Two services that require you to stick a satellite dish to the side of your house.
One has been around for two decades, the other has just celebrated its first birthday.
Both will demand an upfront payment: one will continue to drain money from your bank account each month.
So which is best? Read our comparison guide to see if you should go with coming-of-age Sky or new-kid-on-the-block Freesat.
Read on to find out…
Ease of set up
Both Sky and Freesat are satellite-based TV services, so unless you’re already in a property with a suitable dish plugged in and ready to go, you’ll need it installed.
Generally the best way to go, unless you like wobbling about on a ladder, is to get the dish professionally installed. Both Sky and Freesat have registered engineers who’ll sort that out for you.
Sky’s dish installation comes as a standard part of you signing up for the service. You’ll need to ask (and pay extra) for Freesat installation. Yes, you can do it yourself if you really want to.
Sky has the lion’s share of channels, some 127 of its own plus over 240 free-to-air channels. Freesat currently has a more modest 157, including radio stations and regional programming.
Sky’s channel count by genre
- Sports: 4
- Movies: 12
- Variety: 23
- Children’s: 14
- Music: 17
- Knowledge: 15
- Style and Culture: 25
- News and Events: 13
- Free-to-Air: 240+
- Standalone Channels: 4
Freesat’s channel count by genre
- Entertainment: 29
- News & Sport: 11
- Lifestyle: 6
- Special Interest: 4
- Children: 7
- Movies: 7
- Music: 7
- Shopping: 12
- Radio stations: 30
- Regional TV: 41
- Red Button services: 1
- Interactive: 1
- Gaming & Dating: 3
Both platforms are committed to adding more channels over time, though Freesat has more potential and is currently adding new channels at a faster rate than Sky.
Both Sky and Freesat offer high definition channels to those with the right equipment.
Sky subscribers require a Sky+HD box and additional monthly payment. This gives access to up to 33 high definition channels. Customers with the Sky+HD box not wanting to pay an additional subscription can still have access to BBC HD and Channel 4 HD.
Licensing issues currently mean that ITV HD isn’t available on Sky.
Freesat customers need to buy equipment that can handle HD (some cheaper boxes only offer standard definition output). This gives access to two high definition channels: BBC HD and ITV HD.
Licensing issues currently mean that Channel 4 HD isn’t available on Freesat.
It’s still possible to sign up to Sky with a standard Sky Box which only gives access to standard definition channels and with no PVR (recording/playback) functionality.
Many subscribers at least opt for the Sky+ Box which offers hard disk recording for up to 40 hours of standard definition programmes, pausing of live TV, one-touch recording, series link (automatically record a series without having to programme in each occurrence of the show), remote record (from the Internet or a mobile device) and Sky Anytime on TV.
The Sky+HD Box offers the same as the Sky+ Box but can handle high definition programmes and record up to 80 hours of standard definition and 30 hours of high definition shows.
All Freesat equipment must be able to receive all standard definition programmes available on the service, and display an appropriate on-screen programme guide.
The more advanced high definition Freesat equipment will handle high definition content, when such content is available.
Freesat+ equipment will also add in PVR functionality, such as pausing/rewinding live TV and recording and playback of TV programmes. Exact features will vary based on the equipment used, but most will allow around 80 hours of standard definition programmes to be recorded.
Ease of use
Sky’s on screen electronic programme guide (EPG) has had an overhaul in the last few months, making it easier to find, record and watch programmes. Navigating such a huge range of channels and listings can be daunting, but generally Sky has done a pretty decent job of making the system usable.
As there’s only one official digibox and remote control unit for Sky, the usability experience should remain the same, only affected by the size of the TV it’s being displayed on — bigger is definitely better.
Although Freesat has guidelines for its EPG, the fact that a variety of different manufacturers are allowed to make equipment means that the user interface will vary slightly from digibox to digibox. It’s definitely worth checking out the hardware you’re thinking of buying to see that it is easy to use. Equipment with PVR functionality built in will naturally have a more complicated EPG and remote control.
Packages and Costs
New Sky customers have to pay £15 set up (the Sky Box is “free”), £30 set up for Sky+ (the box is “free”), or £30 set up for Sky+HD and £49 for the Sky+HD box.
Other options include Multiroom – the ability to watch different Sky channels on two TVs in the same house.
Sky has a huge range of channel packages to choose from, the ethos being that you only pay for the types of programmes you want to watch.
The full package details are available here.
At present, one entertainment pack (variety, knowledge, style and culture, news and events, children’s, music) costs £16.50 per month, with each additional pack costing an extra £1 per month.
An entertainment pack plus Sky Movies pack costs £33.50 per month, with each additional entertainment pack costing an extra £1 per month.
An entertainment pack plus Sky Sports pack costs £35.50 per month, with each additional entertainment pack costing an extra £1 per month.
An entertainment pack plus both Sky Sports and Sky Movies pack costs £42 per month, with each additional entertainment pack costing an extra £1 per month.
Subscribing to everything would cost you £46 per month.
Consumers must purchase some kind of equipment that can handle the Freesat signal. The cheapest way to do this is with a digibox.
Standard digiboxes (of which there are currently models from Bush, Goodmans and Grundig) cost around £50.
HD-capable digiboxes (of which there are currently models from Bush, Goodmans, Grundig, Humax and Metronic) cost around £100.
A Freesat+ ready digibox (of which there is just one made by Humax) costs around £250.
It’s also possible to buy HDTVs with Freesat already built in. Currently Panasonic make both plasma and LCD TVs with this feature, and LG incorporates Freesat into some of its LCD TVs.
If you don’t already have a compatible satellite dish, an installation package costs around £80.
Every Freesat user gets unrestricted, subscription-free access to all available channels.
There’s no denying that Sky offers some very attractive channel packages, at a cost. If you watch a lot of movies, films, or other genres of programme and don’t mind paying at least £16.50 per month, Sky is definitely the way to go. The costs can soon mount up if you want several packages or subscribe to premium sports or films channels. It’s also the obvious and unrivalled choice for high definition content at present.
Freesat is great if you don’t mind paying a bit more for installation and equipment and can live with the fact that you’ll get no premium channels. In fact, at present, you don’t even get the full range of channels available on Freeview, thanks to previous licensing issues surrounding broadcasters such as Channel 4 and Five.
Then again, Freesat is only a year old and its management has promised great things. It’s definitely worth a look if you already have a satellite dish, but if you’re mainly after free-to-air programming you’re better off sticking with Freeview for the moment.
It’s hard to see who is going to rival Sky, particularly as a subscription-based model coupled with a large customer base means they’re always going to have money to spend on premium entertainment.
At the end of the day, it comes down to balancing how much you’re willing to pay with how much choice you want to have on your telly. Ultimately, Sky and Freesat aren’t the only ways of accessing additional content, and you might find it’s worth investigating other services such as Virgin Media, BT Vision, online video-on-demand and simply hiring or buying DVDs/Blu-rays.