22nd Nov2018

‘Now TV 4K Smart Box’ Review

by Phil Wheat

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I like to think that we here at Nerdly have been real advocates for cord-cutting over the years, in fact from as far back as when we reviewed our very first Now TV in December 2013. Even before then, back when we were known as Blogomatic3000, I was a huge supporter of online services like blinkbox – we used that service from day one to stream movies (usually the free, often obscure, ones) long before everyone had a Netflix or Amazon Prime account.

But that was then and this is now; and we’ve come a long way, a VERY long way, since the early days of online streaming and set-top boxes. Services have expanded, quality has most-certainly increased… and so has the choice. After all, we’re now living in the age of Apple TV’s, Roku’s, Amazon’s Fire TV/Stick, Google Chromecast, Smart TV’s, and – the reason I’m writing this – the Now TV box.

Yet whilst the choice is still there, the playing field has been leveled somewhat. No longer are you tied into one companies box to recieve one companies service (unless of course you’re Amazon and Google, two companies who can’t get along when it comes to their services/boxes). Apps are now king and OTT set-top boxes have had to move with the times and, in some cases, embrace the competition. Case in point, the new Now TV 4K Smart Box – which now has more apps and more choice, including Netflix, a service some would say it a direct competitor to NowTV/Sky’s own Cinema Pass!

Back in 2013, when I reviewed the original little white Now TV box, I was impressed by the UI and said that I saw the Now TV being the future of my home entertainment in 2014. Well… it was, for a while. But the limitations of that original box (I had to sideload Plex on the device via a developers hack for example) meant I replaced it with an Apple TV once Apple brought apps to their fourth-generation device. I told you apps are now king! Now we have our hands on the very latest Now TV box, which not only has 4K capability (though not all the content supports 4K output) but also features voice search – because, as apps were once king, now voice control is king.

So what else has changed in the world of Now TV? Well quite a bit as it goes. The biggest change is the more open eco-system – there are more apps and more content providers available on the service than ever before, some of which aren’t available on the Apple TV. Though it works both ways, there are numeous apps I use on a regular basis on my Apple TV that aren’t on the Now TV – the main one being Plex. Which, to be fair, would be yet another competitor to the Sky Cinema Pass so it makes sense (from a business standpoint) that its not available through the Now TV app store. But there’s still plenty of apps to go at that are now standard on a myriad of other set-top boxes – including Vevo, YouTube, iPlayer, etc.

The biggest non-Now TV apps available on the 4K box, at least for me, are UKTV Play, Demand 5 (though My5 is on Apple TV), Box+ and PlutoTV. It’s however the latter that is the biggest surprise. PlutoTV is a US-based OTT network that features a number of channels/providers in one handy app – and whilst the service is currently limited, given that it only launched at the beginning of October and there are a ton of rights issues to iron out, it does hold some interesting content outside of the Sky programming eco-system: including an MST3K channel, a Riftrax channel, IGN TV and much more. Plus the PlutoTV on-demand service has a Shout! Factory specific “channel” allowing viewers to check out some of that huge US distributors content for free!

The heart of the Now TV 4K Smart Box is, of course, the Now TV service itself and how it integrates with both this Roku-powered box and the audiences day-to-day viewing habits.

Channel-wise I was surprised to discover that the Now TV box has no way of viewing any Freeview/Freesat content, something that I thought would be a given – especially considering free channels are available on pretty much every other OTT set-top box these days. Of course when you’ve got so many box sets and movies to chose from (if you’ve signed up to the Entertainment and Movies passes) are you even watching live TV? Of course you can still watch the major terrestrial channels via their respective apps but it seems odd that those too are missing from the built-in TV Guide. I get that voice search means that there’s almost instant access to anything on the Now TV box but I can guarantee that people will STILL go straight to the TV Guide rather than an app or the voice search.

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In terms of picture quality, watching television via the Now TV 4K Smart Box is hands down head and shoulders above what is capable on the Apple TV, at least for live TV. On Apple’s set top box we often watch live TV via the TV Player app which, frankly, cannot hold a candle to the Now TV box – even if you pay for the TV Player subscription and get the “higher” bitrate stream. It helps that we tested this box on a QLED set that is superb for upscaling lower-res images as, as previously mentioned, not all the output is at 4K resolution (the Now TV 4K Smart Box can output Ultra HD streams at 4K with HDR and up to 60fps – again dependent on the source) or even at 1080p. But with a decent upscaling TV you really cannot tell when watching 720p or 1080p streams – I will note the output quality is determined very much by the streams you’re watching and the apps you’re using rather the the Now TV box itself.

[SIDENOTE: I will say beyond the interface, which is remarkably dissimilar (the UI on the Apple TV app looks and feels like Now TV circa 2013) there's no real difference in terms of image quality between using the Now TV app on the Apple TV and the Now TV box itself].

In terms of software, what I do like about the current Now TV interface is how responsive it is – flicking back and forth between channels and apps is a breeze and we didn’t experience any lag between the remote and our TV. What also impressed about the current software on the box is the My TV option, which takes a leaf out of the Netflix/Amazon model, insomuch as you can mark shows as favourites and they’ll show up on the “homepage” of Now TV – however Now TV take it one step further, adding a My TV button to the remote to quickly access your favourites (there’s also instant access buttons for the TV Guide, the Kids section of Now TV and the Sky Store). Yet one of the best, and most useful aspects of the Now TV software seems, at least based on other reports about the device I’ve read, to have gone completely under the radar; maybe because the option is hidden deep within the settings menu! And that is the “Night Mode.”

Unlike traditional night modes, which darken the image for viewing in low light, this night mode reduces loud sounds – like explosions in action movies – billed as a great way to watch movies at night without waking up the rest of the house. However this “Night Mode” actually has a fantastic application outside of its intended use – it’s great for the hard of hearing. One complaint I’ve heard from hard of hearing relatives is that TV broadcasts, especially movies, often have quiet talking and loud action – but with the Now TV’s “Night Mode” that imbalance in the audio can be flattened out, meaning those who struggle hearing and usually constantly turn the volume up and down when watching such broadcasts can now turn up their TVs without fear of annoying the neighbours!
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A fantastic upgrade to the previous Now TV box (and experience) the Now TV Smart Box with 4K & Voice Search is the lowest priced 4K streaming device in the UK at £45.99 and is available from nowtv.com. It’s also available, bundled with a month’s Entertainment, Sky Cinema, Kids and Sky Sports Pass, for £49.99 from major retailers such as Argos and Currys PCWorld. If you act fast you can get one in Argos’ Black Friday deal for only £29.99

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