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now tv smart box review

Sky first gatecrashed the TV streaming party back in 2012 when it launched Now TV. A year later, it launched the Now TV Box, a £10 box of tricks that made any TV into a smart TV.

It was unbelievable value for money. If nothing else, it was the cheapest and easiest way to get iPlayer on your TV.

Then last year, Sky released the next version of the Now TV Box, and bumped the price up by a fiver to a still very affordable £15.

Now the box has undergone its biggest change yet. The 2016 edition offers live TV channels, a new menu screen and is being sold in a package deal that's being touted as the first ever contract-free broadband, home phone and TV bundle.

But what's it like to use? And with smart TVs more common since the first box broke onto the scene, and a host of other streaming options on the table, is it still the best way to stream to your TV? Let's find out.

Check out head-to-head comparison of the standard Now TV box and Smart box here.

First impressions

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Like all of Sky's Now TV Boxes, the Now TV Smart Box is made by Roku, which also makes its own streaming boxes. This one is based on the Roku 4, hence it looks very similar to that device (save for the Now TV logo daubed on the top).

It's heavier than its predecessor, though that's hardly surprising, considering it has a Freeview tuner built in. It also keeps the black colour scheme of its predecessor – the first Now TV Box was white – which should fit in with the under-telly set-up and colour scheme of most homes.

Design

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The Now TV Smart Box has a lower profile than the standard Now TV Box (which will remain on sale and will continue to be priced at £14.99). But it has a bigger footprint.

To give you an idea, it's slightly smaller than an average-sized man's hand with fingers splayed. So it won't take up too much room under the telly.

The bottom is rubberised too, so it shouldn't slip on a hard surface.

Set-up

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To set it up, just hook it up to your TV using the HDMI socket and plug it into the mains to power it (the box needs to draw power from the mains, unlike the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Google Chromecast).

You'll also need a coaxial aerial cable if you want to watch live TV. Sky doesn't provide one in the box, but you can pick one up for under a fiver.

Then it's a simple case of signing into your Now TV account, or setting one up if you don't already have one. You can watch Now TV through any connected device, be it a tablet, smartphone, laptop or desktop computer, so you're not bound to your TV set.

You'll need to scan for live channels too, but this only takes a few minutes. Then you're ready to go.

Performance and software

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So what's it like to use? We're happy to report it does the job admirably. The new homepage is very simple to navigate, with highlights shown on the right and categories down the left. The last live channel you watched also plays live in one of the boxes, so you can see if you want to jump straight back into it.

You can watch, pause and rewind live TV, so you won't miss a minute if you nip out to put the kettle on. Though it can only rewind up to half an hour, so don't be gone too long.

You can pull up the EPG (electronic programme guide) at any time while watching live TV, so you can see what's on later or on other channels. This also lets you change channels. Plus there's a full programme guide in the menu. In other words, it works just like a Freeview box, with the same selection of free-to-air channels (there are around 60 in total, including 12 in HD).

But, of course, it has added streaming skills. You can download apps to the Now TV Smart Box, much like with the Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV. iPlayer felt a tiny bit sluggish compared to how it runs on Sky Q, but that's not surprising given the extra power of the Sky Q box.

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All of the usual catch-up services like iPlayer and ITV Hub come preinstalled. There's no Netflix or Amazon Prime Video though. Sky would prefer you to get your paid-for entertainment fix from it and it alone. As a result, it heavily promotes its own content throughout the menu options, which is fair enough we suppose.

Now TV lets you pick from a selection of Passes – there's one for entertainment channels (£6.99 a month), one for films (£9.99 a month), one for sports (£33.99 a month) and one for kids' channels (£2.99 a month).

You can buy one or more per month (though there are also daily and weekly sports passes available for £6.99 and £10.99 respectively). Then the next month you can stick with the same ones, add more, change them, or drop them altogether. This gives you more flexibility over your monthly bill.

You can also sign up for a Now TV Combo, which gives you broadband, landline calls and TV. There's more on this in the next section.

Of course you don't have to buy a Now TV Pass. You could just use the Smart Box as a Freeview and streaming box.

What about the downsides? It feels a little harsh pointing out what the box lacks, especially given its very affordable price point. But there are some omissions we feel we should highlight.

There's no 4K, for starters. (4K videos have four times as many pixels as standard high definition, making for a much sharper image.) The Roku 4 – which the Now TV Smart Box is based on – does have 4K, though. So its absence is a little disappointing.

There's no voice control either, so you'll have to make do with inputting text using the remote control's d-pad. And there's also no universal search option. Instead, you have to jump into each app to search for the show you want.

Perhaps a more basic oversight is the lack of volume buttons on the remote control, which means you'll have to keep your dedicated TV remote handy. There's a huge difference in volume between content watched through the apps, which are on the quieter side, and the live TV channels, which are REALLY LOUD. So you'd best keep your TV's remote handy.

Value for money

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At £39.99, the Now TV Smart Box is pricier than streaming rivals like the Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV Stick. But then it's cheaper than Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV.

Each streaming box has its own strengths – the Fire TV has 4K, for example – and none of the others have Freeview, making the Now TV Smart Box essentially a two-in-one set-top box.

It can also be had on a contract-free triple-play bundle called a Now TV Combo. These offer streaming TV, a landline and broadband for as little as £27.98 a month (that's £9.99 from Sky plus £17.99 line rental), plus a one-off £40 activation fee (£50 for the faster broadband options).

This basic bundle gives you 17Mbps broadband, the Entertainment Month Pass (with access to 11 Sky channels like Sky Atlantic and Sky 1), and no free landline calls.

You can mix and match your choice of pass and broadband speed. So the Sky Cinema Month Pass and a broadband connection of up to 38Mbps comes to £40.98 a month (including line rental). The priciest option is the Sky Sports Month Pass and up to 76Mbps broadband. That costs £69.98 a month, including line rental.

(Call packages cost £4 extra a month for free evening and weekend calls to UK landlines and mobiles, and £8 a month extra for unlimited calls to UK landlines and mobiles.)

If you're in for the long haul, you can sign up to a 12-month contract, and pay less every month. Then there's no set-up fee either.

Whether this is good value really depends on your needs. If you want some Sky content but don't want to shell out for the whole caboodle of Sky+ or Sky Q, and like the idea of contract-free broadband, a Now TV Combo is a really good bet.

But if you're happy with Freeview and on-demand offerings, you might better off buying the box standalone. You can always buy a Sports Pass if there's a match you have to see, or a Cinema or Entertainment Pass as and when you fancy.

And if you already have a Freeview box (or a Freeview tuner built into your TV) and just want the catch-up services like iPlayer and ITV Hub, you should buy the standard Now TV Box. At just £14.99, it's still a bargain.

Verdict

There are cheaper streaming boxes around, and cheaper ways of getting Freeview, but for a box that does both, the Now TV Smart Box is hard to beat. It lets you spend nothing on watching TV, or you can max out your credit card should the occasion arise.

It's not perfect. But if you're after a flexible, affordable ticket to binge-viewing, look no further.

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