Tuesday, 16 February 2016

NOW TV on trial

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

In light of my Virgin Media bill going up this month, I decided to reduce my TV package from XL to L. I wrote about the possibility of me taking this action awhile back, and I've got over enough of my misgivings since then.

My bill for XL TV, 70MB broadband, and free weekend phone calls... inflated to £71.98. By switching to the L TV package, 50MB broadband, and free weekend calls... it was reduced to £57.99—which is a saving of £13.99. Using that money I've clawed back, I subscribed to a £6.99 'Entertainment Pass' with Sky's NOW TV service.

My reasoning was simple: I think NOW TV provides me with most of the best TV shows I'm now missing without Virgin's XL"package—such as Fox's Agent Carter and The Walking Dead. The biggest loss with L is most of the 47 HD channels, but with NOW TV I claw several of those back. For example: I can get Sky1 on the L package, but not Sky1HD, but NOW TV's 'watch now' allows me to stream Sky1 in HD quality. This means I can still catch The Flash in high definition every week, for instance.

But does it really work out for the best? Losing 36 HD linear channels for the handful of perks of NOW TV still seems like a tough pill to swallow.

For those thinking of making a similar change to their TV package deal in the UK, here are my thoughts on NOW TV in general and the pros and cons of trying to cut ties with 'traditional TV' for 'online streaming alternatives':

PRO: Exclusives.
NOW TV gives me access to Sky Atlantic and ITV Encore, which aren't available on Virgin Media. It makes lots of Sky original and their HBO-exclusives accessible to me, where they just wouldn't have been before (big shows like Game of Thrones, The Knick, Fortitude, Penny Dreadful, Alan Partridge's Mid-Morning Matters, etc.)

CON: Convenience.
There's less convenience relying on NOW TV than letting my Virgin's TiVo box record things. You can't set a 'series link' and start to watch a recording 15-mins behind the live broadcast with NOW TV, to fast-forward through all the adverts.

NOW TV's live streaming works surprisingly well and its audio-visual quality is good (although the HD is maybe a touch 'soft' due to compression), but if something starts at 9PM you have to be there for 9PM. And being so 'enslaved' to scheduling is going back to pre-DVR days, right? It kind of defeats the point of modern TV tech.

PRO: Catchup TV.
Luckily, most episodes get transferred to NOW TV's 'Catchup' area after broadcast. So if you get used to checking there most days, rather like the habit you need to form with Netflix/Amazon, you'll have no trouble keeping up with your favourite shows.

CON: Time limits.
The NOW TV Catchup service works similarly to the BBC's iPlayer, which means things are 'removed' after a month. This wouldn't be the case with a DVR, which records and saves programmes until you choose to delete them. I guess it encourages people to get proactive and watch things quicker, whereas DVRs are often bloated with hundreds of TV shows you haven't watched and no longer have time for.

PRO: Box Sets.
NOW TV has lots of 'Box Sets', so you can binge-watch many television shows from the UK and U.S.

CON: Content Gaps.
While some TV show's 'Box Sets' are well catered for (you can get all of Hannibal, all of Boardwalk Empire, both seasons of The Knick, all of Justified, etc.), some shows are less populated (only season 1 of Game of Thrones is available!), some shows are weirdly absent (The Flash's first season's there, but nothing for Arrow), and content is still subject to removal (season 1 of Hannibal is vanishing soon, all 7 seasons of True Blood vanished days after I signed up, etc).

I'm not sure why this is, though. If Sky has a VOD exclusive deal with HBO, why aren't HBO's archival shows there all year round? Is can only be because HBO still want to encourage non-subscribers to shell out for their overpriced box-sets, right?

PRO: Design.
The design and functionality of the NOW TV app is very good. It's definitely faster to use and easier to find stuff compared to Amazon Prime. I'm using it on a LG smart TV, Playstation 4, and my iPhone app. I prefer using it on my PS4, mainly because my LG TV remote control has tiny buttons that are a pain to use.

CON: Speeds.
Like all apps, NOW TV can take a minute to load up. It's fastest through my iPhone and knocks spots off Amazon on all platforms. Nothing's as quick and simple as simply 'changing channel' on your TiVO, which is why NOW TV (and all VOD services) still feel like something you make a point of deciding to use. It's not yet easy enough to 'channel surf' there on a whim. Also, I've encountered times when the NOW TV app can be slow to 'quit' a programme and take you back to the main menu screen when using the PS4, so it can sometimes feel like something's gone wrong. And, on a few occasions, something has gone wrong and requires a reset of the app. Infuriating! You never get that with Netflix/Amazon.

Final Thoughts:

For a mere £6.99 a month (that's just 22p a day!), NOW TV's Entertainment Pass offers great value for money. I'd almost say it's essential if you love HBO's content and don't fancy getting a Sky satellite dish installed.

But will I still believe this in a few month's time, when I've caught up with most of the shows I've been missing out on until now? Maybe. As a place to access all the Sky original programmes, HBO content, and future Showtime content, there should be a steady monthly stream of good things to watch that justify £6.99. During the 2 ½ months when Game of Thrones is broadcast, I'm more than happy to pay less than £20 for that exclusive alone, and it's a cinch to begin/cancel/resume your NOW TV subscription ad hoc.

(As always, I'm concerned all these VOD services are using their low prices to lure people in, before doubling them once they've embedded themselves in our daily routines.)

However, fair warning: I'm lucky enough to have enough spare cash to also subscribe to Amazon Prime and Netflix. This means that any annoying gaps in NOW TV's catalogue can often be filled elsewhere (those missing Arrow episodes are on Netflix, for example), and those other services are far better for original shows everyone actually talks about (Daredevil, Mr Robot, Mad Dogs, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Better Call Saul, etc.) No offence, Hunderby.

For me, my main concern was simple: does losing a lot of HD content and channels with Virgin Media (saving me £14) even itself out when streaming NOW TV (which grants me access to Sky Atlantic exclusives and a smattering of those missing HD channels)? The answer, I think, is a tentative yes. Kind of. There are still some frustrations for the A/V enthusiast inside me (the irrevocable loss of E4 HD, More4 HD, ITV2-4 HD, Syfy HD), but if I'm being honest each of those channels only really broadcast a handful of TV shows I'd prefer to watch in HD anyway.