Introduction and features
The NOW TV box has had an update this year, giving it a bit of a facelift, some new innards and improved connectivity. But given the stiff competition from the likes of Amazon and Netflix on the content side, and Fire TV, Apple TV and SHIELD on the hardware side, is there still a place for Sky’s little media maestro? Outside of the murky mobile phone world, contracts are becoming a bit of sticking point for the consumer. With Netflix pioneering the way for non-contract on-demand services, and the likes of Disney now following suit, Sky has found another way to get the contract-phobic signed into its ecosystem.
The NOW TV service offers practically no-strings access to Sky content for an incredibly reasonable price. And in a pretty darned simple way too. The NOW TV box echoes that, delivering simple, cheap hardware that will instantly make your dumb telly just that little bit smarter. There are other ways to get the NOW TV service into your home – some smart TVs, like LG’s, carry the app, and you can also access it via a tablet or mobile and Chromecast it onto your screen. But for that plug-and-play aesthetic, the £15 NOW TV box is the one to go for.
The original box was a subsidised, cut-down version of Roku’s own player, and Sky has partnered up with Roku again, using what is essentially the Roku 3 box, with a few key differentiators that explain the much lower cost. The OS has been locked down to avoid giving too much access to Sky’s content-providing rivals. You won’t, therefore, be seeing Netflix on a vanilla NOW TV box, although as the underlying hardware’s still the same I doubt it would be a particularly tricky thing to change with a little light hackery…
And while there are USB and microSD slots, on the side and rear respectively, you won’t actually be able to do anything with them on the standard NOW TV box – I guess that with such a bargain-priced box there wasn’t the budget for a new housing which covered them. But there are new hardware goodies compared with the original NOW TV box, the main one being a hard-wired ethernet connection, enabling you to plug the box directly into your home network. The original box relied upon the vagaries of Wi-Fi for its connection, but the ethernet port should put paid to any stuttering, buffering performance from the box. There is still a Wi-Fi connection, however, of the 802.11ac variety, which should also help alleviate any wireless woes. The improved internal components of the NOW TV box also enable you to stream purchased content up to 1080p, over the HDMI connection – that’s a welcome improvement over the 720p limit of the original. The remote is pretty much identical – but the simple little device doesn’t really need more than the direct NOW TV or Sky Store buttons.
Content really is the name of the game for the NOW TV box. Its aim is to get Sky into as many homes as possible, and this versatile wee thing gives you myriad options for doing so. The first is the bundle. When you pick up a box you can add another tenner onto the price of the box – pushing it up to £24.99 – and choose one of the three basic content packs to accompany the hardware.
There’s the Movie pack, the Entertainment pack and the Sports pack. With the £24.99 bundle you get two days of sports (big whoop), two months of movies or a full three months on the entertainment side. Picking up subsequent passes when those run dry will cost £9.99 for a month of the movies package, and £6.99 for a month’s worth of the entertainment package. On the sporting side though things are a little more complex, and far more expensive. Considering that this is the only way, outside of a lengthy Sky TV contract, to get access to Sky’s sporting crown jewels that’s probably not much of a surprise. You can pay by the day if you simply have to watch what is known in the parlance of our times as ‘the big match’. That will run to £6.99 per day, but if you go for a week it’s a more reasonable(ish) £10.99. And for a month? Well, that’s a pricey £31.99.
What’s different about the NOW TV service compared with other streaming options is that it’s not just offering on-demand or catch-up content. The movie pass does give you that, but you also get 11 Sky Movies channels, the entertainment pass gives you 13 live channels, and the sport option nets you all seven Sky Sports channels. You can go fully on-demand and rent/buy movies from the Sky Store if you wish. Finally, the NOW TV box will also give you access to the main catch-up services, featuring iPlayer, All 4, ITV Player and Demand 5.
Sky has opted for an app centric home screen. On the left-hand side of the screen are a number of default apps, including Now TV itself and BBC iPlayer. To add more to the home screen, I had to go into the Roku channel store. Here there were will around 50 apps available, the pick of the bunch being: Sky Store, Sky Sports News HQ, BBC News, Demand 5, TED, Spotify, Sky News, BBC Sport, ITV Player and All 4.
Anyone familiar with Roku’s lineup will know that this is an extremely cut-down version of what is available through the official channel store. Notable apps that are absent are Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. Although I would have loved the Now TV box to come with those sorts of options, I can understand why Sky would want to ring-fence its own box from direct rivals. This is definitely a closed Roku box. There’s no Plex on board, so media streaming isn’t available through the box (although a quick Google reveals that you may be able to side-load the app) and gaming is also non-existent, but the cut-down price does reflect this.
XXXThere is an option to get rid of modifying the apps selection. To do this I pressed the Star option on the Now TV remote and found I could remove as many apps as I wanted. There is also a choice to move them around to suit preference. I could also rate content this way. With apps on the left, on the right of the screen was a constant reminder of the content I could have. XXXThis is the beauty of Now TV: you only pay for what section you want. So if you just want movies, that’s all you pay for; if you want entertainment then you’ll get those channels; if you want sport – well there are a options but this is by far the most expensive part of the package.
It’s worth noting, however, that you can watch Sky Sports News HQ with any of the Now TV packs that you choose, not just the sports one. This is a good move by Sky, as the channel is an essential addition to any package for sports lovers. Regardless of the package you have, the UI is the same. At the bottom of the screen are the following options: Sports, Movies, Entertainment, My TV Search, Help and My Account.
To make sure that Now TV isn’t just seen as an on-demand platform, Sky has also added a Live section to Movies and Entertainment. With Movies, this doesn’t really make much sense – all it does is give you a list of what movies are playing on Sky at any given moment. Click into the one you want, and if you missed the beginning then tough – you have to watch it from that point. It makes much more sense to go and find that movie on-demand and watch it that way.
Live works better on the Entertainment side of things. Here you can channel-hop between Sky Living, Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts, Sky 1, MTV, Gold, Fox, Disney, Discovery, Comedy Central, Nick, Nick Jr and ITV Encore. Again, you have to watch from whatever the live point is, but it does mean that you can watch shows such as the Simpsons on Sky 1 – something that isn’t in Sky’s on-demand catalogue.
Quality-wise, it all really depends on your internet connection. The Sky box can do surround sound, which is a bonus, and video quality is no longer capped at 720p – you can pick up Full HD 1080p content now as well. I tried the box with an 8Mbps and a 100Mbps connection, and it worked great. There was very little buffering and startup was extremely quick. One good thing is that there are no adverts to sit through – as you would expect in return for paying a premium – but you still have to put up with the Sky indents that appear throughout programmes. I didn’t find them that distracting, but it’s strange that these are still in place when they aren’t followed by any advertising.
The new NOW TV box retains the charm and simplicity of the original, while offering some genuinely useful upgrades to the hardware. And the NOW TV service itself is still an impressive foil to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video. The option for live viewing is one of the biggest feathers in its cap – although on the movie side I guess that’s debatable. Its simplicity, price and lack of contract are the other features which make NOW TV such an impressive product. The base price is almost throwaway money, and even if you let your passes lapse for a few months over the summer you can always pick up a pass or two to while away those long, dark winter nights. And it’s smart. Not necessarily in terms of the technology, but in terms of Sky seeing a way to supplement its Sky TV customer base in the face of a contract-less, on-demand revolution.
NOW TV comes at a bargain price. The initial bundles are good value, and the one-month passes are a decent price once the first purchases run dry – apart, perhaps, from the sports programming that’s so lucrative for Sky. It’s also super-simple to use. The setup and navigation are easy and enable you to get going with the minimum of fuss. I also love the fact that NOW TV gives you access to live channels, and not just on-demand content. In terms of picture quality and stream I had no issues. Granted, I do have the luxury of a speedy city connection, but there were no dropouts.
Those sports passes are still seriously expensive, especially compared with even the movie pass – the day pass, at £6.99, is particularly brutal. You’ll also find box sets coming and going with relative regularity from the service. I also struggled a little with the remote – sometimes it required a few jabs to get it to respond to what I was hitting.
NOW TV is still a superb service. It will give you hassle-free access to whatever Sky content you want whenever you want it, for a great price – mostly. Sky is understandably holding back its HD content for its contract customers, or for direct purchases from the Sky Store, but given the general low price of the box and service that’s not a huge issue. If it only supported the Netflix and Amazon Video apps then we’d be hopelessly in love with it; however, we can understand why they’re not available. Given the £15 base price, and the fact you can pick up month-long free trials easily as a new user, there’s almost no reason not to give NOW TV a go.