Sky's new Now TV Smart Box is in many ways very similar to its existing Now TV Box. It still offers a temptingly cheap way of getting Sky's suite of Now TV streaming services onto your TV, it still offers access to a wide range of other on-demand services, and Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are still annoyingly absent.
[Update: Since the original release of the Now TV Smart Box there's been a lot of movement in the set-top box market. For one thing, most TVs sold nowadays have streaming services built in, negating the need for a set-top box entirely, but we've also seen boxes embrace 4K streaming with the Roku Streaming Stick+, the Amazon Fire TV, and Chromecast Ultra.
All of this means the Now TV Smart Box isn't quite the same value that it once was. Unless you spot a deal that includes several free months of Now TV, then you might be better off with a Freeview Play set-top box instead.]
The main thing that's new here is the inclusion of a Freeview HD tuner for watching TV, which also allows you to pause and rewind as you watch. This means there's a decent case to be made for Sky's new box being the only thing you need to plug into your TV.
Whether this really is the only box you need, however, is something of a vexed issue, as it depends on a few things – namely how 'smart' your existing TV is, what streaming services you currently use, and how you like to watch live TV.
Before we get deeper into those considerations, let's look at what you get with the Now TV Smart Box.
Features and set-up
The Now TV Smart Box costs £50, or it’s free as part of Sky’s new triple-play Now TV Combo offering, which enables you to pay for TV, phone and internet services on a monthly basis, without having to sign up to a contract. Prices for that start at £9.99 a month (not including line rental).
If you don’t take advantage of Now TV Combo, you can access Sky’s TV services via the traditional Now TV route of purchasing monthly passes for Entertainment, Sky Cinema, Kids and Sports programming (sports fans can also purchase weekly or 24-hour passes), and via the Sky Store app.
The Smart Box itself is a 1080p-resolution Roku-manufactured device, and comes supplied with power and HDMI cables, and a remote control. Note, though, that you don’t get an aerial cable, so you’ll have to buy one separately if you don’t have one lying around.
On the rear of the device you’ll find the HDMI and aerial ports, as well as an Ethernet port should you wish to use a wired internet connection (Wi-Fi up to 802.11n is supported). There’s also a microSD card slot under the HDMI port, but you’ll need a keen eye to spot it.
The microSD slot, along with a USB port on the right of the device, can be used to play back video files (in MP4 or MKV format), music files (in AAC, MP3 or WMA format), or to view JPEG, PNG or GIF images.
There are no separate audio-out options – your only option is to have the audio channeled via the HDMI connection.
The box comes with 12 apps as standard, including Now TV and Sky Store (naturally), BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, YouTube and Vevo, and there are numerous others available through the built-in app store, including Spotify, IGN and Facebook.
Disappointingly, however, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video continue to be absent from Sky’s Now TV box, so if you subscribe to either of those services you’ll need to have another device hooked up in order to access them.
Setting up the device is relatively painless. Simply plug in the power, HDMI and aerial cables (alongside the optional Ethernet cable), and turn on the device.
You’ll be walked through a couple of initial steps, including entering your Wi-Fi username and password, and selecting your resolution. The device will then scan for Freeview channels, and finally you’ll find yourself at the Smart Box’s home screen.
Once you’ve set up your Smart Box the home screen is what you’ll see when you first turn it on, and you can go there at any time by pressing the home button on the remote.
The top left tile of the home screen shows a live feed of the last channel watched, while the others will show a curated selection of on-demand titles from Now TV and other services.
When I checked out the home screen the selection was dominated by picks from Now TV, although there were a couple of options from the BBC and Channel 5 in there as well; this may change over time, depending on what’s available.
The next menu down the list is a ‘Best of Catch Up’ selection, which is dedicated to the five main on-demand services. Each app gets its own row, featuring a link to the app itself at the far left, and 10 top picks from that service.
This is helpful if you’re just browsing for something to watch, but if you want to search for a particular programme you’ll have to boot into the specific app; there’s no universal search feature along the lines of what you get with the Roku 4.
The next item in the list is the TV Guide. There are three tabs here: one for the device’s 60 free-to-air Freeview channels, one for the Now TV streaming channels, and one for radio stations.
From here you can select any of the Freeview TV channels or radio stations, and they’ll play more or less instantly.
Annoyingly, though, selecting any of the Now TV channels doesn’t take you directly to that channel; instead it will launch the Now TV app, and from there you need to select the channel again.
This is especially grating if you’ve scrolled down a fair way to select the channel you want on the first list, as you’ll be dumped right back to the top of the new list; it’s a small thing, but it makes the experience feel a lot less cohesive, and more like a collection of apps than a selection of platform-agnostic content.
When you’re watching Freeview content you can press the up and down keys on the remote to scroll through channels, or press left to view a list of available channels – it’s here that you might start to wish the remote (which is the same as the one that was included with the last Now TV Box) had a number pad to enable you to jump quickly to a specific channel.
You can also pause and rewind up to half an hour of live TV, but the absence of recording functionality is unfortunate. Yes, many shows will be available on the various catch-up services, but inevitably many others won’t; additionally, having the ability to record shows means you have a permanent copy, with most catch-up content expiring after a set period.
Our final stops on our tour of the menus are the My Apps list, which enables you to select apps directly, and the App Store, which enables you to download more. Each app has its own interface, and some are definitely easier to navigate with the Smart Box’s remote than others.
It’s in the My Apps list that you’ll find the Sky Store, where you’re able to purchase movies and TV shows to stream whenever you wish.
It feels odd that the Sky Store doesn’t have a menu all to itself, given that it has a dedicated button on the remote, but at least the button makes it easy to get to.
An annoying result of the Sky Store being a separate app within the Smart Box is that you need to sign into your Now TV account a second time before you can make any purchases. Again, this makes the Smart box feel like a collection of separate apps rather than a single unified experience.
This sign-in process is thankfully a one-time thing, but it’s annoying all the same.
As for the remote, it’s a perfectly passable experience, but it’s not the best around.
Amazon Fire TV‘s Alexa has brought voice search to streaming boxes, Roku has its remote built into an app for phones and tablets, and even your average Freeview box has a numpad to enable you to quickly skip to the required channel.
Compared to those, navigating through channels using the Smart Box’s minimalistic remote can feel like a chore, especially when you’re skipping from a channel like E4, which is pretty far down the TV guide, to ITV, which is near the top.
It’s not a bad remote by any means. It’s fast and responsive, and you can certainly do most of what you need to do quite easily; but it’s also exactly the same as the remote that came with the streaming-only Now TV box, and I can’t help thinking it would benefit from a few more buttons to help users get around the expanded selection of content a little more easily.
Sky’s Now TV service might be limited to 720p resolution, but the Smart Box itself is a 1080p machine. This means that it’s the streaming services themselves that get to decide between 720p and 1080p.
It would’ve been nice to see Sky offer up an Ultra HD 4K streaming box like the Roku 4 – although with only Netflix and Amazon Prime currently offering 4K streams, and with both of those services absent from the Smart Box, the increased resolution would, as it stands, be of limited use.
I watched a variety of content, from live TV through Freeview to on-demand viewing and live TV streamed through apps, and the video quality was consistent with my previous experiences of each of the major services.
Obviously various factors will influence the quality of the images you receive, such as your internet speed and television reception, but in my experience the Now TV Smart Box delivers solid image quality, with little in the way of artifacting.
Sound quality is also good. I wasn’t able to test the box through its maximum 7.1 surround sound configuration, but a 90W Roth Audio sound bar I had to hand made audio sound crisp and clear.
In my introduction I said that deciding whether the Now TV Smart Box was for you was a complicated question, and hopefully by now you’ll have an idea of why.
There’s nothing especially bad about the device, but it’s usefulness to you will depend on what streaming services you use, how you like to watch live TV, and what your current setup is.
If you currently have a smart TV that offers you access to Now TV, then the Smart Box will add the ability to pause and rewind live TV.
Or, if you don’t have a smart TV but do have a streaming box, then the Smart Box’s contribution to your setup will be putting Freeview and streaming into one place – but you won’t want to throw away your existing streaming box if you use Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The Now TV Smart Box is great at bringing Freeview and streaming services together into a single package. The two elements are combined nicely, and it’s easy to jump between them.
Picture quality is good, and support for up to 7.1 surround sound systems is an welcome inclusion.
The absence of Netflix and Amazon Prime is disappointing, and ultimately means that you’ll have to have a back-up streaming box available if you want to enjoy these services. And, while many programs will be available on on-demand services, Freeview recording functionality is another unfortunate omission.
Navigating the numerous menus with the included remote can feel clunky, especially when it comes to the Freeview channels. The device’s various apps feel very separate, and there’s no ability to search for content regardless of platform.
At times the Now TV Smart Box can feel like a jack of all trades and master of none.
On the one hand it offers Freeview, but it doesn’t have the ability to record – and dedicated Freeview boxes tend to be easier to navigate thanks to the number pads on their remote controls.
On the other hand it also offers streaming services, but the absence of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video prevents the Smart Box from being a one-stop-shop for all your TV and movie content.
So, if you want a budget box that combines a functional Freeview machine with a handful of catch-up services, the Now TV Smart Box could be exactly what you need.
But if you’re big into your streaming or flexible TV viewing respectively, you might be better off going for a dedicated machine for each.