A year ago, we gave you a run-down of each streaming media device on the UK market, from Chromecast to NOW TV. Sky’s little box, essentially a branded Roku, was already handicapped, thanks to its restriction of apps to only those approved by the broadcaster. As Roku reveals its own 4K box, Amazon launches a Fire TV upgrade and Apple TV prepares a fresh assault on the market, NOW TV has unveiled its own improved model. Can it keep up with the pack?
The most obvious changes to the NOW TV Box are cosmetic: gone are the hard angles, replaced by smooth corners; farewell, white plastic, hello, black casing. Together, they create something that looks a lot sleeker and more modern, while the remote (almost identical to a Roku button-clicker, albeit with a “NOW TV” button added for quick access to Sky’s subscription service) remains light and easy to use.
This is NOW TV’s best feature – and while the price has been bumped up by a fiver to £15, the new model remains far cheaper than its rivals, which start from around £35 and range up to much higher.
The NOW TV Box is painless to set up, plugging into your telly’s HDMI port (the value of the kit is boosted by the inclusion of a free cable) and asking you to sign in, or sign up for, a NOW TV account. It’s the main function of the NOW TV Box, to encourage customers to register, but once that’s skipped past, it automatically updates and gets you up and running in no time.
Content / Channels / Apps
The NOW TV Box’s biggest strength, bizarrely, isn’t its NOW TV app: it’s the inclusion of every Freeview VOD service, from BBC iPlayer and ITV Player to All 4 and Demand 5. For £15, you can smartify (that’s a technical term) your TV set and meet all your basic TV catch-up needs.
There is an app store, although it’s a heavily stripped down one compared to the usual Roku selection. Nonetheless, the shelves are filling up, with AwesomenessTV, GoPro, Red Bull TV and others now added to the familiar list of Spotify, Vimeo, YouTube, Sky News and Facebook.
For movies, NOW TV comes with the Sky Store app readily installed, which allows you rent films – the only way to watch new home entertainment releases on a pay-per-view basis.
And did we mention NOW TV? That is, unsurprisingly, the main focus of the whole device: the app gives non-Sky customers contract-free access to some of Sky’s TV channels and/or the broadcaster’s movie catalogue (depending on whether you have an Entertainment Pass – £4.99 a month – or Sky Cinema Month Pass – £9.99 a month). In the spring, that means Game of Thrones. In the autumn, The Walking Dead, Arrow, The Flash and American Horror Story.
Netflix, Amazon Prime and MUBI – essentially, any rival subscription VOD service – are all missing, which means that those hoping to catch up with Breaking Bad or Orange Is the New Black will be disappointed. Ditto for other pay-per-view sites, such as iTunes (Apple doesn’t offer its platform to any device apart from Apple TV), Google Play and blinkbox, which means any titles you rent or buy from other sites won’t be accessible. In a world where Amazon also restricts its Fire TV line-up to in-house rentals/purchases, though, NOW TV’s restricted approach is perhaps less damning than it used to be.
Interface and Image Quality
The menus are the same as a standard Roku box – accompanied by NOW TV adverts around the edges – so the box is fast and simple to operate. The real kicker, though, is that since the last model, the NOW TV app has had a major overhaul, making its menus far easier to navigate; a logical step, given the box is designed to promote the service. You can now also use your Facebook app to change your screensaver, if that’s what floats your social media boat.
Aside from the NOW TV interface, video quality is perhaps the most important improvement to the new box: because it’s now based on the Roku 2 model, you can get full 1080p HD video output from the device, although you have to go into settings to manually set this as default. It’s just a shame you can’t get that on all of NOW TV’s own content: on-demand and sports stream in 720p HD, while live TV viewing is in SD. (The latter is standard for NOW TV, though, with 720p live TV viewing only available on Apple TV.)
NOW TV now faces far more competition from other streaming device contenders. Amazon’s Fire TV is quicker to type in text with its remote and, like Chromecast, offers voice search. Roku, meanwhile, boasts Netflix and other pay-per-view services. Most rivals are offering content in 4K too.
NOW TV, then, is still far from head of the pack, but with its improved app store, microSD slot and support for 1080p (for apps that aren’t NOW TV), the new box is far better equipped to duke it out in the ring. The biggest selling point remains the cost: at £15, it’s a steal for those who already use NOW TV, or for those who only want a way to access basic catch-up content. You might not pay much more for what you get, but if you’re happy with what’s on offer, this is certainly a step up from last year and a smart play for the budget consumer.