THE cheapest way to turn an old TV into a Smart TV is with a £15 Now TV box from Sky. And with a little fiddling, you can make it smarter still.
The palm-sized Now box is the second-generation video streaming unit from Sky. It comes with a trial subscription to your choice of entertainment or movie channels, but you don’t need an ongoing subscription to use it.
YouTube, and the catch-up services of the BBC, ITV, Channels Four and Five are all available without extra payment, and if you don’t subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime or other premium services, they are all you’re ever likely to need.
But it’s not hard to also make the Now box play all the videos, songs and pictures you have stored on computers across your home network. This is possible because the box is actually a version of the more expensive (£50) Roku 2 streaming box, with a few features removed. That explains the presence of a non-functional USB port and a microSD card slot on the side of the casing.
But it does mean you can tinker around under the bonnet to put some of functionality back.
In particular, the Roku 2 allows you to use a home media server known as Plex to stream content across your network. It has been removed from the Now TV version, but it takes only a few minutes to put it back.
If you’ve ever unlocked a DVD player to watch discs from another country, you’ll be familiar with the process: a few undocumented presses of the remote control and you’re half-way there.
In this case, you put the Now TV box into “developer mode” by pressing the home key three times, followed by up twice and then right, left, right, left, right. You will then see the “address” on your network that the box is using - something like 192.168.1.123 - and you’ll be asked to create a password.
If you enter the address into a browser on your PC, you should see the admin screen of the Now TV box. From there, you can install Plex and any other compatible apps not available through the front-door route.
The free Plex app itself can be found easily by searching the web, but be sure to choose a compatible version rather than the latest one.
You need to install Plex on your PC, too, because that’s where the organisation of your video, music and picture files takes place before they can be streamed to the box. Once done, you’ll have an unparallelled resource of all your multimedia content, available to watch on your big screen, directly from the Now TV remote.
As a bonus, Plex can stream the same content to your tablets and other devices. And it doesn’t just give you a list of your files; it adds artwork, plot summaries and album covers, creating a far richer on-screen experience than any standalone set-top box. Pictures taken on your phone can be uploaded automatically for large-screen viewing.
Now boxes are available from most high street electronics shops, and many people are buying them not to watch Sky at all but to run Plex. At £15 you won’t find many cheaper media servers.