There's a new way to watch Sky TV. Seemingly admitting its satellite service looks positively steam-powered in the age of streaming, Sky has launched Sky Stream, a way to stream Sky channels to your TV over the internet without needing a dish.
Dish-free Sky has been on the cards for years. It sort of launched last year in the form of Sky Glass, but that required you to buy a whole new TV into the bargain. Sky Stream, though, is available via a simple little box that you plug into your existing TV. So how does it compare to the full-fat Sky Q experience? Let's find out.
Sky Stream vs Sky Q: price
Sky is a premium TV service, and as such, it doesn't come cheap. That's true even of Sky Stream – while it's a basic 4K streaming device like many others, it's shackled to Sky's legacy pricing strategy.
That means you have to pay a one-off 'set-up fee', even though set-up involves just plugging it into your TV's HDMI port and a mains socket (there's no engineer involved, you just do it yourself). This fee is £39.95, though it's reduced to £20 if you sign up to an 18-month contract.
Sky says the Stream device is free (set-up fee notwithstanding), but the entry-level package costs £26 a month – that gives you Sky's basic channels (HD included) and basic (as in, standard-def) Netflix. That's on an 18-month contract. If you want the convenience of a rolling 31-day contract (which most streaming services offer as standard), it goes up to £29 a month.
Extras such as Sky Cinema, Sky Sports and BT Sport cost extra – Sky Cinema is £11 a month with an 18-month contract, or £13 a month on a rolling 31-day one, Sky Sports is £25 or £27, and BT Sport is £30 a month. And you can add Whole Home for £12 per month. This allows you to add up to five further Sky Stream devices, though you will also need to pay the upfront cost for most of the extra pucks (the first extra one is free).
Adding UHD and Dolby Atmos costs £6 extra a month. And there's one potential extra charge – for the first 18 months you'll be able to skip the ads in content you've added to your Playlist, but that privilege will incur a £5 per month charge from month 19 onwards.
And what about Sky Q? It too starts at £26 a month for the same channel package (including Netflix) on an 18-month contract, but the set-up fee can be as high as £49 (though it too can be £20 like Sky Stream). As for extras, brace yourself.
Sky Sports is £20 a month, Sky Cinema £12 a month, and BT Sport £28 a month (all these prices are on 18-month contracts – sign up for a shorter time and you'll pay more). Sky Kids is £6 a month, while HD is £8 a month and Ultra HD £12 a month (all on 31-day contracts). You can also sign up to Multiscreen for £15 a month (on an 18-month contract).
Winner: Sky Stream
Sky Stream vs Sky Q: hardware
So that's the pricing. But what do you actually get for your money?
Sky Stream is a stripped-back Sky experience. Your money gets you the streaming puck previously offered only as part of a multi-room Sky Glass package, but this time with no obligation to buy a new TV. That means you're free to combine it with one of the best TVs, which should make it a lot more compelling than Sky Glass for many people.
There's also no need to install a satellite dish or run the requisite cables into your home. Which makes it much more accessible and practical for a lot of people.
Sky Q involves the Sky Q set-top box and Sky Q broadband hub. The Sky Q box comes in 1TB or 2TB capacities, giving you plenty of space to store shows and movies for watching back at any time. The Sky Stream puck doesn't have a hard drive, but does let you create a 'Playlist' of content – instead of recording it to your own hard drive, your chosen content is held on Sky’s own remote servers for you to watch back at your leisure.
The Sky Q box lets you watch / record up to seven channels at once. There's also a Sky Q Mini box that piggybacks off the main box to bring much the same experience to another TV within the home.
At least partly because of its hard disk, the Sky Q box is pretty big, a bit noisy at times, and somewhat power-hungry. The Sky Stream puck, on the other hand, is tiny, silent and more efficient.
Winner: Sky Stream
Sky Stream vs Sky Q: interface
Sky Stream features the same 'Entertainment OS' software platform as Sky Glass. Which is similar – but not identical – to Sky Q's menu system. Entertainment OS is a little slicker and more stylish than Sky Q's OS, and looks a bit more modern.
Recommendations remain at the centre of the Home screen, and again, they combine a mix of Sky shows and those from other services such as Netflix, Disney+, iPlayer and so on. The same rails of other categories are there as you scroll down – 'Now and Next', 'Continue Watching' and so on. There is the same EPG too, for if you want to delve into live TV.
Like Sky Glass, you get voice controls, Playlist, tailored recommendations and Restart live TV. But while Sky Glass' voice control function is more advanced than Sky Q's – as Glass' far-field microphone is always listening, letting you search for content just by speaking – Sky Stream's lacks the same always-on feature, meaning you have to hold down a button on the remote before speaking.
The 'Playlist' feature is probably the biggest change between the Sky Stream/Glass and Sky Q interfaces. Find something you want to watch, press the '+' button on the remote and the content will be added to the dedicated Playlist section so you can watch later. If it's a TV series, every episode will be gathered in one place – even if some are hosted on one service and the rest on another. And as we've already said, because Sky Stream doesn't have a hard drive, the content is hosted on Sky’s own remote servers. And there's the rub.
Because streaming services regularly chop and change their content libraries due to licensing, there's no guarantee your choices will remain available to watch. In our Sky Stream review, we had issues with some live events that couldn't be added to our Playlist due to rights issues. According to Sky, around 93 per cent of the content available on its streamed platform can now be ‘Playlisted’ for future viewing without issue.
By contrast, Sky Q's hard drive means you can record something and store it for as long as you want. In truth, though, the nuanced differences between Stream's Playlist and Q's recordings are rarely a major issue, and Stream's Entertainment OS is undeniably nicer to use than is Q's more dated interface.
Winner: Sky Stream
Sky Stream vs Sky Q: picture and sound
Both Sky Stream and Sky Q offer a maximum resolution of 4K, but Sky Stream content is HD as standard, whereas Sky Q customers have to pay £8 extra a month for the privilege.
Both let you buy an Ultra HD bolt-on – you will need a 4K TV to see the benefit. And both are ready for Dolby Atmos. Again, just make sure you have a Dolby Atmos soundbar (or suitable home cinema system) in order to hear the difference.
You don't need to use Sky's own broadband for Sky Stream, although Sky recommends a minimum speed of 10Mbps. Sky Q requires a satellite dish – not every UK home can have one, though Sky says that 90 per cent are eligible.
So what about the performance? Sky Stream benefits from much better picture quality than Sky Q. With native 4K content there's not much in it, but with many HD channels, especially those that use relatively high levels of compression on Sky Q, Sky Stream looks much better. Images are sharper and cleaner, with a distinct lack of ‘mosquito’ fizzing noise. Skin tones on background faces can look a bit more plasticky on Sky Stream than they do on Sky Q, but Sky Stream’s superior suppression of compression artefacts easily wins the day.
This could actually be the single most tempting thing about Sky Stream for Sky Q users who’ve long struggled with the levels of noise many sub-4K Sky Q channels can suffer with. And it's all the more relevant considering that Sky Stream offers HD at no extra charge, whereas Sky Q has the cheek to ask extra for it.
There is one generally small but occasionally frustrating issue with Sky Stream's streams, though – they arrive around 25-30 seconds behind Sky Q's broadcasts. You might not think that a huge amount, but if you're watching a penalty shootout and you hear the triumphant cheers/agonising wails of your neighbours (or you get a ping on your phone from the Sky Sports Scores app) while the kicker is still placing the ball on the spot, it can really ruin your enjoyment. Hopefully Sky can reduce this delay over time.
One other thing to note with Sky Stream: make sure you turn on the ‘Reduce judder with apps’ feature. Fail to do so, and your third-party apps will stutter like a broken motorbike. The Reduce judder option can introduce a touch of softness, especially when there's lots of motion. But this is minor compared to the distracting motion judder.
Winner: Sky Stream
Sky Stream vs Sky Q: verdict
The new way to watch Sky is also the best. Sky Stream is cheaper than Sky Q, easier to set up, and offers a slicker, more modern interface. It also includes HD as standard, without an extra monthly fee.
The two main downsides against Sky Stream are the lack of a hard drive, which means you can't 'record' absolutely everything, and the slight delay in its streams when compared to Q. Most users will rarely, if ever, be significantly inconvenienced by these slight flaws, though, so overall the pros of Stream far outweigh its cons.
Dish-free Sky is finally here. And unlike Sky Glass, you don't need to buy a whole new TV in order to enjoy it.
Read our exhaustive Sky Stream review
Gear up for Sky Stream with today's best TV deals
In need of entertainment? The 40 best shows to watch on Netflix right now
Our pick of the best streaming services for TV and movies