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Buyers Guides > Digital TV freeview set top boxes

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The so-called "digital switchover" began in the UK in 2008 and will continue, region by region, until 2012 when analogue TV will be switched off. You may already be lucky enough to own an "HD Ready" or "Full HD" TV but, unless it has a digital TV tuner built in, it will not by itself be able to receive digital TV signals and this is where set top boxes come in. In their simplest form, they are responsible for receiving and decoding incoming digital TV signals and sending them to the TV to which the box is connected. More sophisticated set top boxes, sometimes known as PVRs or "Personal Video Recorders", include not only one or more digital TV tuners, but also an integral hard disk on which programmes can be recorded.

Digital TV is available via satellite or cable by subscription to Sky or Virgin Media, but is also available, without subscription, from Freesat and Freeview. Freesat requires a suitable satellite dish, whereas Freeview is available through a standard TV aerial and both require set top boxes. Nevertheless, with Freesat providing 140 TV channels and Freeview 40 TV channels, plus a wide range of digital radio stations, all free-to-air with no contract, set top boxes are proving a cost-effective alternative to Sky or Virgin subscription services. Freesat already offers HD or "High Definition" broadcasting from the BBC and ITV and Freeview HD is coming soon.

The Topfield TF5800 PVR, for example, features dual Freeview tuners and an integrated 250GB hard disk drive which means that not only can you record up to 200 hours of digital TV broadcasting, but you can record one programme while watching another and pause and rewind "live" TV programming. Like its larger and more sophisticated cousin, the Topfield TF5810 PVR, the TF5800 PVR also allows you to transfer recordings to your PC or laptop via USB ("Universal Serial Bus") and hence archive them to DVD if necessary. The Topfield TF5810 PVR, for its part, has a 500GB hard disk drive but, more importantly, features the latest HDMI or "High Definition Multimedia Interface". HDMI digital allows video and audio signals to be transferred to an HDTV without any loss-making digital to analogue conversions for the ultimate in sound and picture quality and does so via a single cable.

That is not to say, of course, that you need an HDTV to receive digital TV. You might want to consider one if you plan to experience HDTV broadcasting or perhaps Blu-ray content in all its glory, but otherwise there is nothing to stop you using your existing analogue TV plus a set top box to receive digital TV. Set top boxes such as the Topfield TF5800 PVR, the Topfield TF5810 PVR and the Icecrypt T5000 Freeview digital receiver all offer a variety of connectivity options, including SCART or even RF or coaxial connectivity. This essentially means that they are compatible with almost any TV, even a TV old enough not to have a SCART connection. In the absence of SCART, you can simply connect the set top boxes to your existing coaxial aerial socket and receive digital TV.