Should you get a Sky Now TV Box and pay for Sky TV on an ad hoc basis, or buy an Apple TV and purchase music, movies and TV from iTunes? We compare the Sky Now TV Box and the Apple TV media streaming boxes in this comparison review. (See all Digital Home reviews.)
Sky Now TV vs Apple TV: Why we are comparing them
TV and movies are important battlegrounds for a group of major players that - on the face of it - don't appear to be competitors. BT is now in conflict with Sky as well as Virgin, not just for your broadband contract but to provide your TV. Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be your set top box as well as your games device, and would like for your smartphone to have the same interface as your desktop. Meanwhile Apple's phones and tablets can access TV and movies only from Apple's own store, bringing it into conflict with Sky, Netflix et al, and cutting out other players in this space such as Google and Amazon.
There is a land grab going on for the money you spend every month on entertainment, connectivity, mobile telephony and hardware. And ever since Sky TV bought millions of subscribers and killed off its opposition by investing in sporting events, big business has understood that entertainment is key to hooking in customers to its own ecosystem.
Thus we come to compare two different products that are aiming for the same thing. Sky has gone from being a live broadcaster to be being a provider of one of the most comprehensive on-demand services there is, and as a consequence it is a major player in the broadband market. Apple has extended its reach from making hardware products and become owner of one of the biggest media stores you can access.
They do this not just because they want your money now, but because both Sky and Apple want you to be loyal to all of their products and services. In the long term it is unlikely that Sky, Apple, BT, Virgin, Netflix, Amazon, Xbox Live and all the rest can remain independent of each other. But the battle that is being enacted means good deals now for consumers. And that is why we are comparing Sky Now TV and Apple TV with iTunes.
Sky Now TV vs Apple TV: What they are, what they are not
Sky's Now TV is a way of getting Sky content on your TV without signing up for a contract. Now TV is split up into different packages – Sky Movies, Sky Sports and Sky Entertainment. You can choose which ones out of the three you want to watch.
Sky Movies has more than 800 films on offer with up to four new premieres added every week. Sky Sports gives live access to all six Sky Sports channels while Entertainment allows you to watch 10 channels – live and on-demand. They are: Sky 1, Sky Living, Sky Atlantic, Sky Arts 1, Fox, Comedy Central, Gold, Discovery Channel, MTV and Disney.
The Movies and Entertainment packages both require a monthly payment while Sky Sports requires a one-off payment which gives you a Day Pass (24 hours of access).
In order to access this content you need a device which supports Now TV, and a broadband connection. This can be any media streamer, but you can also buy for £9.99 the Sky Now TV Box which will do the job just fine. You can register up to four devices and stream on up to two simultaneously. (For more, see How do I get Sky Now TV? Stream Sky Sports and Movies in the UK.)
Apple TV by contrast is a device rather than a service. It's not a TV, but rather a media streamer which plugs into your TV and allows you to access free and paid-for internet-streaming services including Netflix, YouTube, and Vimeo, but principally it is a means to access your iTunes library. Furthermore, a feature called AirPlay allows you to wirelessly stream content from other Apple products such as iPhone and iPads. You can also use the Apple TV to view photos and videos you captured yourself on the living room TV.
For the sake of this feature we are going to factor in the cost of buying a Sky Now TV Box, but also presume that users of Apple TV are going to buy content from iTunes. (You can get more on this section here: Netflix vs Apple TV vs LoveFilm vs Now TV: What's the difference?)
Sky Now TV vs Apple TV: Price, content and benefits
The cost of the Apple TV model is probably the easier to understand. The Apple TV box itself costs £99 (now reduced to £79), which sounds like a lot but it is a one-off fixed fee. After that you can watch any content you have purchased on iTunes on your TV (as well as on your iPads and iPhones). Plus, there's plenty of free stuff on YouTube or via apps such as Sky News. And you can sign up for Netflix at £5.99 a month.
But really if you are purchasing an Apple TV it is because you are intending to purchase a lot of content from iTunes, or you already have lots of TV programs and movies that you purchased to watch on your phone or tablet. A series box set on iTunes can cost anything from a fiver to £25, depending on its popularity and whether you go for HD or SD quality. In most cases you'll want high definition for your home TV of course. Individual episodes cost from around a £2. You can rent or buy movies from around £2 to up to around £15.
This can make iTunes seem expensive, but in a weird way the purchase of an Apple TV ups the value. It would in my house, anyway. My wife and I both purchase series and movies and watch them on our smartphones and tablets. Only one of us uses iTunes for this, but if we both did then the content we had already paid for would be available to the other on the big screen. Heck, we could even watch things together, although that negates one of the key benefits of iTunes content: you can watch it on your phone on your commute, and finish the movie at home on your big screen.
One other thing: although it is perfectly possible to switch iTunes user accounts on the Apple TV, it isn't set up in such a way to do it on the fly.
Sky Now TV offers more of a traditional TV-service pricing model, blended with the on-demand setup that is becoming popular. You can buy the tiny set-top box for just £9.99, or simply use any other device which supports the service including Smart TVs, games consoles and other media streamers like Roku's.
Then you basically purchase Sky's content as and when you please. Sky Sport costs £9.99 for a 24-hour pass, £8.99 per month for Sky Movies, and £4.99 a month for Entertainment. That's a pretty expensive way to get Sky's goodies on your TV, but it is a much cheaper way of watching a current series than would be buying it on iTunes.
The Now TV Box offers other on-demand and catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer, Demand 5 and Spotify. There's no Netflix or Amazon Prime Instant Video support, however, which will have an impact on the cost if you are a movie buff. Sky wants you to get your cinematic jollies from Sky Movies. The Apple TV-available Netflix is cheaper at £5.99 a month, but for Sky's £9 a month you do get more recent movies.
And for the time you are signed up you get access to a lot of on-demand movies. Both of these services have vast libraries of content. Apple has the most on-demand stuff, but you have to buy each programme and movie. Sky has live sport and entertainment, but you can only rent individual programs and movies for a limited time.
It depends on what you want, and how you watch TV. But for pure living room-based viewing the Apple model is the more expensive. But you can enjoy iTunes on the move as well as at home in a way that is at best difficult with Sky Now. And you can of course purchase favourite films to watch repeatedly via iTunes. (It's not quite the same as owning a DVD, as you can't easily gift an iTunes movie and when you die it reverts to Apple, but it's the next best thing.)
Sky Now TV vs Apple TV: Setup and features
Both the Sky Now TV Box and Apple TV are fiendishly easy to set up and use. With the former you don't even need to wait for the box. If you have a compatible device you simply need to purchase a pass from the Sky Now website or app (you can install Now TV on iPhone and iPad, amongst other devices). Apple TV is similarly simple. Like all Apple products setup is a cinch, and you simply need to log in to an existing iTunes account, or set up a new one.
There are some key technical differences, however. Both devices are small stylish square boxes that connect to your TV via HDMI. The more expensive Apple TV has an ethernet port, however, unlike the Sky Now TV Box. Both can connect via Wi-Fi, but if you are streaming rather than playing downloaded media you may want a more reliable wired connection.
You can also hook up an Apple keyboard via Bluetooth, but the Sky Now TV Box can be controlled only via the supplied remote (Apple TV also comes with a remote). More importantly the Sky Now TV Box is limited only to 720p quality video streaming. The Apple TV can play media at up to 1080p, which will be a significant factor if you have a big HD TV set.
Sky Now TV vs Apple TV: Verdict
If you don't have a Smart TV or an internet connected freeview box, the Sky Now TV Box is a steal at just £10 even if it is limited to 720p and a few services outside of Sky's. You'll have to be prepared to pay for Sky services to make the most of it so bear that in mind and there's not really a need if you're already a Sky customer.
Apple TV is a sexy little box that sits unobtrusively next to your television, giving you easy access to a wide range of (albeit expensive) iTunes movie and TV series downloads. You can stream your photos, videos and music from your computer, iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. Setup and navigation are simple, as you'd expect from an Apple product. There's much you can do with an Apple TV (your photos on a widescreen TV might be worth the price alone), but there's also a lot missing (most specifically iPlayer, 4oD, etc) that we could generously call ‘future opportunities' for this £79 device.
They are very different devices and services for very different needs. If you have existing Apple products and you already purchase iTunes content to watch on them, at £79 the Apple TV could be a good purchase, especially when you consider that you can stream your photos to it too. If you want to pick and choose when you watch Sky TV and save a few quid on a good media streamer, check out the Sky Now TV Box. Visit Digital Home Advisor.