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Now TV Smart Stick review

Sky’s Now TV Smart Stick gets a voice-activated upgrade

Now TV Smart Stick review
(Image: © Now TV)

Our Verdict

The Now TV Smart Stick arrives seeming a little dated, with limited video quality and just OK voice features, but the low price makes it perfect for a second TV set (or a less picky audience).

For

  • Super-cheap
  • Multiple subscription options
  • Fairly easy to use
  • You can ask for your favourite stars

Against

  • Only HD resolution
  • Not as versatile as Amazon Fire TV Stick
  • Poor-quality TV channel streams
  • No Amazon Prime Video

The Now TV Smart Stick is the cheapest way to upgrade your TV’s smarts. If you're in the UK, there are certainly more advanced streaming sticks out there, but the Now TV Smart Stick is so affordable it's hard not to recommend it for those looking to stream on a budget.

The Now TV Smart Stick costs just £24.99, which is a decent amount less than the £39.99 Amazon Fire TV Stick and just shy of the £29.99 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 stick used to cost just £14.99, though, and the new price is harder to justify for that the model offers – but more on that below.

As of 2020, the Now TV Smart Stick can stream at 1080p (Full HD), up from its previous max resolution of 720p (regular HD). This streamer can't get anywhere near 4K resolution or HDR, sadly, but those of you without a 4K TV – or not that fussed about Ultra HD viewing – won't be missing out.

You will need to pay an additional £3 per month for this Full HD capability – named Boost Mode, which makes it sound more like overclocking a PC than enabling higher resolutions, but is a welcome addition nonetheless.

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 £24.99. 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 – though the cheapest Roku streamer, the Roku Express (2019) is roughly the same cost and offers Full HD streaming as default.

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 Fire TV Stick.

Hardware

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 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.

Remote control 

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 for remote commands is a thing of the past – but this left us wondering why there's so clearly an infrared transmitter on the top.

That's because 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

Speech recognition

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, and with Netflix recently added across all of Now TV's devices, you can easily switch between Netflix Originals like Bojack Horseman and your favorite YouTube videos. 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 Amazon Prime Video and Mubi.

While Disney Plus is confirmed to be coming to Now TV, it hasn't happened yet, and the service is already on Sky Q boxes and other streaming sticks like the Fire TV and Google Chromecast streamers in the UK.

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 £8.99 a month. This lets you watch 15 TV channels and grants access to box sets and catch-up episodes from them (though some shows are more complete than others).

  • Sky One 
  • Sky Atlantic 
  • Sky Witness
  • Sky Arts
  • Sky Comedy
  • Sky Crime
  • Gold 
  • Comedy Central 
  • Syfy 
  • Fox 
  • MTV 
  • Vice
  • Challenge
  • Pick
  • Nat Geo Wild 

Many of you will be after the £11.99 Cinema pass. This lets you watch, Netflix-style, “over 1000” movies on demand from Sky Cinema – but none of the channels above.

The £3.99 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 
  • Boomerang 
  • Nickelodeon 
  • Nicktoons 
  • Nick Jr. 
  • Cartoonito 

There's now also a Hayu pass for reality TV shows, with over 3,000 episodes – including Keeping Up With The Kardashians, one of the US channel's staples. It's also just £3.99 per month.

Finally, there’s the Sky Sports pass. It’s easily the priciest of the lot, with £33.99 for a month's access, or just £6.99 per month for the mobile-only version.

This doesn’t let you stream past events, but nets you access to 5 sport channels:

  • Sky Sports
  • Sky Sports Arena
  • Sky Sports Action
  • Sky Sports Racing
  • Sky Sports News

There’s no discount for signing up for the lot. You’ll pay £20.97 a month for the Entertainment and Cinema packages together, though.

Video and audio quality

But what of the image quality? The Now TV Smart Stick has always been somewhat behind its competitors, with a basic 720p / HD max resolution across all of its content and apps.

That changed in early 2020 with the introduction of Boost Mode: an add-on subscription for £3 per month that increases that limitation to 1080p / Full HD.

It's a far cry from the capabilities of the Chromecast Ultra or Fire TV Stick 4K, especially considering Netflix started supporting 4K content back in 2014 – and the extra £3 per month can quickly add up to more than than cost of a 4K streamer after the first year or so.

The max resolution isn't always what you get, either. While some TV channels stream in a form of HD, or near to it, others are stuck at standard definition.

You can also pause or rewind up to 30 minutes of live television, giving you some flexible playback controls too.

In our tests, we found SyFy broadcast only in standard definition, though catch-up did reach HD resolution. BBC iPlayer does stream at the higher resolutions, 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. 

We liked

The Now TV Smart Stick is cheap – if not hugely cheaper than the other price-competitive streamers out there. 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.

We disliked

Video quality is at best OK. The jump to 1080p is long, long overdue – and won't apply to everything on the streamer either. There are picture quality issues in third-party apps like iPlayer too, with streams starting at standard definition.

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. 

Verdict

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 Amazon Prime Video and voice control support is rudimentary.

However, it’s perfect for those with small TVs, or people who want to give their setup an injection of smarts for less than the price of a pizza and a drink – plus, with the addition of Netflix, there's a lot of content to choose from.

However, with the delay of Disney Plus, the now-£24.99 price tag, and the £3 per month Boost Mode subscription, means that, right now, the Now TV Smart Stick probably isn't the best choice for an HD streamer – unless you really care about saving that £5 off a Chromecast or Roku Express (2019).