With a YouTube channel on Virgin, and Sky Sports and Sky Movies now on smartphones and tablets, the set-top box is fast being replaced by apps
Next time you sign-up to a digital TV package from the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT, don’t expect a man to come round to install a new black box under your telly – there’ll be an app for that.
It’s goodbye to rental fees, messy cabling and a relatively static channel line-up, and hello to a broader range of video content – both live and catch-up – delivered over the internet.
We’ve loosely divided our favourite streaming video apps and platforms into those specialising in catch-up TV and those largely offering films, but there’s plenty of crossover. They’re all accessible on their original home – the internet – though increasingly also via a mix of smart TVs, tablets, smartphones, set-top boxes and games consoles that are quickly allowing on-demand video to takeover from TV.
Would you buy a TV or set-top box that didn’t have one-touch access to the BBC iPlayer? The best catch-up TV service in the world, the BBC iPlayer received 174 million requests for programmes in December 2012, which makes it 22 percent more popular than in 2011. Huge growth, a jump in quality to HD, and the beginning of iPlayer-only broadcasting (starting with BBC Three dramas) are the headlines, but most important is the all-pervasive and improving app; it’s rare to find any entertainment device that doesn’t host the BBC iPlayer, while owners of a laptop, iPhone or iPad can physically download programmes to watch later though – sadly – not radio broadcasts.
Undeniably a great service delivered within a slick app it may be, but where is ITV Player? We spotted it recently within the Smart Hub of Samsung’s latest smart TVs – in an exclusive deal – but it’s nowhere near as prevalent as the BBC iPlayer. Watched on a desktop PC, laptop, phone or tablet, a brace of adverts play at the beginning of each selected programme and then randomly throughout. It can get irritating.
So easy to use and brilliantly designed, 4OD apps are nevertheless dominated by advertising. As many as six play before a selected programme starts, though it’s hard to resist 4OD’s habit of keeping much of its content online for a very long time. There are also many complete series available, including the likes of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, Shameless, Spaced, Father Ted andThe IT Crowd.
Like the BBC iPlayer, Sky’s free-to-subscribers internet and mobile TV service offers ‘watch later’ downloads
for laptops, phones and tablets, though doing so means subscribing to its Sky Go Extra, which costs extra €’s per month. As well as live Sky channels that mirror a Sky subscription, as of last month Sky Go now streams Channel 4 and More4 live as well as catch-up content from 4OD.
It’s known primarily as a place to share videos of kittens, but YouTube – now with a billion users worldwide –
is increasingly becoming the missing link in the fledgling era of web-based video delivery. Its key advantage is that its apps are available on almost every device, including all games consoles and all smart TVs, and it now offers dedicated ‘channels’ of content from ITV Player and 4OD, among others. There are plans to offer subscription-only channels, with film rentals imminent, too. Could this free-to-all service be about to take advantage of its dominance? Perhaps, but its new polished ‘leanback’ version for TVs (as well as on Freesat and Virgin Media’s TiVo box), which syncs across devices, is hard to resist.
Now TV is Sky’s effort to sell its programming to the masses. Available on all mobile devices and games consoles, and now beginning its march onto smart TVs, it offers instant access to around 600 on-demand titles from Sky Movies. That film pass is free for the first 30 days, then £8.99 per month for the next three months, increasing to £15 (gulp), but Sky has also just introduced access to all six Sky Sports channels via Now TV. It’s a great idea and surely aimed mainly at Formula 1 fans who can only watch half the races live on the BBC, though at £9.99 for 24 hours it’s pricey.
This Amazon-owned film rental service is, like its chief rival Netflix, building its on-demand TV content, but will soon begin to commission exclusive dramas and possibly even films. At time of writing it offered a boxset-like service including Grey’s Anatomy, 24, Prison Break, Heroes, Lost, The Inbetweeners, Only Fools and Horses and The IT Crowd. Where it differs from Netflix is its partial reliance on a postal service, with the more discs you sign-up to per month, the greater your time allowed on LOVEFiLM Instant, its app and browser-based streaming arm. As an app it’s available almost everywhere that Netflix is found, and in truth the services are very similar in terms of new movies (ie don’t expect many!). For now, the postal DVD/Blu-ray options do make it a great service, though we suspect LOVEFiLM will ditch discs just as soon as it can bump-up its digital offering.
Until recently it’s been more of a marketing success than a truly useful mine of TV, but Netflix has now got its
act together. Premiering the sparkling US-remake of House of Cards gave it some much-needed must-watch content, but just as useful for bigscreen TV owners is the automatic HD quality upgrade; as you stream something from Netflix, it monitors your broadband speed and – where possible – ups it to HD quality. If more than 5Mbps is free on your broadband line, expect Super HD quality, which is a slight step-down from Blu-ray; a sign that the silver disc is now nearing the end of its life.
One thing that we’re not so keen on is the penchant at Netflix (and LOVEFiLM) for myriad themed collections of content, which highlights the, frankly, second-rate collection of films it has to offer, though its TV library – which includes the likes of Breaking Bad, Modern Family and Dexter – is quickly improving. It also syncs across devices, so if you start watching an episode of House of Cards on your smart TV, you can pause it and continue watching on an iPad later.
Owned by Tesco, Blinkbox burst onto the scene relatively recently when it offered Argo just days after its success during Oscar week, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey the following week. It operates in the same DVD release windows as iTunes and Sky Movies, so brand new blockbusters is what it deals in. It works on a pay-as-you-watch basis; £3.49 to rent, £6.99 to buy and it’s free to join. Available as an app on smart TVs from LG, Philips, Samsung and Toshiba, Blinkbox does have a pretty decent archive, but it’s not always top quality. Jodie Foster’s 1992 space exploration film Contact, for example, is only available to stream as a 4:3 aspect ratio TV edited version. Having said that, Blinkbox remains an excellent service for those that don’t want to have to sign up for a monthly contract.
If you’re using an Apple TV, iPad, iPhone or Macbook laptop, the easiest way to watch TV or films is to go straight to the iTunes Video store. It works on a download model on a pay-per-view basis, and has much the same choice of films
as Blinkbox. It syncs across devices, too. Though it’s possible to use this service on any computer or laptop, it does mean installing the entire iTunes software, which some Windows users will dislike.
At the time of writing, iTunes Video was offering season passes to brand new episodes of The Daily Show, Spiral and It’s Kevin, while archive TV series included hit comedies I’m Alan Partridge, The Office and The Thick of It.
Smart TV: An ‘Appy Future
How long it will be until subscribing to Sky, Virgin Media or BT is merely via an app on a smart TV – and with not a set-top box, satellite or TV aerial in sight? Are we looking at the evolution of the set-top box, or the beginning of its demise? It’s more likely the latter, though it all hinges on the uptake of smart TVs.
Currently, around five million smart TVs have been sold in the UK, a figure that’s likely to double in the next 18 months or so, while one in 10 people in the UK now own a tablet. Tablet ownership, in turn, is sure to double this year, which will have a major impact on how TV is consumed by Brits. Crucially, however, it’s not going to kill live TV; TV Licensing reports that while just one percent of Brits watch time-shifted TV alone, a hefty 27 percent of smartphone owners and 63 percent of tablet owners use those devices to watch live TV, with catch-up TV popular with almost a third of viewers in 2012.
Those are big numbers, and they threaten the existence of that little black box beneath the TV. But then the likes of Sky, Virgin Media and BT would love to do-away with the hardware that causes them problems, and whose rental fees actively act as a deterrent to new subscribers. Web-based delivery of TV, whether live or catch-up, is the future – and it’s happening now.
In the last year or so, smart TVs’ processing power have increased massively, so much so that multi-tasking and user authentication are now standard on dual core – and even quad core – smart TVs.
However, research from YouGov in February revealed that 31 percent of the UK doesn’t know what a smart TV is and a similar figure definitely does not intend to buy one. Meanwhile only a quarter of smart TV owners bought the thing because they wanted access to catch-up TV apps – and barely a fifth of Sky subscribers even plug their box into a modem.
Given that almost all TVs on sale are smart, a primarily app-based – or, at least, internet-delivered – TV landscape is inevitable as prices come down and broadband speeds increase. But it could make the digital switchover look like a walk in the park.
Boxing Clever: The Set-Top Box Fights Back
The current generation of set-top boxes is trying its best to stay relevant, with a slew of new hardware and platforms emerging recently from both existing providers and new entrants. If you’re not in the market for a £600+ new smart TV, a set-top box can bring catch-up TV and streaming apps into your living room for less.
YouView, which appeared last year in the Humax DTR-T1000 and is now available from BT, offers a mix of catch-up TV and apps. A collaboration of all the major terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, it’s something of a theoretical successor to Freeview, though nothing like as popular. The ability to go backwards in the EPG – something Virgin Media TiVo users can also do – to find built-in catch-up content from the BBC iPlayer et al is excellent, and apps including Now TV also reside on the platform (though not YouTube). YouView is good and nicer to use than a smart TV, but have you seen a TV with YouView built-in? Nor have we, which makes YouView a platform that’s yet to really establish itself.
Available on its Sky+HD box – two million of which are now connected to the internet – Sky On Demand now offers hundreds of hours of content from Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Sky Arts, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, the History Channel and National Geographic. It is, claims Sky, “the most complete catch-up TV service in the UK”,
and it also includes 3D, though its creation of a Now TV app designed to tempt non-Sky subscribers shows that this ‘satellite ‘ broadcaster is spreading its wings very fast. Now TV offers the best of Sky without the need for a costly box, which must surely be Sky’s preference for how to distribute its content in the future.
Virgin Media TiVo
Having made YouTube a dedicated channel (find it at 198), it’s clear that Virgin Media’s web-connected box has ambitions to be seen as the most web-savvy of all. The 100MB fibre optic broadband option will also give Virgin Media a premium feel, though the TiVo box can be a bit laggy at times. Perhaps it’s all the web-based catch-up content inside; YouTube and rentable Virgin Movies are joined by all the major terrestrial TV broadcasters’ apps, which are integrated into the EPG as well as being accessible separately. Virgin Media’s new TVAnywhere app for smartphones and tablets is clever stuff indeed; it identifies which programme you’re currently watching, presents options to record it or set a series link, explore (cast, crew, YouTube search links), inspect upcoming scheduled episodes, or share on social media. It’s also possible to browse the TV schedules, explore recorded content, and watch some live channels (though more are needed); it’s basically a very clever virtual remote – and it makes an ideal second screen.
Microsoft’s console – which could be refreshed later this year – isn’t just about games. Recognising that games were about to make the transition both from disc to download as well as from console to smartphone, Microsoft wisely fitted the Xbox with every catch-up TV and streaming TV app going.
Last time we checked it was possible to watch live and on-demand Sky Movies and Sky Sports content through either Sky Player for Xbox or Now TV, with other apps from Netflix, Lovefilm Instant, Blinkbox, BBC iPlayer and YouTube all available. The latter is especially usable, with simple searching and a ‘watch later’ list that creates a library of content to watch anytime.
It’s been referred to as a ‘hobby’ of iPad-maker Apple, but the diminutive Apple TV – which weighs just 270g – is loved by some. If you have an iPhone or iPad it provides some exciting functionality, the best of which is Apple AirPlay, but there are just enough web-based apps to compete. For movies, it’s iTunes Video all the way, which could be pricey (though the box itself is just £99), but also on board are Netflix and YouTube, but not the BBC iPlayer
Since Apple TV is so small surely it could be built into a TV? That’ll be the long-rumoured Apple iTV that could emerge one day. Said to be an ambition of Steve Jobs, the late CEO of Apple, an Apple-made TV with on-demand video services and apps built-in wouldn’t be cheap to neither buy nor run, but it could redefine smart TVs.