- Generally high profile content
- Interface is pretty
- Much more content incoming
- Movie Pass is expensive
- Interface isn't helpful
- Only stereo sound and no HD yet
- Review Price: £15.00
- Sky Movies Pass subscription option
- Pay & Play pay per view option
- 600+ films with Movie Pass
- 1000+ films with Pay & Play
- On PC/Mac/Android now, iOS, Xbox, PS3, Youview soon
As of Tuesday July 17th, though, people who can’t afford or just don’t want a Sky subscription suddenly found themselves able to watch Sky content anyway, under a totally different and much more affordable financial arrangement. For it was then that Sky launched its debut video streaming platform, Now TV.
The potential impact of this launch on the streaming landscape really can’t be overstated. Plus, of course, it gives Sky a potentially vast new outlet to help maximise the revenue from its huge – and expensive – programming ‘stock’.
So what exactly is Now TV. First up, it’s aimed not at existing Sky subscribers (who can already stream Sky content via the impressive Sky Go platform) but at the 13m broadband-connected households who haven’t previously taken a pay TV service from any provider.
In content terms, in these initial stages Now TV is entirely focussed on Sky’s extensive library of films, making the service an instant and significant rival for LoveFilm and Netflix. But intriguingly, Sky is also promising to extend the content available through Now TV to include its sports content before the year is out. The potential for being able to access – live in many instances – such Sky ‘crown jewels’ as Premiership football matches and England Test Cricket matches without having to subscribe to Sky’s broadcasting platform will sound like manna from heaven to die-hard sport fans.
Now TV doesn’t stop there, either. For Sky is also saying that after the Sky Sports stuff has gone live, Now TV will also start carrying some of Sky’s premier entertainment content from Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts and Sky Living – including US shows as well as Sky’s home-grown stuff.
TV to come
This promised future TV content is crucial, of course, when you consider that both of its main streaming service rivals offer plenty of TV content alongside their film libraries.
Also critical to Now TV’s success will be its pricing structure. Which is actually rather complicated. In essence, the service comprises two different pricing approaches: ‘Pay & Play’ where you pay separately for each film you want to watch, and a £15-a-month Sky Movies Pass (with a 30-day Free Trial to kick you off).
The pass gives you unlimited access to more than 600 movies within the Sky Movies collection, including up to five new and exclusive Sky Movies Premieres every Friday.
However, the Movie Pass does not include the very latest titles available only through Sky’s Box Office broadcast service. These – which currently include The Woman In Black, Safe House, This Means War and, um, Jack and Jill – are only available via the Pay & Play system. So if you’re a Movies Pass subscriber and you want to watch one of these very latest titles, you’ll still have to pay £3.49 for the privilege.
The Windows game
This might seem annoying on paper, but in reality it’s unavoidable. For the fact is that these films that are only available via Box Office on Sky’s broadcast channels are still in their ‘DVD release’ window, and so can’t be included at this stage within any monthly streaming package. LoveFilm includes some premium (extra payment) content for the same sort of reasons.
These titles will, of course, eventually slip into the Sky Movies Pass arena once they move from being Box Office titles into being titles available at no extra charge as part of Sky’s Movie Channel package.
Where things start to get really confusing, though, is that you can actually also get a lot of back catalogue titles through the Pay and Play service – more than 1,000 according to Sky – with prices as low as 99p a pop. But these don’t appear the titles available through the Movie Pass!
In fact, the Pay & Play back catalogue titles are those not being shown anymore on any of Sky’s movie channels but which Sky has retained PPV rights for.
Looking ahead, there’s no pricing information on how the future sport and TV content will fit into the package pricing wise. It seems likely that the live sports stuff will be presented in pay per view form, with the possibility of older programming being available within the current Sky Movies Pass monthly payment – or a ‘modified’ version of it.
As for the TV shows, again it’s possible that the very latest stuff will only be available via pay per view, with back catalogue stuff being available within the terms of the monthly pass. But this is all total guesswork, so you should probably just strike it from your minds and wait to see what actually happens!
The slight sense of confusion engendered by the pricing structure kind of follows through onto the Now TV home page. This just features four scrollable ‘rows’ of films, with the top row including most popular Movie Pass Titles, the second row showing the most recent ‘Now on DVD’ Pay & Play titles, and the other two rows going back to the Movie Pass stuff, focussing on Recently Added and Showcase titles.
The layout of this home page – and, indeed, all subsequent pages – is reasonably pretty, but ultimately unfriendly to browsing on account of how few title choices it fits on screen at once thanks to a combination of overlarge images of the titles and a bizarre obsession with ‘white space’ between the different categories. The mix of Pay & Play with Movie Pass content isn’t helpful either.
The key to making the Now TV interface much easier to follow is the Show Me field on the left, with which you can have the interface just show either the Sky Movies Pass or Pay & Play content. This filtering process also stops you from feeling frustrated at the sight of all the titles not available to you in your chosen section (Pay & Play or Movie Pass) of the Now TV service…
To streamline browsing further, titles can be organised via genre or thematic collections such as Dramatic Moments, Blockbusters and Get Animated. There’s a film/actor/director text search tool too, though unfortunately this doesn’t take the sort of ‘predictive’ title list approach you get with Netflix.
It’s not just the current Now TV interface that needs a little work, either. Signing up for the service is also confusing. First up, if, like us, you’re already subscribed to Sky Go, you’re advised not to sign up to Now TV using the same account information. Instead you’re supposed to set up a totally separate account with a different email address.
Of course, it’s unlikely a normal Sky Subscriber would want to sign up for Now TV. But needing a second ID is still a strange idiosyncrasy akin to Apple saying you should have separate IDs for its music and video services.
The other issue is that while filling in the registration forms, no mention is made of the 30-day free trial until right at the very end (after you’ve ‘agreed’ to pay £15 a month and given all your payment details) – even if you entered the sign up process by first clicking the 30 days free trial link at the top of the home page. We felt aggravatingly sure until the very final notification of successful registration appeared that we were in fact going to be paying £15 a month right from the off.
This confusing state of affairs seems certain to put people off from signing up, and so really needs to be fixed.
In finally getting to testing the quality of the Now TV service, we’re limited at the time of writing to viewing on a PC or Mac. A few Android phones can also use the service already, but other delivery ‘vehicles’ aren’t ready yet. Apps for iPhone and iPads are due in August, the Xbox will get an app later in the summer, and NowTV will apparently also be on YouView. PS3 and Roku support is also promised, though as yet not dated.
Trying to get Net TV working on a Mac – or two, actually – immediately threw up a pretty major problem, as all we got when trying to play a film was a black, blank screen.
After a couple of hours of digging around we figured out that the problem was caused by us already having two other devices registered to our Sky ID because of our Sky Go subscription. Taking our Xbox off the device list (which currently restricts you to just two devices) had our main Mac playing Now TV films right away. Thankfully Sky has told us that it intends to double the number of devices Sky ID accounts can use to four in the near future.
To be fair this device limitation issue might not affect many people given that Now TV is aimed at people who don’t already have Sky/Sky Go. But it would still be nice if a message pointing you to the source of the problem appeared, rather than just a thunderously black screen.
It’s worth adding here, too, that there seems to be some anecdotal evidence around to suggest that there are other Mac users out there who are struggling to get Now TV to work even after they’ve sorted out the device registration issues.
Firing up a few films (Thor, Pirates of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Captain America and Pulp Fiction) through our Movie Pass, we were surprised not to be given any technical data – aspect ratio, resolution, audio track – about the presentation before it started. But it becomes quickly apparent that while films appear in their original aspect ratios, on PCs and mobile devices they’ll only play back in standard definition with stereo soundtracks. There’s no HD or surround sound.
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.
Score in detail
Image Quality 7
Sound Quality 6