By now, you'll probably have heard of the extra terrestrial alternative to Freeview, freesat, which promises to provide a mix of HD and SD TV channels via satellite. Strongly rumoured to be launching in the next month or so (the semi-official freesat blog claims 5 May), freesat will be a crucial aspect of the UK's digital switchover, because there are many areas of the UK where terrestrial isn't terribly practical. Wales, for example.
So, how does one go about getting the service? Initially, freesat will have only a small number of companies producing equipment -- Panasonic, Alba and Humax. But because the system is based on open standards, purchasing equipment from other companies shouldn't be a problem, as long as you know what to buy. Here's a quick guide.
How can I receive freesat -- what hardware will I need?
When freesat launches you will have three choices for getting the service. You'll need a satellite dish on your house, into which you can plug either a standalone freesat set-top box, a television with built-in support for digital satellite broadcasts or a TV tuner for your PC. There are several PC cards from Hauppauge that will be able to cope with freesat and this is likely to be the cheapest option. Panasonic has confirmed it will be producing TVs with the ability to decode the freesat signal built-in. If you have a Sky satellite dish already, you should be able to plug this into one of these receivers and get the service.
Can I get freesat on my laptop?
Happily, Hauppauge is producing both plug-in upgrade cards and USB 2 decoders. The Nova-S USB2 will cost £80 and will act as a PVR, recording channels and offering the ability to burn them to DVD too. This will suit fans of Media Center -- there are currently 32-bit drivers, but support for Vista and XP 64 will arrive next week. No Mac support yet, though.
What channels will be on freesat?
Initially there will be HD content from the BBC, and ITV is planning to provide its channels in standard definition. Channel 4 is also rumoured to be going free-to-air at the moment, despite being in an exclusive contract with Sky until October. Five are also in the middle of a carriage deal with Sky, which makes it unlikely we'll see any of its channels at launch. freesat claims there will be as many as 80 channels at launch, although we must admit it's likely most of those will try and sell you over-priced jewellery and other tat.
Will the service be a success?
Our crystal ball is on the fritz at the moment (customer support is terrible on those things), so predicting the future of freesat is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there's no reason for it to fail, because it's simply using broadcasts that are available from existing services. The question will be, will manufacturers support it if there isn't much interest at the start? The good news is, outside the United Kingdom of Murdoch there are plenty of companies producing set-top boxes that will receive free-to-air broadcasts. If the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five all join up, and provide HD services, then ultimately we think the service will be popular.
How much will the equipment cost?
The join freesat blog claims that a non-HD receiver will cost £35, an HD receiver £100 and a HD receiver with PVR £150. Initially you'll be able to buy this hardware from Currys.digital, Comet, John Lewis and even Argos. If you don't have a dish on your house you'll need to pay to have one installed. Costs on that are likely to vary, but your local aerial/satellite installer will be happy to advise you on all of that.
Will I be able to upgrade to Sky HD?
Sky refuses to make a CAM available for non-Sky hardware. So there is essentially zero chance that you could call them and take out a Sky subscription and stick the card in your box and get the service. You have to buy a Sky-branded box. Of course, Ofcom could do what it should have done years ago and force Sky to support third-party hardware, but Ofcom is mainly concerned with bleeding every last penny out of the publicly owned spectrum, and not interested in giving the British public a good digital TV service.
On the flipside, you should be able to use your existing Sky HD box to get more free HD channels without paying Sky £10 a month. So that's something. -Ian Morris
More freesat from Crave:
What's freesat and how do I get it
See the freesat channel line-up on our forums
freesat: Does the service have what it takes to be a hit?
Photos: Hands-on with freesat
Review update: We've had the first two freesat receivers in, so check out our Humax Foxsat-HD (freesat) review for a high-definition box and our Grundig freesat receiver (GUFSAT01) review for a standard-def one.