Freeview vs freesat vs Sky vs Virgin: Watch the World Cup in HD

The previous World Cup result evidently wasn't definitive, so it'll soon be time to find out once again which country has the best football team. But which is the best service for watching the action in HD?

Ian Morris
5 min read

If you hate football, then you're almost certainly dreading the World Cup in June. If you love football, then you're probably more excited than a dog with a large stick and delicious bone to go home to. Love it or hate it, the World Cup will be watched by more than 700m people worldwide, and it's likely to be a showcase for high-definition sport in the UK.

Trust us when we say that football is best served up in high definition. If you have a capable AV system, the surround sound will make you feel like you're actually sitting in South Africa watching the action live. Plus, you get the extra detail of the 1080i resolution, which should enable you to count the blades of grass on the pitch. So, of all the services you can choose from, which is likely to be the best for watching England fail to win?

If you want to get the best sports coverage, Sky should be high on your list of services. Sky will let you absolutely fill your boots when it comes to watching people running about, and it offers a huge amount of sport in HD. There are now four HD Sky Sports channels, and Eurosport HD is on offer too. As well as all of these sport channels, which you have to pay for, there's loads of free content too.

ITV1 HD is now available on Sky, as is BBC HD, so you won't struggle to see a match, no matter where it's being shown. Sky+HD also provides you with the luxury of being able to record games, or pause live matches while you grab a beer, take a toilet break or perform a celebratory dance around your living room.

If you're looking for a cheap service, Sky isn't for you. You can expect to pay around £60 a month for a package that includes Sky's sports channels, and more if you want ESPN included. That figure includes Sky's loathsome £10-a-month charge for access to HD content, but at least the set-up is free for the higher-end packages. If you skip Sky Sports and get a lower-end package, you'll pay a £30 set-up fee and at least £28 per month.

Despite the expense, if you're looking for a comprehensive service, it's hard to think of a better option than Sky.

Virgin Media
Virgin carries both BBC HD and ITV1 HD, so there'll be no problems in terms of viewing the World Cup. Unlike Sky+HD, you don't have to take a PVR option either, so you can simply get live HD channels, and save the extra £5 a month that it costs to rent a V+ HD PVR box on all but the most expensive tariff.

Once we're out of World Cup time, though, the HD sports content available on Virgin will be far more restricted than on Sky. Even so, Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3 are available, and there's HD content from Eurosport and ESPN too, should you feel the need to see more sport. 

You can expect to pay around £35 a month for a fairly basic package that includes Sky Sports 1, 2 and 3. Skip Sky Sports and you can expect to pay at least £11.50. A £50 set-up fee applies in both cases.

Freeview HD
In terms of sheer convenience, you can't beat Freeview HD -- assuming you live in an area that has access to the high-definition, DVB-T2 broadcasts (there's a coverage checker on this page). You'll need to invest in some compatible receiving hardware, but you can just plug it into your existing aerial and you'll be away. There are a range of Freeview HD set-top boxes that will let you access the service, which offers BBC HD, ITV1 HD and 4HD. Some are PVRs, while some are just plain receivers.

There are also plenty of Freeview HDTVs hitting the market too, so, if you're looking for a new TV in time for the World Cup, it's well worth seeking one out that has a built-in DVB-T2 tuner. Look for the Freeview HD logo, or read our Crave article on the available TVs.

As appealing as Freeview HD is, though, only 50 per cent of the population will be able to receive it by the time the World Cup arrives. The hardware is also very expensive, with basic receivers costing around £180. You won't have to pay a monthly fee, however. If you're replacing your TV, buying a new one with a Freeview HD tuner is a great option. If not, you might find freesat HD cheaper.

Freesat HD
Freesat HD is a more mature service than Freeview HD. It also uses older technology, so it's significantly cheaper to lay your hands on a Freesat HD set-top box than it is to get a Freeview HD one. Both BBC HD and ITV1 HD are on the platform, but that really is your lot as far as hi-def channels go. Although there are quite a few SD channels available, there isn't a single channel dedicated to sports-based content -- even Freeview manages to offer Sky Sports News.

But freesat does cover nearly 100 per cent of the UK population. If you can't get Freeview HD, you should be able to get a dish to watch freesat, although not every house or flat can accommodate a dish. The good news is that many new-build homes have access to communal dishes, which can be a big help. If you don't fancy trying to install your own dish, you can get someone else to do it for around £80.

Freesat HD set-top boxes start at around just £70, so it's by far the cheapest way to watch the World Cup in HD. As with Freeview HD, there's no monthly fee to pay.

Which will be the best service for you really depends on your needs and how much you want to pay. Both Freeview HD and freesat HD are relatively cheap and will both provide you with an excellent way to watch the World Cup in HD. But, if you're a football fan, you'll probably want to watch more than just a couple of football games every four years. 

Virgin's service has its appeal too, offering a decent array of HD sports channels, as well as BBC HD and ITV1 HD. Virgin is also the only method, besides the BBC Web site, for viewing iPlayer in HD. If you want the best-possible coverage, Sky is the way forward, although it's also the most expensive option.

Overall, Freeview HD wins in terms of simplicity, freesat HD wins for its almost 100 per cent coverage of the UK, and Sky+HD wins for providing the most HD sports content.

Whichever service you opt for, all you'll have to do after you've bought your fancy new equipment is hope England doesn't get booted out of the competition in the first round.