Watching live TV on your smartphone or tablet is easy: all you need to do is download and install an app. BBC iPlayer and Sky Go are two such apps that support live streaming of certain content, while TVCatchup is an old favourite of ours that offers around ?50 free-to-air channels. There are several alternative apps you can use to catch up on programmes, too.
Here we show you the best services for streaming live television content to your mobile device, and explain how to get that content back on to the big screen if required. We also examine some of the pitfalls of streaming live video, discuss some of the hidden costs and explain whether you need a TV Licence.
Get a live TV stream
To get started streaming live television to your phone or tablet, simply visit the Google Play store or Apple’s App Store. Search for and download TVCatchup (free).
In essence, TVCatchup is a free online streaming service that brings live free-to-air television content from more than 50 channels to any web-connected device.
Upon launching the app you’ll see a list of the supported channels with details of the programmes showing now and next. Simply tap on a programme, skip the ad and the content will immediately begin streaming.
As has been reported in recent news, TVCatchup has been forced to remove several channels from its line-up, including ITV2, -3 and -4, E4, More4, 4 Seven, Five Star, Film Four, Four Music and CITV. You can still access a live stream of ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5 through the app, but only when using a Wi-Fi rather than 3G or 4G connection.
BBC iPlayer also offers live streaming of certain content. If the app isn’t already installed on your device, head to Google Play or the App Store to download and install iPlayer (free).
The first time iPlayer is used on an Android device running Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean (version 4.0 or later) you will also be prompted to install BBC Media Player (also free). Tap Install to download and install the app.
You can now use iPlayer either to stream or download catch-up content from the past seven days, or to view live programming. Open the Channels tab and select a BBC channel. You will be presented with a programme guide for up to seven days previous and two days in the future. At the top of the Today tab is what is currently being broadcasted by the BBC, denoted with a ‘Live’ banner. To start streaming live TV, simply tap this programme and choose Watch Now.
To start streaming live TV from Sky Go you will either need to be an existing Sky subscriber, or sign up for a Monthly Ticket, with prices starting at £15 per month for the basic Entertainment bundle and rising to £40 to also include Sky Movies and Sky Sports.
The Sky Go app is compatible with iPhones, iPads and several Android devices (you’ll find a full list at tinyurl.com/qhrtggy). Download the app from Google Play or the App Store, then start streaming live content from up to 38 channels.
What’s the catch?
TVCatchup, BBC iPlayer and their ilk are free to use, while Sky Go is free if you are an existing Sky customer. However, what you will pay for is the data: video streaming will quickly eat through your data allowance, and you could incur extra charges in your phone bill. Unless you have an unlimited data plan, we strongly recommend you stream live TV over Wi-Fi – this will no doubt offer a faster connection, too, unless you can access 4G connectivity.
Do I need a TV Licence?
It’s important to note that a TV Licence is required for streaming live content. Watching live TV without a valid licence is a criminal offence, which can lead to prosecution, a court appearance and a fine of up to £1,000 plus legal costs.
In other words, while you don’t need a licence to catch up on BBC shows broadcast earlier in the week via iPlayer, if you are using any of its live streaming services you must be covered with a TV Licence. A TV Licence is also required for TVCatchup and Sky Go.
Catch-up and on-demand services
As well as watching exactly what’s on TV at any one moment, plenty of apps and services let you catch up with recently broadcast programmes on-demand.
If you’ve missed a show or forgotten to record it, there’s a good chance you can watch it via a catch-up service. The main ones are BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5. Some of these, and others such as Sky Go, offer on-demand content that includes entire seasons of TV shows.
Paid-for services include Netflix, LoveFilm, Blinkbox and Sky Now TV. These either offer unlimited streaming of a huge catalogue of TV shows and films in return for a monthly fee, or the ability to rent or purchase only the content you want.
All the apps we’ve mentioned are available on iOS and Android and, in some cases, other mobile operating systems, too.
If you own an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, you’ll find your choice is considerably more restricted, especially when it comes to on-demand TV. LoveFilm Instant is an Amazon service, so that’s no problem, and you’ll find Netflix in the App Store alongside BBC iPlayer. However, there’s still no app for ITV Player, nor 4oD or Demand 5.
An ongoing problem with many of the streaming apps is device compatibility. Sky Go is a prime example: only a handful of Android devices are supported and the process of adding more is very slow.
On iPhone and iPad things are much simpler as these devices are prioritised by app developers (one reason it’s worth paying the Apple premium). If there’s no specific iPad version of an app, for example Sky Sports Mobile TV, you can always install the iPhone version and use it zoomed in to fill the screen.
When browsing the Google Play store from a PC or laptop’s web browser you will be informed with which of your Android devices an app is compatible. If you’re browsing the store on the device itself, incompatible apps simply won’t show up in the search results.
Connecting to a larger display
Streaming live TV on a small screen wherever you are is pretty great, but sometimes you’ll want to watch TV on a bigger screen. There are different ways of doing this, plus some pitfalls to be aware of.
The simplest way to connect your device to your TV or monitor is with a cable. Some Android tablets have a video output, typically micro-HDMI, although a cable is rarely included.
If there isn’t an HDMI port you might be able to buy an adaptor. Many Android devices support HDMI output with a MHL adaptor. ?These don’t cost much, but note that the connection is not universal – make sure the adaptor is compatible with your device.
In a similar way, Apple sells HDMI and VGA adaptors for the iPhone and iPad in both Lightning and older 30-pin varieties. ?You’ll need a separate HDMI or VGA cable and the appropriate connection on your TV or monitor.
If wires aren’t your thing, you might be able to go wireless. For example, a second- or third-generation Apple TV can perform the same display-mirroring trick with an iPhone or iPad without requiring an adaptor and an HDMI cable. Apple calls this AirPlay.
On Android things are a bit more complicated. With Jelly Bean (4.2) Google introduced screen sharing via a standard known as Miracast. You’ll know if your device supports this protocol by checking Settings, Display for a screen-sharing option. Look for Miracast, Wireless Display or similar.
Your TV will need to be connected to the same network as your Android device and support Miracast. Either check your manual, ask the manufacturer or search for compatible devices in the settings menu of your smartphone or tablet. If your TV doesn’t have support for Wireless Display then you can buy a dongle to do the job – you’ll just need a spare HDMI input.
Even after you’ve decided on a way to get the video to your TV, projector or other screen, there are some restrictions to be aware of before you shell out on expensive adaptors and accessories.
Not all streaming services and apps support video output. Sky Go, for example, blocks both types of connection to a larger display – Sky wants you to pay extra to stream to multiple screens.
It’s best to check whether the apps you want to use support video output before spending any money on dedicated hardware.