Now TV is Sky’s solution for the UK’s cord-cutting generation. Where once you had to tie yourself into a contract, install a dish and use one of Sky’s hulking set-top boxes to delve into its trove of exclusive films, TV and sport, now you can get started with a £15 box and pay-as-you-go content access.
The new Now TV Box itself is based on the Roku 2 – it looks and functions more or less the same, and uses the same remote. It’s much cheaper than the £50 Roku, however, and you get favourable discounts on passes for Entertainment, Movies and Sports packages. It’s a great option for people looking to switch away from standard Sky, but there are some compromises compared to rival streaming boxes.
Sky is wise to use the Roku as the Now TV’s core – it’s a smart system that’s more mature than some of the alternatives out there. Naturally the Now TV app comes pre-installed, but the box’s setup process also automatically downloads all the main catch-up services as well. It’s a nice thing for novice users, as this is conceivably all that most people want from the Now TV Box.
It’s a slick and fast streaming unit, too. Some of the cheaper options out there, such as the Roku Streaming Stick and Amazon Fire TV Stick, can be a little slow at times. This isn’t a problem for the Now TV Box. Popping through menus and launching apps is a smooth, lag-free experience for the most part. Some of the catch-up apps can be a bit finicky sometimes, but we suspect that’s down to poorly coded apps rather than poor hardware.
And the main Now TV app doesn’t suffer from any problems at all. It’s impressively responsive and doesn’t feel like a significant step down from the full Sky experience. In addition to the usual on-demand options, you can drop into the Live TV experience to watch Sky channels.
Each features a neat “Now & Next”-style programme guide, giving you a similar experience to a full Sky box – albeit much simpler. There’s no option to get reminders for shows, but the on-demand catch-up means missing the scheduled time for a programme isn’t a problem most of the time.
This is easily the best Now TV experience, too. The Now TV app for Apple TV is rather limited and clumsy, whereas the experience on this new box feels cohesive and considered. It’s simple enough that anyone could pick up the remote and start using it without difficulty.
It helps that the remote is so simple. In contrast to modern TV remotes, and even the well-regarded Sky remote, it has a sparse collection of buttons that are instantly intuitive. The Back button takes you back; the Home button takes you to the homescreen; playback controls are for controlling playback; and the two buttons labelled “Now TV” and “Sky Store” take you directly to both of those entities. Simples.
These buttons, and the four-way controls in the middle, have a nice precise feel that leave you in no doubt that you’ve pressed them correctly. Only a button with an asterisk isn’t immediately clear, but this turns out to be context-sensitive button that comes in useful from time-to-time.
Related: Amazon Fire TV vs Roku 3
Using products like the Now TV Box makes it abundantly clear that, somewhere along the line, TVs became way too complicated. In that respect, the new Now TV Box is a huge improvement.
It’s a good start.
Of course, the main reason to consider Now TV and the Now TV Box is the content. In the UK, Sky has the rights to many of the best TV series around, and it has exclusive access to films much earlier than Netflix or Amazon. Its sports coverage remains exceedingly good, too, despite recent incursions by BT.
While there’s plenty of dross, as on any streaming service, recent big films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, Lucy, Gone Girl and American Hustle are all there. The back catalogue of older films is damned good, too, including the whole Alien series, American History X, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and plenty of fun B-movie fare and cult classics, such as the legendary Demolition Man.
The Entertainment segment leans heavily on American imports for its biggest hitters, with Game of Thrones (just season one at the moment), Boardwalk Empire, Justified, True Blood and True Detective currently leading the way.
Sky’s own productions and the back catalogue of ITV dramas are more hit-and-miss, though, and the Entertainment segment certainly feels like the weaker offering of the two. Moreover, there’s a jarring mixture of full boxsets and time-limited catch-up episodes, and it’s not always obvious which is which until you enter the programme.
This also highlights the serious lack of a watchlist feature. There’s no way to create a list of things you want to watch later, or get reminders when programmes you want to follow have a new episode. In fact, Now TV doesn’t have any serious discovery features. Broad categories like Most Popular, Action, Drama and so on help organise things a little and there’s a More Like This option, but Now TV doesn’t suggest things to watch based on your previous habits at all.
These two points underline that this is a rather underdeveloped service. Sky has decent content, particularly as part of its Movies pass, but it hasn’t done much to enhance the experience. This is a little disappointing given the premium its passes command compared to rivals, though the content does justify that somewhat.
It’s also irritating that films and TV are limited to only 720p HD resolution, not even 1080P Full HD – especially poor when you consider that Netflix and Amazon are already pushing into 4K video streaming. Now TV does at least feature 5.1 surround sound, but its image quality is passable rather than excellent – everything just seems a tad softer and less vibrant than content from its higher-res rivals.