Want to watch Sky’s Now TV service but don’t have a compatible smart TV or games console? Plug in a Now TV Smart Box and you’ll be able to sign up to any combination of its monthly passes, which offer subscription-free access to Sky’s excellent catalogue of films and world-class TV shows.
For a little extra cash you can get daily or weekly access to the whole range of sports channels, offering Premier League football, Formula 1, NFL and various other live sports.
The Roku-made Now TV Smart Box even allows you to download catch-up apps for all the main terrestrial channels. What sets it apart from all the other streaming devices out there, however, is that it has a Freeview tuner built-in – but in this age of on-demand everything, does anybody really need such a feature?
About the size of a small side plate, with a Now TV logo plastered on top, the Smart Box’s shiny black finish makes it look like a Wi-Fi router. It’s fairly flat, too, and the top is an absolute dust and fingerprint magnet – you’ll be reaching for the feather duster on a regular basis.
Round the back are terminals for your HDMI cable, TV aerial, power lead and Ethernet cable (although Wi-Fi is built in), plus an inactive microSD card slot. There’s also a USB port on one side (more on that later).
The bundled remote feels a lightweight and lacks volume buttons. However, with a four-way D-pad, playback controls, plus dedicated Now TV and Sky Store buttons, it has most of the major functions covered.
Now TV Smart Box – Setup
Setup isn’t quite as simple as Now TV’s Smart Stick – which simply plugs into the HDMI port and stays in place – but it isn’t far behind.
The Smart Box comes with an HDMI cable and batteries for the remote, so once you’ve plugged in the power and connected it to your television, you’re pretty much ready to go.
Well, you will be once you’ve signed up for an account online first. Once you’ve done that and selected which Now TV passes you’d like to sign up for (from a choice of Movies, Entertainment, Kids and Sports), you have to connect the box to your Wi-Fi network – or, you can use Ethernet if you’re feeling old-school.
Using a remote control’s D-pad to enter your Wi-Fi details, email addresses and passwords is irritating enough, but even more annoying is the fact that the unit supplied with the Smart Box is just a bit too clicky, making a bothersome sound each time you enter a character.
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Fortunately, you’ll should have to go through this process only once; but entering details to sign into your Now TV account, YouTube app and Sky Store can become tedious. Ditto for scrolling through the licence agreement.
My box required a software update that took less than a minute, and after automatically adding all the default apps, it also detected the type of TV it which it was connected.
All Now TV content is restricted to 720p, but the box clocked that I had a 1080p-capable TV. At first I thought it was just rubbing it in, but Sky says support for higher-resolution streaming is coming later this year.
The final piece of the setup puzzle is the built-in Freeview tuner. Plugging in an aerial and scanning for channels feels old-fashioned, but it only took about a minute to tune in all 152 channels (that’s including all the radio channels that nobody ever uses).
Now TV Smart Box – Apps and interface
The Smart Box’s main screen shows a grid of Sky highlights, plus programmes you’ve recently watched but not finished. If you have an aerial plugged in, there’s also a section displaying a preview of your most recently watched live channel, so you can easily hop back in.
Scroll down through the menus on the left-hand side and you’ll see a standard EPG for live Freeview channels (aerial dependent, of course). My Apps shows all the apps you have installed, while the App Store allows you to add more.
The Smart Box has all the major ones covered: BBC iPlayer, All 4, Demand 5 and ITV, plus YouTube, Vevo, Vimeo and UKTV Play, which offer catch-up for channels such as Dave and Yesterday – although considering how many shows are repeated on Dave, this seems slightly unnecessary.
Right now there’s no Netflix or Amazon, although with the former coming to Sky boxes later this year, that could well change.
The Best of Catchup screen offers a fairly random selection of suggested apps and particular TV shows from all services, while the Settings menu is self-explanatory.
But the reason for buying the Smart Box is Now TV, which you can access either by pressing the dedicated button on the remote, or by navigating to the app.
It takes a few seconds to load but breaks up the available content in line with the different passes that are available: Movies, Entertainment, Sports and Kids.
Whether you’re impressed by what’s available will entirely be down to personal preference, but it does feel like there’s more depth to the catalogue than Amazon or Netflix, particularly on the movie front.
It also means you can access the shows without the need for a satellite dish or having to sign up to a lengthy contract. Whether it works out cheaper will depend on what you want to watch – but if you’re a football fan then relying on Sky Sports passes at £7.99 a day or £12.99 a week will soon add up.
On the whole, the Now TV Smart Box isn’t as slick as the Sky Q box and feels a step behind the Amazon Fire TV box and Amazon Fire Stick. Nevertheless it’s easy enough to navigate, if a little over-complicated at times.
You have to jump through multiple hoops on the Now TV website to cancel a pass, but you can at least do it way before the renewal date and carry on watching until it ends. As such, there’s no risk of getting stung for another month if you forget to cancel on the penultimate day.
Now TV Smart Box – Performance
Resolution of Now TV content might be limited to 720p, but on my 37in 1080p Samsung it looked good enough, with plenty of detail and no Wi-Fi-related dips in quality. If you’ve already upgraded to 4K then the lack of pixels maybe apparent, but the Now TV Smart Box isn’t really aimed at those folk who watch that much TV.
Stick on BBC One and the quality looks distinctly standard-definition, but that’s because the Freeview HD channels are buried much further down the EPG; by default, it starts you at the top. Without the ability to search or use the numerical channel shortcuts, they’re a real pain to get to. In general, however, the interface is slicker than a lot of dedicated Freeview boxes.
There’s no built-in storage, so you can’t record any programmes – that’s what the catch-up apps are for, grandad – but you can pause and rewind live TV, which is a bonus.
Whether you’re watching a Freeview channel or a stream, fast-forwarding or rewinding isn’t an exact science with this box, but there’s no sign of pixellating or buffering as it catches up.
On Now TV, stop watching completely and you can pick up where you left off later, with the My TV menu keeping track of what you bailed out on, plus a Watchlist to which you can add shows.
According to Sky, the Now TV Smart Box is already capable of showing 1080p content – but good luck finding any. I figured the USB port on the side might allow me to play my own from a memory stick, but plug one in and nothing happens.
However, it does offer power when the box is turned on, which would have made it perfect for recharging the remote if it didn’t run on old-fashioned triple-As. At least you can plug your phone in to charge while you catch up on Westworld.
Why buy a Now TV Smart Box?
Considering most TVs come with a Freeview tuner built in these days, what’s the point in buying a Smart Box over the £15 Smart Stick?
Good question. And unless you have a TV without a tuner and are a really big fan of Dave Ja Vu, this is difficult to answer. Having everything in one place and being able to time-shift live TV is fairly handy, but is it worth the extra £35?
Of course, none of the above makes the Now TV Smart Box a bad device; it just means you require quite specific circumstances to make it a necessary purchase.
Some will point to its lack of 4K, especially in the face of Amazon’s Fire TV, but Ultra HD TVs come with the necessary apps built in, so these streaming boxes are increasingly being pushed towards second TV where this isn’t a big deal.