IT'S BEEN over a year now since Sky Q was announced as the successor to Sky+ for the connected age.
We've had the system for just over six months now so we thought it would be a good time to review the progress of the hybrid DVB-S and streaming TV system, what works, what doesn't and what's to come in 2017 as the television and computer move ever closer to being the same thing, termed by Sky as "fluid viewing".
What is it?
Whereas the old Sky system was delivered entirely by satellite, with the later addition of downloads, Sky Q is an "on demand first" affair, with one of the biggest programme libraries we've seen from a huge range of broadcasters. It does, of course, continue to deliver linear channels in the hundreds, but with the advantage that you can record five channels whilst watching a sixth. An upgrade later this year plans to make that number up to seven whilst watching an eighth.
In addition, if you start watching Modern Family on Sky One using the on-demand feature, then the box will automatically download the next episode so it's ready for your binging pleasure, or series link it, just like with live shows.
As if all that wasn't enough, whereas the old Sky Multiroom system required multiple subscriptions, Sky Q comes with "mini boxes" for the other TVs in the house which can take the feed direct from the main unit, meaning that you have access to all the same channels, same recordings and same on-demand content. This is where the concept of "fluid viewing" comes in - you can pause a recording or live programme in one room and pick it up in another.
But further still, you can also use any Android or iOS device strong enough to take a stream as an extra "box" and watch your content anywhere. This is a little clunky at times and there's certain rights issues with content providers including the BBC, but the vast majority of what's available is available anywhere. We were able to watch recordings and live streams from our box whilst in hospital earlier in the year. That's pretty impressive.
How much is this going to cost me?
When Sky Q launched it was a premium product, and while that is still true, it's also the default, which means it's also more affordable. It also depends on the number of boxes you want, the channel package, whether you have Sky broadband and phone as part of the package and whether you're on Sky already. But on box, on the Sky "Original" bundle (which doesn't include the box sets, just catch-up), and has about 270 channels, costs £22 a month. But when you add in sports, movies, extra boxes, broadband, phone, then you're well over a tonne a month. There's usually set up fees involved too, but watch out for offers that will see them waived.
If you share a dish with neighbours, check before you book. The switch in your block will need to have been upgraded to support Sky Q, and while Sky is offering the service to landlords for free, you may find that yours may not have been, and as with us, the management company may simply not be interested. We ended up fitting our own dish, which slowed down the installation and isn't always possible.
So what's changed since launch?
The big change has been the launch of 4K/UHD transmissions. At the moment it's limited to certain sports fixtures and on-demand movies, but we like the fact that there's no separate channel to remember, you simply set UHD as a default if your TV supports it.
There's plans for voice control later in the year, which will come as something of a relief as the touch remote is super sensitive. The remote is all ready to go, it just needs a firmware drop.
More interactive services are promised. At the moment there's basic Sky News, Weather and Sport, plus a selection of Youtube and GoPro videos. We'd love to see things like Twitter hashtag integration, so you can watch comments as they come in, alongside the show itself. Great for things like X Factor and Question Time. Of course, interactive services native to channels, such as BBC Red Button are also supported.
We love the fact that any movie on Sky Movies rotation can be streamed free of charge, or for newer titles, they can be rented either on their own, or with the "Buy and Keep" option which gets you a DVD version through the post. It sounds almost quaint, but apparently people love it and who are we to argue. We'd like to see a Blu-Ray option for this, or an option to "keep" digitally using something a bit more universal like Ultraviolet or Google Play Movies.
The interface is intuitive, though we would like a better path to the linear TV Guide, but for an "on demand first" box, its very slick, and buttery smooth. There's also a PIP option, if you're waiting for something to finish or start, though it's not good enough to watch, say two footie matches at once.
Apple Airplay and Bluetooth allow you to play your own audio and photos. We'd like a proper DLNA client like Plex too. There's also Vevo for on-demand music videos, and all the radio services from Sky.
What still needs fixing?
We don't like the lag when you're watching things on two different boxes. A Sky engineer recently told us that they're working on fixing this, but at the moment, don't confuse "fluid viewing" between rooms with "simultaneous viewing" on multiple TVs.
Also annoying is that if you don't take Sky's triple-play option, the "meshing" between boxes happens on the 2.4GHz band, meaning that communication between boxes is significantly less reliable than using a Sky router, which does it all at 5GHz. The solution we found is to wire everything up with ethernet, if you can.
The Sky Q app still has a lot of work to be done. We discovered that simply logging into your account isn't enough, if you haven't paired your device whilst at home, you can't access your box, or record remotely, so set up every device you intend to use on day one.
There's no access to Netflix or Amazon Prime through the box, and the likes of iPlayer and All4 are limited in quantities of older content. You can understand why, but if this was sorted, we'd be a lot closer to having the ultimate box to rule them all.
There are some glaring problems that we thought that Sky would have fixed by now, but they're actually minor in the great scheme of things. Sky Q is simply brilliant as it is and it's only going to get better. So we'll keep appending this article through the year as new bits are added. Call it "fluid writing" if you will. µ
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