WITH THE arrival of Amazon Prime Channels in the UK, it's a good time to take another look at some of your telly options away from the usual Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media. Dig a little deeper and you can find some real gems.
Freesat: Humax HB1100S
A very reasonably priced box that allows you to watch all the main channels and catch-up services with that satellite cable that the last occupant of your house left behind. Freesat offers more channels than Freeview, and whilst there's some lack of parity, you'll find almost everything you want that you don't have to pay for anyway. The Humax interface is very attractive, incredibly intuitive and contains some features that we wish the other platforms would pay attention to, such as warning you if there's an HD version of the channel you are watching.
Sadly, this model is only a single tuner, but it does still have an option to add a hard drive via USB to make a very inexpensive DVR meaning you can also pause, rewind and fast toward what you are watching. However, there are other models in the range that use a double cable, which frees you up to record something and watch something else. Built-in WiFi means you've also got access to a range of catch-up services and subscription streaming from the likes of Netflix and Curzon.
Best for a bedroom, but a brilliant baseline box that makes us want to see what else is in the range.
You can grab the Humax HB1100S from most of the usual outlets. Here it is at John Lewis for £99.95
This 4K streaming natural history channel is available from a variety of devices, including Android TV/Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV as one of the new Prime Channels. It contains a wealth of Ultra High Definition content (we love a bit of UHD penguin action, us) all available at your leisure. Obviously, the lack of David Attenborough is a bummer, with most of the content coming from its Canadian owners and the US Smithsonian. But the images are breathtaking and with a commitment to 200 hours a year in 4K, as well as the huge 2K library, there's plenty to keep everyone in awe.
It's available with a free trial, after that it's £3.99 a month, but if you hurry, you can get it half price for a year with the promo code STRANGECREATURES.
All the details including a list of platforms is at www.lovenature.com - a proportion of your subscription goes to natural history charities
A hidden gem that most people don't even realise exists. AMC is, of course, the network that brought us Breaking Bad. What most people don't realise, however, is that there is a UK version of the ad-free subscription channel that also includes The Walking Dead franchise, with the first run of spin-off show Fear The Walking Dead (if we had to explain, you wouldn't understand).
But how do you get this little gem? Well, first off, let's warn you that content is very limited at the moment, and there's not a lot here that doesn't turn up on Fox or Sky Atlantic sooner or later. However, if you're keen, you can get AMC free with a subscription to BT TV (which runs on YouView, which we've not reviewed here for logistical reasons) or it comes as a bonus channel if you subscribe to the BT Sports packages on Sky though only BT viewers get the on demand library and HD stream.
AMC's sister channels in the UK include Horror Channel, and the CBS bouquet, all available via Sky.
There have been a lot of attempts to bring live tv to the desktop, but TVPlayer seems to have got the problem absolutely licked. With the Freeview channels available free, and an option to subscribe to a bunch more including ranges from Discovery, Eurosport, Box and Comedy Central (to name just some) for an extra £5.99, it's hard to find fault with this - especially as something for a second room or watching on the go. There's even a limited HD service and catch up programmes from some (but not all) broadcasters.
Available on everything from Fire TV to Windows 10, TVPlayer looks set on cornering this market and it's not hard to see why.
Worth noting- there are still some rights restrictions, particularly with ITV and Channel 4, which mean you can't watch everything. It's the same thing that has made TVCatchUp a spent force to where it was two years ago, but TVPlayer seems to be learning from its rival's mistakes and looks more likely to come to a proper arrangement rather than roll over.
Now TV has always been a bit of a strange fish. Notwithstanding the fact that it has a very much on-demand first bias compared to the main broadcasters, it was always going to be interesting how they tackled an all-in-one solution. And the answer is, weirdly.
The Smart Box is a hybrid of Freeview channels down your aerial, with its cut down Sky offering (though its the only place outside Sky itself where you'll see Sky Atlantic).
The box is a specially reconfigured Roku box - we love Roku, and they are only not mentioned here as there hasn't been a new product of note in the UK for what seems like forever, and we suspect that their tie-up with Sky is part of the reason.
The Smart Box contains only a fraction of the services on a full Roku, but it has the main ones, including Netflix, something currently not offered by the flagship Sky Q.
What we find slightly weird, given that this is marketed as an alternative to, say a Freeview box, is that they've dispensed with channel numbers altogether, meaning you have to scroll up and down or use the programme guide to find anything. That sort or out of the box thinking is a bit too much for us, to be honest.
Why Now TV continues to offer, however, is a way of getting Sky Movies and Sports without being tied down, as well as access to the gargantuan on-demand library from Sky. There's no HD and it's not the cheapest, but since when has "Sky Sports" and "cheap" ever gone hand in hand?
Now TV subscriptions cost from £6.99 a month for the entertainment package. Watch out for deals and remember that you can still get Now TV via other platforms like PS4 and Roku without the frankly weird box offering.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
As the UK's biggest selling (here comes the science bit) small dongle that you put in the back of your telly to turn it into a smart tv if it isn't already and augment the fact that your smart tv interface is probably shite if you do, then there's a lot to recommend the upgrade.
For a start, of course, it's a gateway into Alexa without all the faffing about with an Amazon Echo. Yes, voice control not just for looking for content but also for things like your smart home gadgets, hooray!
But the beef is that this is a great HD (not UHD sadly, you have to get the full Fire TV box for that) device that offers all the main services, including TV Player, Netflix and of course its own Amazon Prime Video, for under £40. Proper "what's not to like" stuff.
The new version also adds 802.11ac wireless for a sturdier connection and if you've not seen a Fire TV device for a while you'll be pleased to hear the interface has been completely revamped to look a lot more like Netflix and is (slightly) easier to navigate. You can even access your Netflix watch list from your Amazon home page. How's that for cooperation?
We still wish Amazon and Google would play nicer together, but hopefully, that will come with time. In the meantime, it's hard to find a reason not to recommend the Fire HD as the best streaming stick on the market. Come on Roku - catch up!
The Fire TV Stick is £39.99 from Amazon. Amazon Prime and other services subject to their own charges.
HD HomeRun Connect
What if you could make any screen in your house a TV? HD Homerun could be the answer. It is as simple as plugging into your TV cable (so you might need a splitter or an amplifier) and downloading the app to whatever device you like - computer, tablet, streaming stick and you'll get a full free-to-air service anywhere in the home. We've found it's great with a Nvidia Shield TV. It's not a placeshifter - it only works outside your home network with hacking, but it does save on lots of messy wires and with the right software, it can be used as a DVR, for an additional fee. It's certainly one to think about. The main selling point is that you literally plug it in and go. There's no tuning, no updating, it does that thing we all dream of… it just… works.
In some parts of the country, you can get this delivered by Amazon Prime Now within two hours. Otherwise, next day delivery. Either way, yours for £99.99
TV Butler / DVBLogic
At the other end of the spectrum from "it just works" is the perennially annoying DVBLogic, which is designed to turn your NAS into a DVR. Thankfully the company has stepped back from its original "if it moves, charge for it" mentality which meant that you had to pay extra for a TV Guide, but there's still additional charges for using the DVR as opposed to just sending the programmes to your device a la HD Homerun. The difference is that you can install DVBLogic products including its DVB-T dongle, TV Butler into a host of NAS devices as well as computers and even the Raspberry Pi.
There's a lot of logic to this, given that your NAS already sits on the network as a server. We just wish it worked better. A lot better. We know a lot of people swear by it, and its great for distribution to, say a hotel, so perhaps we're missing the point.
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