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Best UK streaming and pay-TV services 2020: Sky, Virgin, Netflix and Amazon Prime compared and ranked

Guardian Technology 13 Jul 2020 06:00

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 bundled 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 Netflix and everything in between.

This Guardian buyer’s guide to UK pay-TV and streaming services was last updated on 13 July 2020, 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.

Minimum contract: 18 months
Connection: satellite, broadband

Best live streaming: Now TV

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (2.5Mbps minimum)

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (3Mbps minimum)

Best for kids: Disney+

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (5Mbps minimum)

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (1Mbps minimum)

Quick guide

Pay TV and streaming jargon

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Electronic programme guide (EPG)

The EPG is the TV listings, often allowing recording scheduling and showing up to seven days of programmes.  

Personal video recorder (PVR)

A PVR, also known as a digital video recorder (DVR), is a set-top box that works as both a tuner and a recording device. Most set-top boxes provided with pay-TV services are PVRs.

Terrestrial, satellite, cable or IPTV

The method of delivering the TV signal. Terrestrial is the term given to broadcast TV signals received by an aerial used by Freeview, satellite is used by Sky sending signals to mini-dishes, cable is used by Virgin and IPTV is a system of streaming live TV over the internet.

Streaming v downloading

Streaming only buffers the picture in small amounts before being shown on screen and is dynamic, varying in quality and resolution to maximise the experience without overwhelming your internet connection. This is why streams often start looking poor and improve as they ramp up to higher quality.

Downloads are a fixed-quality video file that is stored locally and played back, either after they have fully downloaded or when enough of the content has been stored that a suitable buffer has been reached.

Live v on-demand

Live TV is broadcast in a linear fashion, where you tune in and watch as it happens. On-demand is pre-recorded and delivered to you when you want it. Live TV can also be offered on demand, where you can "restart" or "recap" a live broadcast using a PVR or stream.

Catch-up

The term used for recordings of broadcast content made available on-demand after they have been shown live on television.

Box sets

Box sets are shows collected by season or complete series available on demand.

Single, double, triple and quad-play

The terms used to describe the delivering one or more service from the same provider, typically including one or more of TV, landline, broadband and mobile phone.

Multiroom

Multiroom is the term used to describe the option to watch a TV service on more than one television or device, usually via a second set-top box.

Over the top (OTT)

The term used to describe services that deliver their content via the internet, rather than a fixed, single-purpose delivery mechanism such as terrestrial, satellite or cable.

Frame rate

Frame rate is the number of still images shown per second to make up a moving image either given either in Hertz (Hz) or frames per second (fps), which are interchangeable. They typically number 24fps for cinema pictures, 25fps for broadcast HDTV and 50fps for 4K UHD TV.

Motion-smoothing

Motion-smoothing, motion compensation or motion interpolation, often referred to as 240Hz, TruMotion, Motion Plus, Motion Flow or similar, is a image processing system that attempts to remove the judder of motion caused by lower frame rates by inserting artificially created frames in between the real ones.

It is particularly beneficial for sports or other high-motion content, but also creates the so-called soap opera effect in movies where films look cheapened akin to daytime TV or YouTube videos.

High definition (HD)

HD describes a content shown with a greater number of pixels than standard definition, which provides a crisper picture. It is split into 720p, which has a minimum resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, and 1080i/p (often called full HD or FHD), which has a minimum resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels and is sometimes known as 2K.

Pictures show in 1080i are interlaced, which means that the horizontal lines that make up the picture are drawn on the screen in an alternate fashion with the odd lines first then the even lines. Pictures shown in 1080p are progressive, which means the all the lines are drawn on the screen one by one from top to bottom. Interlaced pictures produce two so-called "fields" per frame of progressive picture, which helps handle the display of motion at a lower frame rates. 

4K ultra high definition

4K UHD, also known as just UHD or 4K, describes content shown at four times the resolution of full HD, at 3840 x 2160 pixels, for a significantly crisper picture, particularly on larger displays. UHD can also refer to 8K UHD (7680 x 4320 pixels), which is not currently widely available.

High dynamic range (HDR)

HDR is a method of encoding brightness information alongside colour, which produces a greater brightness range between the brightest whites and darkest blacks for more lifelike picture. Typically HDR signals are only included with the highest quality video, usually in 4K. There are several complimentary and competing formats of HDR including:

  • HDR10 - the basic open HDR standard supported by most devices that is static for the whole piece of content
  • HDR10+ - an enhancement of HDR10 that provides dynamic metadata on top on a frame-by-frame or scene-by-scene basis
  • Hybrid Log-Gamma (HLG) - a royalty-free HDR standard used in some broadcasts and on-demand content
  • Dolby Vision - Dolby's proprietary HDR standard that can be static or dynamic and is seeing increasingly wide support
Surround sound

Surround sound takes many forms but is essentially anything that is more than just stereo (2.0) or 2.1 (left, right and a subwoofer).

Dolby Digital (DD)

DD, also known as Dolby 5.1 or AC-3, is the best known surround-sound standard as it was one of the defaults for DVDs. It encodes up to five speakers and a subwoofer (5.1), typically arranged in centre, left and right channels at the front and left and right at the rear. DTS was the competing format on DVDs.  

Dolby Digital Plus (DD+)

DD+, also known as Enhanced AC-3, is the successor to Dolby Digital and is used by most modern broadcast, Blu-rays and on-demand content. It encodes up to 16 channels, typically 5.1 or 7.1, with two extra side channels on left and right of the centre spot.  

Dolby TrueHD

Dolby TrueHD is a lossless, high-resolution 16-channel surround-sound format that was a successor to DD and typically found on Blu-rays. DTS-MA is the competing format for Blu-rays.  

Dolby Atmos

Dolby Atmos is the latest Dolby surround-sound format that operates differently to its predecessors. Rather than dictating the channel from which a sound is played, Atmos is object-based system, which defines where a sound is coming from in a 3D space including a height element. The Atmos soundtrack therefore encodes where the object should sound like its coming from, allowing the processor to then figure out which speakers to play it through. DTS:X is the competing format.

In the home, Atmos spatial information is delivered as an additional layer to Dolby TrueHD, or more commonly to DD+ soundtracks, as is the case with most on-demand content. Atmos-capable home systems are typically configured with five or seven surround speakers, a subwoofter and two height speakers (5.1.2 or 7.1.2). Height speakers are typically either mounted to the ceiling above the listener, or speakers that project sound up and bounce it off the ceiling.

Chromecast

Google's gadget for streaming content to a TV. It is a stick that plugs into an HDMI port and streams content straight from the internet with a phone, tablet or computer acting as a remote, rather than a conduit. Google's Chrome browser can also mirror a tab from computer or an Android phone can mirror its screen and audio directly to a Chromecast.  

Google Cast

Google's method of sending video and audio to a Chromecast using a phone, tablet or computer as a remote or mirroring its screen. It is often used interchangeably with Chromecast, and is represented by the icon of a screen with radio waves moving into it from the bottom left corner.

Chromecast built-in

Google's Chromecast technology that is directly integrated into a TV or other set-top box, which behaves in the same way as the physical Chromecast dongles.

AirPlay

Apple's AirPlay and its successor, AirPlay 2, send video and audio directly from a smartphone, tablet or computer to a set-top box or speaker using wifi.

Bandwidth

Bandwidth, in internet terms, is the amount of data that can be sent or received at any one time, typically measured in bits per second (bps) and often referred to colloquially as the download, upload or, simply, internet speed. An 8Mbps internet connection can download 8m bits per second.

It's worth noting that the bits travel at the same actual speed regardless of the bandwidth, just that more of them can travel simultaneously, and that there are eight bits in a byte, meaning a 1MB file will take one second to transfer across an 8Mbps connection.

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Minimum contract: 18 months
Connection: cable, broadband

BT TV

Minimum contract length: 24 months
Connection: aerial, broadband (3Mbps minimum)

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (5Mbps minimum)

Minimum contract: one month
Connection: broadband (3Mbps minimum)

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