We've seen a lot of high-end media streaming hardware turn up in the last few months, but the li'l NOW TV box is one of the neatest overall packages.
It may not have the power of the SHIELD device, the wealth of 4K content of the Amazon Fire TV, nor the appstore of the new Apple TV, but it's a mere £15 and the easiest way to get Sky TV into your home without signing a pact with the devil.
Or a contract with BSkyB.
The NOW TV service was an early response to non-contract TV services, like Netflix, offering premium video content for a no-strings-attached monthly fee, as well as the decline of the linear TV model.
Sky has updated the NOW TV box and the new 2015 version retains all the goodness off the original with a few little twists to bring it up to date.
NOW TV box hardware
Like the original version, the new NOW TV box is made by Roku and rebranded with the NOW TV stamp. It's actually just a Roku 3 box with the extended functionality of that device toned down so as not to cannibalise Roku's market.
After all, if this £15 box was able to do the same job as the £80 model there might be some issues. Though with a little light Google work you might be able to do something about that…
What that means on the hardware side is the USB port and microSD slot, which might have had you thinking it might be a bargain way to get extra content onto your TV, are DOA. They've both been disabled right out of the box.
It also means you can't get the app support or the media playback Roku's own box offers.
The big new offering on the hardware side though is that there is now a wired ethernet connection on the new NOW TV box, supplementing the WiFi connection, to allow for more robust, reliable streaming capabilities. The original had to make do with WiFi only, which led to some buffering woes on occasion. Though the WiFi too has been improved, now offering 802.11ac connections.
The internals have been improved as well, with the new processor at the heart of the NOW TV box now able to cope with 1080p streams. That though is only when you actually purchase content from the Sky Store, the standard NOW TV streams tap out at 720p.
NOW TV box service
At its most basic, the NOW TV contains all the UK catch-up TV services. So there are BBC's iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and Demand 5 apps on offer for nothing more than the £15 ticket price. But the main thrust of the NOW TV box is access to the NOW TV service itself.
There are three content packages on offer, and you can mix and match as you see fit.
There is a movies pack, an entertainment pack and a sports pack. And there are different ways of accessing the lot, but mercifully it's all very simple.
The easiest way to go is to pick up the NOW TV box as a bundle. The price then jumps to £25, but that will net you the box, plus either a two day sports pass, a two month movie pass or three full months of the entertainment packages.
As you can tell the sports package is the crown jewels of the NOW TV service and it's really making the non-contract folk pay through the nose for sporting action. Sky is making sure if you want the sports you'll pay for a contract.
The other two packages though are pretty good value, and where NOW TV scores over its on-demand rivals is that it isn't just completely eschewing linear TV.
Within all the packages you get the live TV channels as well as the on-demand content.
Sure, the live movie channels are a bit of a waste, given that you're unlikely to watch half way through a movie if you can also just go and start it up with a little navigation. But live sport is what the seven Sky Sports channels are all about, and the entertainment package gives you access to a full thirteen premium entertainment channels too.
After the initial bundle runs dry the movie passes run to £9.99 per month and the entertainment pass at £6.99 per month. The sports passes though can be picked up in daily, weekly or monthly flavours, for £6.99, £10.99 or £31.99 respectively. Pricey, but if you just want to get involved in an Ashes series or want to get the gang around to watch the big match then it's the easiest, cheapest way to go sans contract.
You also have access to the Sky Store where you can buy Full HD movies to rent or buy, both streaming from the NOW TV box.
NOW TV box verdict
It really is one of the most simple ways to get a little smarts into your dumb TV and most definitely the cheapest. Plug it in, setup an account, buy a pass and you're done.
The interface is clean and simple, making it easily navigable from your sofa via the basic little remote control.
Playback is generally dependent on your interwebby connection, but we didn't encounter any issues on our home setup. Content started quickly and remained robust in its stream. Blessedly there are also no adverts to contend with when it comes to the on-demand video. There are the Sky indents where there would be ad breaks, which feels a little odd to begin with, but they last only a few seconds.
Inevitably you are entirely restricted to Sky's NOW TV service when it comes to paid-for goodies - it's not letting you get either your Netflix or Amazon Prime fixes here. That's a real shame, but understandable given this subsidised box's raison d'etre is purely to extend the reach of Murdoch's televisual empire in the face of the non-contract, on-demand revolution.
The lack of HD streaming is also a concern - especially where the SHIELD and Fire TV are boasting of future-proofed 4K connections - but again highlights the entry-level nature of this wing of the Sky TV empire. Like the Sky Go service, NOW TV is there to supplement the contract subscriptions of the full Sky package, and has been deliberately hobbled - most obviously in the quality of the stream - to ensure it can't cannibalise the main service.
Given the impressively low ticket-price though you almost can't begrudge it that.
For £15 then you get a box that will give you access to a huge range of movies, entertainment channels and TV box sets or a wealth of live sports, as and when you want to dip into it. Leave the service untouched over the Summer and when the nights start drawing in and the sofa calls - or you grow weary of the Netflix choice - pick it up for another month.
The box itself is perfunctory at best, but gives you easy access to the service for less than the price of a Chromecast.