The race to dominate the exploding low cost video on demand market is gaining speed. Sky, a late starter, has been slowly but surely fortifying its non-contract Now TV service, and is moving up the field. An early launch, limited by apps and onerous pricing, has now given way to a well honed and affordable alternative to the likes of Netflix and Lovefilm Instant.
So what does Now TV actually offer content wise, what's on the cards and what's the best way to view it?
What's on Now TV?
Unlike Sky's contract platform, Now TV is a dip-in/leave whenever proposition, that combines a slew of fairly recent movies, with major sports coverage.
New subscribers get a 30 day free trial for the movie service, which then migrates to a monthly fee of £8.99. This auto renews, and you can bail at any time.
By way of comparison, Netflix and Lovefilm are packaged at £5.99 p/m. However while their films aren't quite so factory fresh, both offer exclusive TV content which Now TV can't (yet) match.
Still, for less than a tenner, there's a tempting selection of movies on tap. New releases become available in line with their appearance on Sky's contract platform, which means viewers benefit from the broadcaster's comprehensive Hollywood deals; Tarantino's Django Unchained and weepie wailer Les Miserables landed on Now TV simultaneously with their appearance on Sky+ HD On Demand.
Every major studio release is certain appear here, shortly after the DVD/Blu-ray release window and considerably before appearing on lower cost streaming rivals. As you'd expect, movie channels are themed by genre: Disney, All-Time Greats, Action, Comedy, Family, Crime and Thriller, Sci-Fi, Horror, Drama, Romance, Indie and Classics. The Now TV service also curates special 'collections,' be they martial arts movies, musicals or action flicks.
You can even browse Sky's promo 'Specials' created to plug box office releases like Captain Philips and Blue Jasmine before they get transmission slots. Navigation around the platform is generally intuitive and involving.
While the Now TV movie library doesn't build in perpetuity, you are notified when titles are coming to the end of their run.
Now TV also offers a Sky Sports Day Pass for £9.99. This is a very different proposition to the satcaster's all-you-can-eat sports subscription packages. The pass allows you to watch all six Sky Sports channels, including Sky Sports F1, for 24 hours. It's envisaged that viewers will use the service as an event purchase, rather than gorge daily. The price appears a good deal if you're not looking for a full smorgasbord of pay sports. Get some chums around and all contribute a couple of quid for a specific event, and the ticket seems entirely reasonable.
But that's not all. In addition to sports and the various movie channels available, there's more to come from Now TV's programmers. The next pay option looks likely to be an Entertainment package, bringing selected offerings from Sky One and possibly other related channels. As yet no official line up has been announced, as the package is probably pending licensing negotiations, but a 'best of Sky One' offering could give the upstart service a massive lift against rivals. BSkyB executives will no doubt be hoping to benefit from the 'box-set' viewing phenomenon.
What's the best way to watch Now TV?
Now TV is available on a variety of platforms. One key way to watch is via a smart internet-connected TV. LG currently has an exclusive deal to host the Now TV app on its Smart TV range, so don't expect to see it appear on a Samsung, Sony or Panasonic screen any time soon.
The service is also available on YouView set-top boxes, both the retail version and via BT's broadband and TV deal. There are also Now TV apps for iOS and Android, plus clients for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation3. It remains to be seen if it crops up on either next-gen games console too.
Alternatively you can buy a dedicated Now TV box, which is a coaster-shaped media streamer priced more like a pizza than a piece o' tech. Available directly from the Now TV website, it's just £9.99 – and that includes post and packing. You even get an HDMI cable bundled, a bonus you're unlikely to enjoy with any scooter-delivered Margherita. The Now TV box is both a dedicated portal to Sky's own services, as well as host to a range of third-party streaming content, including BBC iPlayer. Now TV is also available on Roku's media players.
While Now TV doesn't promote itself as a high definition service, it does use adaptive bitrate streaming. Consequently those with a fast broadband connection will be rewarded with very acceptable image quality, depending on the client in use. Sitting on the end of VirginMedia fibre, we found the service consistently delivered excellent image quality. Picture definition via such a fast connection is easily comparable to DVD, maybe even better. Slower connections will receive an appropriately slower stream.
Probably the best way to view Now TV is via the Now TV box. This snowy white version of the Roku LT features a Broadcom processor which upscales content to 720p. It's worth noting, however, that the audio provision from Now TV is stereo only.
Incidentally, if you're curious as to why Sky's Now TV offering is moulded in the shape of a Roku, it's because BSkyB made a strategic investment in the company mid-way through 2012. Sky's investment seems fortuitous, given the dramatic rise in low-cost subscription VoD services.
Now TV is fast turning into a legitimate force in the streaming media world. With industry analysts predicting a big rise in the subscription VoD habit, it's clear that Sky intends to make this offering more than just a stripped-back alternative to its expensive contract packages.
While Now TV works on even relatively slow broadband, given a fast service image quality can be considered extremely good. The only caveat is the lack of a surround sound option; however if you're a soundbar devotee rather than 5.1 cinephile this won't be a concern. As Sky continues to expand the reach of its huge library of programmes, and offer new ways to watch and – critically – pay for it, we rate Now TV the streaming service to watch.