Sky Q is the biggest overhaul Sky has given to its package since it introduced Sky+, aiming to do for television what Sonos did to music – and make it truly multi-room.
The package is built around the Sky Q Silver box, which essentially works as a hub for up to two separate Sky Q Mini boxes and two tablets simultaneously.
That’s right, you can watch four channels live and record a fifth all at once. It’s just a case of finding enough screens.
Build and design
The Q boxes are easily the most attractive Sky has ever produced. The 2TB Silver box befits the premium price you’re paying and the Minis look a bit like high-end wi-fi routers.
But if you find them a bit plain, they’re small enough to tuck away behind the TV, and because the remotes work using Bluetooth, you don’t need to point them directly at the box.
The Mini boxes are plug ’n’ play, too. All they need is a power cable and a connection to the telly, so they can easily be moved around if required.
That doesn’t mean they’re less capable than the main Silver box though; there’s still an optical out for audio, or they’ll output Dolby Digital over HDMI if it’s selected.
There’s no doubt this is the most well-connected Sky box ever. There’s built in wi-fi for connecting to the internet, but it’s the network it creates with the Mini boxes that makes Sky Q really stand out.
It’s a Sonos-style mesh network, meaning the speed of your broadband doesn’t matter, the wi-fi network itself determines how well the system streams content around your home. If you have Sky Broadband, each box works as a wi-fi hotspot.
Using the Mini boxes is almost identical to using the main one. The UI is the same, it gives you access to anything on the Silver’s hard drive (and you can delete stuff or download more) or watch live TV.
It’s part of Sky’s ‘Fluid Viewing’ concept which also allows you to stream to a tablet. Again, quality is good and the signal solid. Our original iPad Mini lagged a little when scrolling through the EPG, but our iPad Pro (9.7in) had no such problems.
Sky is keen to point out that it also allows you stop watching a show on one TV and pick up on another screen elsewhere. You can, and it works seamlessly, but it’s not really something we’ve ever had any cause to use.
Fluid Viewing extends outside of the home, but only as far as caching downloaded or recorded Sky content on your tablet, so you can catch up with Game of Thrones on your commute, or fill up on movies for a long haul flight.
It’s reasonably fast too, so you don’t have to set it all to download the night before you leave in the morning. Allow about 60 seconds for every 10 minutes of TV you want to store.
When it comes to regular HD, which is what most users will watch most of the time, there are more hi-def channels on offer than ever.
Delve down to the more leftfield ones at the bottom of the EPG and things get fuzzy around the edges but on the mainstream channels you’ll watch 99 per cent of the time quality is excellent, particularly on Sky’s own ones.
The movie channels (recently rebranded as Sky Cinema) even use a new format that claims to improve picture quality.
In general the picture is crisp, packed with detail and with a pleasantly rich colour balance. Contrast levels are good, with good insight into dark scenes and plenty of punch in brights. Motion handling is smooth and mostly stable.
Importantly, quality on the extra boxes and tablets dotted around the home is excellent too, despite no direct connection to the satellite dish.
On-demand content is downloaded rather than streamed, so the picture isn’t susceptible to breaking up or pixelating if someone elsewhere in the house starts streaming Stranger Things on Netflix and puts extra strain on the connection.
While the Silver box is capable of receiving Sky Ultra HD, it wasn’t available at the time of testing. It was scheduled to be ready in time for the start of the Premier League season in August, but we did get to see some 4K content at a special press briefing.
And the initial signs are very promising. The 4K clips we were shown consisted of movies, sport and natural history programming, and picture quality certainly appears to be an improvement on a normal hi-def picture.
As the camera makes its way through the opening forest scene of The Revenant, every ripple and reflection on the water comes across as remarkably real and packed with detail. Movies and football will be high on the list of go-to 4K content, so we turn to sport, and the clarity of image seems very impressive with good motion and bright punchy colours thrown into the mix.
The quality of the sound you’ll get from Sky Q depends largely on what you plug it into, but it supports Dolby Digital and can output to a 5.1 surround sound system or soundbar over HDMI or optical cable.
Not every channel supports it, but it kicks in automatically when the relevant signal is detected. Who needs surround sound for University Challenge anyway?
Across the range of programme types sound quality is good. Voices are well articulated, whether it’s a Scandi drama or commentary during a cricket match, while music and effects are punchy without going over the top.
Volume seems to be well standardised across the channels, so you don’t have to keep reaching for the remote whenever you switch over.
Without help it will never replace a proper stereo system or even a decent Bluetooth speaker but you can just about get away with using it to play music from a phone over AirPlay or Bluetooth.
There have been reports of sound dropouts when using Sky Q, and we experienced problems early on, too. But a second software upgrade, which should be available to all by now, seems to have fixed the issue.
The Sky Q touch remote is a fraction of the size of its hefty predecessor. The part you’ll use most is the touch sensitive panel that naturally rests under your thumb.
Swipe left, right, up and down to navigate Q’s redesigned menu, and push it in to select a channel, download a show or confirm a setting.
That UI is a revelation – it can sometimes take one too many steps to get somewhere but it makes the old Sky+ EPG look positively antique.
Using the panel to swipe around its menus soon becomes second nature, with the crescent-shaped area above it used to fast-forward and rewind. Tap and slide your thumb on the main pad and you can skip forwards and backwards even quicker.
Sometimes it can be a little too sensitive, and it’s easy to accidentally pause or rewind what you’re watching by brushing against the wrong part of the remote.
There’s an alternative remote that’s identical except for a set of standard directional buttons where the touch panel is. It’s this style of remote you get with the Minis.
Look closely at the side of the remote and you’ll see a small button with a microphone logo. Sky is planning to enable a voice search feature further down the line but there’s been no confirmation when this will happen.
Netflix’s original content grabs the headlines these days, but you can’t argue with the sheer quantity of what Sky offers. With over 350 live channels alone, not to mention all the on-demand movies and TV shows, the choice is second to none – and that’s before you factor in the live sport.
BT Sport might have eaten into Sky’s football offering, but Sky still shows the lion’s share of Premier League games, plus the Championship, La Liga and MLS for real football hipsters.
On-demand services from the terrestrial channels are included too, with programmes downloaded to the box rather than streamed.
New to Sky Q is an online video section, which offers YouTube and Vevo apps but also has sections for Sky’s own picks under various headings, including ‘Quick Laughs’, ‘Style’, ‘Food and Drink’ and ‘Sports’.
It’s not bad for killing time, though it feels like Sky is trying a bit too hard to be ‘down with the kids’.
There’s no Netflix or Amazon Video here but that’s no surprise. Putting those services on a Sky box would be like expecting Burger King to sell Big Macs.
Besides, chances are you’ve got access to those either directly via your TV or through another box that’s plugged into it.
With Q, Sky really has never been better, but it has also never been more expensive. If that’s the elephant in the room, it’s a pretty sizeable one.
All the possible package permutations are dizzying but the most basic Sky Q Silver one is £54/$81 per month, plus £99/$148.5 for installation – that’s £18/$27 per month more than a basic Sky HD package.
That setup fee rises to £299 if you don’t sign up for the Sport and/or Movies package (both together is an extra £34.50/$51.75 a month, just movies is £17/$25.5, just sports £25.50/$38.25), or commit to Sky Broadband.
For that you only get one Mini box, to add a second it’s another £99/$148.5. Plus you don’t get to keep the boxes if you decide not to renew.
That means if you’re thinking of upgrading now, you probably need an Ultra HD TV to get the most out of it. Sky’s 4K content is included in the price, so you’re missing out if you can’t take advantage.
You also need plenty of screens and enough sets of eyes to point at them. This isn’t a system that you’ll get the most out of in a one-bedroom flat.
But as an overall package, Sky Q feels utterly contemporary, combining almost every way of watching TV and allowing you to access them all over your home (and, to an extent, outside).
This is as good as TV gets – if you can bear the not inconsiderable cost.