Question of the week: which UK online streaming services and apps are the best and worst?

Prompted by an ongoing discussion elsewhere on TMINE, this week’s question is one about usability: which online TV services do you find the easiest to use and which ones are the hardest? This question might have different answers depending on whether you access catch-up TV on a computer, TV, set-top box or a mobile device, of course.

For what it’s worth and although I don’t watch a lot of UK TV, I’ve tried various services on various devices and here are my thoughts (some of these are available on Sky set-top boxes in weird forms, but my wife’s in a better position than I to review them, since I don’t use the Sky box these days…):

iPlayer (Roku, Apple TV, Sky Box, iOS apps, OS X, Amazon Fire Stick): probably the easiest to use of the network catch-up services, even if favourites don’t seem to transfer over well. Not as much of a back catalogue as I’d like.

Now TV (Roku, Apple TV, iOS apps, OS X): easier to use than Sky Go (see later) but no downloads! The arrival of ads on the service, usually for other programmes on Now TV, is an unwelcome move. 

Sky Go (iOS, OS X): hard to use, downloads haven’t worked with Macs for about three years now, isn’t available for many platforms, includes ads when streaming but not with downloads, and content hard to find. But a decent back catalogue of shows, including those available on the Five, UK Play and ITV streaming services, a huge range of channels, and does do downloads for most programmes if you’re prepared to pay £5 a month.

All4 (iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick, OS X): hard to find content, downloads tend to expire after about five minutes, ads are annoying, didn’t track playback position or favourites across devices (at least not on Roku until recently – I will check) and no Apple TV app (official C4 position: ‘use AirPlay from an iOS device’). But does do downloads, is free and a good range of foreign shows thanks to Walter Presents.

Five on Demand (iOS, Amazon Fire Stick): Has about five programmes on it, none of them good. Not great to use either

S4C for iOS (iOS): easy to find content, but no downloads and problems with subtitles. Mostly subsumed into iPlayer these days, so not worth getting as a standalone app.

ITV Hub (iOS, OS X, Roku, Amazon Fire Stick): Fiddly to use, not much content, no downloads. But works. I use Sky Go instead now (see earlier)

UK Play (iOS, Amazon Fire Stick, OS X): Not much on it that I want to watch but decent enough. No downloads. I use Sky Go instead now (see earlier)

Netflix (iOS, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, OS X, Roku, Sony Blu-Ray player): works on just about everything, pretty intuitive when actually watching things, even if it’s usually hard to find content without using the Search function. But no downloads!

Amazon (iOS, Amazon Fire Stick, OS X, Roku, Sony Blu-Ray player): works on everything except the Apple TV; probably has the best of the iOS apps, downloads work just fine, no ads, interface could be a bit more intuitive, web browser interface makes it harder to find new shows. Given a choice, I’d happily watch any or all my content on this over the other apps.

And just for luck:

Plex (iOS, Amazon Fire Stick, Apple TV, OS X, Roku, Sony Blu-Ray player, WD My Passport Wireless Pro): basically how I watch any of my content that’s unencrypted and doesn’t come from an online streaming service; works on every device I have and while the new interface is annoying, it works fine, offers both streaming and downloads, and even does music.

But how about you? And have I missed any good ones?

  • Mark Carroll

    Our American Wii seems to do okay with apps for UK services so I am guessing that they just geolocate its apparent IP address and that suffices. Both Netflix and Amazon are pretty usable and carry a fair bit of good content. Netflix has surprised me lately with carrying decent science fiction though for true range we're still relying on DVDs-by-mail via Cinema Paradiso (that's where our present “Fate stay night” is coming from).

    I download BBC iPlayer stuff using https://github.com/get-iplayer…, YouTube stuff with http://rg3.github.io/youtube-d… (it can handle various other sites too, not obvious from its name), and remaining stuff with https://github.com/monsieurvid… after hacking flash URLs out of JavaScript and suchlike; then I play the mp4s (or m4as or whatever for radio) on a little computer that's hooked up to the television. I find many websites unpleasantly unusable one way or another. For ones that I really have to watch in the browser http://pipelight.net/cms/ gets me far on Linux but I couldn't get 4oD working the last couple of times I tried. Among UK television, a high fraction of what I'd actually want to watch is on BBC anyway.

    Ads don't much bother me, though mostly we saw them through Hulu and we don't presently subscribe: we change our subscriptions around to save money, binge-watching on catchup for the months we are subscribing, so we tend not to bother at all with something not offering much catchup. I also use https://www.ustvnow.com/ for some US broadcast stuff (we are all expat US citizens, at least until the kids have benefited from the UK's affordable higher education).

    I'd say that Netflix comes out on top for usability, closely followed by Amazon, and 4oD is the worst. I'm not the biggest fan of the BBC site, especially now it asks me if I have a television licence (I do) every time I try to use it, probably because I don't have the browser retain cookies.

    On a related note, UK set-top boxes / DVRs seem to have utterly crap software compared to the TiVo and cable company DVRs I got so used to in the US. Maybe it'd be different if I could get Virgin cable or something (I'm out in a Perthshire village) but the British seem to have trouble even managing a device that can retain season-long recording instructions across rescans for new/different channels, let alone decently prioritize them and handle scheduling conflicts well. They're all clunky and crashy and make me miss our American stuff (hmm, bet I can't see the American DirecTV satellites from here)! Or perhaps I'm just too cheap.