freeview_play_humax_1Freeview Play is a new, internet connected version of the UK’s most popular subscription-free TV platform which brings together Freeview’s more than 60 aerial channels and catch-up content from BBC iPlayer, Demand 5, ITV and 4oD.

In many ways it’s similar to YouView which launched a few years ago and can be bought subscription-free from a retailer or as part of a phone, broadband and TV bundle from BT and TalkTalk.

Because both ISPs have been giving away YouView boxes in return for very small (or no) upfront fees, sales of retail boxes are thought to account for only a very small part of YouView’s approximately 2m users and the brand has never really established itself.

Although ITV, Channel 4, the BBC and Channel 5 who set up YouView and fund it alongside the two ISPs insist they’re happy with its performance, last year they decided to fund the development of Freeview Play which will now compete against it.

Unlike YouView, the new service cannot be used by pay-TV firms such as BT and TalkTalk and won’t include pay services within any Freeview Play branded menus and screens.

Another big difference with YouView is that box makers are allowed to include their own services and features alongside the ‘core’ Freeview Play experience making it possible for them to compete with each other on price and features.
Humax, makers of the first Freeview Play boxes to go on sale, have taken advantage of this freedom to include the ability to play recordings stored on one box on another or via a smartphone app.

However this can only be done when the boxes or phone are connected to the same home broadband network, meaning you won’t be able to watch shows while you’re out and about.

The box can also play videos and music stored on the user’s home network and Humax have added extra on-demand services including YouTube and expects to add Netflix to its line-up in the next few months.

This freedom to innovate and enhance should make Freeview Play more popular with box makers than YouView which has only ever managed to sign up two box manufacturers – Humax and Huawei who both make boxes for retail sale and the partner ISPs – and Sony who are adding the service to their Smart TV range.

But there’s also a chance that differing features and options could confuse shoppers who could end up buying boxes for second and third TVs which don’t play nicely with the one already in the lounge, or who are just unclear which features are part of Freeview Play and which require a specific brand or model of box.

And the first Freeview Play boxes are also going to have to compete with cheaper YouView boxes which, with the benefit of 3 years of software updates, offer a more polished experience and more catch-up and on-demand options.

Additionally, the UK’s broadband market is now very different to when Freeview first launched with all five of the biggest broadband providers – BT, Sky, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Plusnet – offering TV options.

Will customers spend £200 upfront when they can get a pretty similar box and some extra channels from BT, TalkTalk and Plusnet for a few quid a month and, at least on BT and Plusnet, get to keep the box at the end of their contract?

Freeview has huge brand recognition which will certainly help shift Freeview Play boxes but the platform no longer has field to itself and many households who didn’t want a large Sky or Virgin Media bill now have other options.

Parking all that for now, for the past week I’ve been using Humax’s first generation Freeview Play box, the FVP-4000T, and have generally been impressed with its performance and capabilities.

The EPG and menus on my box were speedy to move through and clearly laid out without any unnecessary clutter or distractions and the recordings list is especially well laid out with information on your chosen show, thumbnails and also a capacity indicator which displays actual hours rather than meaningless percent.

Another nice touch is the box’s handling of SD and HD channels – turn over to BBC One and it’ll automatically prompt you to hit OK and switch to the HD version for much better picture quality.

And if you try updating the system software while a recording is in progress the box warns you. This is a tiny but useful feature that more mature services haven’t bothered to implement.
Also, the inclusion of three tuners means you can record and watch up to a total of five simultaneous programmes which is more than Sky, YouView and Virgin Media’s TiVo offer.

But there are some niggles. As a YouView user I’m used to starting a search and having the box immediately look for matching shows and on-demand content.

The Humax box doesn’t do that and while having to hit OK once you’ve typed a few letters may not seem too onerous, it gives the system a slightly basic and unfinished feel.

Another big let down is the lack of integrated search, typing in ‘East’ and hitting OK gets you the next broadcast episode of EastEnders (and any other matching shows or films) but you need to navigate down a few lines and hit OK again to search for any catch-up and on-demand instances of the show.

But my biggest peeve is the box’s unintuitive implementation of Series Links – hitting record on a show you’re currently watching starts recording but, unlike many other boxes, pressing it a second time doesn’t give you the option to record the entire series.

Instead it gives you options to select a manual end time for the recording – useful if it’s a live sporting event – or to extend to the end of later programmes on the same channel.

And the lack of quick Series Links also turns up in the EPG where pressing record once schedules the recording and pressing it again simply cancels it. To set a series link it seems necessary to instead press OK to bring up a more comprehensive list of options.

All of these issues can be easily addressed in software updates and no product has ever launched in a perfect state – YouView arrived with no support for internet channels despite bringing them and Freeview channels together in a single box being a major selling point of the platform – so it’d be unfair to be too critical of Freeview Play at this early stage.

But Freeview and its manufacturer partners are going to have to work hard to catch-up with the competition and add the refinements which customers are going to expect on a premium-priced product.