Readers of a certain vintage might remember a brief craze for handheld portable TVs. Small of screen size but big on battery consumption, they often required an act of faith to achieve a decent signal, even if you happened to be standing next to your local transmitter. Fortunately, in recent years we can thank the internet, and the growth of broadband particularly, for opening a world of TV to the masses. 

A wealth of live and catch-up TV is now available that’s increasingly iPad, iPhone and iPod touch friendly, due to new and improved dedicated apps and a move away from Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight as a means of encoding content online. Over the next few pages, we look at some of the must-have apps for viewing TV on your Apple device, and predict how 4G, the fourth generation of mobile phone mobile communications standards, might change your viewing habits forever. 

If you own an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, then you have a portable TV capable of receiving live and catch-up services from broadcasters both in the UK and around the globe. Apple’s mobile devices are by nature portable, tactile and capable of being taken anywhere, and with earphones can be discreetly viewed at any time of the day or night. The main UK broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – all have dedicated apps primarily aimed at letting you catch up on TV you missed or want to enjoy again. 

The excellent if oddly named TVCatchup offers around 50 channels, which are streamed live rather than being available on demand. A great companion to TVCatchup is TV Guide, which includes detailed seven?day listings, remote record, alerts and social media options. 

You can watch whole seasons of your favourite shows on Netflix

BBC iPlayer offers a good selection of TV programmes on demand: handy if you forgot to record a favourite, or for casual browsing

Social media is also at the heart of zeebox, which promises to let viewers discover, connect, share and interact while watching TV. While all of the above are free, it’s worth adding that watching TV on your Apple device requires plenty of bandwidth, so those with monthly 3G data plans should for now at least view via Wi-Fi. 

Hardware options

Belkin, Elgato, Hauppauge and Slingbox are among a number of companies that offer hardware solutions combined with iOS apps to stream and watch TV around the home and internationally via an internet connection. Options can include built-in Freeview-like digital TV receivers and the ability to hook up and control your PVR (personal video recorder), satellite or cable receiver. The latest Slingboxes, for example, can stream video to your phone, tablet or computer at a Retina-friendly 1080p. You’ll need to do some research to determine what is available to app users, as some features only work over your home Wi-Fi network.

Pay TV options

If you subscribe to a satellite or cable package, you’ll have access to dedicated apps for iPad users. The award-winning Sky Go is available to Sky TV customers at no extra cost, and offers an impressive mix of live and on-demand programming, including hundreds of feature films. The only down side is the limited number of channels available and rights issues preventing some shows and sporting events from being shown. 

Cable provider Virgin Media is playing catch-up here but a new Virgin TV Anywhere app promises much for TiVo users, including Home or Away modes for accessing your TiVo box worldwide. 

TV box sets and films on demand

If you want a little more choice and a wider selection of archived shows, including entire seasons, then Netflix is worth a look. Compatible with a range of devices, it costs £5.99 per month, although there’s a month’s free trial and you can cancel in the first month without paying anything if you’re not impressed. The UK version lacks the depth and variety available in the US, but we still found plenty of shows worth viewing. 

Subscribers to LoveFilm can stream the latest releases via Wi-Fi

Also worth a look is the iPad-friendly LoveFilm, which also offers a free trial period followed by a £4.99 per month sub for non-pay-per-view content. LoveFilm Player for iPad allows users to watch films instantly via Wi-Fi and browse film titles by genre, new releases, most popular and coming soon. 

Fans of vintage and cult films should download the aptly named Movie Vault for iPad, which for a mere £1.99 offers over 1,000 films from the archives. An iPhone version is also available for £1.49 from bit.ly/UD2UKL.

The whole picture

One down side of app-based catch-up services is that they often lack the full range of TV shows and impressive archive of material that can be found freely on the broadcaster’s own websites. This can be due to a combination of reasons, including not having the rights to broadcast certain shows or live events over mobile devices, specific rights issues covering Apple’s AirPlay or HDMI playback, or simply falling outside the typical 30 days catch-up window. If you feel you may be missing out, it’s worth comparing app listings with what’s available from the broadcaster online.  

On your travels

Rights issues also prevent UK content being shown legally overseas and can limit US shows, sporting events and regional output from being seen here. If you’re an expat or just holidaying in the sun, you’ll quickly discover UK-based catch-up services don’t work due to having the wrong IP address. There are, of course, ways around this, both free and paid-for, but it’s worth asking around locally before parting with any money. 

Although a selection of apps promise that you can access UK TV abroad these simply don’t work and link only to YouTube content. It’s very much a case of ‘buyer beware’: always check feedback on the iTunes App Store before downloading any apps that aren’t free. 

Broadcasters worldwide have dedicated apps for live and catch-up services, but again don’t expect to be able to see the latest US hit shows, the rights of which are likely to be sold and eventually shown in the UK. Thankfully, news is available and a number of free apps – France 24, Germany’s DW, Euronews Live and more – offer multilingual broadcasts including English. These are all useful if you want to see news from a different perspective, practise your language skills or catch up with news from home. 

The view ahead

Despite the lack of a true worldwide TV network open to all, the view ahead for watching TV on your Apple device, particularly the iPad, is a bright one. As Wi-Fi speeds and availability continues to improve, we should see 4G also make a positive impact, with much improved streaming and faster download speeds. If UK providers follow the likes of T-Mobile in the US, data caps that limit how much content can be viewed currently via 3G could be scrapped completely. This would offer the potential of always-on content, with the ability to watch TV anywhere you can pick up a 4G signal. 

We hope broadcasters will follow the example set by BBC’s iPlayer and introduce downloads for viewing TV shows offline. In a competitive market Sky, Virgin and BT are likely to build on the services they offer to those customers with smartphone and tablets. YouView, the broadband based catch-up TV service backed by Sir Alan Sugar, has already announced plans for a mobile app. 

Apple, too, will play an important part with more iOS devices being offered with Retina displays as standard – the successor to the iPad mini, perhaps. Software improvements introduced with the next iOS could see recordings and downloads possible in the background while multitasking. We should also see improvements and greater take-up of Apple’s AirPlay technology for streaming TV wirelessly around the home. Ultimately, TV viewing could rely more on good Wi-Fi and 4G coverage than the need to have an suitable aerial, satellite dish or cable box.