How making your dumb TV into a smart TV with a streaming device to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, NOW TV and iPlayer will save you money
Watching TV can be very expensive, especially if you pay for the likes of Virgin or Sky. Yes, these channels are often packaged with your broadband and phone line, but I still think you’re paying over the odds. The full Sky package is currently £72 a month (without internet or phone).
And the chances are you won’t even watch most of these channels. A big reason for that is the rise of streaming services such as Netflix, NOW TV and Amazon Prime. The latest data from Ofcom shows that 11.1million households have signed up to at least one of these. That’s almost 40% of the country.
Now, lots of you will have already ditched Sky and Virgin in favour of these on-demand options. Great. Yet 45% of households still pay these companies for their TV. And I think there are three big reasons for this. For some it’s to get certain channels, for others it’s to record programmes. There are ways to work around both of these.
The third barrier is because people want to be able to watch programmes on an actual TV, not via their computer. But thanks to streaming sticks and boxes I ditched pay TV years ago.
Here’s how you can cut the cord with Virgin and Sky and watch the streaming services using your remote.
What are TV streaming services?
If you’re not familiar with Amazon Prime, Netflix or NOW TV, they’re all Video On Demand (VOD). That means you watch the content when you want, rather than at set times. It’s exactly how BBC iPlayer works, yet you pay a monthly subscription to access them.
I subscribe to all three most months, depending on what’s on. Both Amazon Prime and Netflix have some great programmes that are exclusive to those platforms such as Stranger Things (Netflix) The Sinner (Netflix), Preacher (Amazon Prime) and The Marvellous Mrs Maisel (Amazon Prime), as well as classics to rewatch.
Meanwhile NOW TV is a far cheaper way to watch Sky programmes I enjoy such as Westworld (Sky Atlantic), Modern Family (Sky One) and The Walking Dead (Fox). At £7 a month for an Entertainment Pass it’s less than half the price of a contract with Sky or Virgin.
You can read more about all three paid services in my article Amazon Prime vs Netflix vs NOW TV.
The free streaming options are catch-up services for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, though both iPlayer and All 4 have exclusive shows you can’t watch via Freeview.
How to make your TV smart
All these services that work through the internet. You can of course access them all on your computer or phone, but lots of smart TVs, games consoles and DVD players will now have apps built in. We recently purchased a Samsung smart TV and it lets us watch iPlayer, Netflix, NOW TV, Amazon Prime, YouTube, rental services such as Rakuten and Google Play, and more.
But that’s one of the few brands which has all the services. It’s more likely that you’ll only have one or two of these if any. So how do you make sure you can watch the service you want to watch?
Well you don’t need to buy a new TV. You can buy a cable to connect your laptop to your TV, but it’s a pain to have these running across rooms. It’s better to buy a smart stick or box which plugs into your current telly.
Over the years I’ve used a fair few of them, but before I get into the options available, you need to make sure that your TV is compatible.
How to connect a smart device to your TV
- You will need a spare HDMI slot (or two) on your TV. This is where you will connect the device. If you have an older TV without any HDMI slots you can buy adaptors (like this one), though the quality won’t be as good.
- Next you’ll need a power socket to plug the stick or box into. Some will be able to get power from a USB socket on the TV, though I find these a little unreliable.
- Plus you need to have an internet connection. Though you can hardwire in some of the devices, most require wi-fi.
- Once connected you will need to follow the instructions to set up (they’re all pretty easy to set up). You then log-in to your account. If you can’t find the service you want, but it is included, you might need to add it the app. Again that’s easy to do.
Sorted? Right, here are your main options. Just to be clear, you still need to pay for the streaming subscription each month on top of the cost of the streaming device.
Streaming sticks compared and how to get them for less
With each of these devices I’ve listed the main services you can access, though there are usually more options. I’ve also provided links for articles elsewhere on the blog where I update the latest offers.
Roku Express and Roku Streaming Stick +
What you can watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, NOW TV, iPlayer, Apple TV +, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, Google Play, YouTube, UKTV Play, Sky Store, Rakuten
One of the few I don’t own, but it’s possibly the best one if you watch all three of the main VOD services as it has apps for Netflix, Prime and NOW TV.
There are two options. The basic one will be fine for most people, and should cost you around £30. If you want to watch in 4K (which is super high quality) you can buy a premium version, which normally costs £60. If you don’t have a 4K TV you can still use this and get full HD.
I’ll update the links below when there are any standout offers (Last updated 22nd November 2019).
Amazon Fire TV
What you can watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, All4, Apple TV+, My 5, UKTV Play, Disney Life
You’ve got the pick of a Fire TV stick or the 4K Fire TV. Both come with Alexa, meaning you can talk to the remote to find the programme you want to watch. You can also pair the sticks with Amazon Echo speakers.
You’ll pay £40 for the basic model and £70 for the 4K version, though there are often deals, so I’d wait for one of these to pop up. I’ll often share these on my Amazon deals page.
The interface is perfectly good, and you can also control the stick via an app on your smartphone. However, it does lack access to NOW TV and Google Play.
BUY > Get the 4K Fire TV
SIGN UP > Get a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime
What you can watch: Netflix, NOW TV, iPlayer, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Rakuten, almost anything
The first streaming stick I ever got was the Chromecast, and this was the game changer for me. You don’t get a remote control. Instead you “cast” from your computer or phone. This sends whatever screen you have on your device over to the TV. That means it’s not just TV. You can cast any tab from a Chrome browser, which means any webpage.
Amazon isn’t supported, but sometimes you can cast from Amazon Prime via your web browser. However, if you’re going to use Prime a lot, this isn’t the device for you.
Again there are two versions. The standard one retails at £30 but if you wait there are often deals which bring it down to £25 or less. The lowest I’ve seen it, around Black Friday, is £18. The premium Chromecast Ultra is 4K and sells for £69. It’s rare that this is discounted. I regularly update the best prices on my Chromecast deals page.
NOW TV stick
What you can watch: NOW TV, iPlayer, All 4, ITV Hub, My5, Sky Store, YouTube, Netflix (from late 2018)
NOW TV uses the same technology as Roku, though there’s a big difference in that you can’t access Amazon Prime and a few other services. It’s obviously geared towards NOW TV too, with a big button on the remote taking you direct to the NOW TV app.
The stick is Full HD, though programmes aren’t yet available at this quality. NOW TV has said this will happen later in 2018. It also has voice control. The stick is £15 or you can buy it with a NOW TV pass, which often makes the real cost of the stick only a few quid, and this can be the cheapest way to make your TV smart.
However, even cheaper is to hunt down an older NOW TV box. I’ve a few of these attached to other TVs around the house. These were phased out in early 2018 but are still available. You can expect to pay £15 for the box and a two-month Entertainment pass. Again, I share all the best deals on a dedicated NOW TV deals page, which also has the best ways to save on passes.
What you can watch: Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes, BBC iPlayer, All 4, My 5, ITV Hub, NOW TV
Apple TV is far more expensive than the other options at £149 and £179 for the 4K version, but it’s essential for anyone who’s built up a collection of film and TV from iTunes.
What about recording freeview TV?
For many the downside of ditching pay-TV is you lose your Sky+ or TIVO box. Though all the streaming sticks will let you watch Freeview content on demand, none will record. And we all know sometimes it’s nice to stack up an entire series of Masterchef to binge, or be able to skip the adverts. Sadly most streaming services, with the exception of Netflix and Amazon Prime (for their exclusive programmes at least), often have a window of four to 12 weeks to watch something. And you can’t avoid the adds on All 4, ITV Hub and My5.
Or you can often get the box for free with your broadband provider. As long as you stay with them for the minimum contract you get to keep the box. You might have to pay a little for the basic pay TV option. We did this a few years ago via BT and it works fine without a subscription. However, Sky and Virgin boxes only work if you are paying a monthly fee.
Sadly if you really want to record Sky channels you will need to get a contract with Sky, Virgin, BT or TalkTalk.