Buyer's guide: Set top boxes
A GREAT set top box makes finding and watching your favourite shows so much easier.
Despite Freeview being included as standard with all new TVs, there are still perfectly serviceable old analogue sets out there that whose lives can be extended for years to come by the addition of a good set top box.
Or perhaps you've outgrown the basic box you started with - say, it dates from the time when HD was almost non-existent, or it's quicker to reboot it than use the remote to try to change channels.
With more channels than ever, the ability to record, stream and catch up - and to use apps to watch box sets when there's still nothing on - this is our guide to the features it's worth thinking about before buying.
1. Viewing platform
- Choice of Freeview / Youview, Freesat, or services delivered by aerial, cable or satellite from a pay TV provider
- Freeview and Youview very similar; Youview offers more catch-up services. Relies on aerial signal for full range of channels and picture quality
- Satellite and cable services better for those with weak aerial signals
- Pay TV platforms offer more on demand content
As we've already said, all new TVs come with Freeview built in. This may be the reason it's the most popular viewing platform in the UK - more than 20 million households use Freeview for their primary TV service.
But the main problem people have with Freeview (and Youview), however, is that it relies on the strength of signal received by your TV aerial.
While coverage is almost total, there's a good proportion of homes that can't get the full range of more than 70 channels, or won't get them in particularly great quality.
If this is the case, it's definitely worth looking at one of the other platforms.
People determined not to pay for their TV should consider Freesat. It offers a good 200 channels and a selection of on demand content but it costs more to set up.
We've a detailed guide to the differences between Freeview and Freesat here, which also goes a little into Youview and Freesat from Sky.
If the aerial isn't a problem, but you're after more than Freeview can offer, consider Youview.
This offers more in terms of catch-up and on demand TV, but to get access to more than just recent series from the BBC or Channel 4 you'll need to join one of the pay TV providers, who we look at here.
2. To record or not?
- Dual tuner boxes are more expensive but can help make up for lack of catch-up and on demand services
- Boxes that don't record a much neater and tend to be quieter
- Hard drives tend to range from 300GB to 1TB; 500GB is standard
- Divide number of GB by two for rough maximum SD recording capacity; divide by four for maximum HD capacity
- Consider features like smart, split and series link recording
Anyone who isn't simply extending the life of an analogue TV should seriously consider choosing a set top box that can record, at least for their main box.
That usually means looking for the version of your chosen service with a "+" on the end of its name.
Single tuner boxes are cheaper - so dealing with the thousands of analogue TVs still out there (the "granny problem", as it's affectionately known) can cost as little as £20.
But when the TV is already capable of receiving a digital signal, it seems silly to shell out for another tuner - which is what a set top box basically is - if you can't record what's being broadcast on at least one of them.
Particularly for those who don't have access to all the catch-up services offered on Youview or by the pay TV providers, being able to record something that clashes with another show is crucial for those who don't want to get up in the middle of the night to catch the repeat.
3. Recording features and disk space
Having convinced ourselves at least that a box that can record is a necessity, it's then worth considering the following:
- Number of tuners: with two tuners you can record two programmes at once, while watching a third programme from the hard disk or, with some PVRs, live.
- Accurate recording: in the old days, if you set a programme to record on timer and it started late you'd miss some of it. Now, the set top box can tell if that's happened, as long as the broadcaster's updated the EPG as most do.
- Series and split recording: record all the shows in a season for optimal binge watching or ensure that a show is recorded when there's a broadcast in the middle.
And perhaps most importantly - where are we going to store all the recordings the above make possible?
The bigger the hard disk capacity in Gigabytes (GB), the more programmes you can store.
As a general guide, most pay TV providers issue boxes with a 500GB hard disk; standalone Freeview+ boxes tend to offer 300GB, 500GB, or 1,000GB (more commonly referred to as 1TB).
But how much space do we need?
As a rough guide, halve the capacity in GB to find the number of hours of standard definition TV the box can store. A 300GB box will be able to store a maximum of 150 hours, a 1TB drive should manage almost 500 hours of SD TV.
That's equivalent to more than 30 seasons of Breaking Bad.
Devoted to HD? To get a rough feel for how many hours of HD programming you can save, divide the amount of storage by four: with 300GB that's a maximum of 75 hours of content; with 1TB it's 250 hours.
4. Electronic programme guide (EPG)
- An eight day planner is standard; Youview offers 15 days, including seven day scrollback
- Good EPGs will spot clashes and suggest alternative showings, offer HD versions of SD shows, and be easy to navigate
- Some EPGs will offer shortcuts to other features on the set top box, like catch-up services or other apps
- How easy is it to set up a recording from the EPG in advance, or starting immediately?
You'd think electronic programme guides (EPGs) would be fairly generic, but how they look and behave depends in part on the manufacturer and software, and in part on the viewing platform.
For example, the EPGs from Humax and Panasonic look different; those found on boxes running Youview and Freesat look different again.
Regardless of those details, however, a good EPG will make seeing the TV you want much easier.
It'll know about HD versions of programmes also being broadcast in SD, and will give users the choice about which they'd like to watch or record.
Not only will it spot recording clashes, but it will offer alternative programme times if there are any - that middle of the night repeat of Supernatural, for example, rather than the one that clashes with the repeat of the finale of Gotham.
Also consider how far ahead the planner part of the EPG goes. The standard is eight days; depending on platform there may also be a scrollback option.
While there's an element of personal taste involved in what makes an attractive EPG, how it looks can also make a considerable difference to how easy it is to use.
As a result, some are much simpler and easier to navigate and use than others: what happens when we hit pause in the middle of a programme? How easy is it to set up a recording in advance, for something about to start, or already showing?
- What apps does the box come loaded with?
- Is there an option to update software or add more apps?
- What speed broadband connection will you need for them to run smoothly?
The EPG might also provide shortcuts to the other services available through the box for the odd occasion when there's nothing on.
Youview boxes provide the best known example of this: as well as being available through specific apps, the shows available on catch-up are marked as such in the seven-day scrollback guide.
Other popular apps and services that can be found on set top boxes include Skype, Netflix, Now TV, and news and weather services among others.
Just because they're present it doesn't mean they'll work for you - Netflix and Now TV, for example, can be found on various boxes, but they're only of any use to people with subscriptions.
The other thing to bear in mind is that all these features - catch-up, Youtube and so on - rely on the TV being connected to a router.
More boxes offer wi-fi connectivity now, but even among the best Freeview boxes available right now this isn't a given.
Even if the box you've got your eye on can connect wirelessly, consider an Ethernet connection; it'll be faster and won't suffer from interference.
While the cables trailing around the house might be a pain, they're the only guaranteed way to get a good connection if the set top box and router aren't within a couple of metres of each other.
6. Other connections
- Cheaper models often still support Scart connections
- Adaptors for HDMI-out to older or different connections widely available
- How many devices need to be connected to the TV or box?
That brings us on to another issue - how easy is it to integrate the new box with your existing equipment?
HDMI connections have been around since about 2008 - anyone who has older TVs or equipment is likely to be relying on Scart cables to connect their TV, DVD player and other kit.
It tends to be that cheaper set top boxes are more likely to have Scart connections - probably because they're aimed at people who are more interested in keeping an old TV working a little longer than having an Ultra HD mini cinema experience in their front room.
That doesn't mean some of the fancier set top boxes don't have Scart connections: the current BT Youview+ box, a very highly regarded Humax model, has one - reflecting the mass audience BT want to serve - yet their basic Youview box doesn't.
If the rest of the set top box is perfect, and it's just lacking a couple of ports compatible with the rest of your equipment, bear in mind that adaptors to allow HDMI cables to connect to a different type of port, including Scart sockets, are available for around £10.
At the other end of the scale, people with numerous HDMI-compatible devices will want to look for boxes with multiple HDMI ports, or invest in an HDMI hub to accommodate several cables rather than just one or two.
7. DVD too?
- Integrated DVD or blu ray players tend to come at the expense of other features
Finally, it's tempting to want to do away with some of the cables and remotes taking over the corner or the room by going for a set top box with a built in DVD or blu ray player.
Be warned: getting a decent combination set top box and DVD player will cost.
The less expensive among them tend to be poorer quality, or lack other features that should take precedence - like a second tuner, larger hard drive, or more services.
It's not impossible to find a good one - but take special care.
Hopefully we've shed some light on the factors to think about when looking for a new set top box.
Obviously the most important thing to consider is the viewing platform. Opting for a pay TV service will often mean taking a particular box, taking care of the rest of the features we've considered here.
But assuming you're going for one of the platforms available without subscription, here's a very quick guide to those features again:
|What to consider...|
|Viewing platform||Choice of Freeview / Youview, Freesat, or services delivered by aerial, cable or satellite from a pay TV provider
Freeview and Youview very similar; Youview offers more catch-up services. Relies on aerial signal for full range of channels and picture quality
Satellite and cable services better for those with weak aerial signals
Pay TV platforms offer more on demand content
|Recording||Dual tuner boxes are more expensive but can help make up for lack of catch-up and on demand services
Boxes that don't record a much neater and tend to be quieter
Hard drives tend to range from 300GB to 1TB; 500GB is standard
Divide number of GB by two for rough maximum SD recording capacity; divide by four for maximum HD capacity
Consider features like smart, split and series link recording
|The EPG||An eight day planner is standard; Youview offers 15 days, including seven day scrollback
Good EPGs will spot clashes and suggest alternative showings, offer HD versions of SD shows, and be easy to navigate
Some EPGs will offer shortcuts to other features on the set top box, like catch-up services or other apps
How easy is it to set up a recording from the EPG in advance, or starting immediately?
|Apps||What apps does the box come loaded with?
Is there an option to update software or add more apps?
What speed broadband connection will you need for them to run smoothly?
|Connections||Cheaper models often still support Scart connections
Adaptors for HDMI-out to older or different connections widely available
How many devices need to be connected to the TV or box?
|Extras?||Integrated DVD or blu ray players tend to come at the expense of other features|