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 Buy Now TV Bundle Deal Here
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 (now Sky Cinema) and many of the usual entertainment channels you’d expect from a pay-TV package.
Of course, how you pay for all these different services is very different, 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.
NEW - Now TV Combo
Now TV has expanded beyond a simple streaming service, entering the so-called 'triple-play' home services market with a combined TV, broadband and phone package, which is called the Now TV Combo.
This puts Now TV into direct competition with BT, providing Sky with its own home entertainment package based around Freeview TV through your aerial, rather than its usual satellite-based packages. The new Combo package is unique in its flexibility, allowing you to switch between all its various elements on a monthly basis as your needs change, so how does it work?
There's a new set-top box, the Now TV Smart Box, which sits at the core of the Combo deal. The new Smart Box differs from previous Now TV devices by including an aerial socket and Freeview HD tuner, so you can watch both streamed content and Freeview broadcasts from the same device. More about this below.
The Now TV Combo consists of three parts: a Now TV monthly pass or passes - Entertainment, Cinema, Sports or the new Kids. One of three different unlimited broadband packages, 17Mbit/s standard or 38Mbit/s and 76 Mbit/s fibre-optic. There are three call packages, pay as you go, free evening and weekend or free anytime. Plus you then pay a fairly hefty £18 a month rental for your phone line.
The possible combinations are huge of course, but we do applaud Sky for making the whole thing pretty transparent, it's easy to see what you're paying for what and you can chop and change as you like.
For instance you could have the Entertainment Pass and 17Mbit/s broadband for just £10 a month (£28 including line rental) and then add then upgrade to fibre for another £10 if required (£38 all in) and then throw in the Kids Pass for an extra £3 over the summer holidays and cancel it after. There is a £40 (£50 for fibre) setup fee unless you sign a 12-month contract, although Sky does not charge you for delivery of your hardware.
With the service blending Sky's content with access to Freeview channels and broadband, it's a direct competitor for BT's own service. For comparison BT's similar mini set-top box with 17Mbit/s broadband costs £25 per month including line rental (going up to £29 after the first year), with that you're getting BT Sport included, instead of Now TV's Entertainment Pass, so you have to work out which is worth more to you. BT's upfront fees vary based on deals, but at present you'd have to pay £56 up front.
And here's the router you'll receive, which looks worryingly like the old Sky Hub, we'll investigate further
Prices for fibre-optic packages are a little more complex to compare but at present Now TV wants £38 a month for its 38Mbit/s service. BT will charge you just £31 for the next 12 months rising to £39 after that but it's promising 52Mbit/s. However, there's £67 to pay upfront, though.
Boiling it all down, Now TV is a strong contender for BT's package, with no setup fees if you have a contract and smaller setup fees if you choose not to have one; while BT will insist on a contract and charge you as well. Phone call packages work out around the same. If sport isn't your thing then Now TV provides a tempting entertainment alternative, but not really a cheaper one.
NEW - Now TV Smart Box
We've got our hands on the new Now TV Smart Box at its launch event and though we haven't yet had a chance to use it at home, we've got a pretty strong idea of what it offers after being left to have a long play with the hardware.
The device itself is small, slender and very understated, measuring around 150mm each way and 40mm in height. Around the back it's pretty sparse in terms of ports, but there's everything you need. An aerial socket connects your box to your TV aerial to receive Freeview HD signals, Ethernet is provided for a stable internet connection but wireless is still an option, then there's HDMI obviously and power, there's a micro SD card slot too, though we're not sure what that's for yet.
The interface is very familiar from the existing Now TV box, which is a good thing as it was easy to navigate and easy to grasp. For this addition, Sky has had to integrate free-to-air TV and it's not done a bad job, though it's pretty simplistic. Live TV channels sit in a tab right next to the Sky channels streamed over the internet, so it's easy to switch between them.
Sky has stuck with 720p streaming for its live TV channels, and for its catch-up and box set content as well for that matter. This is disappointing as ever-larger TVs really need a good 1080p stream to look decent, the test TV was a sizeable 55in model and picture quality simply isn't up to what I've come to expect from Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video.
My second complaint is with the ability to browse Freeview channels. Sky has left the channels in the standard order that Freeview dictates, with the no way to reorganise them or pick favourites for a shorter list. The simple remote control means you have to scroll down through all the standard-definition channels before you get to the HD ones you most probably want. This needs to be fixed and fast.
On the plus side, Sky has done a good job with the new Home Page. This pulls in content from UK broadcasters and Sky's own channels to offer a range of new and exciting programming. In other respects the box is fast to react to inputs, though the small remote can't learn from other remotes, so you 'll need your TV remote as well in order to change the volume on your TV.
As with the BT Mini YouView Box, Sky's Smart Box has the ability to pause and rewind live TV but not to record it. There's a 30-minute memory buffer in the box, so you can rewind back through that, although it only starts filling up once you start watching that channel of course. We don't expect to see a record-capable box from Now TV as that would veer to close to its Sky satellite packages.
How to Watch - other options
Sky also has its existing, streaming only, Now TV box. This 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. Occasionally, you might also see specific deals on Now TV boxes in supermarkets. We've seen boxes being sold for as little as £7 if you're lucky.
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 a range of free smart TV features (presuming it at least has an HDMI input).
Away from Now TV's own devices, the list of supported hardware is pretty impressive and Sky has done a good job of expanding it as new kit 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 an HDMI input, and Macs are also supported too. Games 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 EE TV set top box, Roku boxes, such as the Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick, 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.
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 into two sections, on the next page I’ll deal with the Now TV service, how much each Pass costs and what you get, which is largely independent of the device you’re watching it. On the third page, I’ll look at the smaller Now TV box, as it's a bit of bargain even without paying Sky for content.