Rumours continue to circulate that Apple will launch a television set, the Apple iTV. There's plenty of speculation about what technology would be in it, what services it would offer and how you'd control it.
But these rumours tend to ignore the fact that Apple has already helped to revolutionise the TV industry with the iPhone and iPad. They're great for watching on, thanks to their brilliant image quality and, in the case of the iPhone 5 and fifth-generation iPod touch, wide screens - but developers have also pushed forward how you find and interact with the shows you love.
Between on-demand services, live-streaming channels, dedicated apps, 3G and 4G coverage and social networking, the idea of watching television has changed. What was once a passive pastime - where you had to hope there was something interesting on - has become an engaged activity where you can seek out the shows you love most, keep up with live broadcasts and chat to your friends about it while you're watching. You can find things to watch that you might never have considered, and catch up with things you missed.
Whether Apple ends up producing an actual TV set or not, this kind of flexibility is surely the future of television. In this feature, we'll look at the best ways to watch TV live, no matter who your provider is, as well as all the on-demand options you need to either catch up with TV you've missed, or find something from the past.
We'll also look at how your iPhone or iPad can be a companion to a full-size TV, and pick out the accessories that make the viewing experience that much better. Your iPad could become the best TV you've ever used - and you just need the App Store to get started!
Watching live TV
Though there are ways to watch Freeview live TV directly from the airwaves as it's broadcast - using something like the Elgato EyeTV or equinux tizi+, which we'll go into later - the easiest way to watch shows as they happen is generally to stream them over the internet.
If you're on a Wi-Fi network, any iOS device can connect and stream video, while the iPhone and Cellular iPad models can use 3G and 4G mobile broadband connections.
Many TV channels can be streamed with an app from the owner, but the best one-stop shop for watching just about anything live is the TVCatchup app. It offers over 50 channels to watch for free, including the bulk of Freeview channels and all the big free channels from the major UK broadcasters. It's a free download, and the Universal app supports iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, so you can watch on any of them.
On the iPad, you can see a channel list with a now-and-next guide alongside a small video window, or easily expand the video to fit the screen fully. On the iPhone, you still get the guide, but it fills the screen, as does the video when you tap on a channel.
The quality of the video streams is really solid and reliable, though the level of detail isn't all that high, and the app's adverts never get in the way. TVCatchup really does an amazing job of turning your iOS device into a TV - it's so good, in fact that Tap! readers voted it the Best App Ever last year, beating the likes of Tweetbot and Hero Academy.
Giving you much less in the way of selection but keeping it simple, the BBC iPlayer app and ITV Player app both let you watch their respective channels directly through the apps, and in the case of iPlayer, you get a much better guide to what's on that through the minimal but effective interface of TVCatchup.
The BBC and ITV's offerings aren't the only official broadcaster apps to offer something along these lines. The Sky Go app allows Sky subscribers to watch up to 32 live channels, depending on their subscription. All the Sky Sports channels are available, along with Sky Movies and Sky's own other channels, including Sky1 and Sky Atlantic.
You don't have to be a Sky home subscriber to get these channels, though - Sky Go subscriptions are available without you having to get a satellite installed, so anyone can use the app. Just like TVCatchup, it works over Wi-Fi or 3G/4G, so you can get your fix anywhere.
Virgin Media TV customers with the latest TiVo box can also watch over 20 channels of live TV using the Virgin TV Anywhere app. Not only can you watch the channels live, but you also still have access to the TiVo box's clever recommendations and ratings systems. Unfortunately, it currently only works over Wi-Fi, so you'll need to be somewhere with a solid local network for it to work - you won't be able to catch up at the bus stop.
TV on demand
In just a few years, the way we think about watching shows has changed a lot. Starting with DVD box sets, it became normal (and completely acceptable) to devour whole television series in a matter of days - and that torch has now been passed to on-demand services, letting you watch whatever you want, whenever you want at a pace that suits you.
There are a ton of them available, but one of the pioneers was the BBC with its brilliant iPlayer service. The app lets you browse through a featured list of recent shows, or to search or go through them by category to find what you're after. It's also unusual in allowing you to download shows to your iPad for watching when there's no internet connection - all the other services here require you to be online.
ITV Player, Channel 4's 4oD app and Channel 5's Demand 5 all let you catch up with shows from their respective networks, and 4oD offers a good range of older shows as well. All of these apps are free to use, but what's available on them isn't always totally comprehensive - there may be shows that you can't watch.
The Sky Go app gives Sky subscribers access to its on-demand library, which includes many shows that are exclusive to Sky1 or Sky Atlantic, as well as productions from Sky Arts and some sports highlights.
LOVEFiLM and Netflix are the two big paid-for on-demand services. In both cases, you pay a monthly fee and can watch as many shows as you want, as often as you want, across multiple devices, which works out as a really rather good deal.
Both services made their names offering films, but now offer plenty of television shows as well - Netflix is more expansive in this regard, though, offering multiple series of many shows. It's a much more comprehensive service in America, but in the UK it still offers a great choice of television. LOVEFiLM isn't quite as wide-ranging, but is expanding in this area.
They cost similar amounts (approximately £5 per month) for streaming on-demand shows, so there's not much to choose between them on that front. Netflix is more TV focussed, with an easier-to-use interface and better recommendations, though.
Both services can remember your place in a show across devices, so it's super-useful if you start watching on your computer and have to stop, because then all you have to do is simply pick up where you left off on the iPad or vice versa, if that happens to be the case. Needless to say, we're big fans of both services.
There's also a newer service from Tesco called Blinkbox, which is a little different to the likes of Netflix or LOVEFiLM. With it, you pay for shows individually (or you can buy series), rather than pay a monthly subscription, but it offers lots of shows that aren't available elsewhere, or are brand new - new episodes often go on the site just after they've been broadcast.
You can't actually buy shows from the app, though - you have to purchase them through the website and then add them to your library, which can be accessed through the app. Blinkbox purchases are available on other devices, including Mac or PC, Xbox 360 and some smart TVs.
If you always want to be up-to-date with shows, it's a good way to go about it, though there's also Apple's own iTunes Store offering for TV shows (which we'll go into in the next section), which you can browse and buy from directly on your device.
TV from iTunes
If there's a specific show you want to watch, it won't always be available on the subscription on-demand services, but there's a good chance it's on iTunes.
The iTunes Store lets you buy TV series either by the episode or in whole series (and it will occasionally offer bundles of series), giving you flexibility. In some cases, episodes of a show will go up on iTunes almost immediately after they're broadcast, and you can buy 'Series Passes' for these, where you pay for the whole series up front, and they're available to you as soon as they're ready.
Individual episodes are typically £2.49 each in HD or £1.89 in SD, but of course, you make a saving if you buy the series as a whole. The HD versions are, of course, crisper and more detailed, but also take up more space on your device, and take longer to download. It's worth noting that the quality of Apple's shows - particularly in HD - is great, too. You can access and download individual episodes directly from your iOS device, using the iTunes app.
The great thing about buying from iTunes is that these will also be available through iTunes on your computer, from your Apple TV, or on any other iOS devices, provided they're all signed in with your Apple ID. And because they download to your device - rather than stream as you watch - you can grab what you want to watch before you go travelling, and that way you'll have plenty of entertainment to keep you going for long journeys or quiet nights in.
What about my DVDs?
If, like us, you've built up an impressive, somewhat intimidating collection of DVD TV box sets over the years, you might want to transfer them to your iPad to watch on the move.
Sadly, despite a recent Government report concluding that transferring media from one format to another like this should be permitted, 'ripping' your bought DVDs to your computer will still not be allowed. This is because commercial DVDs include technical protection measures (TPM) to stop you copying them, and the licence for you to use the DVD does not permit you to break the TPM, even though you own the disc.
This is specific to DVD and Blu-ray discs - CDs aren't protected, so once the new legislation is in force, copying your music to your computer will be permitted. You can, of course, rip any DVDs that you've made personally to your computer and then transfer them to your iPad or iPhone - for further tips and information, we've got easy guides for PC users and Mac users.
The inventiveness of developers means that apps alone are all you need to do a lot of TV watching on your iOS device, but a few accessories can make the experience even better.
We've already talked about how you can connect to many set-top boxes directly with apps, but these accessories give you flexibility in other areas, from getting Freeview signal anywhere to turning your iPhone into a universal remote to streaming and controlling any kind of set-top box.
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This Freeview tuner connects wirelessly to your home network, allowing your iPhone or iPad to connect to it and stream the channels it's receiving. You can even connect to it from anywhere over the internet, to get your home channels. It connects over Wi-Fi, so is flexible (though it still needs to be hooked up to your aerial by a cable), and can still act as a Freeview box for a TV, thanks to its twin tuners and video outputs.
This teeny, tiny Freeview tuner (it's smaller than an iPhone!) can be placed anywhere to pick up a Freeview signal, which it then sends to your iPhone or iPad over Wi-Fi. This means you can watch TV channels even if there's no internet connection available.
It has a rechargeable battery, so it can run completely cable-free, and has some built-in storage for recording shows, from which you can expand with a microSD card.
If you've set up your iPhone or iPad in a room to watch something, the built-in speakers might not be quite enough to make all the dialogue and music crisp and clear. A Bluetooth speaker is a great option, because it keeps things portable, but can provide plenty of volume. Once it's wirelessly paired with your device, the Jabra Solemate can be placed anywhere, thanks to its built-in battery. The quality's really impressive too, and it's a durable, small design.
The SlingBox idea is simple: watch your home TV from anywhere, no matter what kind of set-top box you have. The SlingBox sits between your set-top box (say, a Sky box) and your TV, passing through the video so you can watch TV as normal. But it also takes that video and streams it over the internet, so with SlingPlayer's app on your iPhone or iPad you can watch anything you could at home (instead of a limited subset of channels, as with the Sky Go app), and control the set-top box from your device.
The Griffin Beacon is an infrared controller that sits near your TV and turns your iPhone into a universal remote. It's roughly the size of a cupcake, so there's no need to worry about it cluttering up your television set-up.
Basically, you use your iPhone to wirelessly control the Beacon, which then sends commands to your TV or settop box just like a normal remote control would. You can set it up simply with a huge range of devices using the built-in library of commands, or there's a learning feature for adding new controls.
The Apple TV does a couple of great things on its own - it lets you watch TV shows from the iTunes Store or from Netflix for starters - but it's even better when you connect it to an iPhone or iPad. With AirPlay, you can send video from your iOS device to your Apple TV, so you can watch it on the big screen. This could be something from apps like iPlayer - however, take note that not all video playing apps support AirPlay - or something you've found on YouTube.
The idea of having a 'second screen' while watching TV has taken off hugely since the launch of the iPhone. The idea is that you can enhance what you're viewing with apps, whether you're playing a game along with it, looking up that actor you recognise but can't remember where from, or chatting with friends about what's happening.
One of the best companion apps is Zeebox, which pulls together social network feeds about shows, information about who's in it and related apps, as well as a TV guide, so you can see what's on (there's also a TV Guide app, if you don't want the social extras).
If you just want to talk to people about what's going on, you can use the Twitter app to follow along - big TV events will often be trending or have a hashtag you can follow along with to get into the conversation. And if you want to look up more information about a show or actor, try the IMDb app.
You can also use your iPhone or iPad to control what happens on your TV - the Sky+ app lets you set recordings and control your Sky+HD box directly from your iPhone, while the Virgin TV Anywhere app lets you do the same for the newer Virgin TiVo boxes.
YouView box owners can do the same with the YouView iPhone app; we've also reviewed the View21 Freeview HD box, which has an app that lets you watch live or recorded shows, and control the box as a remote.
Some apps even let you add to what you're watching: the BBC's Antiques Roadshow app lets you play along by guessing how much things will be worth as they're shown on-screen, while the Sky Sports app offers companion video and data for F1 races, and even split-screen viewing of multiple live football games (or just stats for games, if you're a little intimidated by that thought).
RSS helped revolutionise the internet of the early 2000s, bringing news articles to users' screens based on a simple subscription model and a set of search criteria. While RSS has taken a back seat in the tablet revolution, the essence of aggregation has never been stronger, with fantastic personalised news apps such as Flipboard, Pulse and Zite.
But this is a world dominated by on-demand video, right? Well, your iPhone and iPad are certainly well catered for in that regard too, and the apps are almost always free.
The App Store has blossomed with video aggregators that will grab you great news videos, funny YouTube clips and sports highlights, just based on what channels you subscribe to, what topics you select as being of interest, or simply based on your watching habits. Algorithms for choosing the content are similar, but interfaces and features vary.
As with personalised news apps, it often comes down to a usability preference, but the two Universal apps we recommend are Vodio and Showyou.
Vodio has an interesting carousel interface with videos presented in a vertical Cover Flow view, scrolling down to see more videos. To add a channel, tap the + icon in the top right-hand corner and choose a category to bring up a list of feeds. Vodio collates most of these, but there are many others from individual sources.
Showyou opts for a grid-based approach that is intelligently organised, with the upper-left being reserved for the latest videos posted by your Facebook friends or by people you're following on Twitter. As you scroll down and to the right, you get related videos from other ShowYou users - helping you identify new people to follow who have related interests.
Indeed, all good aggregators not only let you choose your own channels or topics, they connect to all the usual social networks to deliver your personalised content.