channels. You can record up to four channels at once, and watch on your TV, phone or tablet. The Replay feature mans you can watch programmes from the day before on up to eight channels – it saves the programmes automatically and makes them available if you want them. The subscription includes line rental, weekend calls and broadband. There’s an upfront cost of between £7 and £32 for connection and router delivery.
7. Humax HB-1100S: £99, Humax
If you have a satellite dish, but no Sky subscription, a box like this allows you to watch over 200 TV and radio channels including 13 in HD. These are similar to the channels available via Freeview, with the addition of ITV+1 and other time-delayed channels. There’s also access to Netflix and catch-up channels. This box doesn’t record – you can’t save programmes unless you add a hard drive or plump for one of the company’s recorder models, which start from £199. This box includes wi-fi so it can stream Netflix, for instance, more flexibly than previous models.
The Verdict: Set-top boxes
The two boxes with the most programming and features are the Sky Q and Virgin TV V6. Both offer access to the latest, highest-resolution 4K movies and shows. For Sky, you need a satellite dish and for Virgin, you must live in a street with cable. Sky’s box has the edge in 4K content and ease of use. If you have a regular TV aerial, Freeview Play is what you need, and the latest Humax FVP-5000T box is excellent. Freeview Play is versatile and comprehensive, supplying over 90 per cent of the programming most people watch, free. The budget buy here is Now TV Smart which combines regular terrestrial programming with pay-as-you-go access to Sky Sports and Movies without a satellite dish.
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