Sky’s next-gen TV box wants to bring multi-room TV and Ultra HD content to the mainstream.
Sky Q is Sky’s next-generation TV service. It aims to deliver ‘fluid viewing’, giving you access to Sky TV wherever and however you want it.
It combines live and on-demand content, plus your own recordings, and gives you access all around your home and on the move. 4K Ultra HD arrives on Sky Q 13th August.
With a new range of boxes and a new app, Sky Q isn’t compatible with existing Sky TV services (your Sky dish needs a new LNB fitted but otherwise there are no new cables to install), and is instead being billed as a ‘premium’ addition to the company’s existing video and app offerings.
There are three new Sky Q TV boxes, and a new broadband hub. The Sky Q Silver, which comes in black with a silver edge, and Sky Q (black), plus the Q Mini (black) aimed at smaller rooms.
The Mini piggy-backs off your main box and doesn’t have a tuner or hard drive. All the boxes follow the same slimline design and look nigh-on identical.
The Sky Q Silver is the flagship box. If you want 4K, this is the only Sky Q box that will support it. Other benefits come in the form of extra storage, tuners and connections. A 2TB box, the Q Silver comes with a whopping 12 tuners, and has two HDMI, two USB and one optical audio output.
The Q box meanwhile has 1TB storage and eight tuners, plus one HDMI, one USB and one optical output.
The all-new remote, which uses Bluetooth rather than infrared, is based around a large, central touch-sensitive control
All those extra tuners are in place in order to deliver Sky’s “fluid viewing” experience. With the 12 tuners you can simultaneously – deep breath – watch TV, get picture-in-picture preview of a second channel, record four other channels, stream to two Q Mini boxes and to two tablets.
The Sky Q box’s eight tuners mean the simultaneous streaming functionality drops to one tablet and one Mini box.
There’s also a new Sky Q remote (and a new app and a whole new interface). The remote uses Bluetooth rather than infrared to connect, which means line of sight from remote to your box is no longer an issue. Smaller and lighter, it’s a quite different breed of handset, with the main focus a large touch-sensitive control.
In fact, there are no manual buttons for moving up and down the interface – it’s all about the touch.
Look on the edge of the touchpad remote and you should see a small button and mic logo – voice search should be coming to Sky Q before the end of 2016.
The extra tuners will allow you to watch and record more programmes at the same time and connect to the Sky Q Mini box
While the extra tuners allow you to simply watch and record more programmes at the same time, more crucial is the ability to access live, recorded and on-demand content from multiple devices, inside and outside your home. It’s this that really defines Sky Q.
Move to your bedroom (and a Q Mini box) or your tablet (and the Sky Q app), and you can instantly pick up where you left off on whatever you were watching on your main box. Aside from live TV, you can also browse and watch all your main box’s recordings on any Q device.
The Sky Q tablet app also allows you to download programmes for offline viewing (provided Sky has the rights to do this – BBC content is excluded, for example), allowing you to take your favourite shows out of the house. This is the fluid experience.
Full control of Sky Q functions is available via a tablet, but there’s no guarantee that a mobile app will be ready at launch
One thing worth pointing out here is that there is currently no Sky Q mobile app. Sky says one is coming, but for now you’re left without the mobile experience. There’s a workaround for Remote Record using the existing Sky+ app.
Back on the main box, the fresh new interface is bigger and brighter, sporting a vertical menu layout, which then scrolls horizontally to the right in each section – how we naturally prefer to read, says Sky.
It’s chock-full of content, and you’re be served recommended films and TV programmes based on your viewing habits and even the time of day, alongside the more familiar editorially curated Sky content.
Bluetooth and AirPlay are included within the main box, so you can stream music to your TV’s sound system
There are apps within the interface, too, Sky News, Sky Sports, Facebook and a handful more at launch, which can deliver information on the side of the screen while you watch TV.
Much like we’ve seen on smart TVs. Editorial content partners are found within ‘Online video’, with Vevo videos sitting alongside content from the likes of GQ and Wired, though with little branding it seems somewhat under the radar. YouTube is on board for the first time, too.
Bluetooth and AirPlay are also here, allowing you to stream music straight to your main system, complete with artwork.
The boxes form their own mesh network, a little like Sonos, so sending content around multiple rooms or devices shouldn’t be a drain on your broadband network. (Sky says it won’t be recommending any minimum speed requirement.)
It probably will want to recommend its own internet service, of course, and if you do take Sky internet then your Mini boxes will also double as wi-fi boosters. This can’t be used without Sky internet, we’re told.
Our brief hands-on time was, predictably, affected slightly by the broadband connection in the particular set-up, but otherwise moving from room to room and screen to screen, taking our content with us, proved effective and seamless.
Seeing all of your programmes on the same menu across multiple rooms and devices, makes it feel more like owning a Sky account, with access to everything (almost), everywhere (nearly).
While the TV Guide section of the interface uses the familiar text-led design – albeit nicely presented, clear and easy to read – most of the other menus are more picture-led for a bright, colourful interface. New additions – Sky Q, Top Picks – serve the recommended content.
And there is a lot of content here. Sky says its user feedback reveals that, while customers love Sky’s content (of course!), users find it hard to know what to watch or where to find it. Sky Q’s content recommendations aim to help.
Watch an episode in a series and the EPG will instantly reveal all other available programmes in the series. Similarly, series record is now the standard when you click to record any episodic TV show.
The Top Picks and Catch Up TV sections of the interface show you Sky’s choice of ‘what’s hot’, while My Q is tailored programming for you.
Interface and control
The new interface contains various apps that can display information on screen while you’re watching TV
Getting a feel for how so many menus work in a short period of time isn’t easy, but it is clear Sky has done its best to make that quantity of programming accessible rather than intimidating.
For that reason, we certainly like the at-a-glance look and uniformity across devices, which makes it easier to find what you want, whatever device you’re using.
On first impressions, the remote control is a mixed bag. A touch-remote feels more advanced, but its mode of operation and sensitivity take a little getting used to. We didn’t have time to master the tap and hold to scroll faster, nor get our heads round the vertical axis of the scroll. Then again, with more than 30 minutes use, it might become second nature.
One neat feature allows you to locate your remote control if it’s fallen down the back of the sofa. Press the central ‘Q’ button on the box and your remote will beep so you can track it down.
Sky is adamant the Q Silver box is faster than the existing set-top box, and we certainly noticed no sign of lag in our time with it. Speed, ease of use and reliability are crucial, and Sky has a decent track record in this respect.
The quality of the content is increasingly important, too. Investment in live sport and movies has served Sky well in recent years but with the likes of Amazon, Netflix and YouTube stealing viewers from traditional TV, headline-grabbing dramas (which Netflix does so well) will no doubt come to the fore. Sky Atlantic has made a solid start in this department.
While the idea of content partners sounds interesting, these seemed rather buried in the interface, with no obvious branding to flag who’s involved or what they’ve provided. This could yet change by the time of launch, of course.
And what about 4K? Nobody delivered the quantity and quality of HD content to match Sky for many years and Sky has plans to deliver 4K Ultra HD in a similar fashion.
It may have been eaten to the punch by BT Sport’s Ultra HD channel, but Sky looks as though it will have the volume to match, if not better its rivals.
Sky Q Ultra HD launches 13th August and is available to subscribers with a Silver box at no additional cost and is set to offer UHD content including Premier League football, movies, dramas and natural history programmes…
124 Premier League matches will shown during the 2016/2017 season, while 70 UHD movies will launch on Sky Cinema in the first year. Other movies will be a mix of rentals through the Sky Store or select free downloads from Sky’s extensive catalogue. 4K rentals purchased through the Sky Store will be available to all Sky Q Silver box owners at a cost of £6.99 for new releases and £5.99 for library titles.
There will be a total of five dramas available to view in 4K on Sky Q at launch, including Series 1 and 2 of The Blacklist.
Sky is also planning to make a number of its own commissions, with Jude Law’s upcoming miniseries, The Young Pope, the first to be shot in 4K for Sky Atlantic.
Ahead of Sky 4K content arriving, all Silver set-top boxes will receive a firmware update during the course of July, to make sure everyone who is able to take advantage of the upcoming 4K service can do so from the very start.
Sky Q doesn’t only feel like an upgrade to the Sky experience in order to keep ahead of traditional rivals, but also an effort to learn from and take on the new streaming-video upstarts.
Even so, much of this benefit relies on you wanting to consume more, and in more ways. Live on your own? Might not sound so ground-breaking. Don’t own a tablet? You might not get the full benefit. Happy with one room for all your TV viewing? Sky Q may not get your juices flowing.
But for everyone else, it’s easy to see Sky Q as something approaching the TV of the future. While multi-room video home installations have been around for some time, this is more affordable than a custom install and more advanced and better integrated than simply adding an extra box too.
And with the imminent arrival of Sky Q Ultra HD and all the live and on-demand content that’s going to come with it, this makes a very compelling case for upgrading to Sky Q or jumping onboard as a new customer.