Digital TV is undergoing its first free-to-air revolution since it launched in 1998 -- Freeview is finally going high-definition, with HD channels from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all being offered for free. All you need is a new set-top box or a TV capable of receiving DVB-T2 transmissions, and you'll find yourself immersed in an HD world.
Freeview HD offers two ways to see its new channels. You can either furnish your existing TV with a new set-top box, or you can chuck away that outdated 50-inch telly you bought six months ago, and purchase yourself an all-singing, all-dancing new set with a Freeview HD tuner. Let's assume for a minute that you're happy with your TV, and want to turn it into a Freeview HD-capable beast. What do you need?
The simple answer is one little box that costs around £170 or so and connects to your TV via its HDMI socket. Then you'll be up and running, with three HD channels at your disposal. This being digital terrestrial television though, there isn't much capacity for these channels, so you shouldn't expect QVC HD any time soon. Five isn't available either, but that might change at some point in the future.
As a considerable bonus, all these boxes have an Ethernet port, so at some point in the future you'll be able to hook them up to your router and receive BBC
iPlayer over the Interwebs. Some of them can already do this.
We've tried to fit as many different companies' products as possible into this round-up. We can't squeeze them all in, but this list should give you an idea of what's out there, and any special features that a particular machine may sport.
The Humax HD-Fox T2 was the first Freeview HD box on the market, and the first one we got to review. It's a great little machine, and we're huge fans of its potential to be upgraded, via a firmware update, to enable the recording of TV shows to USB storage. An ultra-fast processor and new user interface make this machine a joy to use too.
Humax also has a 500GB PVR model on the way, the DVB-T2 HD. At the launch of the HD-Fox T2, the company told us it planned to launch the DVB-T2 HD in time for the World Cup in June.
Sharp isn't well known for anything besides its TVs. The company does make Blu-ray players, but these have failed to make much of a dent in the market. In terms of Freeview HD, it has two boxes almost ready to roll. The TU-T2 is a simple receiver for getting Freeview HD on your TV. Like the HD-Fox T2, it will cost around £170 when it launches this month, but it won't get the firmware update for USB storage.
The second box is the TU-T2HR32, which features a twin DVB-T2 tuner and a 320GB hard drive, for storing all your favourite TV. This model is set to cost around £290 when it surfaces in May.
Dutch company Philips has a pair of Freeview HD devices due: the HDT8520 and DTR5520. The former is a 500GB PVR, the latter a standard set-top box.
The DTR5520 should sit in the same magical pricing zone as the other storage-free HD boxes when it launches later this month -- around £170. The HDT8520 should cost about £300 when it's released in May. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the HDT8520 only costs a tenner more than the Sharp TU-T2HR32, and you get 180GB more storage. Plus Philips' machine looks much more attractive than the Sharp model.
Panasonic has an odd attitude to Freeview recorders. It doesn't offer a stand-alone product, instead preferring to bundle its machines with either a DVD recorder or Blu-ray burner. The same goes for its Freeview HD machines, both of which feature a Blu-ray burner. You can either pick the DMR-BW780EBK, offering 250GB of storage for £650, or the DMR-BW880EBK, which offers a 500GB drive for around £800. Both models will launch in June.
While these prices are an outrage, you do at least get Blu-ray playback, a Freeview HD tuner and hard-drive storage for your money.
British start-up 3view is creating an eponymous set-top box that not only receives Freeview HD, but also has access to streaming video from Sky Player and BBC iPlayer -- out of the box. This incredibly versatile machine also features a 500GB hard drive, for recording HD and standard-definition TV shows, and costs just £300.
It's worth noting that the 3View box doesn't have Freeview logo certification. This could mean the company will encounter problems if Freeview decides to soft-encrypt its HD signals at some point in the future. That said, we think this is one of the most exciting boxes we've heard about so far.
Grundig and Goodmans
These two companies are now intertwined in a way too confusing for normal human beings to understand. But there are two Freeview HD models on the way from the pair. Goodmans' offering is known as the GDB300HD, and Grundig's the GUD300HD. Both cost around £150. If you're trying to select which one you should buy, we suggest flipping a coin, because this is the same hardware in two very slightly different boxes.
Like most Freeview HD boxes, these machines will support iPlayer and other streaming services as and when they launch on Freeview, as they have done on freesat in recent months.
Formerly part of the same group as Grundig and Goodmans, the Bush and Alba names have now been sold to the company that owns Argos. Expect, therefore, Bush's wares on sale at both Argos and Homebase. The company's foray into Freeview HD box territory is known as the DVB680, and will cost about £100.
Expect the same basic functions as all of these Freeview HD boxes offer. There will, eventually, be iPlayer support, and you can expect an eight-day electronic programme guide too. Upscaling to 1080p is required as part of the Freeview HD logo certification process, so that capability will also be present.
Sagemcom is the awful new name for Sagem hardware in the UK. The company will launch two Freeview HD recorders in May. The first, the £280 RTI90-320 T2 HD, has a 320GB hard drive and the second, the £320 RTI90-500 T2 HD, has a 500GB hard drive. We note from the press pictures that Sagem's trademark segmented LED display is present and correct on these models.
Dixons, Comet and John Lewis will all sell two models from Digital Stream. We might be sounding like a stuck record here, but the DHR8203U has a 320GB hard disk, while the DHR8205U features a more capacious 500GB hard drive. Prices start around the £300 mark, and both have twin tuners, 1080p upscaling and an Ethernet jack for future IPTV expansion.
Advanced Digital Broadcast
Swiss company Advanced Digital Broadcast hasn't launched a set-top box in the UK before. That'll change with the advent of the i-CAN Easy HD receiver in June. It's designed to take advantage of Freeview HD and includes a slot for a pay-TV smartcard. Don't get too excited about this box being able to accept Sky's proposed Picnic service, though -- it's unlikely to be possible.
Other than its smartcard slot, this box doesn't offers anything particularly special. It's IPTV-ready, as all these Freeview HD boxes are, so expect iPlayer support to be added in the future.