The pay-TV market in the UK changed quite a bit last year, with the introduction of two standalone broadband-based streaming boxes from Sky and Virgin Media.
These boxes – Virgin Media’s Stream and Sky’s… yes, also Stream – let you sign up for pay-TV plans, including sports and premium channels – without a long-term contract and without requiring a satellite dish.
Sky was actually first to the game with its Sky Glass streaming TV (see our review), but Glass forces you to buy a new TV set – therefore Virgin Media was the first to launch a standalone streaming-only box (from one of the big pay-TV companies), with Sky then following suit, by making its Stream Puck – which was first available as a Glass add-on – available to everyone.
Both Stream devices are similar in a lot of ways: They both offer broadband-based Freeview (without needing an aerial or a dish), they both offer premium channels as a paid add-on, including sports, and they both support the big 3rd party streaming apps like Netflix, Disney+ and more.
But there are also quite a few differences: While Sky Stream is available to everyone, Virgin Media’s Stream only works with VM’s broadband. The pricing is also different, as is the interface – Virgin Media feels much more like a “traditional” streaming stick, while Sky Stream tries to reinvent the wheel (but in a good way, at least partly).
Therefore, in this Battle of The Streams, we’ll compare some of the most important factors – to help you decide which pay-TV streaming box is best for you.
- Note: This article was originally published in November 2022, and has since been updated with new information and pricing details.
It’s also worth noting that BT also has its own BT TV 4K Pro box – which can also be used to stream Freeview channels via broadband – but it’s a much more “traditional” box, with a hard drive for recordings and 4 Freeview tuners – therefore it won’t be a part of this comparison.
Table of Contents
Sky Stream VS Virgin Media Stream: Pricing
Sky Stream is available to anyone in the UK, regardless of which broadband provider you’re with – so you don’t need to be with Sky’s broadband service to get it.
Unlike Sky’s dish-based solutions (such as Sky Q), and similarly to Sky Glass, Sky Stream doesn’t require a long-term contract, which is a major shift for Sky.
The basic contract is a 31-day rolling contract which you can cancel at any time without any penalty charges. But you CAN also go for the 18-month contract for the primary Sky Ultimate plan – and that will lower your monthly subscription costs.
When you order Sky Stream, you also need to pay for the device itself – a “setup fee” of £39.95 (though these days, that upfront fee is usually waived for your first Stream puck).
You then install the device yourself, and there are no engineers involved.
The basic Sky package that you must have with Stream is Sky Ultimate, which includes Sky Entertainment (a pack of channels like Sky Atlantic, Sky Max and others), Freeview, and the basic Netflix plan (which only has 720p video quality, and you can watch on one device at a time).
The rolling-contract version of this package on Sky Stream costs £29/month, and the same plan, with the 18-month contract, is £26/month.
On top of that, you can add more packs and channels from Sky and 3rd parties. As of this writing, the costs are:
- Sky Cinema (which includes Paramount+) for £13/month on the rolling contract, and £11/month on the 18-month contract.
- Sky Sports for £27/month on the rolling contract, and £25/month on the 18-month contract.
- Sky Kids for £6/month on the rolling contract, and £5/month on the 18-month contract.
- BT Sport for £30/month on either contract.
If you want to add 4K and Dolby Atmos, that’s another £6/month. And if you want to be able to fast forward adverts – that’s £5/month (it used to be free in your first year – but that’s no longer the case).
And lastly, if you want to be able to watch in other rooms – you need the “Whole Home” add-on, which is £12/month, and you have to pay the setup fee again (£39.95 regardless of contract length) for each additional puck (though, for now, the second one in your home is also free as part of a special offer).
If you unsubscribe from Sky Ultimate at any point – the puck will stop working, and even the Freeview channels and 3rd party apps (like Netflix) won’t work anymore. And – you don’t own the puck, and if you unsubscribe, you’ll have to send it back or face non-return charges.
On Virgin Media’s Stream, there’s no long-term contract attached to the streaming box and service itself – but there’s a caveat.
Virgin Media’s Stream ONLY works with VM’s broadband service – and that does come with a long-term (usually 18-month) contract. If you’re with any other broadband provider – you can’t get VM’s Stream box.
Furthermore, if you leave Virgin Media’s broadband – your Stream box will stop working.
On the other hand, as long as you’re with their broadband – the Freeview channels and the 3rd party apps will continue to function (you still need to be subscribed to them directly, of course), even if you don’t pay VM anything for the TV service.
Another caveat is that VM’s Stream is only available to new Virgin Media TV customers. If you’re already under contract with their “traditional” TV offer (and the TV360 box), you can’t switch to Stream – at least not until your contract is done.
Whether you’re a new or existing broadband customer, when you order the Stream box you will have to pay a one-time £35 “activation fee” (though this is sometimes waived, either by haggling or with certain higher-end broadband plans).
The Stream box comes with a long list of Freeview channels that you can stream for free. So, if those are enough for you – you won’t have to pay any monthly fees (other than the TV licence, of course).
If you do decide to add paid channels and services, you only have to sign up for 30 days at a time, and can cancel – or switch to other services – at any point.
But since Virgin Media wants you to sign up for other streaming services through them, they’re willing to incentivise you by offering a monthly “Stream Credit” on some of the services – you can get a 10% “cashback” credit back into your bill, every month.
The major streaming services offer their regular pricing here (so £7.99/m for Disney+, £6.99/m and up for Netflix, etc.), but there are also a few content packs you can sign up to (again, with a 30-day rolling contract).
Note: At the moment, Virgin Media is still offering discounted promotional prices on some of the add-on content tiers. We’re not sure for how long – but we’ll use those prices for the sake of this comparison, at this time:
BT Sport, which costs £30/month to add to Sky Stream, is currently only £10/month on Virgin Media’s Stream.
Sky Sports costs £25/month with an 18-months contract on Sky Stream, and £18.75/month on Virgin Media.
Sky Cinema costs £11/month on Sky (with an 18-months contract), and £10/month on Virgin Media (but DOES NOT come with the free Paramount+ subscription which you get directly from Sky).
In addition, there are several content packs:
Essential Entertainment (£8 a month) – 25 channels in HD including Sky Showcase, Sky Max, Sky Sports Mix, Sky Witness,
Sky Documentaries, Sky Comedy, MTV, Gold, Comedy Central, Discovery, Eurosport & Nat Geo (WITHOUT Sky Atlantic).
It’s similar to Sky Ultimate, which is £29/month, but Ultimate also includes Sky Atlantic and a few more channels.
Kids pack (£2.5 a month) – Nick HD, Nick Jnr, Nick Jnr Too, NickToons, Cartoon Network HD, Cartoonito, Boomerang.
Similar to Sky Kids, which is £6/month.
If you want to watch Virgin Media’s Stream box in additional rooms – well… you can’t. As of this writing, you can only buy one box for some reason – and Virgin Media will tell you to carry it around with you from room to room.
Price Winner: Virgin Media Stream
Virgin Media’s Stream is cheaper in almost every way. One could argue, of course, that you’re getting more with Sky Stream – at least in some aspects (see below) – but either way, you’re also paying more.
Furthermore, the fact you can keep some of Virgin Media’s Stream box’s functionality (primarily the Freeview channels) even if you don’t pay anything (except for your broadband), is a big plus. Sky’s Stream is just a useless metal box if you don’t pay for the mandatory Sky Ultimate tier.
Sky Stream VS Virgin Media Stream: Content
With both Stream boxes being streaming devices (albeit limited), they both offer a combination of premium channel packs, big streaming services (like Netflix), public broadcaster’s apps (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc.) and Freeview channels via broadband.
Unlike Sky, Virgin Media doesn’t really have exclusive content – instead, it offers subscriptions to content from other providers, including Sky.
Virgin Media’s stream does have its own catch-up library though, which lets you directly stream on-demand content that aired on the over-the-air channels, sometimes without going through the broadcasters’ apps.
As for live Freeview channels, both Sky and Virgin Media’s boxes offer a long list of Freeview channels available via broadband – but both are missing some channels.
Sky Stream, for example, doesn’t have the Great! movies channels, which are available on Virgin Media’s Stream. But then Sky Stream offers CNN International – and VM’s Stream doesn’t (it only has a limited CNN app for now).
And both Streams don’t have the NOW music channels, SportyStuff TV, and several other Freeview channels.
In terms of premium channels you can subscribe to, both offer a very similar selection, with Virgin Media offering most of Sky’s channels.
However, Virgin Media doesn’t offer Sky Atlantic – which is exclusive to Sky Stream (and Sky’s other services). And while Sky Atlantic isn’t as big as it used to be – it still has a lot of premium, exclusive content, including huge HBO shows like House of The Dragon.
And lastly, the apps: again, the list of supported apps on Virgin Media’s Stream and Sky Stream is pretty similar – they both have the big services like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon’s Prime Video – but Paramount+ will only come to Virgin Media later in 2023, and Apple TV+ is also missing from VM.
Content Winner: Sky Stream
While the selection is pretty similar on both Streams, Sky does take the edge with Sky Atlantic, and a few extra streaming apps.
Sky Stream VS Virgin Media Stream: Video and Sound Quality
Both Streams support 4K/HDR video quality (provided your TV supports it as well) as well as Dolby Atmos audio (via passthrough).
If you want 4K content from Sky, however, you’ll need to pay an extra £6/month for the UHD/Dolby Atmos add-on pack. Otherwise, the baseline picture quality on Sky Stream and its Sky channels is Full HD (1080p).
When you do pay, Sky Stream offers quite a lot of content in 4K – films, TV shows and a lot of sports.
On 3rd party services like Disney+ and Prime Video, however, you will get the 4K/UHD quality without paying Sky any extras (and on Netflix, if you have the Premium tier).
On Virgin Media’s stream, you’ll get 4K/UHD content with the 3rd party services – but you can’t get any 4K content for the premium Sky channels, so everything from Sky will be in HD (1080p).
If you sign up for BT Sport, however, you will also get BT Sport Ultimate – which is in 4K. And that one’s not available on Sky Stream for now.
When you actually watch 4K content (or any other type), both boxes are pretty similar, and picture quality, in this case, will depend much more on your TV than on the box.
Video Quality Winner: Sky Stream
Sky Stream offers a lot more content in 4K (though you have to pay extra) – which is why it’s the winner here.
Sky Stream VS Virgin Media Stream: The Interface
Sky Stream’s user interface, which is identical to the one on Sky Glass, is all about personalisation and recommendations.
Unlike Sky Q and Freeview recorders, with Stream you can’t record content locally on the device itself – instead, most of the content is streamed on-demand, either from Sky or one of the 3rd party apps – so you’re taken to BBC iPlayer, All4, Netflix, etc.
Some content can also be recorded to the cloud – mainly sports – but for most of the content, you’re dependent on the show/film still being available online, instead of having it reside on your local hard drive.
Everything on Sky Stream revolves around the Playlist – a watchlist that you can add programmes and films to, from Sky’s channels as well as from 3rd party streaming services.
There’s also a global search, that lets you search (by voice, via the remote) among all the streaming services supported on the device – so if you say “Tom Hanks“, you’ll see his films on Sky, Prime Video, Netflix, etc. – and you can then jump straight to them, if you have the right subscription.
Virgin Media’s interface is simpler, and will remind you of other similar streaming sticks like Amazon’s Fire TV. And, like Sky’s Stream, it also has a voice search function that you use via the remote.
Unlike Sky Stream, there’s no recording at all – not even to the cloud – but Virgin Media does offer its own library of on-demand shows and films, along with everything you can watch on the live Freeview channels.
And, VM’s Stream also has its own Watchlish – see a future programme or film on the TV guide you’re interested in? You can “Add it to your Watchlist”, and then watch it later either via a 3rd party streaming app like BBC iPlayer, or VM’s catch-up library.
So the Watchlist, on both Streams, is basically a glorified bookmarks manager – it helps you remember things you want to watch, and it gives you a shortcut for the actual watching, with Sky going the extra mile to record to the cloud – but only from a selected few channels.
As for personalisation and recommendations – Sky Stream leans into that a lot, while Virgin Media’s Stream feels a lot more basic in that regard.
Sky Stream will try to learn what you like, and offer recommendations across all the streaming apps and channels it supports. Virgin Media does some of that – but the selection feels narrower, and the Watchlist doesn’t always sync properly with content you’ve watched on 3rd party services.
As for speed – both Virgin Media’s Stream and Sky Media Stream feel a bit underpowered at times – it’s never too bad, but they never feel as swift as a top-of-the-line Fire TV 4K Max, for example.
Interface Winner: A Tie
This one’s a bit hard to judge. Sky Stream’s interface aims for the future, and sometimes tries to reinvent the wheel in what Sky’s TV customers might want (or need), with a lot of personalisation, curation, and putting everything in one place.
That’s better, for me. But not for everyone – if you want a simpler interface, that lets you watch what you want directly from streaming apps and Freeview, and doesn’t get in the way too much – then Virgin Media wins on simplicity.
Therefore, because they serve different functions for different people – it’s sort of a tie.
The Bottom Line: Sky Stream or Virgin Media Stream?
Both Streams are a big step forward in what pay-TV companies offer in the UK. Some might say they’re too late, with big American companies already dominating the streaming world – but at least they’re trying.
Choosing between the two, however, isn’t all that easy.
First, there’s that little thing of Virgin Media’s Stream requiring you to get broadband from them. If that’s not an option for you (or you can get better prices for broadband elsewhere) – then VM’s streaming box isn’t an option at all.
But if we take that out of the way and just look at the pricing – Virgin Media’s Stream is currently cheaper in almost every way – so if costs are your main concern, then that’s your winner.
Sky Stream, however, feels more advanced. The interface is unique, and while it may confuse some at first – I like how it tries to put all (OK, most) of your streaming needs into one place.
Plus, you get more content (Sky Atlantic) and better picture quality (4K/HDR on Sky’s channels) with Sky Stream – but, again, you pay more for that.
So while there’s no distinct winner – it ultimately comes down to what you value more – both are a step in the right direction for Sky and Virgin Media.