Sky has taken its satellite-free pay-TV service from the Glass television and shoved it into a tiny streaming box that you can plug into your existing kit and hook up to wifi.

The Sky Stream box subscription starts at £25 a month with a £20 fee upfront, which gives you Sky’s entertainment package for 18 months plus a basic Netflix account. It then rises in price depending on any other channels or content you add. Alternatively, you can subscribe on a 31-day rolling contract and chop and change as you see fit, although without an active subscription the box becomes useless.

The Stream is a small, simple black plastic puck, which is easy to hide away in a cabinet. In the back is a power cable, a HDMI socket for connecting to your TV, an optional ethernet port and an aerial socket that isn’t used for now.

The box is small and easy to install, while the remote is the same as that used with Glass – good and responsive, with backlit buttons and a soft-touch finish. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

It arrives in a package that should fit through your letterbox for you just to plug in – no engineer’s visit needed – but you do need a minimum of 10Mbps broadband for HD content and 25Mbps for 4K. It will work with any broadband provider, not only Sky, but if the internet goes down, so does your TV.

It runs the same software as Glass, which presents content from Sky and third-party apps and services in one unified interface called Entertainment OS. Since Glass launched in October 2021 it has had more than 200 software updates, which have all come to the Stream, too, making it a rapidly evolving and improving product, more like a smartphone than a traditional set-top box.

The home screen has content recommendations at the top followed by a series of buttons to jump to specific types of content, such as TV shows, movies, sports and so on. There is still a TV guide for live channels but the line between live and on-demand is blurred, since it is all streamed over the internet.

Playlist instead of local recordings

A composite image showing the playlist and TV guide features of the Sky Stream box.
The playlist keeps track of your progress through a series, flagging when new episodes arrive and acting as a replacement for local recording including from the TV guide. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The “playlist” collects the shows, movies and events you want to watch, added from search, the TV guide or with the “+” button on the remote. Shows and live events are then automatically saved in the cloud and then streamed to you on demand. For content hosted by Sky, including its own channels, Channel 5 and UKTV channels such as Dave, it works very well. As soon as the show is broadcast it pops up ready to go.

When you add content hosted on a third-party service things get a little more complicated. Click on a show in your playlist and you have to wait for up to eight seconds to open the appropriate third-party app, be it Netflix, BBC iPlayer or others. After selecting the appropriate user in the app you can then play the content. It is not a one-click play experience like a traditional recording might be.

Watch more than one episode of a TV show while in a third-party app and the playlist won’t always track your progress accurately, only updating once you click back through to the appropriate episode from the main interface.

You are beholden to the quality of the third-party app, too, which is typically the same as you would find on a smart TV. Some such as Netflix or Disney+ are great. Others really aren’t. The BBC iPlayer is reasonably good, Channel 4 is basic but works, then things go downhill when you try to watch an ITV programme. The apps can be sluggish and frustrating to use.

They are particularly bad when it comes to adverts. When you first buy the Stream box as a bundle you typically get 18 months of “ad-skip” thrown in, after which it costs £5 a month for the ability to fast forward through adverts. In third-party apps that means multiple clicks and jockeying the remote – you can’t just press a button to skip straight to the programme.

In ITV X, for instance, it can take as long as 90 seconds of fast-forwarding at the maximum of 6x speed to get through an ad break, of which there can be four or five an hour. If you’re not quick enough with the remote it will continue fast-forwarding through the content once the ads have finished, too. It is a tedious affair.

Crummy third-party apps aside, the video quality of the content is very good. The Sky box supports HDR10, HLG and Dolby Vision video standards, missing only HDR10+ that is commonly used by Samsung televisions. It also supports Dolby Atmos for audio, although oddly not in the Disney+ app, which clearly needs an update.

All channels are HD by default and look as good or slightly better than their satellite equivalents, sometimes being a little sharper in some details. Channels available in 4K HDR, such as Sky’s main sports channel and the BBC’s World Cup coverage through iPlayer, look particularly good.

If you want Stream in more than one room and have strong enough broadband, the “whole home” subscription costs £12 a month, allowing the use of up to six boxes. The first one comes free with the add-on, then £40 each thereafter.

Sustainability

The back of the Sky Stream box showing the power, HDMI and other ports.
The Stream has a simple selection of ports on the back and is designed to be repaired and refurbished, so that returned devices can be reused. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Stream is generally repairable for free by Sky in the UK and will be supported for as long as the device is owned. The company recycles old Sky equipment and will refurbish old Stream boxes. Stream uses less than 0.5W while on standby and less than 4W in use, consuming 0.0034kWh an hour of HDR video during testing.

The box and remote do not contain any recycled materials. The company publishes its sustainability commitments, including a net zero by 2030 pledge.

Price

The Stream box costs £20 upfront with a £23-a-month 18-month contract including the Sky Entertainment and Netflix basic package or £39.95 upfront with a £26-a-month 31-day rolling contract. Introductory bundles and sale prices are often available.

Sky Sports costs from £20, BT Sport from £30, Sky Cinema from £9 and Sky Kids from £6 a month on a rolling 31-day basis. Access to 4K UHD and Dolby Atmos costs £6 and ad skipping costs £5, while Netflix costs an additional £4 for HD or £8 for 4K UHD. Whole home costs £12 a month, including a free second Stream box, with subsequent boxes costing £39.95 each thereafter.

An average package with entertainment, Netflix, Sky Sports and the Kids channels in HD would cost £53 a month.

Verdict

Stream takes the good bits of Sky’s Glass television and squeezes them into a small, satellite-free streaming TV box.

It is undeniably quick and easy to get set up as long as you have strong enough broadband and an existing TV, while the ability to add or remove channel packages on a monthly basis brings real flexibility. Clearly the combo of live broadcast and on-demand content streamed over the internet is the future.

It is great to have all your content from traditional broadcasters and streaming services in one box with one remote and unified voice search. Playing cloud recordings from Sky’s platform makes queueing up and viewing content as good as local recording.

But watching content stored outside Sky’s servers is not as slick. While Netflix, Disney+, Amazon and BBC iPlayer are decent, crummy third-party apps let the system down. Using sluggish, poor apps such as ITVX quickly gets frustrating, particularly trying to deal with ad breaks.

Sky is working to try to bring third-party developers onboard with its way of doing things, unifying playback control and other bits, but for now each app has its own interface and way of operating. Some have bugs and odd issues. In this way the Stream is no different to a smart TV or streaming box, except that you don’t have to pay a monthly fee for those.

It can’t beat Sky Q for its local recording ability removing the need to deal with third-party catchup services or Freeview for low cost. But as an instant and flexible way of getting premium pay-TV content purely over the internet, without either a lengthy contract, a dish or a specific broadband provider, Sky Stream can’t be beaten.

Pros: no satellite dish, upgrade for any TV, good remote, unified voice search finds content across a range of services, Playlist system works well, support for most UK streaming services, long service life and software support, low power consumption, 31-day rolling flexibility.

Cons: no local recording forces reliance on terrestrial catchup services that can be disappointing, requires a Sky subscription to use even for free services, no TV if the broadband fails.

The top panes of the Sky Stream home screen.
The main home screen displays content suggestions and quick access to the channel or app you were last using right at the top. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

By OngkyF