Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Unboxing Broadband, part 2: more TV, Now!

New broadband, new TV too. NowTV from Sky shows how to do TV 2.0 correctly. But sorry Sky, you’re too expensive.

Last month, I wrote that I thought NowTV from Sky was the closest to answering what was wrong with TV, the fact that TV industry are more focused on tech than programmes. My first impressions of NowTV in the flesh are very positive, that it is close to being the answer due to the ease of use and availability of content. However, it's weak point is the price of content.

The reason I decided to put my money where my blog was, was because of the cost. The box itself costs £10, and there's an offer for the first 6 months of Sky Movies for £15. So for £25, the price of a good-quality HDMI cable, I get a free streaming box and free movies to cover the Christmas period. Cancel the Lovefilm, away we go!

The purchase process was very smooth, completely zero touch, and the only human intervention was needing to be in when the STB was delivered by Royal Mail. Logistics to the home still isn't up to the standard of personalisation and convenience that we are now used to through e-commerce.

The other thing I noticed about the purchase process was that the design is consistent from advertising, to web site, to emails, to packaging, to industrial design and through to the UI. This coherence is very pleasing, and makes the product desirable, rather than simply a means to the end of getting more TV.

Another note on the packaging: I was pleased to see extensive use of recyclable materials, mostly cardboard. I also read that the box draws 1W of power, probably less than my TV on standby. All consumer goods should be mindful of their environmental impact over their entire lifecycle, from manufacture, in use, and to disposal. Technology shouldn't cost the earth.

First boot was very easy. The language of the instruction booklet looked friendly and clear, but of course I didn't use it. I needed a login, which was my SkyID, which I couldn't remember, which necessitated my first trip to the web site. The UI directed me to first update the software, then allowed me to have a look around. By default, NowTV, iPlayer and Demand 5 apps are loaded. The Roku channel is also available, through which you can enable other Internet TV channels - I downloaded CNET, TED and TWiT.

The second trip to the computer was to find out how to program my über remote control to talk to the NowTV box. There were a couple of posts, one on the NowTV forums and one on the Logitech forums, which when put together provided the answer. This also illustrates another way that the NowTV services excels; by providing on-demand support on a friendly and well-moderated forum.

So then some testing. This is the first time that the NowTV box wasn’t superlative. HD from BBC iPlayer looked a little worse than via my older but upgraded Humax HD-Fox T2, and I haven't found Dolby Digital yet. Because I was doing A/B testing, I assume the difference in quality wasn’t because of the particular ABR profile being streamed. Besides, that’s the whole point of a big fat broadband pipe. I read that Sky Movies will be output in 720p, so I look forward to seeing if Sky's own content fares better.

Finally, to a significant difference in philosophy between the NowTV box and other similar products like Apple TV: Sky hasn’t hobbled the box to prevent hacking community upgrades. There’s enough of a technical barrier to make it unattractive to novices, but those with a small amount of savvy can add beta software quite easily. This is because the NowTV box is only a cosmetically changed Roku LT box, and does everything that that £60 STB with a happy hacking community does. Which makes it an even bigger bargain. I’m looking forward to doing some hacking upgrading shortly.

To conclude then: NowTV is easy to purchase, easy to install, easy to watch content, great choice of content, and it's easy to upgrade. Judgement is reserved on picture and sound quality.

However I shan't be keeping it. You see, once the honeymoon is over after the initial 9 months, subscription goes up to £15 per month. We'll then go back to Lovefilm, which for £10 per month, will stream HD movies, and give us a couple of blu-rays to watch at home for that cinema experience. Sorry Sky, you're too expensive.

More in this series: part 1, part 3.

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