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Freeview Plus shouldn't require 'dedicated hardware'

TV manufacturers could update most recent TV models to Freeview Plus with software fixes, but don't expect any to do so.


With Freeview Plus set to launch in just over a week, we've been trying to compile a list of current TVs that will be officially compatible with the new service -- and have a Freeview Plus logo slapped on to prove it. You can see the ongoing results over here.

At the same time, we've been looking into whether older TVs could be upgraded to handle the HbbTV 1.5 standard that Freeview Plus will run on. While Freeview obviously want people to buy Freeview Plus-certified products, it seems that the service should work on any HbbTV 1.5 compatible devices. However, Freeview does state that without the certification there is "no guarantee of the performance of that equipment to deliver Freeview Plus properly".

HbbTV 1.5 can be deployed via software update -- Sony has confirmed to CNET that its patch had "already gone out, so people who already have a 2014 TV just need to update it, and all new 2014 purchases will already be set up".

However, Sony also told us that there would be "no native support for older models", with owners instead having to use "set-top boxes and PVRs" in order to connect to Freeview Plus.

But it looks like this isn't because of any hardware compatibility issues, but an unwillingness to deploy the software update.

Régis Saint Girons is the CEO of the French company httv, an "international technology and solution provider for interactive digital TV". He told CNET that "there is no real hardware requirement difference between HbbTV 1.0 and 1.5".

Some broadcasters in Europe began using HbbTV 1.0 back in 2010. By 2011, it was in regular use in France, Germany and Spain. The specifications for HbbTV 1.5 were published in May 2012. So for Freeview Plus, we're talking about a service working on a standard that hasn't changed hardware requirements in four years.

The German-based Institut fur Rundfunktechnik is one of the HbbTV consortium-steering group members, along with Sony, Samsung, and others.

Klaus Merkel, Senior Engineer of Platforms for Broadcast Services at IRT confirmed to CNET that "technically, there is nothing additional in HbbTV 1.5 that would really need dedicated hardware".

However, HbbTV 1.5 did add support for MPEG-DASH. DASH stands for Dynamic Adaptive Streaming over HTTP and it's an international standard for streaming media content over the internet via HTTP servers. Being adaptive, DASH is designed to improve the user experience when viewing content on unreliable networks, meaning that viewers get fewer instances of stalling and buffering.

Merkel qualified his statement about the potential for upgrades, saying that:

In principal devices could be updated via software download if they have enough memory and processing power to process DASH.

I would expect that there are HbbTV 1.0 devices in the market which could technically manage such an upgrade, others maybe not -- mainly due to memory usage of DASH.

Of course, what's noteworthy with DASH is that it's designed to be extremely memory-efficient and effective at delivering content on mobile devices as well as desktop and dedicated hardware. Netflix has been a big supporter of DASH since before it was a finalised standard.

So is DASH a considerable hurdle for updates? Asked if there was any reason why a TV released any time in the past three years couldn't be made ready for HbbTV 1.5, Saint Gerons said:

The main reason is the willingness of a TV manufacturer to spend the time -- and cost -- of doing such update but from a hardware standpoint it shall be possible.

Where does all this leave us? Well, we're still without a definitive answer, but there seems to be a moderate level of consensus: there are likely to be a considerable number of TVs owned by Australians that could easily be upgraded to support Freeview Plus by a simple software download. However, this is unlikely to happen, with Aussies instead being pushed into buying new devices in order to access the latest technology for Free-to-Air TV.