The best Christmas present: TV on your new smartphone

How to get free TV on your phone - and how to avoid paying huge mobile bills while you do it

If anything goes together with Christmas better than television, it’s television on smartphones. Ofcom says 23 per cent of smartphone users watch TV on them but that’s so last year: you can bet that this Christmas, that number will zoom up. 


Just before the festive season, for instance, the BBC released an updated TV app for iPhones that lets you watch telly over your mobile phone signal. Instantly, 1.1 million people downloaded it and in its first week, 20 per cent of all iPlayer video was watched on a smartphone.

It’s the end of family arguments over who has the remote control. It’s the start of family arguments over why you’re watching Doctor Who when Auntie Betty is talking to you.

Start now

As well as plenty to watch, though, there are some things to watch out for: keep a couple of things in mind as you tune in and you’ll make sure you don’t accidentally end up paying a lot of money for free TV.

The best way to watch TV is over a smartphone app and there are plenty. You can also watch over websites and there are a fair few of those, too. And if none of this is enough for you, you can also load up your smartphone with video before you head out to the in-laws.

BBC iPlayer (Android, iPhoneiPad, web)

Catch up with BBC programmes and watch channels live, too – though remember that to watch live television you need a licence. The best way to watch is via an app that’s free for Android phones and iPads and is now available for iPhone.

Almost whatever smartphone you have, though, you can watch BBC via the iPlayer website.

The difference between an app and a website is far less clear or important when you’re talking about watching TV that has to stream over your internet connection anyway.  But if only as a rule of thumb, expect a dedicated app to be better than a website. Better, quicker and maybe more reliable, as a dedicated mobile phone app is built to cope with more signal interruptions than a website is.

Just before Christmas, BBC News finally changed from using Flash to HTML5 video: this may not excite you as much as waiting for Santa, but it’s a big and much-awaited change. It means you can now watch video news clips on iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. It also means if you’re on Android you don’t have to cross your fingers that Flash won’t crash.

One thing still missing from BBC News is a way to watch live, streaming video on iOS devices. 

ITV Player (Android, iPhone, iPad, web)

This was the perfect example of app beats web: ITV’s website version is much improved now but it was flaky to begin with, while the free apps were good right from the start. Notice, too, that it’s not the ITV1 Player, it’s for all of ITV, so you get a great many shows to watch across ITV1, 2, 3 and 4.

4oD Catchup (iPhone, iPad, web)

Channel 4’s free apps are smartly designed and they work very well – but they are labelled Catchup for a reason. Unlike the full web version of 4oD, the apps have a much more limited selection. Like the ITV and BBC services, it’s pretty much material that has been aired recently rather than offering a skim through the great Channel 4 archive. So if you run out of Hollyoaks on the app, nip to the website for Black Books.

TVCatchup (iPhone, iPadweb)

For a long time there was no app for this, just the website, but that’s changed. While there are still websites (different ones tuned for iPhone/iPod touch and iPad plus Android) there are now also apps for Apple’s iOS devices and an Android one is in development.

TVCatchup is a free service for watching broadcast TV streamed to your mobile. So the services by the broadcasters are handier because each gives the option of either watching their channel live or dipping into the archive for what you’ve missed. But while it solely does live TV, the apps and website of TVCatchup let you skip between over 40 channels.

Sky Go (iPhone, iPad)

There’s also Sky News and both are free apps that require you to have a Sky subscription before you can watch anything. Sky News is, unsurprisingly, dedicated to the news channel but Sky Go is broader. It’s marketed as being for Sky Sports viewers, which it is, but if you have the right subscription, you can also watch movies on it.

Best of the rest

Just as Sky requires you to pay before you can use its free app, there are many others that tie an app into another service. Elegato makes Freeview boxes for computers and there’s an app for controlling that remotely, including watching material you’ve recorded on it.

Or if you have a Slingbox under your TV at home, you can use the SlingPlayer Mobile app (£20.99 on iPhone or iPad) and watch live TV through that box, sent over the internet to your little screen. 

Save your phone bill

Every frame of video takes a chunk out of your monthly mobile allowance – unless you’re watching when you’re in a wifi area. With wifi, eat all you like. With mobile phone coverage, don’t eat anything if you can help it.

There is an app called Onavo that may help. If you’re an Android user, all it will do is help you keep an eye on how much you’re using that 3G data. On iPhone, though, it goes one very handy step further: Onavo for iPhone will actually compress the video signal to mean you use less data. Don’t expect miracles: the more it compresses, the worse your picture will get.

Get Onavo now: it’s currently free but the makers say they will start charging for it at some point.

Bring your own

If you know you won’t be near a fast wifi, load up your phone with video before you go. You can buy or rent movies and TV from the iTunes Store (available directly from any current Apple device). 

If you want to watch video that you’ve shot yourself or you’ve legally ripped your DVDs, then try out video-playing apps before you leave home. Smartphones all come with video players and all of them are good – but none of them will play every format of video you can end up with.

However, there are cheap and free alternatives such as CineXPlayer (£1.79) for iPad, which is particularly good at playing a range of video types.

Get watching

So you can keep up with sport, say, on Sky Go. You can check out the news on the BBC iPlayer. You can see the end of that episode of Hollyoaks that was on when the family dropped by unexpectedly. And you can work through whole seasons of Doctor Who wherever you are.

Good thing you’ve got some time off this Christmas.


UPDATED: Added details of TVCatchup’s apps for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad.