I am exceedingly impressed with FreeviewPlus, the new free-to-air service which combines a conventional programme guide with all the available online catch-up TV services. It is smart TV at its best — not some silly way of changing channels by waving, not TV-sized Skype with a microphone too far away to work properly, but what we all actually want — more content.

For sure, there were several delays in getting FreeviewPlus on the air. And WIN and Prime have both opted out, so it won’t work on those channels in rural areas. And I gather from some of the equipment manufacturers that there were issues even after it went to air on September 2, because the system relies on accurate and well-formatted data coming from the backroom folk at all the channels, and that’s a big ask for some networks in Australia!

But it immediately fixes the crazy situation we’ve had until now where one brand of smart TV would have certain catch-up TV services available and other brands had different ones, or some brands had more shows from some providers than others… Despite having smart TVs in the home, the missus and I have still kept a laptop on the table so we can browse catch-up shows and send them to the TV via HDMI, because that has been the best way to do it.

FreeviewPlus really does fix this. Go to a channel, hit the green button and page back in time to see all the catch-up shows available for that channel, and off you go. It’s a slight limitation that you have to do this channel by channel, and the web versions of the catch-up channels do still seem to carry additional content at the moment; hopefully that will change.    

Of course not everyone can yet receive the FreeviewPlus system. It requires a networked TV, set-top-box or personal video recorder that is also compatible with the HbbTV platform. As time goes on, this will be most of them. Some current TVs will get FreeviewPlus with their next firmware updates, and several compatible but not certified (see below) PVRs are already appearing, including the Humax which is on our cover this issue.

We were disappointed to discover that Freeview itself, the consortium of free-to-air channels (except WIN and Prime), is again denying its own certification to any recorders which don’t agree to hobble any ad-skipping abilities and prevent archive export of recordings. This is a particularly bizarre decision in the case of FreeviewPlus, given that catch-up TV is the one place where advertisers can be sure viewers must sit through their badly-served ads with no way to skip or even fast-forward. As Adam Turner has described in The Sydney Morning Herald, the networks have invested in HbbTV as their platform to deliver TV and advertising in the internet age, and you’d think they would want the platform made as widely available and visible on as many TVs and other devices as possible. But the Freeview demand of technical limitations on certified gear will surely discourage manufacturers from using the logo. Those not wishing to dumb down their box to get a FreeviewPlus badge on the front will skip certification and be content with noting compatibility in the specs. This won’t help public awareness.

It also leaves us in the same situation as during the last Freeview branding exercise, where we are likely to recommend recorders that have HbbTV compatibility, but less likely to recommend any that arrive with the actual FreeviewPlus logo on the box. 

Still, for the service itself, we award a gold star.

Singles night
At the other end of the media format timeline, I had my vinyl collection to the fore this month as I played with a couple of very different turntables. I find it a relaxing format, with vinyl replay as something of an ‘event’, settling down for 20 minutes of listening rather than shuffling through a music collection or streaming service as background music.

I’ve ended up with more 45rpm singles than I have albums, because of the way the homestead record collection was divided shortly before I emigrated to Australia in 1999. So while the Pro-Ject 1Xpression was in residence I decided to spend most of a weekend just playing (and archiving to computer) some of the more obscure singles. It proved not so much a relaxing way to spend a day as as a hectic full-time occupation... by the time I’d put on a disc, punched a few buttons and sat back down, it was time to pick the next single — an extraordinarily energy-intense for a supposedly passive pastime! Imagine launching a format today where you have to physically interact every four minutes. No wonder the single-stacking record player was invented…

To minimise my own interaction, I considered holding a ‘singles’ party where guests would be encouraged to select 45rpm discs in turn. But then I realised I’d probably have to let this selection of people touch the vinyl, and the turntable... and with food, drink and a Labrador to get in the way, I thought that a frightening notion. For party time, I’ll be sticking to multiroom App control of a computer-based playlist. There’s no harm in straddling both ends of the content timeline… horses for courses!


Jez Ford, Editor