Sky is on to a winner with the upgraded Smart Box – and the content bundles aren’t bad, either
SKY’S NOW TV streaming service has been undergoing some big changes of late. Service-wise, there’s a new Now TV Combo package, which encompasses TV, phone and broadband in one, while the Now TV box itself has been replaced by a new model equipped with a Freeview HD tuner, named the Now TV Smart Box.
This small, slender device is a bit larger than the previous Now TV Box, but it’s still very understated, measuring 165mm deep and wide and 21mm in height. Around the back, it’s pretty sparse in terms of ports, but you still get the essentials: an aerial socket, Ethernet (as an alternative to Wi-Fi), HDMI, USB and a microSD slot.
The interface remains largely unchanged, which is a good thing as it’s simple to navigate and easy to grasp. The addition of free-to-air TV has been handled well, with your last used live channel appearing on the home screen next to other top recommendations, and a simple TV guide that can be accessed from the left-hand menu.
You’ll need to connect your aerial and scan for channels before you can start watching, but it’s very easy to set up. However, the TV guide interface has its flaws, as Sky hasn’t included any options to reorganise the list of channels, or created a means to pick your favorites. Instead, you have to scroll through every single channel each time you want to find something in particular – which is annoying if you’re after the HD channels further down the list.
It’s a shame the Smart Box’s remote doesn’t have a dedicated TV guide button, either, as this means you’re forced to hit the home button every time you want to browse through what’s on. It also can’t learn from other remotes, so you’ll need your TV’s own remote to adjust the volume.
However, there is some solace to be found in the fact that you can use the TV guide to scroll through Now TV’s live entertainment channels as well, including movie channels if you’ve bought the Sky Cinema Pass. This is a great addition, as it makes it very easy to see what’s on right now across your entire Now TV content package.
Sky has stuck with 720p streaming for its live Now TV channels, and for its catch-up and box-set content as well for that matter.
This is disappointing, as increasingly larger television sets really need a good 1080p stream to look decent – indeed, on our big 48in screen, higher-definition content from Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video looks much better.
Sky’s new Home Page could be better as well. There’s a huge range of content on show, both from UK broadcasters and Sky’s own channels, but selecting a show from one of these boxes will take you straight to the respective app and load up the latest episode, leaving you little room to explore other episodes or similar content. The Smart Box is very quick to respond to your inputs, but it’s a shame there’s not a little bit more flexibility to really make it fly.
Instead, you’re probably better off scrolling through the Best of Catch Up tab, as this gives you scrollable lists for each of the main catch-up channels, including Now TV, BBC ¡Player, ITV Hub, All 4 and Demand 5. There’s also a shortcut to go straight to each app, too.
As with the BT Mini YouView Box, Sky’s Smart Box has the ability to pause and rewind live TV, but not to record it. There’s a 30-minute memory buffer in the box, so you can rewind back through that, but it only starts filling up once you start watching that particular channel.
The four content passes available -Entertainment, Sky Cinema, Kids and Sky Sports – are all keenly priced, and the massive, ever-growing library of included films makes the Sky Cinema Pass a particularly smart purchase The fact that Sky retains a stranglehold on HBO content in the UK means that the Entertainment Pass should also prove popular. The standard definition of livestreams in the Sky Sports Pass, however, is pretty frustrating; this really feels like something Sky needs to upgrade urgently.
The aforementioned Combo package, on the other hand, is a very tempting proposition. You can build a customised service with your choice of content passes and broadband speeds, including 17 Mbit/s standard or 38 Mbit/s and 76 Mbit/s fibre-optic. The number of possible combinations is huge, and the process is commendably transparent as it’s easy to see exactly what you’re paying for. If you just want the Smart Box, then you can buy it standalone for a very reasonable.
The Now TV Smart Box may have its limitations, but it still wins our Best Buy award; perhaps not as a fully fledged media streamer, but as a simple way to add great content to an ageing TV. There’s no simpler way of adding the catch-up terrestrial services to your television – even if the standard-definition streams now look very old hat.
Sky is on to a winner with the upgraded Smart Box - and the content bundles aren’t bad, either.