The video feeds are at least delivered using an adaptive bit-rate system, but there’s no getting round the fact that even on the relatively small screen environment of a PC or Mac we’d like at least the option to watch our films in HD. This feature is effortlessly supported by Netflix, after all, which delivers smooth HD streams even using a standard 6MB broadband connection.
Sky argues that you don’t need HD on a computer screen, but even if we ignore for a minute the fact that we were using a 21.5in iMac during this test, it’s by no means uncommon for people to connect their computers to their TV for watching streamed content on a bigger screen.
There is some good news regarding resolution, though. For Sky tells us that it intends to deliver HD when it launches its console apps. With this in mind we’ll probably do a little update feature when the Xbox service is up and running. However, Sky told us that it will be continuing to only deliver stereo soundtracks with its Xbox feeds, following LoveFilm’s practice of not even offering Pro-Logic surround sound. This is hard to fathom given that Netflix routinely offers Pro-Logic and even manages to deliver digital 5.1 audio with some of its HD titles.
Standard def performance
Regarding the standard definition feeds we were able to watch for this test, when blown up to fill our 21.5in screen the results are best described as decent. There are obvious compression artefacts, especially during dark scenes and over subtle colour blends, and even on our swankily powerful Mac in full-screen mode we quite often experienced horizontal tearing and flickering over moving objects, as well as the occasional momentary stutter (though both these issues were greatly reduced using a much smaller screen window).
Detail levels are fair by standard definition standards, though, and the image’s contrast and colours both look dynamic and natural if you reduce your screen’s brightness from their normal levels. Overall, video is never less than watchable, but nor is it a streaming revelation.
The stereo sound is clean and clear meanwhile, with no apparent compression-related ‘burbling’ or whistling. Plus it remained locked to the video at all times, meaning we never experienced significant lip-synch errors over the course of watching numerous titles from start to finish.
When it comes to stability, we suffered a few pre-play connection errors, but once the video file is accessed it’s buffered in ready to start playing very quickly - just two or three seconds - and consistently played through from start to finish during our tests without any buffering pauses using our national average 6MB broadband system. Playback also adapted quite cutely to us putting more stress on the broadband pipe.
Obviously we can’t promise that your own buffering experience will be as good as ours. But if it isn’t, our experience would suggest that the problems lie more with your broadband provider than Sky’s Now TV servers.
Now TV has got off to a rather mixed start. Its structure of offering separate monthly subs and pay per view content will strike some as being over complicated in an environment where Netflix gives you everything it has for just one fee - even though the current video release ‘window’ regulations pretty much make such a structure unavoidable.
The confusion over the 30-day free trial during registration might put some people off too, and then there’s that £15 a month price for the Sky Movies Pass. This looks very high indeed against the £4.99 and £5.99 prices of LoveFilm and Netflix - especially when those services offer thousands of titles versus the 600 or so of Now TV. It seems to us that anyone looking to the Now TV Movies Pass as their main video streaming service might also frequently want to purchase some of the Pay & Play titles, making their monthly spend even higher.
The lack of an HD playback option on smart devices and especially computers seems unfortunate, too.
Now TV does have one significant ace up its sleeve, though: the quality of its content. While it’s not wholly comprehensive (no UK film streaming library is), Sky’s unmatched muscle when it comes to negotiating film right deals with the big film studios means that it seems to have a wider selection of films that we actually want to watch (as opposed to reams of straight-to-video dross) than any of the rival platforms right now.
The fact that Sky is prepared to offer a 30-day free trial certainly suggests that it feels pretty confident that users will be impressed enough with what they see to happily cough up £15 a month thereafter.
Plus, of course, there’s the tantalising prospect of much more content to come in the months ahead, as well as HD viewing via Xboxes.
So here’s our conundrum. Now TV currently feels too expensive, a bit confusing and technically average. Yet technically its still in Beta mode, and its potential in terms of content quality and maybe even quantity is clear for all to see. So let’s kick things off with a rather neutral score of 6 for now and book in a reassessment for, say, Christmas time.