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Set-top boxes

If you want to use an older, pre-digital TV, you'll need to buy either a set-top box or a digital TV recorder. A Freeview set-top box is the cheapest solution. 

Freeview set-top boxes

Stack of set-top boxes

Whether it's called a Freeview receiver or a digital box, this is a small piece of kit that you connect to your TV to decode the digital TV signal. It comes with its own remote control, separate from your TV remote.

However, depending on how you plan to get your digital TV signal - through an aerial, by satellite, cable or broadband phone line - you may need a different set-top box. See Digital TV options for information on these choices.

The majority of set-top boxes in the shops are Freeview boxes that deliver standard-definition digital TV via an aerial. These cost from £25 to about £70, depending on their features. High-definition (HD) Freeview boxes cost £100-£150; these deliver the Freeview HD channels, offering higher-quality, more-realistic pictures. For Freeview HD, you'll need an HD or HD ready TV with a screen capable of showing all the detail of high-definition broadcasts.

You may also need to buy a new aerial, depending on how good your current aerial is. 

Pros and cons of set-top boxes

Advantages and disadvantages of set-top boxes
For Against
  • cheapest way to go digital
  • TV channels and radio stations without subscription
  • set-top boxes can be small and neat
  • provides an on-screen 7-day TV guide (EPG)
  • HD boxes are available that deliver HD channels
  • recorders are available
  • some are easier to use than others - choose carefully if this is important to you
  • you might need to buy a new aerial or satellite dish

Other types of set-top boxes

Also available from retailers are freesat set-top boxes, which connect via a satellite dish to the freesat service provided by the BBC and ITV. A similar offering is available from Freesat from Sky. These bring you both standard and high-definition channels, but again you'll need an HD or HD ready TV to display the HD pictures. You'll need to pay start-up costs for the box and dish, but after that these services are free.

For subscription services provided by satellite, cable or broadband, the companies supply and install their own set-top box as part of the service. Both standard and HD boxes are available. See Digital TV options for more information.

Connecting up

If you're installing a terrestrial (Freeview) set-top box yourself, it's simplest to plug the set-top box into your TV with a SCART lead. All set-top boxes and most modern TVs have SCART sockets. If your TV does not have a SCART socket, you'll need a set-top box that can feed the digital signal into the TV's aerial socket - one with what's called an RF modulator.

For HD boxes, connection is made with an HDMI cable; these should cost around £10 (there is no reason to spend much more). Of course, the TV will have to be an HD ready TV.

To record digital TV programmes, you can connect your set-top box to a VCR or DVD recorder, but if you want easy recording and features like 'Pause live TV', you should consider getting a digital TV recorder instead.

There are also complex units on sale with different combinations of digital TV products built in - mixes of set-top box, digital TV recorder, VHS recorder, DVD recorder and/or DVD player. 

Last updated: July 2013

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