Smart Consumer: The sky's the limit for free TV!
Can a free-to-air satellite TV system costing just €59.99 compete with Sky Plus? Bill Tyson puts a kit similar to one going on sale in Lidl today to the ultimate test
The only thing better than getting something cheap is . . . getting it for free! Well, there's a chance to have it both ways, as a satellite kit for harvesting free TV channels goes on sale at Lidl today.
For not much more than you would pay for two months' rental of the most basic packages from Sky or UPC, you get a box that can provide a free lifetime's viewing of more than 130 TV channels.
However, unlike previous offers from Lidl, the kit does not include a satellite dish.
I bought one that does include the dish from Lidl a couple of years ago, since when it has languished in the shed (alongside the DIY welding kit and giant circular saw -- also from Lidl).
I dug out the satellite kit to finally install it and compare the freeview channels to my existing Sky Plus TV package.
I initially assumed that I needed to install the satellite dish in addition to the one I already had from Sky.
The assembly kit of four screws, a handful of bolts and a few metal and plastic bits and bobs doesn't look any more daunting than that of a flat-pack coffee table.
Yet to me that's still daunting. And the fact that I've no ladder and there's a full gale blowing outside doesn't help either.
So imagine my delight to discover that satellite set-top boxes can be used with an existing Sky dish -- which I have already plonked on my rear wall!
If you have Sky already, no installation is required. Can it be this simple? Yep! You simply plug in the existing satellite cable, switch on the TV and away you go.
(This is perfectly legal; after paying a year's rental, the Sky dish is yours.)
Initially I was disappointed. Only five or six channels seemed to work. But that was because, as usual, I had dived in with just a cursory glance at the instructions.
Yet even without any help from the manual -- and this is not the recommended route, folks -- I stumbled across the automatic scanning function and soon the little black box was busy gobbling up TV channels.
When I returned from making a cup of tea, there were more than 100 lined up, but as with most satellite systems, including Sky, most are rubbish or ridiculously specialist.
But it's nice to know you can get gardening or wine channels if you really want them and it's weirdly fascinating to come across stuff like Al Jazeera's children's channel.
I soon had 36 pretty solid channels tagged in a handy 'favourites' list. These included most variations of BBC, ITV and Channel 4, as well as Five, lots of news channels and a few movie channels.
The dish seemed to be pointed at the Astra satellite as other satellites on the list didn't kick in. But for those who want them, a slight adjustment and a bit of tuning apparently could get Turkish, Greek, French and German TV.
So how does the rest of it compare to my existing Sky Plus package?
Financially, it blows it away. I pay €32 a month for the most basic Sky package that suits my needs.
For a single payment of €59.99 -- less than two months' rental -- I can get more than a hundred channels free for life.
However, if you don't have a Sky dish, you will have to pay roughly an extra 50 quid to buy one. They are €54.76 from www.satellite.ie, for example, making an all-in price of €115, including the Lidl box.
And that is more expensive than the €85 charged by www.satellite.ie for an all-in-one Freesat kit, including dish and box.
In terms of reception, there was no great difference that I could make out anyway.
The overall range of programmes is actually bigger on free-to-air TV. But a major drawback is that it doesn't have any of the sports channels or domestic Irish channels.
You could always combine a satellite system with an aerial for domestic channels if you have decent reception in your area.
But your live sports viewing diet, I'm afraid, will be restricted, unless you can tune into some of the continental channels that broadcast European soccer and rugby.
Six months ago, I would have had no hesitation switching to the Lidl option.
But since then, my TV viewing experience has been transformed by the sheer awesomeness of Sky Plus (I haven't tried the UPC version).
An evening of old-style telly with the free-to-air satellite system just wasn't the same.
Even with more than 100 channels to choose from, there wasn't anything I particularly wanted to watch.
I've been spoilt by the technology, which enables you to pause TV shows, record whole series at the touch of a button and has a hundred hours of your favourite programmes ready to watch whenever you choose -- and in the right order!
You can cut through TV's biggest drawback -- the way it's clogged up with ads and irrelevant rubbish.
I've hardly watched any real-time TV since installing Sky Plus. I prefer the recorded version of the nightly news, for example, so I can fast forward through the ads and boring bits.
It's a bit unfair to compare Lidl's ultra-low-cost system with all this. And you could always upgrade it with a digital video recorder that stores up to 250 hours of programming to get much of the same benefits.
Yet for the moment, especially as I am still under contract, I will stick with Sky Plus. But if you ever need to save cash and are not under contract, Lidl's free-to-air satellite TV -- on sale from today -- offers a cracking deal.
And even if you don't manage to snap one up, there are lots of free-to-air satellite providers who provide similar products.
You can get a basic DIY kit for not much more than Lidl charge. If you can afford a bit more, €299 will buy a top-of-the-range service that competes with Sky and UPC.
And even that would pay for itself in less than a year (see panel).