Sky NOW TV Box Review
The battle for your living room just got interesting - especially since this little box has a very intriguing secret
IntroductionSky gave the media a surprise at a press event last week by announcing it was to make a further foray in to the hardware market with its own smart box and streaming device, although the clues were already there. The NOW TV Box unveil was almost twelve months, to the day, since it was announced Sky had made a £29 million pound investment in Roku, an American start-up that makes this kind of equipment. Furthermore, Sky’s aggressive push on its connected services, including NOW TV, might have given some indication they would launch hardware to back them up. So what is NOW TV and why might you want it? In short, it’s an easy way to see Sky’s Movie catalogue and Sports Channels without paying a subscription to the likes of Sky, themselves, Virgin or BT, which is an idea we know many will find attractive. It probably should be stressed that this device isn’t the only gateway to NOW TV, it’s already available via PC or Mac, through PS3, Xbox 360 and YouView, as well as for tablet and smartphone via Android or iOS and exclusively on LG TVs.
Naturally, Sky isn’t operating NOW TV as a charitable service and there are costs involved. One can subscribe to the Movie service, on a month by month basis, for £15, or dip in and out of all 6 Sky Sports channels at a cost of £9.99 for a 24 hour pass. There are introductory offers available for the Movies, at least, but the Day Pass charges seem set in stone. We’ll deliberate the value of each later on, but at a cost of just £9.99 for the NOW TV Box hardware package, it would be hard to class that as anything but value for money. The NOW TV Box isn’t just restricted to Sky’s content so it might have merit based on its other features – some of which aren’t advertised and may come as a surprise to readers. Naturally we’re going to keep you hanging on that one, at this point, so read on to discover.
The box, itself, is pretty much what you’d expect; small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, lightweight but not too cheap in the feel of its construction. The top of the box features the NOW TV logo molded in to its surface and just beneath, on the right of the front facia, are the status indicator light and infra-red sensor. We found, in operation, that the sensor wasn’t restrictive in the angles from which it can be aimed at, but you’ll want to make sure it is at least partially visible in your set up.
The NOW TV Box keeps it simple in terms of connectivity options. It’s a Wi-Fi only deal so there’s no LAN port and video connections are HDMI or crumby composite – we wouldn’t advise the latter. And that’s it, really, except for the obvious power input and a small reset button which sits just above. We rather liked the included remote; for starters it isn’t the credit card styled doofer we might have expected and the ‘OK’ button, in particular, has a very satisfying tone to its click. Again, it’s a simple bit of kit but it has no need to be anything other and the buttons are so simple they barely need explanation, save the ‘*’ (asterisk) key which acts as a further options key. There’s also a nice little indent on the rear, meaning it will rest comfortably on your index finger.
At less than a tenner for the hardware package, you really couldn’t grumble and we haven’t even mentioned the inclusion of a HDMI cable, in the box, that almost justifies the price alone. Clearly this is a loss leading product for Sky in the hope you’ll sign up for NOW TV services and we can’t blame them for that. Roku’s own media streamers and the Apple TV both cost orders of magnitude more. Aggressive is probably the word.
Setup and MenusMaintaining the air of simplicity, the setup process is extremely straightforward, although we would recommend setting up your Sky NOW TV account from the web prior to starting. The first thing you are asked to do is confirm your Wi-Fi network details, so it would be good to have those to hand too, but then it’s just a case of waiting for the box to look for system updates before the final step of connecting your NOW TV account. The creation of an account is mandatory to complete setup but you don’t have to use the service, if you don’t want.
NOW TVThe star of the show, or at least Sky hope you considered it such, is the NOW TV Platform, which sports a bright and clean modern interface which is suitably responsive to navigate around. There are 5 broad subcategories – Live Sports, Movies, My TV, Search, Help and My Account – with the first two of those broken down a bit further. Live Sports is broken down in to the six Sky Channels, whilst movies has further divisions of ‘New in’, ‘Must See’, ‘Genres’, ‘Collections’ and ‘Live’. The Genres banner is then further split in to the likes of Action, Comedy, Drama etc, whilst Collections will allow you gorge on the entire Bond Catalogue, Disney and Pixar collections and, er, Adam Sandler movies – we’ll forgive you for ignoring the latter. The Live TV option allows you to access various Sky channels, as they are broadcast, including Sky Family, Sky Action, Sky Three and Sky Comedy, if you fancy jumping in to the action.
One of the advantages of Sky’s Movie catalogue when compared to say Netflix and LOVEFiLM, is that it does have more up-to-date blockbuster movies so there are titles such as Wrath of the Titans (rubbish), Savages (better) and Skyfall available, so the £15 monthly fee is not too bad if you’re one that likes to keep bang up to date. There is an introductory offer of £8.99 for the initial 3 months and another using a Total Film voucher that makes it £2.50 a month for 6 months so it’s hardly going to break the bank if you fancy giving it a twirl and as there is no minimum subscription term, you can back out whenever you like – provided you remember to cancel the direct debit, as I will surely fail to do.
We know AVForums readers want to know about picture quality, so how is it? It’s a bit of a mixed bag, if we’re honest, although Movies looked fine at the box’s maximum capacity of 720p on a 51-inch plasma TV. It’s certainly not Blu-ray quality and the eagle eyed will note the slight compression artefacts and occasional motion stutters but, from our experience, it slightly surpasses LOVEFiLM’s HD quality but is not quite as good as Netflix, at its best. We could certainly cope with the NOW TV box for some causal movie watching. There are certain titles you have to have on Blu-ray but there are many that might not necessarily justify the outlay and streaming services are ideal for checking those kind of titles out. We would have been kicking ourselves had we spent £15 on Wrath of the Titans, for example, so the chance for an extended preview (we lasted 40 mins), is a good thing and if you have kids there’s a wealth of titles to keep them amused during the summer holidays.
Probably the biggest let down is the fact that the Live Sports are output at a maximum resolution of up to 576p. The gap between 720p and 1080p is bridgeable with the scaling capabilities of most modern HDTVs but it can be a chasm between full HD and SD resolutions, at times. We watched some cricket footage which showed a lot of blocky-ness on the grass and there was ringing around the players too. It’s not unwatchable and it’s better than watching through a phone or a window on your PC but we do wish Sky would allow for a higher resolution. For some, at nearly £10 per day, the Day Pass would seem expensive, although we could argue against that, but it would be nice if that bought you a better picture. We can understand why Sky would be reluctant, as it could hurt their subscription business, but if people don’t like the pictures the first time they see them, they might not come back again.
Other Apps and ServicesThere are a number of pre-installed apps besides the NOW TV gateway, including BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and news portals from the BBC and Sky but you’re not limited to those, thanks to the presence of the Roku Channel Store. For the record we tried both the iPlayer and Demand 5, and although the box’s 720p60 output does cause some occasional choppiness with material that was captured at 50 (or 25) frames per second, it was nothing too drastic. You do need to go in to a settings tab at the bottom of the iPlayer home page to make sure you’re getting HD output though; but that’s still better than Demand 5, which is a standard def only service.
Moving in to the Roku Channel Store, it’s possible to add further services, with around 45 additional apps available. We’re not going to list them all, of course, but highlights include further FILM & TV from Flixster, Vimeo and Bollywood Central, internet radio via Spotify and Tune In plus photo and video apps including Facebook, Picassa and flickr. And, Sky are clearly looking to get the gods on their side with inclusion of religious and spirituality apps in the form of Divine TV, Revelation TV and the Shalom Television Channel. But there’s more to the NOW TV Box than what is advertised…
A Hidden GemThis being the internet age, we’d assume Sky would be aware that there will be those out there looking to exploit the base similarities between this box and the Roku streamers, by whatever means necessary, so we’d also imagine that they would know that Roku’s devices have a hidden feature allowing access to a special developers mode. You can probably see where we’re going with this but, in case you need it spelling out, yes, the NOW TV Box has exactly the same hidden developers mode meaning it’s possible to side-load a Roku channel.
Now, having this extra feature is all fine and dandy but it’s no use if there’s not a good application. Fortunately, there is, and it’s better than good – it is excellent. We are talking about the Plex Media Server app, here, and it’s available across multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. Installation of the source code is done from your web browser, from a zip file in the case of Windows, and is very straightforward – just locate the source code file on your PC and click on a button from the browser interface and you’ll be up and running after rebooting the box.
Plex does require that the media server is running from PC, Mac, Phone or Tablet but that’s a small price to pay for the added functionality and it works a treat. Plex allows the user to manage and play video, photos, music, and podcasts from a local or remote computer, making the NOW TV Box a fully-fledged – not to mention very polished – media player but there’s more besides, including the ability to add community-driven plugins, of which there are many, including YouTube, Hulu and Netflix, to name but a few. We haven’t got Netflix to work, as yet, but everything else we tried worked great, including the AVForums plug-in we discovered, which has all our video reviews and podcasts available through it.
Plex Media Center's XBMC Media Center heritage is clear to see and the package is polished and robust so it’s addition to the NOW TV armoury really lifts Sky’s device in to another territory and unlocks the doors of potential. We’re not sure if Sky will thank us for revealing this Easter Egg but, as we said above, this is 2013; and this is the internet.
- Incredible value
- Simple to setup
- Very easy to use
- Good selection of movies
- Roku Media Player install possible and highly recommended
- Subscription free access to Sky Sports and Movies
- Did we mention it costs less than a tenner?
- Only SD for sports
- No digital audio out
Sky NOW TV Box Review
Sky’s NOW TV box caught most by surprise when it really shouldn’t have. With their pedigree in TV delivery and their sudden, and ever increasing, interest in providing connected TV experiences, the NOW TV Box was a certainty – although the incredibly low entry price is perhaps more shocking. Further clues to Sky’s intent appeared last year through their near 30 million pound investment in Roku, who have provided the hardware here. And it shows by the fact that the NOW TV box looks almost identical to their own devices. This is no bad thing, in fact it’s a huge plus, as we find out below.
The interface and setup of the NOW TV box are both lessons in elegant simplicity. Menus are attractive and straightforward whilst being a breeze to navigate. We found all the apps to be very responsive, not least Sky’s own NOW TV interface. The NOW TV service allows for subscription free viewing of Sky’s Movie catalogue, plus access to all the Sports Channels, as well as a few select others. It all works really well and the movies on offer are generally far more up-to-date than the competing services from the likes of Netflix and LOVEFiLM. The 720p resolution maximum output for the movies just about gets the job done to an acceptable level but the sporting actions’ standard def resolution limitation doesn’t really cut it and we hope Sky sees fit to up the pixel count further down the line. It’s not unbearable but, for £10 a day, we expect better.
All the other pre-loaded apps, including Demand 5, BBC iPlayer and BBC news also function very well and there’s an undoubted slickness to the whole thing. There’s a world of other apps available to install too, from the Roku Channel store, but the real star of the show is something they haven’t told you. It is possible to turn the NOW TV box in to a superb media server by side-loading the Plex Media server app. It involves a touch of remote control hoodoo combined with a spot of internet jiggery pokery but the process is really quite simple and elevates the device to a whole new level. As well as being an excellent home media player, Plex has numerous plug-ins covering a large amount of bases which greatly widens the boundaries as to what is possible. Let’s remember this thing costs less than a tenner. Enough said.
We’re left in the unusual situation of wanting to bestow the Sky NOW TV Box with two badges. On the one hand, it’s a slick little smart box giving the best way to access Sky’s enviable content, sub-free, which would gain it an easy recommendation on that basis alone. But, if you open up its potential as a fantastic media streamer and app portal, via plex, it really is a Best Buy. You can take away whichever award you like to fit your own user profile but, for me, it’s the latter than wins through. Truly incredible value for money.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £9.99
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality8
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money10
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