When Sky first revealed that it was to introduce another new Now TV box, it was widely presumed that it would feature 4K streaming. But even though Ultra HD content is coming to the company’s flagship TV offering, Sky Q, the Now TVSmart Box maxes out at 1080p.
It has another raison d’être instead: It doesn’t have a 4K video output but it does sport a digital TV tuner to watch free-to-air programming. So, ironically, the “Smart” addition to this generation of set-top-box is the only non-smart thing about it.
In terms of everything else, it’s business as usual. This Now TV box is as fully featured as the smaller, older model. It hooks up to the internet through a wired or wireless connection and as well as the wealth of Sky movies, TV shows and sports on offer through different Now TV non-contract monthly passes, it has a collection of streaming applications to access through the homepage.
So is the digital tuner worth the extra cash the 2016 Now TV box costs? Or would you be better off opting for the cheaper device and using the Freeview tuner on your TV?
Now TV 2016 review: Worth paying for?
The answers to those above questions are complex, as they entirely depend on how you acquire the box.
If you take a Now TV Combo deal, which costs a one-off, non-contract monthly fee for a TV package, broadband connection and landline, you get the Now TVSmart Box for no additional charge. And in that scenario it’s a non-brainer. You’re getting it anyway.
However, on its own it costs £50/$75 and that is harder to justify if you already own another box or TV with access to digital TV channels. After all, the standard NowTV box, with the same apps and connected functionality, costs £35/$52,5 less.
Now TV Smart review: TV tuner
That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to having the digital TV tuner in the same box as the rest of the gubbins. It’s cleverly integrated, having its own tile amongst recommended content on the homepage.
Picture quality is decent, especially on the HD channels which utilises its 1080p output. Sky’s own services stream at 720p, so are a touch softer, but they maintain that throughout viewing we find. They don’t have crazy bitrate peaks and troughs like some other services when faced with internet connectivity foibles.
The box is capable of 7.1 audio, but given that we have a 5.1 system we’re not sure if it ever reaches those highs with usual video fare. What we have heard is crisp, clean and accurate though.
It also has an excellent seven-day electronic programme guide (EPG), that can either be brought up in full through the homepage menu, by hitting the left arrow when watching live TV, or viewed through a mini-guide at the bottom of the screen. It is content rich and has all the channel logos for easy identification. Switching between channels is effortless and painless.
Now TV 2016 review: Pause and rewind
This is standard for most digital TV devices, but we do like the Now TV Smart Box’s ability to pause and rewind live TV, for up to 30-minutes of broadcast. You don’t even need to add storage for the feature to work, it does so from the box.
You can pop a microSD card or USB stick into one of the available ports, but that’s for playing back content stored on them rather than use them to boost storage capabilities. You can therefore view JPG photos, for example, watch MP4 or MKV videos, or listen to a variety of audio files through the box. You cannot record TV shows onto the card/USB though.
To be honest, thanks to ITV Hub, BBC iPlayer, All 4 and Demand 5 coming as part of the initial installation package we’re not entirely sure whether you would miss recording – their content makes it all available online as catch-up.
And depending on which Now TV pass you subscribe to you also get a large amount of Sky shows, movies or sport on catch-up with too. There are entire box sets on-demand with an Entertainment Month Pass too. We find there are few things worth watching that aren’t covered in some way through streaming.
YouTube is also available among the 50 or so apps you can download. As is Spotify if you want music streaming, and TuneIn Radio, although all of the UK’s digital radio stations are also supported by the built-in tuner.
Now TV Smart review: Catch up on-demand
We particularly like the way that content is presented in the Best of Catch Up section on the main menu. As well as Sky channels and shows, it features direct access to services from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and it shows some of their highlights that you can jump right into.
The menu system itself is generally simple to navigate and use. The home screen shows the current live TV show, running picture-in-picture, while other suggestions are from different Now TV packages – depending on your subscriptions. Sky Store rentals can also appear at times.
As previously mentioned, there is a TV guide section that has tabs for free-to-air television, Now TV and radio. And there is a My Apps area and the App Store to download further services to add to the box. You won’t find direct Skyentertainment rivals here though, such as Netflix or Amazon. They might come in time but we doubt it.
Now TV 2016 review: Simple setup
The last menu choice is access to the box’s settings, which you’re best advised to familiarise yourself with. Indeed, you’ll need to visit it as soon as you plug in the box for the first time.
You have to set up the box after plugging in the HDMI, power and aerial leads (the last of which is not included with the box). You’ll be given the choice between wireless and wired internet connectivity, then asked to sign into your Now TV account.
You won’t need to have a Now TV paid subscription of any kind, but you will need to register for an account regardless. This will also include putting in your payment details in case you want to subscribe to one of the passes at a later date. Fortunately, though, without a contract you can cancel at any time and only pay for the month before it expires. It’s a good way to pay to watch a series of, say, Game of Thrones, without having to commit to a longer term.
It takes a few minutes to set up the streaming aspects of the box, and then you need to set up the TV tuner too. Scanning for channels takes less time than downloading the start-up apps, but you have to head to the settings section yourself to start it off. It would have been nice if the whole process was part of the initial wizard.
The remote control is typical for Now TV hardware. It is small enough, runs on two AAA batteries (included in the box), but is fairly plastic to the touch. It’s practical to use and has a Now TV button to jump straight into that specific app, and a Sky Store button if you wish to purchase more current movies.
The box itself is similar to the previous generation device, only larger, flatter and more conspicuous. It’s still tidy enough to hide in an AV cabinet or on asideboard, and offers a smaller footprint than many internet-connectedFreeview boxes we’ve encountered over the years.
It’s odd that in the States, the equivalently shaped and styled Roku 4 box outputs 4K video, while the Now TV Smart box does not (Roku builds both). Still, at least Sky is offering customers who can’t have one of its full satellite propositions a worthy alternative. And, with 60 plus live TV channels and tonnes of on-demand content, the 2016 box certainly shows its worth.
When put like that, we can see why the Now TV Smart Box exists. Yes, we have plenty of access to Freeview channels, including the HD ones, through our televisions already, but for ease of use, it’s better to have it all controlled through one box and one remote. Having to switch between sources constantly on a TV can be a pain.
However, we’re not sure if that entirely justifies a near £50 spend, especially minus the 4K access and without Netflix or Amazon (like the Roku 4), but with a Now TV Combo it works well as an alternative to other paid TV solutions. And even if you ditch your non-contract TV package after a while, you get to keep the box anyway. That in itself will be incentive enough for many.