Sky’s Now TV Box review round-up

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When it comes to the latest in audiovisual technology it wouldn’t be unfair to say Sky TV’s ageing satellite system is years behind the competition when it comes to streaming and catchup TV. And with the likes of LoveFilm and Netflix changing the landscape of TV consumption, Sky has finally realised that its current crop of set top boxes just can’t keep pace with the ever-changing world of Internet TV.

Step forth Sky’s Now TV box, a dinky little plastic box that you can pick up for less than a tenner, and upgrades your TV to a smart TV capable of streaming services like BBC iPlayer and access to Sky’s premium programming without the need of a satellite dish.

There are several reasons why Sky has launched the Now TV box. Firstly, their current raft of set top boxes just can’t compete with the Apple TVs and game consoles of the world. If you’ve ever plugged your Sky box into a broadband router you’ll know that catchup TV doesn’t really work with Sky’s legacy system. I tried it a few months ago and was prompted to download each show on iPlayer before I could watch them – hardly an ideal solution.

So it’s no surprise that their Now TV box looks to solve a lot of the issues Sky faces with its proprietary boxes: first up, the Now TV comes with built-in WiFi, which means Sky can now beam online content to consumers who don’t have a Sky dish. Now TV also grants access to a range of a free catchup services from likes of Channel 4’s 4oD and Channel 5’s Demand5 catchup service.

As well these free services you get access to Now TV’s Sky services, which offers a range of content from Sky TV including premium movies and sport. This mean Now TV is clever alternative for those who don’t actually have a satellite dish. At the moment a Sky Sports day pass costs £9.99, which gives you access to all of Sky’s sports channels for 24 hours.

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Sky Movies fairs a little better in the value for money stakes: the movies subscription costs a not unreasonable £8.99 per month for three months and £15 per month thereafter – better still there’s no yearly contract so you could subscribe for just a few months at a time.

There are downsides though: at the moment the Now TV is lacking quite a few apps you’d expect from an Internet TV service – so at the moment both LoveFilm and Netflix are missing in action. But you do get access to rudimentary versions of Facebook and Spotify – so you win some and lose some.

Techradar were impressed with the functionality on offer for the price during their hands-on review, but they too couldn’t forgive Sky for blocking out other services: “It should be pointed out that Sky is restricting some competing services from the library – and that means you can’t use this as a sneaky Netflix of LoveFilm box. Curses.”

Expert Reviews noted during their review that the set top box didn’t offer a value for money as an alternative to a full Sky Package but they did like the idea of a few friends chipping in for a big Premiership game using the system’s day pass: “At this price, it’s obviously not a replacement for Sky Sports on satellite for serious sports fans. Get a couple of mates to chip in and it’s actually quite reasonable.”

Expert Reviews weren’t enamoured by the quality of the streams either, which is limited to just 720p at the moment: “Unfortunately this the maximum output resolution the box runs at, and so though video quality is acceptable, it pales in comparison to 1080p content from Netflix or LoveFilm.”

Overall if you’re looking for a cheap way to add some smart functionality to an ageing TV, then Now TV is a no-brainer. If you’re looking for a box that supports both Netflix and Lovefilm then Now TV won’t serve you well for the time being – but for the price it’s hard not to be impressed by Sky’s first attempt at a fully-fledged Internet TV service.

Google’s Chromecast Review Roundup

Google Chromecast

Last week Google released a HDMI dongle called Chromecast, a week later the entire tech fraternity are still talking about it – so what is it and why is it so important?

Basically Chromecast is Google’s answer to Apple’s Airplay, but with a few added bells and whistles. Designed to be cheap (just $35), and simple to use: all you have to do is plug a Chromecast into your HDTV and you can watch content from a range of apps on your TV. As well as that you can also send tabs from Google’s Chrome web browser and beam them onto your TV, whilst using your device – whether it’s a phone, tablet, or computer – as the controller.

To get it going is fairly simple: plug the dongle into a HDMI port, then you need to either plug the dongle into a power source, or alternatively you can power the device via a spare USB port you might have on your TV. Once you’ve done that you need to download the Chrome Extension, then the Chromecast setup app and then, finally, connect the dongle to your home Wi-Fi network.

Once setup is complete you can start sending content from your device of choice to your TV. When you hit the Cast button in a supported app, the Chromecast directly connects to the Internet and streams the video itself, rather than streaming the content from the device. At the moment the only apps that have a cast button are Youtube, Netflix, Google’s various Play media apps.

If you have a smart TV, media player or games console, all of this functionality might not seem like that much of a revelation. But what you’re actually paying $35 for is the ability to simply put content from your laptop, PC, phone or tablet onto you TV. And when it works, it works really well.

With the Chrome Extension you can load your favourite video content and beam it to your HDTV at the press of a button, then you can use your device as the controller. Google says the tab casting feature is still beta, and it kinda shows. High quality video playback isn’t perfect, with dropped frames and audio lag often ruining playback at times, and if you’re computer has seen better days then you might notice lag between controller and screen.

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What have our fellow critics had to say about Chromecast?

“Could a small, plastic stick really deliver the type of functionality that so many other companies have failed to fully implement and utlilise? […] Once you select the Cast button in either app, Chromecast will play the video files while your device becomes the remote control. Since Chromecast is doing all the work, you can play with your device while watching TV. This means you can open and close apps and switch between tabs without disrupting your video. This also means you can switch platforms. For instance, when casting Netflix on Android, you could switch to iOS and continue managing your Netflix without a hiccup. To manage the currently streaming video, such as hitting rewind or pause, you have to use the original app (ie, Netflix, YouTube, etc) from which you “casted” the video. Google could easily circumvent this hassle by implementing playback buttons to Chromecast set-up app.” – Pocket-Lint

“The Chromecast basically offers two ways to get content onto your TV: from apps that support it directly, or by “Casting” content from the Chrome browser. […] It works well, for the most part. We had a couple of glitches at times, but 720p video streamed cleanly and there’s the option for 480p or 1080p depending on what headroom your network has. Switching between Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play takes a couple of seconds, no more frustrating than regular source-jumping on your TV.” – Slashgear

“Chromecast provides a much-needed low-cost means for migrating towards streaming services that immediately renders most of the recent advances in Smart TVs obsolete. […] The fact that Chromecast communicates directly with the cloud server means that once I load up a video, I can continue using my phone or tablet for other stuff without disrupting the movie. I can also queue up additional media directly to the TV so my mobile device doesn’t burn through its battery pushing the data from Netflix’s servers to the TV.” – Gizmodo

If you’re looking for a wireless solution to get your content from device to TV then Google’s Chromecast is a no-brainer for the price. Cinephiles would argue that the quality will never beat a traditional HDMI, and while that might true that’s not the point. Chromecast is all about convenience, and if Google can gets enough app developers onboard it could be a watershed moment for Google and it’s plans for the future of the TV, which so far haven’t exactly been all that great.

TWIG: Three’s Human Hotspots, Chilli WatchCam and LG’s NetCast

The Week in Gadgets

If you see one of these dudes in the streets, sidle up to them, they’ll probably have something you’ll find useful  – wifi. The ‘Human Hotspots’ will use Three’s MiFi®, which uses Three’s 3G network to create a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.

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I own a MiFi (I went out and bought one … well it was online so I stayed in and bought one … the point is Three didn’t give one to me) and it’s a spectacularly useful device – especially with the array of tablets, smartphones and gaming devices I carry on my person. Research by Three has shown that one third (31 per cent) of Brits are planning to buy one of this year’s hot mobile gadgets such as a tablet, Sony Playstation PSP and an Amazon Kindle, as a gift this Christmas, while 60 per cent of people already own a mobile gadget themselves.

You’ll find Three’s Human Hotspots in:

  • London  (Friday 19th November, if you can turn back time)
  • Cardiff (Friday 26th November)
  • Bristol (Saturday 27th November)
  • Nottingham (Saturday 4th December)
  • Newcastle (Saturday 11th December)

It seems like only yesterday that we were looking at Swann’s range of spy gadgets. Because it was. But it you didn’t quite get your fill of espionage related goods then you are in lucky as Chilli Technology have released the Watch Cam, a £44.99 time piece with a secret. Well a secret heavily implied in the name. The Watch Cam comes equipped with audio and video recording capabilities and can take jpeg stills as well. Recording is a one-touch affair and videos can be played back or edited on the PC. The internal memory is 2GB, which stores up to 2 hours of video captured via the 1.3 Megapixel/CMOS image sensor. The resolution is nothing fancy – simple 640 x 480 VGA, but you are unlikely to record a feature film on a watch (insert Clockers, Watchmen or War and Timepiece joke here). The battery should accommodate 2.5 hours of recording time. Chilli-Tech.

Own an LG TV? There’s a chance it just got a little bit better. Unlike the rapidly disappearing functionality of the Google TV, LG has enhanced its NetCast service to bring more internet TV services to users. Apps for your TV are the “next big thing” and LG have expanded their service offering to include Acetrax, Picasa, Google Maps, Facebook™, Twitter™ and an internet radio application. Bear in mind that a lot of these TVs feature DLNA, which means they can access your movies, pictures and music streamed over your home network. Which is insanely cool and slowly makes those set-top boxes piling up under your TV obsolete.