The Now TV Smart Stick is the cheapest way to upgrade your TV’s smarts.
It costs just £14.99, less than half the price of the Amazon Fire TV Stick and exactly half the cost of a Google Chromecast. The main aim is to get you to sign up to one of Sky’s paid-for content subscriptions, but it’s also a good way to bypass your TV’s slow or non-existent catch-up apps on a very tight budget.
The main new feature for this generation of stick is voice control. Ask for an actor or director and the Now TV Smart Stick will find films and TV series they’ve made.
This is a more simplistic take on a streaming add-on than the Amazon Fire TV stick, with relatively poor video quality and a basic interface. If you just want to try out Now TV’s movies or get access to a version of BBC iPlayer that actually works properly, though, it’s still a solid buy.
Price and availability
The Now TV Smart Stick costs £14.99. If that low price isn’t enough to get you interested, maybe it’s not for you.
Its cost is effectively subsidized by Sky, because the stick is made by Roku. And Roku's cheapest own-brand models start at around £30.
In the UK you’ll find the Now TV Smart Stick sold at places like Argos, but you can’t buy one at Amazon. This is because Amazon makes its fiercest rival.
The Now TV Smart Stick looks like an elongated USB memory stick. Remember those?
However, at its end there’s an HDMI, rather than a USB socket. It plugs directly into a HDMI port on your TV or home cinema receiver.
The only potential stumbling block is that there’s no “bridge” cable. If your TV has rear-mounted ports and is backed right up against a wall, you may struggle to fit the stick in. It may also poke out of the side of your TV if it has side-mounted HDMIs. You need 88mm clearance to fit this little gadget into your setup: time to get the tape measure out.
Likely to have problems? You can buy a short “male to female” HDMI extender cable for a couple of pounds online.
The Now TV Smart Stick also has its own power source. A 5V power supply and microUSB are included, and the cable plugs into a socket on the stick’s rear.
DIY advice out of the way, let’s take a look at the remote.
It’s a rounded chunk of plastic, less stylish than Amazon’s Fire TV remote but likely a lot smaller than the one that came with your TV. It is probably smarter too.
This is a Wi-Fi remote, letting you control the stick from a different room. Needing “line of sight” is a thing of the past.
This left us wondering: why is there clearly an infrared transmitter on the top of it, then?
The remote has another special move. In the Now TV Smart Stick’s settings menu you can select your TV brand to control its volume using two little buttons on the remote’s right side.
This works well, although it is only useful for the most basic of setups. You can’t control the volume of AV receivers or soundbars, which is a shame when most use the same kind of IR signals.
The remote’s buttons are largely the normal fare. There’s a D-pad, power button and play/FF/RW controls. And down below are more specific shortcuts.
'My TV' takes you to the movies and TV you’re in the process of watching. It’s a little limited as it only works for Now TV content, not, for example, iPlayer shows.
'TV Guide' shows Sky’s TV channels, which you get access to with the Entertainment Pass (more on that later). The stick is not a TV receiver, and all these channels are streamed over your internet: there’s no Freeview here.
'Kids' is a section that compiles all of Sky’s Kids’ TV content, and the Sky Store is where you can rent and buy movies and shows not included in the Now TV movies service. They tend to have films that were in cinemas until recently, and ultra-high profile series like Game of Thrones.
The remote’s most interesting button is the little microphone, though. Press this and a little pinhole mic under the power button starts listening to your voice.
Say the name of a director or actor and the Now TV Smart Stick will find relevant Now TV content. You can say “Home” to go back to the home screen, or launch apps like “All 4” or “iPlayer” just by saying their name.
It’s also useful for finding particular genres of film or TV shows. “Horror TV shows” and “thriller movies” get you the results you'd expect, for example.
However, voice recognition and the smarts of this system are far more simplistic than those of Amazon's Echo or Google Home. You need to speak quite clearly to be understood and keyword-based results only work for Now TV content.
We asked the Now TV Smart Stick for “Graham Norton” content, and while The Graham Norton Show was right there on the home screen promoted as Highlight content, the voice search came up with nothing. It’s because that’s a BBC iPlayer show, not a Now TV one.
Voice recognition works, but it’s basic.
Interface and apps
The Sky Now TV Smart Stick has a simple interface that’s closer to a TV’s menu system than the Amazon Fire TV Stick’s, which looks a lot like Netflix’s UI.
This should sit well with technophobes. It doesn’t look flashy, though, and while navigation feels quick pages of content can take a second or so to populate even with a 130 Mbps home broadband connection. Videos take a beat or two to load, too.
A matter-of-fact style continues in the TV guide and Now TV sections. Movies aren’t siphoned off into an army of sub-genres based on your previous viewing habits, instead leaving you to largely trawl through “classic” genre libraries with 100-400 films in each.
You get a more familiar experience when using most of the Now TV Smart Stick’s third-party apps. All of the most popular UK catch-up services are here: BBC iPlayer, All 4, Demand 5 and ITV player.
These run very well, with none of the stuttery lag that affects some older smart TV systems. However, whether you get the very latest version of each’s interface is down to these third parties, not Sky.
For example, BBC iPlayer looks much the same as it does on our PS4, but YouTube appears to have a slightly older version.
YouTube is one of a handful of apps you’ll want to try outside of the catch-up crowd. Others on offer include the anime streamer Crunchyroll, music video portal Vivo and internet radio player TuneIn. For Scottish buyers, STV’s catch-up is on-board too.
The app library is puny compared with that of an Amazon Fire TV Stick, though. With that rival you can play loads of Android games, and run apps like Spotify. This stick also misses out on other streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Mubi.
It’s probably the biggest issue with the Now TV Smart Stick. We understand Sky’s decision entirely, but bear this limitation in mind if you think you may want to dip in and out of different services. After all, none of the big players tie you to a long-term contract, inviting this sort of disloyal behaviour.
Streaming library and subscriptions
There’s a bit more to get you head around with Sky’s subscription options than with Netflix or Amazon. Sky offers four packages, which it calls “passes”, making them seem more like tickets to content rather than subscriptions.
First up, there’s the Entertainment pass, at £7.99 a month. This lets you watch 12 TV channels and grants access to box sets and catch-up episodes from them. For example, there are five seasons of The Blacklist (box set) but only two episodes of Rick and Morty (catch up). Here’s the full list of channels:
- Sky One
- Sky Living
- Sky Atlantic
- Comedy Central
- Sky Arts
- ITV Encore
- Discovery Channel
- Nat Geo Wild
Many of you will be after the £9.99 Cinema pass. This lets you watch, Netflix-style, “over 1000” films, and unlocks the following Sky Cinema channels in the TV guide:
- Sci-Fi and Horror
Adding together all the movies in the genre sections we count 2007 films at the time of review, but this doesn’t account for titles that appear in multiple sections. It gives you a rough idea of how much there is to trawl through, though.
The £2.99 Kids pass is a great low-price option for families but, crucially, it doesn’t give you access to the 100-plus Disney movies on Now TV. You just get a slew of TV shows and the following six streamed TV channels:
- Cartoon Network
- Nick Jr.
Finally, there’s the Sky Sports pass, at £6.99. It’s easily the priciest of the lot, as that only gets you 24 hours’ access. A monthly pass is £33.99. This doesn’t let you stream past events, just access to 10 sport channels:
- Main Event
- Premier League
There’s no discount for signing up for the lot. You’ll pay £20.97 a month for the Entertainment, Movies and Kids packages.
Video and audio quality
The Now TV Smart Stick’s image quality is worse than that its alternatives. While Sky has told us 1080p streams are coming “by the end of the year”, right now we’re stuck with 720p.
Even the Now TV Smart Stick’s interface is rendered at 720p. We tried switching the output resolution between 1080p and 720p, and the only difference visible was in the upscaling algorithms used by the stick and our Panasonic plasma test TV. The TV is the more aggressive upscaler, if anything.
720p films can still look good at the right distance, but the disparity is becoming embarrassing. Amazon and Netflix have offered 4K and HDR content for a while. Netflix started with 4K back in 2014.
Some content is worse than 720p too. While some TV channels stream at 720p, or near to it, others are stuck at standard definition. Watching Syfy, for example, and flicking between the same show on catch-up, it was clear the channel was being broadcast at standard def. Catch-up streamed at 720p.
Sky tells us you’ll be able to pause live TV with the Now TV Smart Stick, but at the time of review this feature doesn’t work yet.
BBC iPlayer does stream at 720p, thankfully, although in our experience it starts off at a pretty dismal-looking SD stream. It takes a couple of minutes to lock onto to HD, and we noticed more artefacts than when playing through a PS4.
A reminder: this is when using a 100Mbps-plus connection.
Audio support is less likely to disappoint, with Dolby Digital+ and DTS on-board to enable surround sound. There’s no DTS HD or DTS HD Master Audio, but to expect that from a device this cheap seems unrealistic.
We also love the idea of the Night Listening mode, which normalizes sound levels so you’re not left scrambling for the remote when there’s an explosion in a movie and it’s 11:30pm. However, its effect doesn’t seem all that pronounced and as it doesn’t rein-in bass it won’t help much if you have decent speakers or a subwoofer.
The Now TV Smart Stick is cheap. Super cheap. If your current TV has a creaky old smart TV interface, or one lacking apps, the solid versions of catch-up services you get hear justify the price alone.
There are clever features too. The Wi-Fi remote works from awkward positions that an IR remote can’t handle, and integrated TV volume control is a neat little extra.
The movies section also offers some newer films than you’ll find on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, and the My TV section is very handy for shows and films you don’t make it through in one go.
Video quality is at best OK. The jump to 1080p is long, long overdue. We’re still waiting. And some content still streams at SD. There are picture quality issues in third-party apps like iPlayer too, with streams starting at standard def.
Limit your expectations of the voice command feature too. Its abilities are quite narrow and voice recognition is not in the same league as Amazon’s.
The Sky Now TV Smart Stick is not a gadget for videophiles or the tech-obsessed. Video quality is limited, there’s no support for Netflix or Amazon Prime Video and voice control support is rudimentary.
However, it’s perfect for those with smaller TVs, or people who want to give their setup an injection of smarts for less than the price of a pizza and a drink.