The Now TV Smart Stick is a product with one simple purpose: to provide you with inexpensive access to content from its parent company, Sky, without the expense of an ongoing monthly subscription.
The great thing is that it can also turn your old TV into a smart TV, with catch-up apps for all the major UK channels, as well as YouTube.
It doesn’t have the bells and whistles provided by its more advanced rivals, such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Google Chromecast but, by significantly undercutting their price, the Now TV Smart Stick has carved its own niche in the market.
Approximately the size of a USB stick with a HDMI connection its business end, the Smart Stick should fit discreetly into the back or side of any television. It’s powered by a micro-USB connection, with a space-saving L-shaped cable in the box.
It bears a striking resemblance to the Roku Streaming Stick, but that is no coincidence. The Now TV Smart Stick is built by Roku using the same hard- and software, but with a few tweaks to prioritise Sky content.
The remote looks similar too, with the main change being the four buttons on the bottom which direct you to different parts of the Now TV interface.
‘My TV’ shows the movies and programmes you’re currently watching across the range of Sky channels. If you’ve been viewing on another app, it won’t be shown here.
‘TV Guide’ shows you Sky’s live TV channels, while ‘Kids’ is a compilation of Sky’s child-focused content.
The Sky Store, meanwhile, is the place to rent or buy movies and shows not included in the regular service. Many of these will be concurrent with, or even prior to, the DVD and Blu-ray release.
One nice feature is the volume control on the right side of the remote, which is absent on non-Roku devices. This means you can have a more complete experience using just one remote, rather than having to switch to your TV’s own zapper should you wish to adjust volume.
However, as it only works with your television, those with connected AV receivers or soundbars will still have to use a second remote to control their sound.
There’s also a button in the middle for voice search, which allows you to search for content by actor, director, genre, and so on. It is limited in usefulness by only showing catch-up content from Sky – and not including live programmes either.
More after the break
On the whole, the Now TV Smart Stick provides a good user experience. It’s not quite as responsive as the Amazon Fire TV Stick when it comes to menu navigation, but you aren’t left waiting long for content.
To use the Now TV Smart Stick, even for its free catch-up apps, you will need a Now TV subscription - there is a free trial, which can immediately be cancelled once the device is activated. In contrast to a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription, though, which gives you a range of content for a set price, Now TV is split into four genres: Entertainment, Cinema, Kids, and Sports.
An Entertainment pass costs £8 per month, the Cinema pass is £10pm, and the Kids pass £3pm. A Sports pass is more complex: one day of access to Sky’s content costs £7, a week of access is £11, while a month costs £34.
The £15 we're quoting is the cost of the Stick itself. For a period after it goes on sale, however, Now TV is offering to bundle in two months of Entertainment for anothe fiver - effectively saving you £11.
However, once that's done the Now TV Smart Stick provides a more streamlined experience than any other device with dedicated, downloadable apps.
Instead of having to go to the app store to download services, as you do on the Amazon Fire TV Stick, this stick uses the postcode linked to your Now TV account to automatically download the apps you need, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5, and YouTube
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are both missing (although Netflix will be joining the stick in the future) which is unsurprising for a Sky-specific streaming stick - but the number of Now TV apps available is limited to around 50. By comparison, a normal Roku device has over 4000, including the likes of Spotify and Tidal (both of which are also absent here).
Only content from third-party applications will be available to stream in 1080p, as Sky content is limited to 720p.
Sky says an update will bring 1080p streaming at the end of the year but for now your television will be doing more work to upscale the content to a Full HD or 4K picture, and it won’t be as sophisticated as those found on 1080p native streams.
Nevertheless, playing Inside No.9 - To Have and To Hold (at 1080p) through the iPlayer app provides a detailed picture beyond what we expect from hardware in this price range.
There’s a good rendition of the wisps of hair on Steve Pemberton’s head and the sweat that drips from his brow as the story reaches its tense climax.
The Now TV Smart Stick handles the domestic, brightly-lit kitchen scenes as well as it does the red-tinted darkness of the basement darkroom too.
We switch to a stream of Atlanta on Sky Atlantic (720p) and the difference in resolution is noticeable. However, it’s still perfectly watchable and something you’re unlikely to be bothered by unless you put the two pictures side-by-side.
We have no major complaints when it comes to sound, either. Bass, treble and midrange are all relatively balanced, and the dynamic change between loud and quiet sounds – tested by playing a range of music on YouTube – is pronounced enough.
Most of the reasons you’d want to buy a Now TV Smart Stick revolve around the price. This is the cheapest way to give an old television streaming service smarts, if you don’t mind signing up for a trial Now TV subscription.
It’s also the cheapest way to watch Now TV on a television that doesn’t already have it – the Now TV app is included in the operating system of some LG and Samsung smart TVs.
Essentially, the purpose of the Now TV Smart Stick is to give you inexpensive subscription-free access to Sky content.
While there are certainly improvements to be made, particularly as we wait for native 1080p streaming, we can’t deny the streaming stick achieves its specific mission.
See all our NOW TV reviews