What Is A Set Top Box?

A set-top box is a great way for you to watch your favourite shows, but how much do you know about set-top boxes? What exactly are they?

Chances are, you’ve used a set-top box to watch TV shows or series. You probably used Freeview, Freesat or Cable a few years ago, and you probably currently use Apple TV, a Firestick, or Roku Box.

Read on to learn more about set-top boxes, including what they are, how they work, and examples of set-top boxes.

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What Is A Set-Top Box?

A set-top box is a box that was historically designed to sit on top of or beneath a television. The box was named when televisions were thick boxes, and devices could be placed on top of TVs with no issue.

However, in 2021, the vast majority of televisions are flat-screen – but we still call the boxes that connect to a TV a set-top box, and they’re still as relevant as ever.

A set-top box is essentially a device that converts video to analogue or digital signals, so you can access channels and make the most of an IPTV or OTT subscription.

There are various different types of set-top boxes, but some names that you’re likely familiar with are Mag Boxes, Roku boxes, Amazon Fire Sticks, Google Chromecast, Apple TV, and Freesat.

Most modern set-top boxes will connect to the internet – and can connect from apps such as Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, or Netflix to convert into TV signals.

STBs (set-top boxes) are essentially television decoders – they are devices that contain a TV-tuner input with an output (TV), and an external signal source. They turn the signal into content that can be watched on TV screens or other devices with a display – for example, a laptop.

As well as cable TV and satellite TV, set-top boxes can be used for over-the-air television and other uses such as online apps.

The cost of a set-top box can vary, with some costing under £25, and others costing over £200. However, you don’t always pay for quality – you can find cheaper options that are fully functional and packed full of brilliant features.

A Roku Box will typically set you back around £25 – £50, whereas an Apple TV Box can cost around £150 – £200.

Amazon FireStick is a great option as it’s portable, effective, and you can purchase a quality FireStick for just £30. However, there’s a monthly subscription charge to use Amazon Prime on the box, as well as paying for Disney Plus and Netflix subscriptions.

Most set-top boxes will allow you to pause and rewind live TV, which is always useful – especially if you miss the start of your favourite show and want to rewind to the start.

In 2021, the majority of set-top boxes will connect to the internet and enable you to access streaming services such as BBC iPlayer, Amazon Prime and Netflix.

However, some will cost or require a monthly subscription, and the BBC iPlayer requires a TV licence.

Depending on the model, you may also be able to access apps such as YouTube and social media sites, and some even offer gaming options. They work well with Smart TV’s – and enable you to use an older TV that can’t access digital TV services.

The size of set-top boxes has drastically decreased over the years. Previously, they would be the size of a small shelf, but now they can be as small as a memory stick. Most are small little boxes that can easily be stored on tabletops or small shelves without taking up much space.

Set-top boxes aren’t the only method of using IPTV – click here for more information.


You may also know a set-top box as a cable box. Back in the analogue TV days, cable boxes were at their peak. They made premium channels readable making it easy for people to view new and exciting TV shows only accessible on premium channels.

Cable TV is still popular, but other forms of set-top boxes are beginning to trump cable. Cable in 2021 works by decoding MPEG video frames and decrypting premium channels, which enables you to view the program guide.

Cable TV also enables you to watch video-on-demand, and in 2021, many cable boxes will also feature a built-in DVR that allows you to record shows and even movies onto an interior hard drive.

You’ll find that cable set-top boxes are built purely for television, and can’t be connected to laptops or mobile devices. Cable coming into the home is typically split in two – one for the cable box, and one for the cable modem for the internet.


Freeview or Freesat?

The main types of set-top boxes are Freeview boxes and Freesat boxes. They both have different pros and cons – read on to learn more about each type.



Freeview boxes require a digital aerial in order to receive broadcasts. You can typically find around 70 standard definition channels on a Freeview box, as well as over 30 radio channels (depending on your geographic location).

These are much cheaper if you already have an aerial, and are pretty easy to set up and install. They’re one of the more affordable options but are considered dated in comparison to the likes of Firesticks and Apple TV.

You can also access catch-up TV services such as ITV Hub and iPlayer via the program guide, but many Freeview boxes will only allow you to access TV services instead of apps or movie services.



Freesat is very similar to Freeview, except you have access to more features. You can view more niche channels, as well as extra HD and music channels – which is useful for anybody wanting that little bit extra from their TV service.

The vast majority of set-sop Freesat boxes allow you to rewind and fast-forward through the TV program guide, giving you instant access to your favourite shows as well as catch-up TV services.

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