Now TV Stick review: You can now get two months of Entertainment free
Deal update: By clicking onto the Sainsbury’s website, You can currently pick up a Now TV Smart Stick with Voice Search and a two-month subscription to the Now TV Entertainment package for the price of £15. That’s the usual price of the stick on its own, meaning that you’re effectively getting two months of quality TV shows for free.
Jonathan’s review continues below.
The market for premium TV in the UK is changing. After years of being a straight fight between cable and satellite, Sky has finally accepted that the future is online and, by the end of the year, it will be upgrading its Now TV streaming service to 1080p. The firm’s new Now TV Stick, priced at a phenomenally cheap £15, is arriving at a crucial time for the company and its transition to a more streaming-centric world.
The hardware itself is less interesting than the change of direction it represents, the future it promises and the content it allows you to access. However, there’s no doubting that it’s a compelling offering.
Sky Now TV Stick review: What you get and setup
For your £15, or the cost of a cinema ticket, there’s no denying that the Now TV Stick is remarkable value for money. In the box, there’s the stick itself, a USB cable and a power adapter, plus a remote control. All of its big-name rivals are £30 or more.
You connect it as you would a Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick. The stick plugs into a spare HDMI port and the USB cable is used to feed it with power; you connect that to a spare port on the back of your TV or use the mains adapter if you don’t have a free USB port.
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A couple of things to be aware of. First, the Stick doesn’t come with an HDMI extension cable, which means that if your TV has rear-facing HDMI ports, you’ll need quite a bit of clearance at the rear to fit it in. Second, if you want to draw power from a TV’s USB socket you’ll need to ensure the output is 1A or above.
Otherwise, setup is a breeze, as you’d expect of a device manufactured by streaming TV veteran Roku. Once the stick has booted and you’ve switched over to the appropriate source on your TV, you choose your Wi-Fi network (the stick supports dual-band connection), enter its password and then log in to your Now TV account. The whole process takes less than five minutes – unless your policy is to use a masochistically long Wi-Fi password, packed with numbers and special characters.
|Get a 14-day free trial to Now TV Entertainment|
In the process of setting things up, you’ll also get your first experience of the remote control, which has seen a mild redesign over the old Now TV Smart TV Box. It’s still nicely rounded and isn’t overladen with hundreds of different controls, but this time there are a couple of extra shortcut buttons to the Live TV and Kids sections, plus a power button at the top and volume controls on the side that are used to control your TV.
Oh, and it’s also a Wi-Fi remote, so you don’t need to point it at anything in particular to get your commands to register.
Sky Now TV Stick review: New features, voice control and user interface
There’s another new button on the Now TV Stick’s remote control, too, and that’s a telltale sign of the Now TV Stick’s marquee feature. Press and hold the new microphone button and you’ll activate the Stick’s voice-search facilities, which can be used to search for TV programmes, actors and so on, instead of tortuously using the remote’s five-way pad to navigate the onscreen keyboard.
It works pretty well, too. It picked up my fairly incoherent mumblings accurately most of the time, although it does seem to have a few odd gaps in its capabilities. While you can shout the names of TV shows, movies, actors, genres and directors into your remote to find what you want to watch, and even launch apps with a single utterance, you can’t navigate to individual channels by voice, not even within the confines of Sky’s own content.
So, while you can ask for “Game of Thrones”, or movies directed by “Steven Spielberg”, you can’t ask for “Sky Atlantic”. You’ll have to navigate to the channel you want using the TV guide. It’s frustrating, but it’s a pretty easy system to get to grips with, especially since the performance of the Stick is so snappy.
Another new feature is that you can pause TV on all of Now TV’s live channels, including live sport, which is a nice touch. The feature wasn’t available at the time of writing – it’s coming once the Stick officially hits the shelves – so I’ll update this review when I’ve had the chance to give it a test drive. It’s certainly a good thing to have, though, especially for sports fans.
To go along with the new features, the Now TV Stick also debuts a fresher user interface. It’s clearly been heavily influenced by the Sky Q system and the good news is that it’s much more straightforward to use than on the bigger set-top box.
Click the Home button on the remote control and you’ll be taken to a screen with a series of six shortcut links down the left-hand side. There’s also a grid of thumbnails to the right displaying various bits of promoted content, plus a line for programmes to “continue watching”.
There are more sections on the left, too. “Best of Catch Up” is more promoted programming, this time drawn from all sources, not just Sky. Then you have the TV guide, split into “Entertainment”, “Movies”, “Sports” and “Kids” for easier navigation. There’s also a text-search option on the homescreen and access to the Stick’s settings.
It’s all pretty straightforward stuff, but there are still a few areas where it’s desperate need of improvement. The so-called TV guide for the live channels, for instance, is nothing of the sort. All you get when you click on it is what’s on now and next. There’s absolutely no way of seeing what’s coming up beyond that, and so there’s no way of planning your evening’s TV-watching slobbery.
If that wasn’t bad enough, you can’t use the search to track down specific TV channels within the various apps – a search for “BBC 2” results in the digital equivalent of a noncommittal shrug – and the onscreen keyboard is still, infuriatingly, not QWERTY. While you could never accuse the Now TV Stick of being difficult to use, these quirks do grate somewhat.
Sky Now TV Stick review: Content
It’s also worth pointing out, before I go any further in this review, that the Now TV Stick is in the Stone Ages when it comes to image quality. That will change towards the end of the year when Sky says it will begin to stream at Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) resolution. Until that happens, though, you’ll be stuck watching your TV, movies and sports at a smeary, soft, detail-free 720p. Ugh.
On small kitchen and bedroom TVs, that might not be an issue, but on bigger TVs, particularly 49in and above, you’ll notice this straight away. The Now TV Stick is, therefore, not the product for you if you’re avidly rebuilding your Blu-ray collection in UHD 4K. And if you’re looking for a product to add snappier performance to your frustratingly sluggish smart TV, don’t bother. The lower quality outweighs any benefit that the voice search, ease of use and performance might bring.
And what you can watch on the Stick is pretty restricted as well. Got a Netflix account? You won’t be watching it on this. Have an Amazon Prime account? Go buy an Amazon Fire TV Stick instead. Yes, it does have BBC iPlayer, My5, All 4, ITV Hub and YouTube (again, all in 720p) and, yes, you can install a bunch of other fairly low-grade TV streamer apps. However, you can do all this in 1080p – and watch Netflix and Amazon Video – if you spend £15 more on a Roku stick instead. (As an aside, if you want to stream in 4K, you’ll need the more expensive Roku Streaming Stick+, which is £69 on Amazon.)
There are a couple of reasons you might want to buy the Now TV Stick today, though, and the main one is that it’s probably the cheapest, most flexible way of watching Sky Sports right now. Currently, a monthly subscription to the non-HD channels on Sky Q costs from £18 per month on top of your regular Sky TV subscription; that may not be cost-effective if you only want to watch the occasional Premier League match involving your mid-table side and have no interest in following the cricket or Formula 1.
|Get a 14-day free trial to Now TV Entertainment|
With Now TV’s day (£6.99) and week passes (£10.99), it could work out cheaper, especially if you’re mixing and matching with other providers such as BT Sport. However, it’s probably best to avoid habitually paying for the monthly pass, which costs a hefty £34 per month.
The Now TV entertainment package could be worth grabbing, too, for early access to Sky-exclusive programmes such as Game of Thrones or Westworld. I’m going to reiterate, though, that they don’t look great watched at 720p on a big TV.
There are also Cinema (£9.99 per month) and Kids (£2.99 per month) passes available, although with similar content available in higher quality on other platforms, that’s less of a draw.
So, what about Now TV’s much-vaunted contract-free broadband packages? They’re tempting if you really don’t like the idea of being tied to a provider for 18 months at a time. However, they’re no longer tied into the firm’s Now TV products as they once were, since you can sign up for the service without purchasing a Now TV pass or TV hardware first.
|NOW TV Smart Box with 3 Months Entertainment Pass|
Sky Now TV Stick review: Verdict
The Now TV Stick is certainly cheap. Who thought a few years ago you’d be able to buy a 1080p-capable TV streaming stick for the price of a (very) short round of beers in a London pub? And it has some practical appeal to those desperate to watch Sky Sports and exclusive TV shows without having to sign up to an 18-month Sky TV, Virgin Media or BT TV package.
It’s also easy to use, simple to set up and – as long as Sky keeps its word – will deliver programming at 1080p quality by the end of the year as well.
If, however, you’re simply after a decent streaming stick to improve the responsiveness and usability of your TV, I’d counsel you to look elsewhere. There simply isn’t the breadth of content available on Now TV as there is elsewhere and, on other hardware, you can get 1080p and above right now.