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Which free digital TV system will give me the most reliable reception?

This week I am going to look at the digital TV systems in use and look at why they do not work for everyone all the time - and what you can do about it. Today, we start with looking at the four systems.

Sometimes some digital TV system do not give you the programmes you expect.  Photograph: Shutterstock
Sometimes some digital TV system do not give you the programmes you expect. Photograph: Shutterstock
published on UK Free TV

How time flies! It was 12 years ago this week that Sky closed their analogue TV service, and it was five years ago that "digital switchover" started. It can be quite hard to remember the imperfections of analogue reception, as everyone now has crystal-clear digital TV.

All transmission systems (analogue or digital) have to deal with the real world. This means a range of weather and atmospheric conditions can cause reception problems. What can you do about it?

However, the binary "bits" that are translated into the moving pictures, stereo sound, on-screen TV listings, subtitles and interactive text services have to get themselves from the broadcaster to your TV set, still have to be transferred along the same airwaves as the old analogue services.

On feature of "digital television" is that is digital in both the sense of "being provided by computer technology" and "it works, or it doesn't".

There are four ways you can get digital TV into your home:

1. Using "Freeview", which is the name for the service that provides channels from tall transmitters based around the country. This system is often called "terrestrial" (relating to the earth) because the TV signals stay close to the ground. Almost every home in the UK has a rooftop aerial which picks up the signals and sends them down to the TV sets around the house.

2. Using satellites, which you will know by the names "Sky" or "Freesat". It is hard to fathom sometimes that the satellites are up in space, 22,236 miles above Africa in the Maiko National Park, Congo (not far from Rwanda). Satellite reception is no harder to set up than using an aerial, all you need is a small compact black disk mounted on a south-facing wall.

3. Cable TV, which is known as "Virgin Media" in the UK, offers an alternative reception system. The cable company provides a wire into your home that provides a range of services. This is connected to a box in the street, which connects onto what is called a "head end" in your town or city: a room full of equipment where the TV channels are provided and encoded.

4. You may know Internet TV as "BT Vision" or "TalkTalk TV", or you might use BBC iPlayer, or Sky Now. To watch TV this way, your equipment connects to the internet using whatever method is to hand: ADSL (sharing a phone line), wireless, mobile or cable-provided.

Part two tomorrow: how they work - most of the time.

Help with Freeview, aerials?
Can I attach a Freeview digibox to a Combi TV/Video unit?1
My high gain aerial can't get all the Freeview channels I expected2
I can't get Freeview yet, when will it start in my area?3
Are there plans to extend the range of regional variations on Freeview?4
How can I Receive Freeview on two TVs using one box?5
In this section
Official aerial installers guide to the TV spectrum future1
High pressure causing channel loss through "Inversion"2
Digital Region Overlap3
Freeview reception has changed?4
Two frequency interference 5
Single frequency interference6

Friday, 27 December 2013
5:54 PM

DougA: In addition to Dave Lindsay's comments, the Crown dependencies legal separation from the rest of the United Kingdom makes it uneconomic to provide certain "free" services to the Island.

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Briantist's 38,784 posts Owner Owner GB
Dave Lindsay
7:22 PM

DougA: It's worth adding that the "problem" of not receiving the full complement of Freeview channels isn't confined to the Channel Islands. Many other transmitters which serve relatively few viewers also carry only Public Service channels.

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Dave Lindsay's 5,724 posts Platinum Platinum GB
Thursday, 22 May 2014
Brian Leahy
10:06 AM

I apologise for jumping into this thread but I have no idea how to start a new one. I purchased a PAN TX32LXD60 LCD television in 2006 so I recognise that it is 8 years old. I am very hard of hearing so I rely upon subtitles and I keep having to switch the sub title control on and off to keep even BBC 1 programs. I have had the aerial checked and that is all right. I understand that this may be a problem with the transmitter but I would like to know if it could be the television. Is there anything I can do and would a new Television work better.

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Brian Leahy's 14 posts GB
Wednesday, 29 June 2016
Charlie Arnold
4:21 PM

Hello I am experiencing problems with all BBC channels. The Aerial in the attic is pointing to the Mendip transmitter. Seems to only effect mux BBCA. Could this be atmospheric ? or is there some other problem going on there. I can re-direct the aerial to the Bath "relay" but then I will loose other channels.

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Charlie Arnold's 1 post GB
Richard Cooper
4:32 PM Norwich

Charlie Arnold: Hi, Charlie. Mendip has warned viewers that there will be a weak signal today, so, if I were you, I'd hang on until they put Mendip back on full power, rather than go to the trouble of rotating your aerial over what is only a temporary issue. Hope this helps. By the way, what channel have you been trying to watch? Richard, Norwich.

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Richard Cooper's 452 posts Gold Gold GB
Richard's: Freeview map terrain plot frequency data R&TI Service digitaluk trade DAB coverage
Monday, 29 January 2018
Rebecca Wedge
5:10 PM

In the last 2 weeks the picture on 5star and 5 USA keeps breaking up. It has never done this before, the other channels are fine. Could you please give me some advice.

Thank you

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Rebecca Wedge's 1 post GB
6:55 PM

Rebecca Wedge: Start by checking for loose or damaged cables or connections behind your TV. What signal strength and quality readings do you get for these channels?

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StevensOnln1's 1,736 posts Gold Gold GB
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