The Now TV Smart Box has been revamped, just as the nation prepares to hunker down in front of the telly for the winter.
Pricier than its predecessor at £45.99 and substantially more costly than Now TV's £14.99 Smart Stick, the fresh take on the TV streaming gadget now has 4K and voice search.
But just as Now TV giveth, it taketh away too. Unlike the previous the Now TV Smart Box, the new one doesn't have a Freeview tuner. So you won't be able to use it to watch the likes of Dave or Yesterday (though you can watch the BBC live through the iPlayer app).
So what are the new features like, and are they enough to justify the higher price? And is the lack of Freeview a deal-breaker? Let's take a look.
If you’ve used a Now TV device before, you know the drill. It’s about the size of a hockey puck, designed to sit beneath your TV. In the box are a remote control with batteries, two connecting cables, a couple of booklets on how to use it, and that’s about it.
It’s a little smaller than the previous Smart Box, and lighter, thanks to the lack of a Freeview tuner. It’s about the size of the model before that, i.e. small enough to fit in a coat pocket.
Like previous models, it’s made by Roku, who specialises in making streaming boxes and sticks. Sky makes no effort to hide the fact, with a ‘Roku powered’ logo on the start-up screen.
Apart from the lack of Freeview, it’s a very similar device to its predecessor. It still has ports for an ethernet, HDMI and power cables on the back, and there’s a microSD card slot for loading on content manually.
The most immediate aesthetic difference is that the Now TV logo on the top is now pink, as opposed to blue on the previous generation.
But there are two key differences when it comes to the remote control.
Firstly, it now has power and volume buttons for controlling your TV. Secondly, there’s a microphone button that activates voice search.
Otherwise, the remote is pretty unchanged – still small and ergonomic enough in the hand.
As with previous Now TV Smart Boxes, setting it up is a doddle. Plug in the power and HDMI cables (and ethernet if you prefer a wired internet connection to wi-fi), and you’re halfway there. Then it’s a simple case of signing in on a mobile device or computer.
If you don’t have a Now TV account, you’ll have to set one up. But don’t worry, it won’t cost you anything. You only pay if you buy one of the Now TV passes that it offers, for sport, films, entertainment or kids’ shows. But more on those later.
The box analyses your HDMI connection to see if your TV can support 4K. If so, great – you can watch in a resolution that has four times as many pixels as high definition. If not, you’ll be stuck with HD, which isn’t exactly a hardship.
The box will perform a software update the first time you fire it up, so you’ll have to wait while the progress bar fills up. But then you’re good to go.
Performance and software
The box runs well enough. It’s not quite as smooth an experience as Sky Q, but then it’s a very different proposition, plus it costs a lot less.
The menu is simple to navigate, with nice big pictures and categories down the left-hand side. You’ve got Home, Best of Catch Up, TV Guide, My Apps, Search, App Store and Settings. These are all self-explanatory, so we’ll just jump straight to the new features.
Voice Search is a neat extra. Say “Matt Damon” while holding the microphone button, and it’ll deliver a selection of the bum-chinned actor’s finest work, including the recent Downsizing, The Great Wall and True Grit.
Try “Comedy”, and it’ll show you a range of comedy films. It works similarly well for directors, TV shows and film names.
So what of its limitations? It can’t search Netflix, so you’ll be out of luck if you search for Making a Murderer, Better Call Saul, or any other hit show on the streaming service.
Still, we should just be happy Netflix is here at all – Sky’s rivals like Amazon, Virgin and BT have been offering Netflix for years, but Sky has only just got round to adding it to Now TV and Sky Q. It’s not so much late to the party, as helping clean up afterwards.
A Voice Search for “4K” returned no results. Actually, that’s not quite true – it turned up the actor K.K. Glick, who played Claire in Master of None. No doubt she’s a fine actor, but she wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.
Our test TV wasn’t 4K, so we couldn’t test this feature. We couldn’t see any 4K content – Sky assures us this is because our TV couldn’t handle it, rather than it not being prominently displayed. There’s no separate 4K section, which seems a bit of a shame as putting all that content in one place seems like a no-brainer, especially as 4K is one of the main selling points of the device. As it is, you’ll have to make do with what 4K content there is on Netflix.
But enough about 4K. The remote control’s new buttons work like a treat, and mean you don’t have to keep your TV’s dedicated remote to hand.
Netflix works just as you’d expect. You have to load the app to see its content, though the occasional show is sprinkled throughout the highlights in the main menu. As ever, these are heavily skewed in favour of Sky shows, however. Which is par for the course for Now TV devices. It’s Sky’s party, after all.
Now TV requires you to buy a series of passes in order to unlock its content. These range from the Kids Pass (£3.99 a month), up to the Sky Sports Month Pass (£33.99 a month). You can also get Sky Sports on a daily (£7.99), weekly (£12.99) or monthly mobile-only (£5.99) basis, as well as an Entertainment Pass (£7.99 a month), hayu reality TV Pass (£3.99 a month) or Sky Cinema Pass (£9.99 a month).
You can mix and match passes each month, or drop them altogether if you like. It’s a very flexible way of watching Sky’s content without tying yourself into a long and pricey contract. Though it can be a bit confusing, so do your research and see if it suits your needs before you buy.
Value for money
At £45.99 (or £49.99 with a one-month Entertainment, Sky Cinema and Kids Passes, plus a Sky Sports Day Pass), the Now TV Smart Box with 4K & Voice Search is marginally cheaper than the Amazon Fire TV Stick (which does much the same thing). But it’s a lot cheaper than the Apple TV.
It’s also cheaper than the Roku Streaming Stick+ (which, like the Amazon and Apple, also has 4K), but pricier than the non-4K Roku Express.
If you think it’s a bit steep and aren’t fussed about 4K and voice search, you can always opt for the Now TV Smart Stick, which costs just £14.99. It too has Netflix, and all the same apps and catch-up TV as the full-fat Smart Box.
The Now TV Smart Box with 4K & Voice Search is a winner. It’s powerful, capable, and its new features bring it in line with its rivals. Whether it’s the best device for you depends very much on where you like to get your content.
If you have Amazon Prime, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is probably the best for you, as Now TV still doesn’t offer Amazon Prime Video.
Are you a household filled with Apple devices? The Apple TV will fit seamlessly into the mix. And if you’re brand agnostic, maybe Roku is the manufacturer for you.
But if you like Sky’s offerings but don’t want to sign up to a contract, this device is a smart option (pardon the pun).
The addition of Netflix has just made it a stronger proposition. And if it is too pricey for you, the Now TV Smart Stick will handle all your streaming needs.