This article titled “Best UK streaming and pay-TV services 2021: Sky, Virgin, Netflix and Amazon Prime compared and ranked” was written by Samuel Gibbs Consumer technology editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 5th March 2021 10.57 UTC
The choice of how you get your TV and movies in the UK has exploded in recent years, with a growing number of premium pay-TV providers and streaming services available at a wide range of prices.
Many of them have long contracts, exclusive content and complicated bundle pricing. And that’s before you work out how to actually get it to your television, whether it is live broadcast TV via the traditional routes of aerial, satellite or cable, new offerings of streaming live TV over the internet, on-demand download or streaming services, or a mix of all three. All of which makes choosing the right one for you a bit of a minefield of information overload.
To help you pick the best pay-TV or streaming service for your needs, wants and budget, here’s a guide covering all the options from Sky Q to Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and everything in between.
This Guardian buyer’s guide to UK pay-TV and streaming services was last updated on 5 March 2021, and represents the best available and tested at the time. As services change and new ones are tested, this guide will be updated to help you choose the right pay-TV or streaming service for you.
Best broadcast: Sky Q
Monthly from: £25 to £93.99
Minimum contract: 18 months
Connection: satellite, broadband
Sky’s Q box has long been premium pay-TV platform to beat, offering a better, more flexible and seamless experience than rivals.
It starts with the little things. The interface is modern, fast and responsive. Voice search via the remote is fantastic and can be used to control playback too. The remote is well designed. You can create a custom TV guide, not only editing which channels are shown but the order in which they are displayed, something key rivals still do not offer. And the box learns what you want to watch at different times of the day so it can make suggestions.
A vast array of live channels are available, depending on your chosen package. Sky Atlantic is exclusive to Sky, available through Sky Q and Now TV, which features HBO shows such as Succession and Westworld. Most channels are available in HD, sports such as the Premier League, Formula One, darts, rugby and boxing are broadcast live in 4K too. Note that HD and 4K are optional add-ons and that BT Sport is not available in 4K. You can record up to six programmes simultaneously and watch another.
Sky Q has one of the widest selections of on-demand 4K content, including Sky’s box sets and movies, plus those available from Disney+, Netflix and the recently added Amazon Prime Video. The latest Dolby Atmos surround sound is available for some things shown in 4K such as the Premier League, box sets and movies. The box supports HDR (HLG) in select Sky on-demand 4K movies and TV shows, plus Amazon, Disney+ and Netflix. Live TV in HDR is currently in the works.
All on-demand content, including catchup, Netflix and Disney+, is integrated directly into the main interface such as the TV guides and search. Everything, apart from content from Amazon, Disney+ or Netflix, downloads to the Sky Q box rather than being streamed directly, which is beneficial for slower connections. You can start watching before the download completes, and the quality is fixed rather than being variable based on your connection. You can therefore watch 4K downloads from Sky even if your broadband is too slow to stream in 4K from other services. You can also queue downloads in the background and leave them going overnight with the box on standby.
The individual catchup and streaming apps are also available, if you would prefer to use them instead of the main Sky Q interface, alongside YouTube, YouTube Kids, Spotify, BBC Sounds and others, while AirPlay is available for streaming music from Apple devices. Sky Store, through which you can buy or rent content not available as part of a subscription, is available on Sky Q too.
Sky Q also has multiroom options costing £14 a month using wireless Mini Q boxes, which stream content including live TV, recordings and on-demand straight from the main box via wifi or ethernet. Alternatively the excellent Sky Go app on smartphones, tablets, Windows 10 and Macs can do the same thing, streaming live TV, recordings from the main box or on-demand content over the internet with offline downloads too.
Extensive parental controls are available, including a dedicated Kids Safe Mode, which only shows U-rated content, and pin-protection of age-rated content, pre-watershed playback, purchases or individual recordings. The adult entertainment channels can be hidden and you can block access to third-party apps. The same parental controls apply to Sky Go too.
Heavy rain and storms can occasionally interrupt the satellite signal, but the primary downside for Sky Q is cost. Although it is scalable, paying for only sections and capabilities you watch such as sport or movies, it is one of the most expensive services with a fairly complex pricing structure that has HD and 4K as added extras. It is often better value when bought with other services such as broadband. Look out for deals too, as Sky routinely offers bundled discounts.
Why should you get Sky Q?
Sky Q is the best pay-TV service in the UK, with a modern interface, fast box, good remote and impressive voice search, access to the most 4K broadcast content both live and on-demand plus HDR, and the ability to take a lot of it with you on devices, either on-demand or recordings.
Subscribe if: you want the best experience plus 4K and HDR
Don’t subscribe if: you don’t want 4K or want something that doesn’t cost as much
- Full review: Sky Q review: premium TV at a premium price
Best live streaming: Now TV
Monthly from: £3.99 to £65.95
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (2.5Mbps minimum)
If you want access to Sky’s content but don’t want a satellite dish, another set-top box or a lengthy contract, Now TV is the answer. It is essentially pay-TV on a rolling monthly basis streamed over the internet by Sky.
The interface is fairly easy to navigate and is responsive on more modern devices. The service is broken down into five monthly “passes”, which can be bought individually or combined, and auto-renew each month unless cancelled. These provide streaming access to live channels and on-demand content that aren’t available on Freeview.
The £9.99 Entertainment Pass has 300 TV box sets plus 17 live streaming TV channels including Sky Atlantic. The £11.99 Sky Cinema Pass has 12 of Sky’s movie channels plus 1,000s of on-demand movies. The £33.99 Sky Sports Pass has all 11 Sky Sports channels, but can also be bought per day at £9.99 too. The £3.99 Kids Pass has six kids channels and 1,000s of ad-free kids shows on-demand. The £3.99 hayu Pass has US reality TV shows.
All content is streamed at up to 720p HD resolution with a minimum required broadband connection of 2.5Mbps or 450Kbps on 4G. Six devices can be registered at any one time and up to two screens or devices can be used simultaneously for easy multiroom access. The £3 Boost add-on increases the maximum streaming quality to 1080p HD, adds Dolby 5.1 surround sound and a third concurrent stream. It is worth noting that a Chromecast counts as two devices, the phone controlling it and the actual Chromecast.
Parental controls can be enabled, requiring a pin to start watching live channel streams and filtering on-demand content by age restrictions.
Sky has its own Now TV Smart Stick (£24.99), which streams Now TV, plus UK catchup apps, Netflix and Disney+. But Now TV works on a wide range of third-party devices, including some Samsung and LG TVs, PS4, Xbox One, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, YouView, Android, iOS, macOS and Windows. You can download shows for offline viewing on smartphones and tablets via wifi too.
The primary downsides are that you can’t get Now TV in 4K, HDR or with Dolby Atmos, not all devices support the Boost add-on for 1080p streaming and without it the streaming frame rate can be below 50 frames per second, which in theory can make fast-moving action such as sports a bit jumpy and jarring if your TV doesn’t have motion-smoothing to compensate.
Why should you get Now TV?
Now TV puts the best of Sky’s channels and content on your TV or devices without a dish, box or long contract. If you want a pay-TV top-up to your Freeview, this is it.
Subscribe if: you want the best of UK pay-TV without a contract
Don’t subscribe if: you want 4K, recordings or have really slow broadband
Best on-demand: Netflix
Monthly from: £5.99 to £13.99
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (3Mbps minimum)
Netflix is the byword for streaming and on-demand content. It is the original and still the best in terms of streaming quality, technology and library.
The app is available on practically any device, TV or computer, with the widest availability of any of the services. That includes Android, iPhones, iPads and Windows 10 PCs, plus browser-based streaming. Many smart TVs come with Netflix pre-installed and may even have a Netflix button on the remote. You can get Netflix on a large range of Blu-ray players (remember discs?), all the major games consoles, including older ones, most set-top boxes including YouView, Sky Q, Virgin and BT, plus streaming media players such as Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast and Roku.
Netflix’s technology, both on the app side and the streaming side, is some of the very best. You can download for offline viewing on tablets and smartphones, including an excellent Windows 10 app, and stream in the latest formats, including 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision and Atmos, with the right device and plan. There are approximately 1,000 TV shows and movies available in 4K on Netflix.
The service is broken down into three streaming plans. The £5.99 Basic plan has one stream at a time and only in standard definition. The £9.99 Standard plan can stream to two screens at once (for multi-room) and in 1080p HD. The £13.99 Premium plan has four streams and up to 4K, which is also required for HDR10, Dolby Vision and Atmos. The minimum bandwidth requirements are 3Mbps for SD, 5Mbps for HD and at least 25Mbps for streaming 4K content.
Netflix also has one of the largest content libraries available, including relatively new shows and movies, lots of older content, plus a raft of its original content, which is generally of higher quality than competitors including hits such as Stranger Things, and exclusives such as Star Trek: Discovery (which is broadcast by CBS in the US).
It also has multi-user support with profiles that can be locked by pin. Parental controls include age ratings, the ability to block individual TV shows or movies, plus a dedicated Kids experience. If you travel with Netflix you get access to the library in different countries, which can be good but can also cut you off from the particular content you want when on holiday if it’s not available in that country.
The primary downside with Netflix is that the sheer volume of content overwhelms the interface, making it hard to find what you want, outside of a search. It has filtering by TV show or movie genre, a recently added list and a recommendation engine to help, but can often be frustrating.
Why should you get Netflix?
Netflix has the best streaming technology, apps and device support, as well as one of the largest libraries including high-quality original TV shows and movies, but also a vast back catalogue of old and new shows and movies.
Subscribe if: you want up to 4K HDR streaming and a massive library of TV shows and films
Don’t subscribe if: you want the very latest movies, arthouse films or more niche TV
- Guide to: What’s on Netflix this month
Best for kids: Disney+
Monthly from: £7.99
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (5Mbps minimum)
Disney+ is the newest streaming service on the block and has recently added a wealth of adult-oriented content alongside its large library of kids and big-kids movies and TV shows.
It has some of the best streaming technology. You can have seven separate profiles, including pin-protection and kids profiles, which can be restricted to age-appropriate content including ratings for zero, six, nine, 12, 14, 16 or 18-plus years old.
You can watch on four screens simultaneously with 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision, Atmos or Digital 5.1 available as standard. It supports a large range of devices from smart TVs and set-top boxes to consoles, smartphones and tablets, plus you can download any TV show or movie on the service to up to 10 separate devices.
The Disney+ interface is fairly straightforward with highlights, search, recommendations, watch lists and the ability to dig down into the content library divided up into the media company’s six main brands, Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic and Star.
The depth and breadth of family-friendly content is unrivalled, with everything Disney has made right back to the original Mickey Mouse, cartoons such as X-Men from my childhood, all of the modern animations as well as the Pixar films. It also has some more adolescent-themed content, including all the Marvel and Star Wars films and TV shows, all of the Simpsons, National Geographic and other bits. The recent addition of Disney’s new Star brand has bolstered the adult-orientated content with US TV shows and movies ranging from Family Guy and Sons of Anarchy to Deadpool, the Devil Wears Prada and the Grand Budapest Hotel. The adult selection isn’t as big as rivals, but is growing fast, as is the service’s selection of high-quality Disney+ original content including the excellent Mandalorian, WandaVision and Hamilton.
The primary downside with Disney+ is the lack of any non-Disney-produced content, but then this is a one-brand service and Star has dramatically expanded what’s available beyond what you’d normally expect from Disney. It’s also worth noting that Disney withdrew its longstanding Disney Channel, DisneyXD and Disney Junior from Sky and Virgin, making Disney+ the sole home for their content since 1 October 2020.
Why should you get Disney+?
If you or your children love Disney movies and cartoons, you want all the Star Wars or Marvel movies and TV shows in one place, and you’re a fan of Disney’s US TV and movie shows under its new Star brand, this is the service for you. The technology is really good too.
Subscribe if: you have kids that need family-friendly entertainment or just love Disney, Marvel or Star Wars
Don’t subscribe if: you’re looking for vast libraries of adult-themed content
Best value: Amazon Prime Video
Monthly from: £5.99 to £7.99
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (1Mbps minimum)
Taken on its own Amazon Prime Video is one of the best video streaming services available rivalling Netflix, with a large range of content spanning third-party TV show box sets, big and small movies, and a small but good selection of original or exclusive TV shows, including its own Star Trek. It also has something most streaming services don’t have: live sport, including some Premier League games, ATP World Tour tennis events, and NFL Thursday Night games.
It is available as a £5.99 a month subscription on its own, but it is far better value wrapped into a full Prime account at £7.99 a month or £79 a year, which works out at £6.58 or 69p more per month than just Prime Video on its own.
Prime includes Amazon’s delivery service, of course, but also includes Prime Music with access to 2m songs, Prime Reading with a rotating selection of ebooks, magazines and comics, plus Photos with unlimited photo storage and Drive with 5GB of storage.
Either way, Prime Video can stream across a large range of devices, including Amazon’s various Fire TV and Fire tablet devices, iPhones, iPads and Android devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Chromecast, Roku, Xbox One and PS4, BT TV, Sky Q, TalkTalk TV and Virgin set top boxes, plus apps on a range of smart TVs. You can watch in the browser on a computer and download shows for offline viewing with the new Windows 10 app for PCs or on mobile devices.
You can watch Prime Video on up to three separate devices or rooms at the same time, but only two devices can stream the same piece of content at the same time.
Amazon supports all the latest formats including 4K, HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, Atmos and Digital 5.1, with around 100 TV show seasons and a modest movie selection available in 4K, including Amazon’s originals and some Premier League games. A minimum broadband speed of 1Mbps is required to stream in SD, 5Mbps for HD and 15Mbps for 4K.
Parental controls can be set to pin-protect purchases and content based on age rating. Amazon allows you to apply restrictions based on device too, meaning your child’s tablet or the TV can require a pin but your phone can be restriction-free.
The primary downside of Prime Video is its interface for sport, which is clunky and it can be difficult to navigate to the live events passed all the previous catchup content. It also doesn’t have as many hit original shows as Netflix or Disney+. Note that it can be difficult to discern between what is included with Prime Video and what costs extra for rent or purchase through the Amazon Video store, with which the recent addition of a “free to me” switch on some devices has helped significantly.
Why should you get Amazon Prime Video?
Amazon Prime Video is excellent value on its own, undercutting arch-rival Netflix, but even better as part of a full Prime account making it a no-brainer for those already part of Amazon’s ecosystem. It also offers something others don’t: high-quality live sport.
Subscribe if: you’re looking for the best-value streaming service, live sport or are already in the Amazon ecosystem
Don’t subscribe if: you want a larger library of TV shows and movies
- Guide to: What’s on Amazon Prime video this month
Virgin Media TV V6
Monthly from: £33 to £178.49
Minimum contract: 18 months
Connection: cable, broadband
Virgin Media is the other big pay-TV provider in the UK using cable instead of satellite, which has the advantage of avoiding any possibility of weather disturbances, but reduces availability to only those properties that are connected to Virgin’s underground network, which is over 50% of British households.
Virgin takes a different approach to Sky, acting as an aggregator of everyone else’s content and its V6 set top box acting more like a smart TV. That means you can get practically every channel, bar Sky Atlantic, on Virgin and often in bundles that are cheaper than competitors. It has a unified search for all content across multiple services and a series of powerful recording options for shows, even spanning multiple channels. It also has practically every streaming TV app (apart from Now TV), including all the UK catchup services and BBC Sounds. The V6 box supports 4K and HDR content, including BT Sport Ultimate and the Virgin UHD channel broadcast in 4K, streams from Netflix, Amazon and others, plus the recently added 4K on-demand content from Sky Entertainment and Sky Cinema costing £6 a month as an add-on.
While fast, the interface is very dated and you can’t change the order of channels in the EPG, which makes it clunky and frustrating to use compared to Sky. Catchup and on-demand content is mainly streamed by the individual apps too, which means jumping into and out of BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, etc, which can be a bit slow and clunky. Not all catchup content is in HD either, while streaming is reliant on your broadband too, not the cable connection into the back of the box, which means if your router isn’t near your TV you might have problems.
You can have up to five set-top boxes for multi-room TV, including the ability to stream recordings between boxes. Virgin’s TV Go app streams live TV over the internet, and downloads for offline, but doesn’t access recordings on your V6 box, and the quality even over a fast connection can be hit and miss. You also can’t buy TV without broadband, and many of the larger TV packages can only be bought in triple or quad-play. Virgin has also had a few outages over the last several months, which has caused some of the services to go offline for short periods of time.
Note that Virgin’s next-generation TV 360 service is currently replacing the V6 box and service for new customers.
Monthly from: £36.99 to £103.97
BT TV is an add-on service for BT Broadband customers and is essentially a YouView PVR set-top box with Freeview and BT’s exclusive AMC channel. On top you can subscribe to Now TV’s various entertainment, movies and sport packages, plus BT Kids or BT’s Sport channels and BoxNation, including BT Sport Ultimate in 4K.
The BT TV box comes in several versions, including just a TV box with no recording functions beyond short-term pause and rewind, one with full recording functions and one with recording and 4K support. You can edit the EPG and the boxes support all the terrestrial catchup and streaming apps – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Spotify and others – but some of the boxes suffer from app crashes and can be fairly slow to turn on, even from non-eco standby.
Multiroom is available with an additional set-top box, but it must have its own aerial connection and be cabled into your router via ethernet. It also requires higher broadband speeds, you can’t watch recordings from another box and multiroom is limited to just two rooms.
As with Virgin TV, you can’t buy BT TV without BT Broadband, which also requires a BT phone line, so it’s only available as triple-play. But you can change the channels you pay for each month, which makes it more flexible than most of the competition. BT recommends a minimum broadband connection of 44Mbps for 4K content.
Monthly from: £4.99
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (5Mbps minimum)
Apple TV+ is a bit of an odd offering. It is exclusively made up of movies and TV shows made by Apple, and while the firm is rapidly adding more shows to it, there’s not an awful lot of it compared to rivals. There were some really good things on launch, such as The Morning Show, and more shows and movies are being added all the time, some good, some not so good.
The Apple TV app is available on Apple’s devices, including Macs, iPhones, iPads and the Apple TV streaming box, on a handful of smart TVs from Samsung and LG, plus PlayStation, Xbox, Amazon’s Fire TV, Google TV and Roku’s streaming boxes, but not Android devices or Amazon’s Fire tablets. Other devices can stream Apple TV+ in a browser. You can watch on up to six devices or rooms simultaneously, and download shows on Apple’s devices.
A year subscription of Apple TV+ is bundled with new Apple devices such as phones, tablets and computers or there’s a seven-day free trial available.
Monthly from: £5.99
Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (3Mbps minimum)
Britbox is the latest streaming service from BBC and ITV, which, as the name might suggest, concentrates on British TV show box sets and movies.
It draws content from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, which means the mainstay of the library is older dramas, comedies and documentaries that have been shown on terrestrial TV at one stage or another. It has 369 box sets dating from the 1980s till now. That means many of the TV shows are also available for free through the various catchup providers, such as BBC iPlayer or rival services such as Now TV, Amazon Prime Video or Netflix.
Programmes and movies are all ad-free and steamed in either SD or HD, depending on how old the material is. A minimum broadband of 3Mbps for SD and 6.5Mbps for HD streaming is required.
Device support is limited but slowly growing including a handful of smart TVs, such as Samsung, Sony, Panasonic and LG models; set-top boxes such as Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Freeview Play and YouView, plus web browsers on computers, Android and iOS devices. There are parental controls, which pin-lock any PG or older age-rated content.
The apps are a bit dated in features, but are improving slowly, including the ability to download content for offline viewing on Android and Apple smartphones and tablets. There are no individual profiles and the recommendations are a bit poor, but you can browse through everything on the service in about 20 minutes so it’s not overwhelming.
A 7-day free trial is available. Britbox.co.uk is not to be confused with Britbox.com, which is only available to those in the US and Canada.
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