Now TV review - We test the Sky Now TV box, service and content
Video outputs: HDMI Networking: 802.11n, 10/100 Ethernet Dimensions: 89x89x25mm, Streaming formats: none, Internet streaming services: Now TV, iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, Demand 5, TuneIn, Sky News, Spotify
If you always wanted Sky TV but were put off by the high prices and having to install a satellite dish and Sky+ box in your home, then Sky’s Now TV service may be just the thing. In direct competition with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Instant Prime Video, Sky’s TV service provides top-quality content via your internet connection.
The content itself is broadly split into Sports, Movies and Entertainment, which largely mirror Sky’s usual satellite offerings of Sky Sports, Sky Movies and many of the usual entertainment channels you’d expect from a pay-TV package. How you pay for these is very different though, with all three available individually, rather than in complex bundle deals, and you can cancel and restart each service as you wish.
As always with a service like this, Sky Now is constantly evolving and the packages available keep changing. Most recently, Sky has changed how its Sports package works, so you can subscribe for a month's worth of content (more on this below). Although comparatively expensive compared to the other packages, it could work out well if there's a particular month that has a lot of sport that you want to watch, such as all of the football over Christmas.
How to Watch
Of course you’re going to need something to watch Now TV through. thankfully, the list of supported devices is pretty impressive and Sky has done a good job of expanding it as newer devices become available. It's not widespread on Smart TVs admittedly, with only LG sets having the service available as an app, but the range of other devices does largely make up for this.
For watching on your TV, you can hook up a PC or laptop to a HDMI input, and Macs are also supported too. Game console support has now caught up with the latest generation of devices with Now TV apps for both the Xbox One and PS4, as well as the older Xbox 360 and PS3. Youview boxes are supported, as is the new EE TV set top box and the Apple TV. It's also supported on the very cheap Google Chromecast, and away from your TV you can watch it on iOS and Android devices. Not all services are available on all devices, but a full list is available here.
Sky also has its own dedicated box, which has recently been updated. The new, faster version is still astounding cheap at just £15, plus you can buy a bundle with discounted Now TV content thrown in for £25, saving up to 31% on the usual prices.
The Now TV box also comes with free content and features - including iPlayer and the other main UK TV catchup services. In fact, for some, it’s worth buying even if you never use a single Now TV service. It’s a good and cheap way of upgrading an older TV with basic smart TV features (presuming it at least has an HDMI input).
So you might want Now TV without the box (because you already have compatible hardware), or you might want the box without Now TV. Because of this I’ve split the review in two sections, on this page I’ll deal with the Now TV service, how much it costs and what you get, which is largely independent of the device you’re watching it. On the next page I’ll look at the current Now TV box.
Now TV - What it costs
Compared to the labyrinthine pricing structures of Sky’s ‘triple-play’ TV, broadband and telephone packages, Now TV is refreshingly simple, and pretty competitive too. The Entertainment Pass costs £6.99 a month and the Sky Movies Pass costs £9.99 a month.
Sports is still Sky’s jewel in the crown though, with prices to match. Although those higher prices are offset somewhat by a variety of options. There’s a Sky Sports day pass costing £6.99 a day, a weekly pass for £10.99, or a monthly pass for £32 a month.
The passes are three separate products with entirely separate pricing, there are no contracts, and there are no discounts for taking two or three at once. To get you started, there are bundle deals for each pass, which come with a Now TV box as well. You can see these below and they’re all worth having with some decent initial savings.
Now obviously, the monthly passes are designed to be ongoing services, and they renew automatically every month unless cancelled. While the Sky Sports day and week passes are designed for those who want to watch occasional events.
It’s worth noting that you can have up to four devices on a single account, from four Now TV boxes, to four PCs, or any mix of boxes, PCs, games consoles, tablets and smartphones you want. You can only watch on two devices simultaneously though, and though you can swap devices in and out, this isn’t instant and unlimited. Still it’s flexible enough for a family to share a single account around the home.
Now TV - What you get
The Entertainment Pass is Sky’s main competitor to Netflix. Yes, that service has movies as well as TV content, which the Entertainment Pass doesn’t, but the movie selection on Netflix isn’t great and it’s the mass of TV content that makes up the services main offering. So how does Now TV stack up against it?
Now TV, is actually rather different to, and a bit more complicated than Netflix. This is because much of the content you get is still related to broadcast TV, as well as the more open-ended box set-style access you get from the competition. Content here is divided between TV Box sets, Catch Up and Live TV.
The On Demand is the closest thing to Netflix, there are whole series here of great TV programmes, with no expiry dates to be seen, though they do cycle in and out of availability from time to time. The selection is huge, but the real big-hitters were a little sparse when I last checked with only the first season of Game of Thrones on offer and no True Detective, though all the seasons of these big shows tend to drop back in when they’re being broadcast. You could watch all of Boardwalk Empire, Entourage and 24 though, for example.
Catch Up content provides programmes from a small line-up of channels. There’s Sky 1, Sky Living, Sky Atlantic, GOLD, Comedy Central, FOX, MTV, Sky Arts, Discovery, Disney Channel, Nickolodeon, ITV Encore and ABC Studios. At the time of writing there were 119 shows in the catch-up section, with most staying there for 14 or 30 days depending on their source. Sky shows all have a 30-day life, so there’s plenty of time to catch-up with your favourite shows.
Finally there’s Live TV, which means you can watch almost all the channels above live. It’s a handy feature if you just can’t wait for something to appear on catch-up, or you just want to while away a few hours channel hopping. It’s worth pointing out that you can’t timeshift this stream at all, there’s no buffer, so you can’t pause the show if the phone rings.
Watching Now TV is different to Netflix then, yes you can binge your way through whole series of a TV show, but the boxset range isn’t as big or as varied. Instead I tended to watch brand new shows, that are currently on TV, via the catch-up a few episodes at time.
It’s great to have access to this content at last without needing a pricey satellite setup, and Sky does a good job of keeping a flow of new and exciting series, including UK content such as Moone Boy. However, it may frustrate those who have moved entirely to binge-based viewing habits, as the 30-day catch-up means first episodes of a new series will become unavailable before the last ones are broadcast
It should also be noted that the majority of content on Now TV on most devices is in 720p resolution at a respectable bit-rate, compared to 1080p on most of Netflix’s content. Generally programmes look sharp but the compression can struggle in some scenes, for example when the whole frame is shifting about - such as the sea or smoke filling the shot.
Live TV from all the various services is still only shown in standard definition, which looks pretty poor by modern standards. With the exception being the Apple TV which uses a 720p stream, I’m guessing Apple put its foot down on this one. For a full list of what image quality you get from what devices see Streaming Quality.
SKY MOVIES PASS
While the Entertainment Pass has its ups and downs compared to the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, the Sky Movies Pass is a clear winner when it comes to the sheer range of content on offer. This is because, again, the content is a direct representation of what appears on Sky Movies, and in the UK Sky holds (almost) all the movie rights.
Sky has the rights to show movies from all six major Hollywood studios first on UK TV. This window occurs around a year after cinematic release (6 months after the Blu-ray/DVD release), but 9 months before the movies typically move onto other online services. This gives Sky a big advantage when it comes to Now TV.
There’s a huge range of movies on offer then, with the vast majority of recent blockbusters on show, though it should be noted that a significant minority of big smashes do come from smaller studios, such as Liongate’s Hunger Games movies.
^ Sky's movie content is pretty much comprehensive, with films from Columbia/Sony, Warner Bros, Walt Disney, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal
With movies the constant cycling of content is a boon rather than a problem, most films are available to watch for a number of months before moving off the service, plenty of time to catch them all. Better still, there’s always something new coming out with 16 new movies every month.
Making that sort of consistent output does have its downside though. To satisfy the market, the major Hollywood studios do make a lot of middle-of-the-road trash, ensuring that they have entrants in popular genres, such as romantic comedy and action, throughout the year – and all of them starring people you've heard of. However, if this is more your thing than offbeat humour and foreign films, then Now TV will serve your movie needs better than Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video.
With video quality again at 720p though, the picture isn't quite as crisp as it usually is on competing services, presuming you have the bandwidth to make the most of those of course.
As with the Entertainment Pass there are also collections of movies that are available long-term, currently including every Star Wars movie. Again you can watch Sky’s various movie channels live as well, though I can’t really see why you’d want to, especially given they’re in standard definition.
SKY SPORTS PASS
The Sky Sports Pass was certainly the most surprising and contentiously priced of the Now TV offerings when it launched. Surprising because for the first time you could legally watch the cornerstone of Sky’s satellite offering, Premier League football, in your own home without a contract or a dish; contentious because the price structure was based around an expensive one-day pass. Now, Sky has changed its pricing structure to give you a 24-hour Day pass for £7, a Week pass for £11 and a Month Pass for £32.
Given that a Sky Sports Bundle via satellite costs £41 a month, the Now TV offering is good value in some respects. Though of course you get a whole bunch of other TV channels with that. On the other hand, Now TV means you’ve got no contract, so you can cancel your subscription over the summer if you just watch football, or cherry pick a few days, weeks or months to coincide with your sporting needs.
However you pay you get it all. Live streams of Sky Sports 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 plus Sky Sports F1.
There’s one big sticking point though, that this live TV offering is usually provided in standard definition, and sport is certainly something that benefit massively from the enhanced resolution and bitrate of a HD stream. It’s hard to believe this is still the case in 2015, and if you plan to use Now TV for Sky Sports regularly then I suggest you buy an Apple TV to get the 720p stream. Also, remember that there’s no timeshifting available here, so you can’t pause the game or race to pop to the loo.