Yesterday, Crave attended the launch of freesat. After a delightful pear-based beverage and a scrumptious cookie with built-in toffee we were ushered into a room containing a 103-inch Panasonic plasma bearing the freesat logo. Our excitement was tangible as we waited to hear about the UK's latest free TV offering.
Like any launch, there was a flurry of optimism over its greatness and how it's sure to revolutionise TV in the UK. freesat is a good idea, at least in theory, so we went along with the whole thing -- until we starting feeling uninspired.
As we see it, the main problem is that the service basically uses channels broadcast on the Astra satellites at 28.2°E. You're going get the same BBC One and ITV that you would find on Sky Digital. That, in turn, means that the picture quality could generously be described as terrible. This is a missed opportunity. The service would be far better if all of the channels were MPEG-4 encoded, and allowed enough bandwidth to improve the picture quality. Even SD will look great on an HD TV if it has sufficient bandwidth -- DVD proves that.
At launch, the HD is also severely limited. There is one channel available: BBC HD. ITV HD is expected to launch soon, bringing with it football in HD, but it's only available as a 'red button' service, which means you'll access it via an interactive service. It's clear to us that this is purely designed to nix any plans Sky might have had to add ITV HD to its lineup -- ITV's high-definition service will be exclusive to freesat, for the time being.
Our initial reaction to the service was that the EPG and set-top boxes were nice. All of the hardware was compact and lightweight, and clear effort has gone in to making them as compact as Freeview boxes have become.
As we mentioned before, installation will cost £80, and will include a dish. You'll have a choice of hardware available initially from Comet, Argos and John Lewis. We got to play with the Humax receiver, which is one of the most expensive at £150. It's very nice, but we aren't sure why anyone would want to pay so much more for something that does the same as the cheaper boxes. Until we test them, it's going to hard to know if there are any operational differences.
You'll also be able to buy Panasonic TVs with freesat built in. This is a great feature, especially given the new range of Panasonic plasmas are among our favourite TVs at the moment. The Viera 42PZ81 will be available soon, and will cost £1,300. -Ian Morris
Update: We've had the first freesat receiver in, so check out our full Humax Foxsat-HD (freesat) review.