Now TV review - We test the Sky Now TV box, service and content
Video outputs: HDMI, AV, Networking: 802.11n, Dimensions: 84x84x23mm, Streaming formats: none, Internet streaming services: Now TV, iPlayer, ITV Player, 4OD, 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 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 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 your service as you wish.
Game of Thrones of Sky Now TV
It's important to point out that Sky's Now TV is the only way, bar taking out a Sky subscription, to watch the current season of Game of Thrones (Season 5) online. Due to the deal that Sky Atlantic has with HBO, no other online streaming service gets a look-in until later in the year. Even when other providers do get the series, you end up paying per-episode to watch.
Although Season 5 has already started, that doesn't mean that you can't join in now. Part of the Sky Now TV package is on-demand content, and every season of Game of Thrones is currently available to watch, although it’s a time-limited offer that will expire after the current series has completed its run. What it means for now is that you can sign up now, watch any episodes or series that you may have missed, before starting to watch new episodes as they’re broadcast live. That’s quite an incentive for a lot of people, particularly anybody that wants to avoid the inevitable spoilers. The only real question is whether or not you find the service good value, the quality good enough and have a device that you can watch it on. All of these are questions that we answer in the rest of this review.
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. It's also supported on the very cheap Google Chromecast, and away from your TV you can watch it on Apple 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, and not only is astounding cheap at just £10, but you can buy a bundle that makes Now TV services initially cheaper, plus it comes with free content and features - including iPlayer and other popular TV Catchup services. In fact, for some, it’s worth buying even if you never use a single Now TV service; while some of the TV-and-box bundles are so good you might as well have the box even if you never plug it in, and simply watch on your tablet instead.
^ Sky Sports, Sky Movies and Sky Atlantic - with no dish, no contract and only £10 upfront
It's worth noting that Sky has let slip the existence of a next-generation Now TV box to be launched later this year. We're hoping for Full HD video streams across all the channels, and sky is promising an improved user interface. Usually we'd caution you against the current box, but given it only costs £10 it's hardly a huge loss if the new box appears in a few months time. For more information on what we know to date, see Sky to launch updated Now TV box later this year.
Back to today, and for simplicity we’ve split the review in two main sections, on this page we’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 we’ll look at the current Now TV box, and will also add platform-specific comments for other hardware that supports the service.
NOW TV - WHAT IT COSTS
Compared to the labyrinthine pricing structures of Sky’s triple-play TV packages, broadband and home phone services, 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, while the Sky Sports Day Pass is rather different, costing £6.99 a day, or now £10.99 for a week. These are three separate products with entirely separate pricing, there are no contracts, but there are no bundle deals for taking all three.
However, there are bundle deals for each to get you started, which come with a Now TV box as well. You can see these below and they’re all pretty good deals.
^ The bundles deals are all pretty good value and we've seen them cheaper still on supermarket shelves
Now obviously, the Entertainment and Movie passes are designed to be ongoing services, which you subscribe to month-after-month and watch regularly, while the Sports Day 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.
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, rather than the open-ended box set-style access you get from the competition. Content here is divided between On Demand, Catch Up and Live TV.
^ There's lot of catch-up content from 10 different channels
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. Included are recent big shows that have shown on Sky’s channels, including the likes of Game of Thrones and Mad Men.
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 and ABC Studios. At the time of writing there were 287 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.
^ You can also watch live TV streamed TV, though it's only in SD
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. Instead we tended to watch brand new shows, that are currently on TV, such as Game of Thrones, on 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 (presuming the show was shot in HD originally of course). 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. There are exceptions to this general rule though, with live TV from all the various services only shown in standard definition, which looks a little poor by modern standards. 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 has the rights to every major studio.
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.
Now, it must be said that the 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 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 far better than Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
With video quality 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, such as practically every Bond movie ever made. Again you can watch Sky’s various movie channels live as well, though we 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 extended to weekly passes too), rather than a monthly fee. However, for some this pricing model makes a lot of sense.
For example watching all 10 of the F1 Grand Prix races that are only being shown live on Sky Sports this season would cost you £70, or £110 if you buy a week pass and watch all the warm up and qualifying too. A similar amount should get most fans of ‘lesser’ Premier League sides through a season of live games. Let's do the math: Sky had 116 live games last season, 232 teams played in those games, 20 teams in the league, for an average of just over 11 games per season but weighted heavily towards the top teams.
^ The Sky Sports Pass is great for the occasional sports fan
Now that’s not cheap but given the cheapest typical Sky Sports satellite package will set you back £43 a month (£516 a year), then if you’re only interested in very specific sporting events the new day pass system is a much better deal.
There’s one big sticking point though, that the live TV offering here is only provided in standard definition, and sport are certainly something that benefit massively from the enhanced resolution and bitrate of a HD stream. Also, remember that there’s no timeshifting available here, so you can’t pause the game or race to pop to the loo.