set-top boxes
which logo

The Which? guide to buying the best
set-top box

What is a set-top box?

A set-top box is a device that you connect to your TV to give you access to TV channels and other services that your TV can’t receive by itself.

This could be a basic Freeview or Freesat set-top box that converts an older TV so it can receive digital channels. Alternatively it could be pay-TV set-top box from, for example, Sky Digital that gives you access to additional channels and services. Other set-top boxes (often known as smart TV boxes) connect to the internet allowing you to access catch-up TV services, such as BBC iPlayer.

What type of set-top box should I buy?

Free-TV set-top box

If you want a basic digital TV service, with a one-off cost, get a Freeview (TV via your aerial) or Freesat (TV via satellite dish) box. If you don’t want to splash out on a new TV, a set-top box is the cheapest and simplest way to get digital channels.

Pay-TV set-top box

If you want a wider choice of TV channels, or access to premium movie and sports channels, then consider a digital TV package from the likes of BT, Sky, Talk Talk or Virgin Media. These paid-for services have a monthly subscription fee, but you can often save money on this by bundling your TV service with your home phone or broadband. The box is usually provided as part of service or for a small extra fee.

TV streaming (smart TV) set-top box

Some set-top boxes allow you to connect to the internet, via your broadband, to access catch-up TV, such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Player. This can turn an older TV into a smart TV at a fraction of the cost.

What makes a good set top box?

Simple to set up and connect

You want a box that is easy to set up, especially if you have an older TV.

Easy to use EPG

All set-top boxes have an electronic programme guide (EPG), which is the on-screen menu that allows you to select channels and access programme listings. You want one with a good layout that’s easy to read and simple to navigate.

Good remote control

You’ll be accessing all the features of your set-top box and navigating the EPG using the remote control. A well laid-out simple remote makes life easy, whereas a poor remote will have you hurling it across the room in frustration.

Choosing the best Freeview and Freesat boxes

If you want access to the main digital TV channels, without being tied into a contract or a monthly subscription, then a free-to-air service, such as Freeview or Freesat, is probably best for you.

All new TVs come with a digital tuner built in that will let you access Freeview, while some also offer Freesat. However, if you have an older TV you'll need a set-top box.

Freeview

How do I get it?

You need to buy a Freeview set-top box, unless you already have a TV with built-in Freeview. Set-top boxes start from around £20 for a basic model and go up to around £100. Boxes are available from manufacturers such as Humax, Bush and Goodmans. (Please note that John Lewis only sells Humax.)

The Freeview box plugs into the back of your TV, via the scart socket, and your regular TV aerial – although you may have to upgrade your aerial if it’s very old. Once you’ve bought the box, the programmes are free.


What will I be able to watch?

Freeview offers up to 50 free digital TV channels, plus 20 radio stations. It provides fewer channels than satellite or cable services, but still offers a good selection, including BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, C4, Channel 5, BBC News, E4, Film 4, More 4, CBeebies, CITV and CBBC. Sky 1, Gold and Discovery are not available on Freeview. 


Does it offer HD?

Yes. There is a Freeview HD service that gives you access to HD channels from BBC, ITV and Channel 4. However, some set-top boxes aren't able to access HD TV. If you want to watch HD programmes you need a special Freeview HD box, plus an HD-ready TV.


Freesat

How do I get it?

You need a TV with a built-in Freesat tuner or a separate Freesat set-top box. Freesat boxes range from around £60 to £120 and are available from manufacturers such as Humax, Grundig, Goodmans and Bush. (Please note that John Lewis only sells Humax.)

The Freesat signal is received via a satellite dish. If you don’t already have a satellite dish you can order one when you buy your Freesat box, either in-store or online. Expect to pay around £80 for a standard installation.


What will I be able to watch?

Freesat offers around 130 TV and radio channels. For an up-to-date list of channels offered, visit the Freesat website.


Does it offer HD?

Yes, Freesat HD is available. You’ll need a Freesat HD box and an HD TV to connect it to.

Choosing the best smart TV set-top boxes

Some set-top boxes allow you to connect to the internet so that you can stream live content and access popular websites and catch-up TV services, such as BBC iPlayer. These streaming set-top boxes turn your standard TV into a smart TV.

How do I get it?

Streaming boxes start at around £50 and are manufactured by companies such as Roku, Apple, Sony and Western Digital. They connect to your TV but also require access to the internet via cable or wi-fi. You’ll need a decent broadband connection to view streamed programmes.

What will I be able to watch?  

Different boxes give you access to different online content. Compare different models to make sure that the sites you want are accessible. Most offer access to catch-up TV on BBC iPlayer but not all will give you access to other catch-up services such as ITV Player or 4oD. Some will let you download films from Netflix or LoveFilm, and watch videos on sites such as YouTube. Others let you access the Picasa and Flickr photo sharing websites.

Can I record live TV?

Most streaming set-top boxes won't let you record the content, but you can watch streamed content whenever you want to, so this is not necessarily a disadvantage.