It’s a funny old world. While huge teams of programmers and artists are developing stunning latest-generation games for people to play and fall in love with, an ever-growing cohort of people are taking a different route: they’re watching other people play games. This shouldn’t be as surprising as it always is; plenty of other passtimes and activities are spectator based, and you only have to look at the world of sport to realise just how much people enjoy watching other people take part in things. And so with the rise of sites such as YouTube and Twitch, and the current consoles’ abilities to stream live gameplay to one or both of these services, more and more people are turning to gaming as a spectator sport. Again, owners of modern consoles can use these apps to watch the live streams, but what about those who want to watch some games without buying the equipment? It’s no different to watching a football match without buying your own pair of boots, so what else can you do? Well, there’s mobile and tablet apps, but that’s assuming you’re happy to watch on a small screen.
Luckily, help is at hand for those of you who want to watch some games on the big screen, without relying on expensive consoles to do the job for you. We’ve been spending some time with the new NowTV box and the Amazon Fire Stick – both available for easily under £40 – and found that for spending a bit of time watching some gaming action both offer some fantastic features.
The Main Event: YouTube and Twitch
If you’re looking for a device which only lets you watch some game streaming, then the YouTube and Twitch apps are the top of your list, with the latter edging the importance as the web’s most used streaming service. We were looking for easy to use apps, a reliable service and a good quality stream over our home wireless connection. In terms of YouTube both devices delivered, with HD options available and a quick, responsive experience. YouTube have always done a good job of their apps though, so that’s no surprise.
But Twitch? Well, there’s only one winner, and it comes from the simple fact that there isn’t a Twitch app for NowTV. While the Fire Stick allows you to simply download it and get started with watching the games you want (albeit through a slightly clunky interface) the Sky offering seems totally bereft of the very option. It’s a shame, and very surprising considering the Now TV box is based on a Roku box which does have said Twitch channel available.
Extras Part 1: Other TV
In case you’re one of those people who watch TV, it might interest you to know that the roles are reversed slightly in this category. NowTV boasts catchup services for all of the main five UK terrestrial channels, including ITV Player, something not matched by any of the other main players in the media streamer market. The Fire Stick has a lot of content, and a lot of apps to download to entertain you, but if you want to be able to watch whatever ITV has to offer then the Firestick will leave you feeling a little empty.
Extras Part 2: Games
Believe it or not, games on your TV is starting to become a reality. Ok so you won’t be dipping into Destiny via your Fire Stick, but you only have to look at the Amazon store to see just what you could be doing via your Fire Stick. While Now TV focusses mostly on the video side of things (and does an excellent job of it) the Fire Stick offers up the likes of Crossy Road and Sonic the Hedgehog, playable with either the remote control or a separately available controller. They’re mobile games effectively, but the Fire Stick’s dual core processor does an ample job of keeping things ticking over in a way which might surprise you for a TV-powered gaming session.
Extras Part 3: Those Cheeky Hidden Gems
Both the NowTV box and the Amazon Fire Stick have one extra ace up their sleeves. Neither are officially supported by the manufacturers, neither are advertised services, but both make the devices far more useful as a home video streaming service. Both devices allow you to enter a developer mode, presumably designed to help those trying to develop new apps to test them out before releasing them into the wild. What it means though is that you can install Plex onto NowTV, and Kodi (formerly XBMC) onto the Fire Stick, opening up massive extra potential for each device. I won’t go into the relative merits of Plex against Kodi, but both allow you to stream videos and music from other devices on your home network (although Plex takes a little more setting up) and with both letting you watch videos in full 1080p (a feature only on the newer NowTV box, not the original) you can watch your collection of films you’ve bought and downloaded on the family TV without a great deal of effort. Out of the two I possibly prefer the functionality of Kodi due to the massive number of plugins available, but if you just want to watch films you’ve already paid for without paying again on the NowTV or Amazon rental stores, then it’s a fantastic option.
So… Which to Buy?
This is both a very simple and very difficult thing to answer. If you want to watch other people stream their games (which is, after all, what this double review started out being) then the Amazon Fire Stick is spot on and will do just what you want via YouTube and Twitch. There’s no getting round the fact that the NowTV box could really do with the Twitch app as well, but it makes up for that shortfall by having a huge range of on demand TV options, as well as all of the premium Sky offerings such as Sports and Movies, all of which can be paid for on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. If you want a device to watch games and tinker with Kodi, then the Fire Stick wins all out. If, though, you’re happy with YouTube footage of games and want to double that up with being able to catch up with the major terrestrial TV channels, then take a look at the new NowTV box.
Both fantastic devices, but for a very slightly different audience.