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TVs

Freeview: how digital TV works

Digital television is well and truly here, with access to over a dozen channels and better quality sound and vision. All you need is a set-top box!

Digital television has been broadcasting in Australia for 10 years, but until now no-one has needed to swap over despite the service offering better quality audio and vision.

Now that the digital switch-over is in effect people will need to get themselves new equipment or risk losing free-to-air altogether.

While it was re-branded as "Freeview" in 2009, most people still call it "digital TV". But what exactly is it and what do you need to do to receive it?

The basics

Digital television differs from analog in that it's able to send more information across the air without interference, which means clearer pictures and better sound. Current digital services allow for high-definition (1080i) programs with up to six channels of surround sound.

Digital TV consists of 17 channels from the ABC, SBS, Seven, Nine and Ten, with a community channel in each of the capital cities. Barring the ABC, each station is able to broadcast one high-definition channel, and two standard-definition ones. The ABC currently broadcasts four channels, ABC1, ABC2, ABC3 and ABC News 24 (replacing ABC HD).

The first channel to broadcast under the new system was Channel Ten's One, which hit television screens on 26 March 2009.

The "Freeview" name has been borrowed from the UK and New Zealand who began their digital services in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

Why do I need it?

Depending on which area you live in, digital TV is an inevitability. Mildura was the first to go completely digital, with the analog signal switching off on 30 June 2010.

The rest of regional Victoria is switched off on 5 May 2011, with the progressive switch-off finishing in 2013. If you don't already have one, in the next two years you'll need to get a digital tuner.

If you're still clinging to the analog TV tuner that came with your TV, then you'll find digital TV to be something of a revelation. Not only is the picture quality so much better, but the amount of choice greater. Even if you don't have a high-definition TV (HDTV), you'll still be able to watch HD broadcasts on a cathode-ray tube (CRT) — just not in full high definition. To sweeten the pot, most networks play exclusive content on their secondary and HD channels so you'll be getting more stuff for the paltry cost of a digital tuner (about AU$60).

What stations can I get in my area?

If you live in a metropolitan area then you should be receiving all of the promised 17 stations. If you happen to live outside one of the major centres then you may not be as lucky. If you want to check which stations are available in your area there are a couple of places you can check, and these include the Freeview website, the ABC and SBS.

In January 2010, the Federal Government announced that any users in coverage blackspots would be able to apply to the government for a subsidised satellite service.

Here are the channels so far, and we will continue to update this list if and when more channels are announced.

Broadcaster Channel name Resolution (max) ABC ABC 1 576i   ABC 2 576i   ABC 3 576i   ABC News 24 720p SBS SBS One 576i   SBS HD 720p   SBS Two 576i Seven 7 576i   7mate 1080i   7Two 576i Nine Nine 576i   Gem 1080i   Go! 576i Ten Ten 576i   One HD 1080i   Eleven 576i Prime7 (Seven regional) Prime7   7mate   Seven Two 576i WIN (Nine regional) WIN   Gem   Go! Southern Cross (Ten regional) Southern Cross   One HD   Eleven

What equipment will I need?

Freeview-branded equipment began appearing on the shelves in April 2009, but you don't actually need a Freeview tuner to pick up digital television. If you have an existing SD or HD tuner, the service will continue as it always has.

There are currently three different electronic program guides (EPG): the free EPG transmitted by the broadcasters themselves, Freeview and IceTV. Most digital equipment will pick up the free EPG so you can browse and even record from the next 10 days of programs.

Topfield TF7100HDPVRt
PVRs such as the Topfield TF7100HDPVRt use their own guides and won't need the Freeview EPG. (Credit: Topfield)

If you want to pick up the new Freeview EPG, then you'll need to buy a new tuner. Compatible "mark II" equipment that receives the new guide information was available on shelves as of August 2010. According to Freeview, the Freeview guide offers exclusive content and functionality not available on the current guide.

Lastly, if you have a PVR from the likes of Foxtel, Austar or an Ice-enabled product such as Topfield, then you won't have to worry about Freeview — all of these recorders use their own EPG.

Conclusion

While the Freeview launch came and went, digital TV is with us now. You no longer have to pay for cable to receive a high number of quality channels in digital quality. Set-top boxes are cheap, and can be easily added to an existing television. Of course, to receive the full benefit, it helps to own a flatscreen.