NowTV / Roku2 to stream local media

The NowTV box can be had for only £9.99, a price virtually impossible to beat.  It is a rebranded Roku2 which normally goes for £40 so pretty sure Sky is making a loss on selling the devices, but they probably cover it up in subscriptions.

However, what I am interested is how good a local network streaming box it is.  Not interested in the subscriptions or web apps. For this reason my review is partially of the box and partially of Plex, the app used for streaming.

Usability

The interface is clean and uncluttered. The navigation is fast. The remote is very good. While initially I had issues connecting via WiFi I later realized that I was actually connected and getting wrong messages for some reason. The menus are quite interesting, and things look very nice on the usability side. You can even download the Roku app and use that as a remote, however nothing beat the laid back couch slopping feeling of being able to use the remote control.

The remote is simple, I would say missing some descriptive buttons, but once you figure it out, it is very smooth.

Very rarely did I find myself stuck somewhere where the box would not respond immediately. This was usually on single-threaded operations like buffering etc, but eventually it would come back.

 Discovery

The box I got from a friend already had Plex installed on it. To stream media from a PC or NAS or even mobile you need to sideload either Plex or XBMC (cannot do both) on to it. I am not aware of the gory details of that but once you are past that stage you need to install Plex (or XBMC) media server on your PC, point it to your media and you are ready to go. I wont say I liked the Plex interface on the box, but it does work fine.

Also, you can download the PlayTo Roku app on your (Android phone) and stream videos from your phone to the box too which seemed to work great too.

Playback

Now remember this box supports 720p, which is fine especially if you are streaming over a wireless network. When streaming higher quality/higher bitrate videos, Plex would transcode the video to lower quality. This puts the media serving PC under pressure, and also increases the buffering time by quite a lot. So from pressing Play to seeing the video on the TV it may be a full two minutes or more (depending on how spiffy your PC is, and remember Plex does not use QuickSync). Usually this is fine, if it just happens at the beginning of the stream, however if you skip forward or rewind, this means that you will face more loading/buffering times, which can be rather annoying if you missed a single dialog or so forth. The limiting factor is probably the limited storage on the device that cannot keep the buffererd stream for a long time.

On lower quality/bitrate videos there were not many issues and it works great. I do wish Plex gave more information about the video like video and audio codecs used so I could make better comparisons.

Anyway I was quite happy with the £9.99 device, it works surprising well and lag free most of the time. The hardware isnt exactly zippy, but not laggy either. Streaming Youtube and TED was spot on. You are limited to the apps on the Roku store though, and further limited I believe as Sky blocks some more apps on the Roku store to promote its own subscriptions. Consuming less than 2W on streaming, and with a very handy remote pretty impressed.

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