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Now TV Smart Stick Review: Second screen sidekick

With £15 you could grab lunch out with a friend or head to the cinema and have cash left over for popcorn but for a penny less you could pick up Now TV’s new Smart Stick and open yourself up to a ton of entertainment in your own home, no strings attached.

If you’re not familiar with Now TV, it’s an on-demand streaming video service for those who don’t want a traditional monthly subscription or a contract with parent company, Sky. There’s no obligation to sign up for any one package or pass for longer than a month at a time and no connection fee either.

The Smart Stick offers much of the same functionality as the company’s previous hardware, like 2015’s updated Now TV Box and 2016’s Smart Box but in a much smaller package.

Read next: How to get Now TV

Now TV Smart Stick Review: What’s in the box?

Lift the lid and the stick itself is the first thing you’ll encounter; a small, unobtrusive textured black plastic dongle with a male HDMI sticking out of one end and a female microUSB at the other. Underneath the stick, you’ll find the usual bumpf of a safety and warranty guide, plus a colourful setup guide that runs through the process of plugging in and powering up in four simple steps.

Lastly, the final layer features Now TV’s revised remote control, which packs in some new functionality over previous iterations, plus a black two-metre USB-A to microUSB lead and a tiny black 5-volt 1-amp UK power adapter.

If it’s not obvious, the Now TV Smart Stick is designed to serve as an easy plug-and-play option that gets Now TV onto any screen in your house with an HDMI port.

Now TV Smart Stick Review: Setup and installation

With the Smart Stick measuring in at 84mm long before you plug a microUSB in at the end, the orientation of your TV’s HDMI ports will play a big role in how quickly you can get set up a running. If you’ve wall-mounted your set you might have to invest in a flexible or jointed HDMI extender (approximately £3 online) to ensure that the stick plugs in without obstruction.

Why Now TV and Roku (who make the Smart Stick) didn’t throw the microUSB power port onto the side of the stick rather than simply including an L-shaped microUSB lead in-box is unclear but it might have alleviated the potential awkwardness some users could encounter.

As per the setup guide you can plug the USB lead into the provided adapter or the USB port built into your TV if it has one, however, we encountered a low-power warning when working with other adapters and available USB ports, so sticking with the in-box equipment is the most painless way of ensuring full functionality out the gate.

Once the Now TV Smart Stick is plugged into your TV and powered up you’ll need to pop a couple of (provided) AAA batteries into the back of the remote and then navigate through the Stick’s settings menu to add a WiFi network before creating or signing in to your Now TV account.

The fact that every time the Smart Stick powers on or wakes back up from sleep it presents you with the remote’s battery percentage is a nice touch too.

Now TV Smart Stick Review: Hardware

Made in partnership with Roku, the closest sibling to the Smart Stick itself looks to be the £30 Roku Express but there are some clear differences that set Now TV’s iteration apart.

Now TV Smart Stick Specs

Dimensions (mm) 84 x 20.3 x 12.6
Weight 20 grams
Power consumption < 3.5W when streaming HD
Video modes 720p, 16:9 anamorphic, 4:3 standard
Video outputs 720p, 1080p
Audio features Digital HDMI (7.1 & 5.1 surround pass through)
Networking 802.11 dual-band (a/b/g/n/ac compatible) with WEP, WPA and WPA2 support

Like the Express, you can expect up to 1080p HD streaming with the ability to natively upscale 720p content too. The stick also borrows another feature from Roku in Night Listening mode, which decreases the volume of louder sounds (like explosions) and raises the volume of quieter ones (like whispering), which is a thoughtful ability that we’ve seldom seen outside of Roku’s portfolio. All that said, it’s the remote where things get interesting.

The Smart Stick’s new remote is closer in design to that of Roku’s more premium 4K-capable Streaming Stick+ with an additional row of three buttons beneath the five-way navigation key that let you quickly jump back in ten-second increments within a programme, access contextual information or settings and summon the Stick’s new star feature, voice search.

It’s pervasive, so whether you’re browsing through the interface, in the middle of watching a film or checking the guide, you can simply press and hold the microphone icon and an overlay will appear letting you speak your query. The convenience of adding voice functionality to Now TV’s interface is unquestionable but it’s important to understand the distinction between voice search and a voice-based assistant.

The Now TV Smart Stick’s voice capabilities are limited to searching for programmes, movies, actors and genres. You can open apps and pair terms like, “comedies with Robin Williams” but beyond that, you’ll start to feel out the edges of what it understands.

You can’t search for content outside of Now TV’s own portfolio, so anything within an app, for example, is off limits. There’s also no obvious guide integration, so asking “when is the next episode of Brittania?” won’t yield anything either. These aren’t shortcomings per se but whilst voice is a powerful new addition, it’s important to understand that there’s a clear direction for the feature to expand into in future iterations.

The remote also features four dedicated shortcut buttons: My TV, TV Guide, Kids and Sky Store. The first is dominated by a ‘continue watching’ section, letting you easily resume shows and movies you’ve already started watching, TV Guide lets you drop in on live TV from channels included within your respective passes, Kids will serve as parents’ favourite button, letting you instantly access all of the child-friendly content Now TV has to offer, whilst the Sky Store, which relies on a separate Sky iD, can be used to rent or buy both digital and physical copies of the latest movies and TV out there.

Despite what looks like the conventional ‘window’ on the front of the controller typically intended for IR signals, Now TV has actually bundled the Smart Stick with a WiFi remote. As such, it doesn’t rely on line-of-sight when you’re navigating the interface, upping the range of use from the Stick and the convenience factor along with it.

The remote also features power and volume buttons designed to play nice with most modern TVs, however, support for these controls will vary by device and might not talk to any additional receivers or sound systems you have integrated into your personal setup.

Now TV Smart Stick Review: Features and content

Now TV’s content portfolio is divided into channels accessible as part of one of four passes that can each be purchased on rolling monthly contracts. On top of those, the Smart Stick supports a selection of around 50 apps, with offerings like iPlayer, YouTube and Vevo installed out the box, and the likes of CrunchyRoll, NHL and Flickr available as additional downloads.

Two glaring omissions on the app front are that of Amazon Prime Video and Netflix, but it’s not all that surprising when you consider that Now TV’s parent company is in direct competition with both rivals. In return, Google does allow users to throw Now TV content onto its equivalent streaming device: the Chromecast, but Amazon’s voice-enabled Fire TV Stick doesn’t play nice with Now TV content at all.

As for the aforementioned passes, Now TV is offering up the Smart Stick with various introductory offers tied to each to entice  prospective new customers into their net. Here’s what’s on offer and all of the respective pricing:

Sports fans appear to reap the biggest benefits with the sizeable discount on offer when compared to the standard monthly Sports Pass rate. What’s more, the Sports Pass is the only one that can be purchased in daily and monthly increments too, making it ideal for those who want to catch a specific game or series of matches. The Kids Pass also offers excellent value for money when you consider the hours of entertainment £3 a month buys you and your kids.

Despite the respectable breadth of content on offer from Now TV’s well-priced passes, however, one caveat looms over it all like a grey cloud. Right now, all Now TV content streams at a maximum 720p HD resolution. Despite the Smart Stick’s support for Full HD streaming, Now TV still hasn’t made the jump to higher resolution content since its launch in 2012. The company has promised that all devices that currently support *Now TV will be able to stream content in 1080p HD come the end of 2018, but it’s still a major stumbling block considering its competitors have already turned their attentions to providing 4K and even HDR quality content on similar devices.

Such a restriction wouldn’t be so bad if Now TV could guarantee that all of its current content streams reliably at 720p HD but there are clearly standard-definition streams on there too. What’s more, despite testing over a reliable 100Mbps fibre connection, we often encountered artifacting and compression across the Stick’s various sources (although in contrast, lag and buffering occurrences were extremely rare).

Now TV Smart Stick Review: Verdict

So what does £14.99 truly buy you? In essence, a key; the Smart Stick is a cost-effective key granting you access to Now TV content on any HDMI-capable device in your home. Like the service itself, it’s a great affordable option for those who don’t want or need what its most significant rivals have to offer, in addition to being an easy way of placing Now TV on a second screen in your home.

The launch bundles also sweeten the pot a little further, but the value of the new Smart Stick and Now TV as a service are only worth-while to those who clearly understand what’s on the table here. The Smart Stick goes some way to adding smart functionality to a ‘dumb’ TV, if that’s where you’re planning on putting it, but it won’t replace a Freeview-capable set-top box; for that, the Now TV Smart Box might be a better fit.

Voice search is a powerful new addition but it will take practice to be leveraged efficiently and despite the promise of 1080p HD streaming later in the year, the service remains markedly behind the curve in this department. You’re paying less than half the price of Amazon’s equivalent stick whilst still getting a fleshed-out experience, especially if you value access to new releases before anyone else.

Not everyone will find value in Now TV’s proposition, but for those who do, the Smart Stick is the most approachable hardware for those looking to enjoy it.