Freeview Play first look: Is this the future of contract-free smart TV?

Freeview Play first look: Is this the future of contract-free smart TV?

We’ve been able to get an early look at Freeview Play, a mixture of linear and on-demand TV that’s launching later this year.

Sadly, what was on show at the 2015 DTG Summit was by no means the finished article, so take what you see here with a pinch of salt. Things could well have changed by the time Freeview Play TVs start hitting the shelves.

Regardless of what Freeview Play ends up looking like, every device will offer the same functionality – live digital terrestrial TV with integrated access to catch-up services – as standard.

From launch, you’ll be able to get catch-up content from BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5, but Freeview promises more services will arrive in time.

First of all, we got to see some screenshots of a Freeview Play UI on a Panasonic smart TV. And when we say pictures we mean exactly that – it was three image files stored on a hard drive.

While this didn’t give us the opportunity to see Freeview Play in action, Digital UK’s managing director of connected TV (and former Freeview boss) Ilse Howling told us that a tap of the yellow button when browsing the programme guide would give you quick access to the suite of on-demand players.

The topmost of the three images here shows what the programme guide looks like after you’ve hit the yellow button, with shortcuts to BBC iPlayer and the rest sitting pretty at the top.

Like Freetime, YouView and Virgin Media TiVo, you’ll also be able to scroll backwards in time on the EPG, moving left instead of right to find shows broadcast up to seven days earlier.

From launch, you’ll only be able to get content from those four catch-up services, but Howling said that more services would launch in due course. There’s no word yet if UKTV Play or Quest on Demand will be coming to Freeview Play, but we’d be surprised if they didn’t.

For a closer look at Firefox OS and My Home Screen 2.0, check out our early eyes-onWhen playing around with the Panasonic smart TV, we noticed that there was a Freeview Play icon floating on the Firefox OS main page, providing viewers with yet another window into the Freeview Play suite of connected services.

Part of the genius of Panasonic’s My Home Screen 2.0 is that you can create shortcuts to individual services like BBC iPlayer and even individual channels – so an extra shortcut to multiple catch-up services may or may not be that useful.

All the same, it’s nice to have the option alongside things like Netflix and Wuaki.tv.

Luckily, we were able to see more than just look at three static image files. Arqiva, the infrastructure company and Freeview shareholder that manages and distributes Freeview channels, has been busy working on what was described as a ‘vanilla’ Connected Operator user interface, something that could be adapted to meet Freeview Play’s requirements.

Arqiva’s head of UX and product design Vibeke Hansen told us that this interface lets manufacturers customise and expand the HTML5 UI templates.

Related: Humax to launch first Freeview Play set-top box in 2015This was an interactive system which we spent several minutes playing around with.

While it wasn’t by any means finished, we were impressed with the overall slickness of Arqiva’s UI.

Similar to how the likes of Samsung and HTC are free to tinker with the stock Android look and feel, manufacturers wanting to create devices for Freeview Play will have the option of being able to build on this UI and customise it with their own menus and logos.

Regardless of how TV and set-top box makers try to reinvent the wheel, Hansen said that prominence will be given to catch-up services which would always be front and centre on Freeview Play.

When asked about the Netflix and Amazon Instant Video icons present on the demo, Hansen explained that these were simply added for design purposes, to show how the system Arqiva has developed is future-proofed for additional services. So this shouldn’t be taken as a clear sign that Netflix definetly is coming to Freeview Play – although we wouldn’t rule it out.

Frustratingly, there’s still no solid release date for Freeview Play. The first devices are due to go on sale ‘later this year’. The only tidbits we were able to glean from the event were prices for some of the first Humax boxes to hit the shelves, which Howling put at £199 and £229 each.

Howling wouldn’t be drawn on the capabilities of this early hardware but it’s safe to assume that the more expensive of the two will feature a bigger hard drive.

Related: Freeview Play to be included in all 2015 Panasonic Viera TVsAlongside Panasonic and Humax, Vestel has also signed up to make Freeview Play gear. Vestel is one of the biggest TV manufacturers in Europe and is perhaps better known for making inexpensive, white label TVs – if you’ve bought a Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda own-brand TV in the past, chances are it’s been made by Vestel. According to Howling, Vestel say that they make one in four TVs sold in the UK.

While no other big names like Samsung or LG have publically confirmed, around 40-50 manufactures have expressed an interest in the specifications.

Freeview has been keeping tabs on the people making use of the available test materials and says it has a good idea of how many companies will be making Freeview Play gear, but it’s being very tight lipped at the moment.

Is this a big enough step up from Freeview HD? Is Freeview Play different enough from the likes of YouView and EE TV? Will it be enough to stop people from signing up for connected pay TV from Sky, Virgin Media, BT and TalkTalk?

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