Now TV is a pay as you go online service from Sky that lets you stream its Sky Sports channels for a daily fee of £10, and watch its Sky Movies channels and on-demand film catalogue for £9 per month.
To encourage take-up of the service Sky has launched this dedicated Now TV player, with a minuscule asking price of just £10. And that price even includes delivery!
Sky pumped some investment into a company called Roku last year. Roku makes Internet-streaming set-top boxes and it's now clear what Sky was up to, because the Now TV Box is essentially a rebranded Roku LT with some services removed, such as Netflix, and some other limitations introduced. As the LT retails for £40, Sky is obviously subsidising most of the cost of the Now TV Box.
As the box can also access both BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 for free, as well as some lesser known online services, it looks like an unbeatable deal if you're looking to smarten up your telly. Let's see if it's as essential as it seems. It's available now direct from Sky.
Design and connections
The Now TV Box looks very similar to the Roku LT, but Sky has made some minor changes. It's added the 'Now TV powered by Sky' logo to the top, and dumped the garish colour of the LT in favour of a more palatable white and navy colour scheme.
The box is actually quite attractive and looks somewhat like a shrunken Apple TV, thanks to its rounded square design. It's tiny too, measuring just 84mm square and 24mm tall, so it's a good deal smaller than Apple's streamer.
The front has a tiny white indicator LED to show you when the box is active, and thankfully this is quite dimly lit so it's not distracting when you're watching TV at night.
Around the back there's just the HDMI port, AV-out socket, power input jack and a pinhole reset button. Unlike the higher-end Roku boxes, the Now TV lacks both Ethernet and USB ports. The only option for connecting it to the Internet is via Wi-Fi, but that will be the ideal choice for most people anyway.
Its power comes from a small, external PSU and in the box you'll also find a 1.8m HDMI cable, so unless your TV only has an older-style composite input, you've got everything you need to get up and running straight away. If you do have an older style TV without HDMI you can still use the Now TV Box, but you'll have to buy a mini-jack to composite cable.
The remote is excellent. It follows the white and navy colour scheme of the main box, it's small and light, and its rounded back fit comfortably in my hand. The clever layout of the buttons means your thumb naturally hovers above the direction pad as well as the Home and Back buttons, which are the main ones used for moving through menus and controlling the apps.
Setting it up
Sky has obviously tried to make setting up the box as easy as possible, and for the most part it has succeeded. I did experience a couple of minor niggles along the way.
Once you've plugged in the box it starts a setup wizard to guide you through the whole process of getting up and running. It starts by scanning for nearby Wi-Fi networks and then presents you with a list so you can select your own network and enter your password via an onscreen virtual keyboard. You're then asked to select your time zone, which is a bit weird as the box only works in the UK, so it's obviously a software hangover from its Roku origins.
Once you've selected Europe as your option you have to enter your Now TV username and password. This is where I ran into a little hiccup. As I'd already registered on the Now TV site for our box I presumed the username and password would be the email address and password that I had setup while ordering the box -- especially as I hadn't received any email with a separate username and password from Now TV.
It turns out that you have to login to the Now TV website again and ask for your username to be emailed to you. You then use this with your original password. It's not as straightforward as it should be.
Once you've entered these details, the box quickly downloads some updates for the channels that are added as standard and then presents you with the simple banner-style menu.
You need to add your credit-card details for the box when you set up an account, but if you take a free Movies trial, you won't be charged until the trial expires and you choose to take another pass.
Once you do want to buy a Sky Sports day pass or a Sky Movies monthly pass, though, the process is rather convoluted, as you get shifted to the Sky website, rather than the Now TV website, to purchase these options. It'd be easier and less confusing if you could do the whole transaction just via the Now TV site.
The Now TV Box's user interface is refreshingly unfussy. It consists of a single banner of large icons across the top of the screen that can be scrolled left and right. Below this there's a large banner advert for the Now TV service to encourage you to buy a daily or monthly pass.
Apart from the first two icons in the list, which are for the Settings menu and Roku Channel Store, the rest are all entries for the online services. Naturally Now TV is the first in the list, followed by Sky News, BBC iPlayer, BBC News and Demand 5.
To launch an app, you just select it in the list and press the OK button on the remote. When you want to exit an apps you can either hit the home button at the top of the remote or keep pressing the back button until you're dumped out to the main menu.
The five apps, or 'channels' are Now TV, Sky News, BBC iPlayer, BBC News and Demand 5. From the Roku Channel Store you can add apps for the likes of Facebook, Flickr, Flixster, Fox News, Vevo, Tunein, Spotify and good old CNET.
There are quite a few services missing from what you get on standard Roku players, however. The biggest miss is Netflix, and there's no Crackle either. Presumably both were removed to encourage you to use the Sky Movies monthly pass instead. I think this is fair, given the price of the box.
Weirdly, Sky has also removed all games from the box as well, so there's no Angry Birds to be found in the Roku Channel Store -- again, presumably to focus your attention on spending money. Another limitation is that there's no support for the private channels that are available on Roku players. These are channels that aren't in the official Roku store, but can be sideloaded onto the other Roku players via the Roku website using codes.
Let's face it, though, this box costs just a tenner, which is the equivalent two pints of lager in many London pubs, so we can’t really complain about these limitations too much.
The Now TV box doesn't have the grunt of the likes of Apple TV, but its simple interface is reasonably fast and smooth to use. Channels also load pretty quickly. It took 17 seconds to start up Now TV, 14 seconds to boot into iPlayer and 25 seconds to load up Demand 5, for example.
The only real problem I found was that the BBC News app was very sluggish and unresponsive. Often I had to select a menu option in the app and then wait several seconds for it to appear. Oddly, the Sky News app has a similar user interface, but is much more responsive, so maybe it's just a case that the BBC News app needs to be optimised better for this player.
The box is limited to a maximum video output resolution of 720p, rather than Full HD 1080p, but this is a limitation I can live with given the low asking price (plus, if your TV's old enough to not already have iPlayer, 720p will do you fine). On the plus side, it can output 5.1 sound over its HDMI port if you've got an HDMI-capable surround-sound amp.
It seems as though the BBC iPlayer app is the only one that can output HD video streams anyway, as Demand 5, the BBC and Sky News apps and Now TV all output standard-definition video.
Watching the F1 Hungarian Grand Prix live on Sky Sports F1 was pretty underwhelming and not close to the experience you'd get when watching it on normal broadcast telly, due to the low resolution and iffy motion. Also, you only get the basic F1 channel, you don't get the onboard camera and timing screens that you do on the standard Sky TV service, which is disappointing.
The streams for Sky Movies seem to be slightly higher quality, perhaps because they're essentially pre-recorded content, but they're still only standard definition, whereas both Lovefilm and Netflix now offer HD streams. The library of on-demand movies seemed a little thin to me, too. Sky says the higher price of the service over Netflix and Lovefilm is due to the fact it has more recent releases, but there are a lot of older movies padding out the on-demand catalogue.
If you haven't got a smart TV, or you're looking for a cheap way to add some smart TV features to a second telly, buying a Now TV box is a no brainer. The £10 fee is well worth it for the iPlayer app alone, especially as it supports HD streams.
The Now TV service itself is disappointing, however, as despite the high prices of the daily and monthly passes, the quality of the streams is poor. If Sky's really serious about making Now TV a success, it needs to add HD streams to its service, or at the very least decent quality SD streams, and sooner rather than later.