Bob Dylan told us “The times they are a changin’” and in the world of TV that’s certainly the case, as we move from traditional broadcasting to streaming video on demand over the net.
All of the UK terrestrial broadcasters, as well as Sky, have their own catch-up TV services to stream their own programmes and access to a back catalogue of home grown material, but what about the wider selection of movies and TV shows?
For some time, there were just two companies streaming content to your PC or Mac, in the form of Netflix and Lovefilm, the films-by-post service that is now part of Amazon.
Then in the summer of 2012, Sky decided to take a gamble by introducing its own streaming service, Now TV, as a way of offering an alternative to a satellite dish installation.
The question is, which service offers the best choice and value? As we discovered, the three offerings vary quite considerably.
The age-old saying ‘you get what you pay for’ is clearly true when it comes to the choice of content. Clearly if you’re after the latest movies, Now TV wins by miles because it allows access to the same films that are available to Sky subscribers – which includes films that Sky has secured the rights to for a set period before anyone else can show them.
Lovefilm comes second, but sadly brings with it a few issues. Firstly, there’s the lack of HD streaming, which is really quite a major issue for anyone that has a large screen TV. Even on our office 22-inch Samsung Smart TV, you can still see the difference between SD and HD, and this could well be a deal breaker. [Update: There is now some, limited, HD content available but it's still a tiny fraction of the overall choice - but it's a step in the right direction]
Another problem is that you can’t always resume from where you left off, even on the same TV, let alone going from the TV in the bedroom to the living room, or from your PC to TV. Finally, there’s also a limitation that means some films can’t be streamed at all – forcing you to revert to the old fashioned method of getting them sent in the post.
That leaves Netflix coming in last, with the least impressive choice of modern content – but a vast back catalogue that comprises many classics. It’s certainly not hard to find something to watch here, but don’t expect to be viewing the latest blockbusters for anything up to two or three years after its theatrical debut.
Netflix does stream a lot of content in HD and also offers subtitling, along with an easy way to see recently viewed films when connecting via another device – as well as resuming at the point you left, even if you start watching on a TV and carry on from your mobile phone. You can also use the service with a mobile data connection, as long as you have an unlimited allowance.
There’s also a Netflix for Kids service that offers a huge range of shows for children, kept totally separate from the full service. It allows you to choose programmes by individual characters, from Spiderman to SpongeBob SquarePants.
Now TV isn’t widely available on different Smart TV platforms, or for smartphones and tablets. As such, you’re currently limited to using your PC or Mac, or buying a YouView box.
Lovefilm is equally hard to access, serving itself only to certain TV platforms, from LG, Samsung and Sony. You can also access Lovefilm on selected LG, Samsung and Sony Blu-ray players, as well as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The only tablet served is the Apple iPad.
Netflix is more widely available than the other two, with apps for Android, iPhone and iPad, Windows Phone, as well as for Google TV, most Smart TVs, game consoles, Roku set top boxes, Blu-ray players and even Apple TV.
All three services offer a one month free trial, while customers with a premium TalkTalk Plus broadband account can enjoy Lovefilm Instant free for a whole year. A Lovefilm Instant account costs £4.99 per month (you can cancel at any time), although there are more expensive packages available for customers wishing to receive films and games by post.
Next up is Netflix at £5.99 month, again with a one month trial. Like Lovefilm, there’s no minimum contract period – besides paying the full cost for the final month.
That leaves Now TV as the most expensive option at £15 per month – although you can enjoy 30 days free, along with a promotion giving three months at just £8.99 (per month) if you join before 22nd January 2013.
Now TV has created its own list of films, showing how many more films are included on its service compared to Netflix and Lovefilm, as well as reminding people that many movies will be exclusive to Now TV for at least 12 months before appearing elsewhere.
With so many ways to get access to Netflix and a moderate subscription fee, as well as HD streaming and access from almost anything, the service is definitely worth trying out on the free trial, to decide if it’s really for you. If you enjoy watching older classics, or perhaps movies from your youth, there’s bound to be something for you here. It’s also perfect for kids.
Now TV might one day take subscribers from the traditional Sky TV service, although that’s unlikely until there’s access to sport or the exclusive TV shows from the likes of Sky Atlantic. The higher cost reflects the fact it’s the only way to see up to date movies, but the lack of access from your Smart TV or smartphone (for now) limits its potential considerably.
Lovefilm Instant offers newer films than Netflix, but with a number of issues that makes the experience less than satisfactory. A real lack of HD content, and the risk of resuming from the beginning if you take a break, leads to frustration, along with films that can’t be streamed. Amazon needs to spend some time and money to fix these issues because, as it stands, it’s only good for PC and Mac users.
If you’re already paying for Sky and have movies or sport subscriptions, Sky Go allows you to watch the respective channels, as well as download or stream films from Sky’s comprehensive catalogue – the same archive as used by Now TV.
Sky Go is available for iPhone and iPad users, as well as a selection of Android devices – although the choice is extremely limited (a selection of Samsung and HTC models), and doesn’t include many new handsets at all.
Sky Go also limits access to just one primary device, with only one change possible per month. This means that you must nominate your phone or laptop and stick with it.
iTunes (iOS) & Google Play (Android)
Besides Sky, there are other services that will let you get access to new movies and TV shows – but only if you’re prepared to pay individually for it.
Both iTunes and Google Play will give access to films that have recently gone on sale on DVD and Blu-ray, with different charges for SD and HD rentals – along with the option to buy outright.
Once you’ve purchased a film, you are free to download and view it on any device that is logged in to your iTunes/Play account, while rented material lasts for a limited time once you begin watching.
Definitely a lot more expensive, but with arguably the most choice of all.