Accessing UK TV from the USA
I have been living in the USA for nine months now. While I have settled comfortably one thing I have missed from back home in Scotland is UK Television. Specifically I have been missing UK-centric news and documentaries. There are currently two BBC channels available on US cable. However, compared to the UK-based BBC offering they’re light on decent content. Not having the likes of BBC News 24 , Horizon, Panorama, etc. available finally spurred me to start exploring options to access UK-based streaming and catch up services from the US.
In the course of my research I have read many ill-informed forum posts saying certain approaches to accessing UK content are not possible. This post details my experiences so others can see what is possible and not be put off by such incorrect information.
Accessing Geoblocked Content
The first thing that is required to access UK catchup services is the ability to trick the geoblocks that such services employ to restrict their content to the UK. I investigated various VPN providers before settling on OverPlay’s Smart DNS service. This is not a full-blown VPN service and the low price of $4.95/month reflects this. Instead it is a simpler offering which utilises OverPlay’s own DNS to get around geoblocks for select services automatically. Specifically it supports all of the UK catchup services: BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and ITV Player.
Setup is straight forward and requires only a change to your device’s DNS configuration to point at OverPlay’s DNS Servers. The Overplay website contains detailed setup instructions for common devices such as Windows and Mac computers. Alternatively you can simply change the DNS setup on your router to cut over all of your home based devices to Smart DNS in one fell swoop. Many devices do not support individual DNS settings (e.g. Roku boxes) so this was my preferred option.
I was concerned that using Overplay’s DNS would lead to a slow down of my Internet speed. However, speed tests show no degradation of my internet speed when using OverPlay’s DNS Servers. Streaming content from the UK via Smart DNS is also very fast and reliable even in HD.
Besides making UK catchup services available Smart DNS has the ability to switch your Netflix region on-the-fly. By making a menu selection on the Smart DNS website your Netflix region can be changed to any one of the 15 available regions. The change takes effect immediately although you will need to restart running instances of Netflix on devices for them to update to the new region. Switching Netflix region is useful because different countries can have very different content. For example, I am currently enjoying the US TV Series “The Shield” on Canadian Netflix. Surprisingly the show is not available on US or UK Netflix. Helpfully you can find out if certain content is available on a particular Netflix region by using the (currently beta) Moreflicks website.
There are other options available to access geoblocked UK content but I cannot comment on those. I have found OverPlay’s Smart DNS service to be very reliable with only one or two short outages while I have used it. Their support is also very responsive.
Whatever service you use to defeat geoblocks you will require devices to access the content. I have explored a few of the options available detailed my experiences below.
Option 1 – Laptop or Tablet
Initially I connected to BBC iPlayer, et al using a Macbook and the relevant catchup service’s website. This was okay for short periods of viewing but using a laptop to watch TV seems a little restricted when I have a large screen TV available. For longer viewing sessions I purchased an extra long HDMI cable and connected it to my Samsung TV to mirror the display. I also have an Apple TV which can be used to mirror my Macbook’s display wirelessly via Airplay. However, I find this approach can be a little laggy compared to the cable option.
The other option is to use a tablet and the relevant catchup service’s app. Beware that you will need a UK based App Store or Play Store account to access the iPlayer, 4oD, etc apps.
One advantage of using a laptop or tablet application to access catchup content is that it provides the option to stream live television and (for iPlayer at least) download programs for later viewing. The other options below do not provide this option and instead only cater for catchup TV.
Option 2 – Now TV Box
Accessing iPlayer, etc via a laptop works well but plugging in cables or setting up AirPlay every time I want to watch UK TV is not convenient. I therefore started looking into set-top box options that would be more integrated with my TV. Factory resetting my Apple TV back into the UK region was not an option as it does not support BBC iPlayer. I would need to buy a new set-top box of some kind. I heard that Sky had released their own little streaming box for their Now TV service that also supported the various free to air UK catch up services and decided to explore that as an option.
The Now TV box is very cheap at £10 but is only available in the UK. Fortunately I maintain a UK address and was able to order one using a UK credit card and could get family to forward it onto my address in the States. The only problem was that it shipped with a UK power adapter. This problem was easily solved as it turns out that the Now TV box is simply a rebadged Roku box. I was able to order a replacement US power adapter directly from Roku themselves. The cost of the adapter and postage to the States inflated the final price of the box but it still looked like a bargain.
When the Now TV box arrived it was easy to set up. Surprisingly the Now TV box came complete with a HDMI cable. Sky has obviously heavily subsidised the device to get it into as many households as easily possible. The Now TV box does not support Ethernet only wireless. To my surprise it also does not support dual band wireless only 2.4 GHz. When I discovered this during setup I had my concerns. The 2.4 GHz band is very congested where I live as it is a heavily populated area. In fact it is so slow that I operate all of my devices on the 5GHz band which is almost unpopulated.
I gave up on the mandatory sign up for Now TV via the device’s setup process as it insisted that I purchase a Now TV pass which I was not interested in. I instead linked the device with my existing Sky ID which I had from my time as a Sky subscriber in the UK and skipped this requirement.
Note that Now TV boxes do not allow the configuration of DNS so you will have to set up your Smart DNS or VPN centrally on your router to get it to work in the US.
All seemed well. I could access iPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5 directly on my television as if I was in the UK. The interface was a little slow but usable which is understandable given the low-cost of the device. However, upon accessing actual content the problems started.
Video playback was terrible with frequent buffering interrupting viewing. Worse still apps such as 4oD and Demand 5 are prone to crash out completely when buffering occurs (iPlayer tends to be more resilient in the face of a slow connection). As I suspected the 2.4GHz band was far too slow and congested to stream content reliably. I experimented with all of the available channels on the 2.4GHz band to no avail. Using a scanning app on my smart phone showed every channel was packed with competing WiFi networks.
At this point I gave up and put the Now TV box on eBay where it promptly sold. If you live in an area with uncongested 2.4GHz wireless and can source a Now TV box from the UK then I recommend it if you want to access catchup services on your TV without a computer. Otherwise steer clear and look at another option.
Option 3 – Samsung Smart Hub
When I moved to the States I bought a new TV. Like most new TVs it’s a “Smart TV” and comes complete with app support. Another bonus was my TV’s support for dual band wi-fi. After the failure of my Now TV experiment I looked into the possibility of resetting the firmware on my TV to access UK apps such as iPlayer. Expecting a complex, potentially device destroying process I was surprised to find that five button presses on my remote allowed me to switch the TV’s region to any country I wanted. Upon making the switch to the UK region all of the US-based apps disappeared to be replaced by iPlayer, 4oD, Demand 5 and itv player. In combination with my Smart DNS configured router I finally had access to catchup services without requiring a computer. Samsung’s Smart Hub interface used to access the catchup apps is a little clunky and slow but is convenient enough for everyday use.
This setup worked great until a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly all video playback via the TV for iPlayer and 4oD became scrambled although sound was still playing correctly. Playback via a laptop or tablet worked fine as did Netflix playback via Samsung’s app. I could only conclude Samsung has (perhaps temporarily) broken their UK catch up apps. While I expect the apps will be fixed at some point I decided not to wait and sought out yet another solution.
Option 4 – Roku Box
The Now TV solution had come close to working with only the 2.4GHz wireless limitation scuppering the solution for me. Given that a Now TV box is simply an old rebadged Roku 1 box I reasoned that I may have more success with an up-to-date Roku 2 or 3 box. I checked the specs and found that both models did indeed support dual band wireless and, in the UK, supported iPlayer, 4oD and Demand 5. I could pick up either model in Best Buy for $70 and $100 respectively and forum posts suggested that, with certain prerequisites, a US Roku box could be reset to the UK region.
The first thing to do was to set up a UK-based Roku account. This is necessary because the act of linking a Roku box to a UK account causes it to install the UK-based catchup applications. To do this successfully you will need to access the Roku sign-up site via a UK-based VPN. I used UK Free VPN for this purpose. You will know you have been successful in setting up a UK-based account if the account balance is listed on the Roku website in UK Pounds rather than dollars.
I plumped for the Roku 3 as it is much faster than the Roku 2 and I was tiring of the slow user interfaces I had found on the likes of the Now TV box and my Samsung TVs. It also has an Ethernet port for extra flexibility although I am using 5GHz wireless successfully. I thought that Roku not including an HDMI cable in the box was a little cheap and highlighted just what a bargain the Now TV box is. Setup was simple. Connecting to the Internet via my Smart DNS enabled Router (like Now TV the Roku box has no DNS settings available) and linking to my UK Roku account the box immediately installed the relevant UK-based catch up apps and everything just worked.
While the Roku solution was not the cheapest it has worked out the best. The box is fast and can be controlled by a smart phone or tablet. It also works reliably which is more than can said for some of the other options I tried. The only thing it can’t do is stream live TV as, like Now TV and Samsung Smart Hub, the various catchup apps do not support this feature. However, when I want to stream live TV there is alway the option of using a Macbook or tablet.
Whatever option you go for you will need a service to get around geo blocking. I recommend Over Play’s Smart DNS because its fast, reliable and cheap.
A laptop or tablet is a must for streaming live UK TV. For a more integrated experience a set-top box or Smart TV can be persuaded into the UK region as described above.
A Now TV box is alow cost option if you can source one from the UK, have uncongested 2.4GHz wireless and can put up with the slow interface.
A Smart TV is an even cheaper option if you have one already and can change its region. However, my experience in the UK and US is that TV manufacturers are terrible at supporting their applications and their interfaces tend to be slow.
My best experience was with the Roku 3 box because it has a fast interface and has a wide array of networking options.