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What is digital TV: A guide to digital TV services

Before you jump in and commit to cable, satellite or Freeview, have a look at this handy digital TV guide. Our friendly experts have pulled together the information you need about different types of digital TV services, so you can choose the right deal for your household.

By on May 09, 2013 at 16:14 PM
Digital TV
What is digital TV: A guide to digital TV services

Digital TV has become a basic amenity for UK households, now that the old analogue signal has been switched off. The benefits are a clearer picture, more channels and extra services, like online content that you access through your television and catch up TV.

It's now more affordable to get a good digital TV service, and there are lots of options to choose from, including set top boxes that you pay for in advance and don't require a monthly subscription. Or you can opt for a premium cable or satellite TV service and enjoy more features. This handy guide to digital TV should help you decide which option is right for your family.

How do I choose a digital TV deal?


Are you looking to enjoy a few hours of downtime a week with whatever happens to be on, or do you take your series links seriously? The answer to which sort of digital TV deal you need, is very much dependent on how important services like catch up TV, on demand and premium channels are to your household, as well as the amount you feel comfortable paying to enjoy those couch potato moments.

Free-to-air services like Freeview and FreeSat are offering more perks all the time, but if you truly want to max out your entertainment options you'll be looking at a subscription-based service like Cable TV from Virgin Media, or Sky Satellite TV. Broadband providers like BT and TalkTalk are now also offering their own internet TV options that work by streaming your channels to you over your broadband connection, so there's a lot more choice than ever before. Not to worry though, we're here to help you look at the main features of each digital TV provider, so that you can work out which option would work best for you.

What digital TV suppliers are available at my address?

Just pop in your postcode below and find out what digital TV providers are available in your area.


If you want a free digital TV service... Go for Freeview or Freesat

At the moment, Freeview is the cheapest and simplest way to get digital TV. You'll be using a digital-ready TV set, a Freeview set-top box (starts at £20 at a hardware store and you can get it online as well) or a digital video recorder. That's it. There is nothing else to buy, no contracts to sign or bills to pay. It's also worth mentioning that some digital TVs come with integrated Freeview tuners.

Freeview digital TV

Freeview will give you access to 50 popular digital channels (including E4, Sky Three, More 4, FiveUS, BBC4 and Virgin 1, Sky News and BBC News 24) as well as 20 digital radio channels. Click here to see all available Freeview deals.


Freesat is another subscription free service option. It provides over 140 TV and radio channels for a one-off fee. To receive this, you'll need a Freesat digital box and a satellite dish.

Freesat works from the same satellites that Sky use, called Astra and Eurobird 1, they are parked high up in space giving coverage to 98 per cent of the UK. So this means that if you already have a Sky Digital satellite dish you don't need to change your dish to get Freesat. All you need is a Freesat receiver - this can be purchased online or in many electrical retailers. When you get the box home all you need to do is follow the instructions, plug it in to the existing satellite dish cables, and hey presto you've got free satellite TV!

Main features of Freesat digital TV:

- Its Free!   
- Over 140 digital TV channels 
- Includes digital radio stations   
- No subscription or contract  
- Interactive services
- Freesat+ HD recorder & standard Freesat HD boxes available
- One off payment (for equipment)
- Better coverage than Freeview (Freeview due to cover more of the UK by 2012)
- Future on-demand from services such as the BBC iPlayer are planned

If you don't have a Sky digital satellite dish you will need to arrange Freesat installation. Freesat does two types of installation: standard installation and Freesat+ installation. Basically the Freesat+ installation is different because it's unlike standard Freesat - which requires one cable going from your dish to the Freesat box, Freesat+ will need two cables. This allows you make full use of the Freesat+ recording facilities.

Some of the channels include BBC (All BBC channels including BBC News and BBC HD), ITV (All ITV channels), Channel 4, Five, E4, More4, CNN, Bloomberg Television, Film4, True Movies and many others. It must be noted that Freesat does not provide Sky Sports so, if the Barclays Premier League or the SPL are your cup of tea, you should consider getting digital TV services from Virgin Media or Sky. Click here to see all available Freesat deals.

If you want an all-inclusive digital TV service... Go for Sky

Sky is a subscription-based digital TV service that offers a wide range of digital TV channel packages. Their Digital TV bundles include Music Mix, Kids Mix, News & Events Mix or a package tailored especially for Sports fans. Sky also provides a wide range of HD (high definition) channels - so you can enjoy a clearer, sharper picture and better sound (requires a HDTV).

Main features of Sky digital TV:

- Subscription and contract required
- Sky has hundreds of digital TV channels to watch
- Lots of digital TV packages to suit all tastes including Sky Sports and Sky Movies
- HD programming with the Sky HD service
- Record Sky digital TV with a Sky+/Sky+ HD recorder
- Loads of radio stations
- Interactive services including Sky News Active and Sky Games
- On-demand digital TV with Sky Anytime (Sky+/Sky+ HD only)
- Options for broadband and home phone services as well as digital TV.

One thing Sky has is lots of HD channels, more than Virgin Media in fact. Although Sky does not have that much on-demand digital TV content - unlike Virgin Media who has loads of on-demand TV. It might be worth considering this if you prefer on-demand digital TV to HD TV. As the saying goes it's 'swings and roundabouts'. 

There are three types of Sky boxes:

  • The Sky Box is a standard option, which allows customers to record content and access Sky's interactive features such as Sky Active
  • The Sky+ Box allows you to pause and rewind live TV as well as store up to 40 hours of TV
  • The Sky+ HD Box has double the capacity of the aforementioned box as it has an emphasis on HD

This option will require installing a satellite dish. Doing so might prove to be complicated if you live in a flat or a rented property as you will need to seek your landlord's or freeholder's written permission to install the satellite.

Digital satellite TV comes from satellites high up in space which means that the whole country is blanketed by the service. This option may be good for customers who want more channels than Freeview has to offer or can't get a good Freeview digital TV signal in their area. Click here to see all available digital TV deals from Sky.

If you want a flexible digital TV service... Go for Virgin Media

The main cable TV provider in the UK is Virgin Media.

Virgin Media offers a huge range of entertainment to suit all tastes. Features include on-demand digital TV and catch-up digital TV services from the BBC iPlayer, ITV Net Player and Channel 4 on-demand.

Virgin Media offers a huge choice of on-demand movies, music and entertainment available when you want to watch them. There are several channel packages featuring popular digital TV channels such as Sky1, Living, Discovery, MTV and Nickelodeon. You can add Sky Sports or Sky Movies to your package as well if you want to.

You can choose the basic Virgin Media box or you can go for a V+ HD box. A V+HD box lets you record up to 80 hours of programmes, pause & rewind live TV, and record two channels while you watch a third. And of course the best thing about a V+HD box is high definition digital TV. Virgin Media offer many HD digital TV channels including amazing documentaries with National Geographic HD and spectacular sporting events on ESPN HD.

Virgin Media's popular TiVO box gives you access to on-demand digital TV services and interactive applications. Customers can record up to three live TV programmes while watching a fourth at the same time, choose from thousands of channels and even play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? or read the latest celeb gossip. 

Channels include ITV, Sky 1 and Discovery Channel, and you can easily choose what to watch using the comprehensive catalogue of shows which you can scroll by title, genre or even by actor.

Main features of Virgin Media digital TV:

- Subscription and contract required
- Loads of digital TV channels   
- Includes digital radio stations   
- Interactive services
- V+ HD Recorder option
- HD programming (not as much as Sky)
- On-demand digital TV (much better than Sky)
- Options for broadband and home phone services as well as digital TV.

It depends where you live

The main thing to watch out for with Virgin Media is to find out if you live in a Virgin Media cabled area. Unfortunately Virgin Media is only available in major towns and cities. So if you live out in the sticks you may not be able to get the service.

The downside of cable is that it's not available everywhere. Availability depends on whether or not you live in a Virgin Media cabled area. You can check if you can get the service by entering your postcode here. Alternatively, you can find all of Virgin Media's deals by clicking here.

If you want catch up TV and more digital TV channels... Go for BT Vision or TalkTalk Plus TV

To get BT Vision, you'll need to be a BT phone and broadband customer.

BT Vision

With BT Vision digital TV, you can get more than 70 channels, on-demand content and catch up TV (BBC iPlayer) and you can opt in to receive Sky Sports 1 and Sky Sports 2 channels. To receive BT Vision, you will need a Vision+ digital box (it is a Freeview DTT decoder) which will allow you to pause, rewind and record live TV. Alternatively, you can use pay per view services - £2 per movie and from as low as £1 for TV shows. Click here to see all available deals from BT.

TalkTalk Plus TV

TalkTalk Plus TV is a great affordable broadband, TV and phone bundle which comes with an inclusive YouView set top box (normally costs £299). It and gives you access to 74 Freeview channels, exclusive access to TalkTalk Player (the provider's answer to BBC iPlayer) and lets you record all of your favourite shows as well as pause, forward and rewind live broadcasts. HD fans should also get excited - there is a large variety of High Definition content to watch and record. See all available TalkTalk Plus TV deals.

If you have a superfast broadband connection... Go for IPTV

This is another way of saying Internet Protocol Television. It uses the existing broadband connection rather than satellite signal or cable formats to deliver digital TV services mixed with Internet content and apps. To make most of the service, you will need to have superfast broadband. Click here to see all of our handpicked fibre optic broadband packages.

At the moment there are a few IPTV services available in the UK, all of which are rather new, for example Apple TV and Google TV. All require customers to purchase special digital TV set top boxes, the costs of which vary from £100 to £300 dependent on the features the customer is interested in. All of these options are subscription-free unless customers decide to subscribe to video web content libraries.

Speaking of which, video web content libraries have become increasingly popular. Netflix or LoveFilm all give access to on-demand virtual programme and film rental. Instead of physically going out and renting a flick, customers have the option to simply buy the content and stream it online for a fixed period of time.

Have you considered bundling digital TV, broadband and home phone?

Bundling can save you hundreds of pounds in the long run. Why not take out your broadband, digital Tv and home phone services from a single provider? We can help you find the best bundle on the market that's tailored to your needs. Simply call us on 0808 256 6606.

Digital TV channels

Before digital TV we only had four or five TV channels to choose from. The choice we faced was to try in vain to find something we wanted to watch from the small selection of channels or put a video on.

Thankfully those days are gone. Now digital TV gives us more channels and more choice - unfortunately it also means more decisions!

The amount and quality of digital TV channels will depend on what digital TV service you take. You should get the normal digital TV services from the BBC, ITV,  Channel 4 and Five with all digital TV options. But you can add in more channels with subscription digital TV depending on your requirements and tastes.

Here are some examples of popular digital TV channels:


E4 is the popular entertainment channel from Channel 4 which is aimed at the 15-35 age groups. E4 shows include: Ugly Betty, Friends, The O.C., Desperate Housewives and Scrubs.

E4 is available on Freesat, Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media.


Living, owned by Virgin Media, is aimed mainly at women but also includes programming aimed at men.
Shows include: Most Haunted, Greys Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Boston Legal and CSI.

Living is available on Top Up TV (with Top Up TV Anytime), Sky and Virgin Media.


G.O.L.D. which stands for Go On Laugh Daily is owned by the UKTV network and is the one stop shop for classic comedy and entertainment. G.O.L.D. programming includes: Only Fools and Horses, Fawlty Towers, Last of the Summer Wine, Dinnerladies, The Office and One Foot in the Grave.

G.O.L.D. is available on Sky, Virgin Media, Top Up TV (with Top Up TV Anytime). The channel is also available via the Sky Player online digital TV service. 


MTV is the popular and original US based music video channel which shows the latest music videos and original programming including: MTV Cribs UK, Pimp My Ride UK and Hogan Knows Best.

MTV is available on Sky and Virgin Media.

National Geographic Channel

The National Geographic Channel features educational, enlightening and truly stunning documentaries. The documentaries are produced by the National Geographic Society and feature popular documentary series such as: Air Crash Investigation, Seconds From Disaster, Megastructures and The Dog Whisperer.

The National Geographic Channel is available on Sky, Sky HD, Virgin Media, Top Up TV (with Top Up TV Anytime).


Sky1 is the main entertainment channel from Sky. Sky show original programming and top rated imports including its most famous offering The Simpsons. Sky1 is the only channel in the UK to show new episodes of The Simpsons. Other major Sky1 shows include: 24, House, Stargate Universe, Project Runway and Lost.

Sky1 is available on of course - Sky as well as Sky HD, and Virgin Media.

Sky Sports

A must have for serious sports fans, Sky Sports shows over 100 sports on its premium subscription Sky Sports digital TV channels. Sky Sports includes all the action from the Barclays Premier League, the ATP World Tour and International cricket.

Sky Sports offers standard definition digital channels and High Definition channels. The Sky Sports premium channels are:

Standard definition Sky Sports channels:

* Sky Sports 1
* Sky Sports 2
* Sky Sports 3
* Sky Sports Xtra

High definition Sky Sports channels:

* Sky Sports 1 HD
* Sky Sports 2 HD
* Sky Sports 3 HD

Sky Sports is available with the Sky Sports package which can be added to your other chosen channel packages. You can create your own mix of channels on the Sky website. Sky Sports is also available on Virgin Media. Prices for Sky Sports on each platform may vary.

Sky Movies

If you are a true movie fan you can't go wrong with Sky Movies. Sky Movies brings you top premieres and classics on its range of movie channels to suit all tastes:

* Sky Movies Premiere    * Sky Movies Comedy  * Sky Movies Family
* Sky Movies Premiere +1  * Sky Movies Action & Thriller * Sky Movies Drama
* Sky Movies SCFI & Horror * Sky Movies Classics  * Sky Movies Modern Greats
* Sky Movies Indie  * Sky Screen 1   * Sky Screen 2

All of the above channels are also available on Sky HD except Sky Movies Premiere +1 & Sky Movies Classics. You can also order movies via Sky Box Office and Sky Box Office HD from your remote control (your Sky box needs to be plugged into a working landline telephone socket).