- Stunning picture quality with some content
- Decent variety of content
- Broadcast and download combo means no need for superfast broadband
- 4K cameras for football seem sluggish to respond to exposure changes
- Inconsistent look to movies and TV shows due to varied sources
- Not that much non-football content yet
- Live Premiership broadcasts in UHD
- Downloadable UHD movies
- Downloadable UHD TV shows and series
- 124 Premiership matches to be covered in 2016/2017 season
- HDR support likely in the future
- Manufacturer: Sky
- Review Price: to be confirmed
WHAT IS SKY ULTRA HD?
Sky Ultra HD is a new service that brings 4K satellite broadcasts and downloads to UK living rooms for the first time.
It’s available to Sky subscribers with Sky Q Silver boxes, and offers a mix of sport, drama, movies and documentaries in the Ultra HD format.
The quantity and excellent quality of the UHD content could be enough in itself to lure 4K TV owners, but the fact that you can enjoy UHD without superfast broadband is also a huge attraction. It’s great news for those without an internet connection fast enough for 4K streaming.
SKY ULTRA HD – HOW IT WORKS
The Sky Ultra HD platform is part of Sky’s wider network of broadcast channels and on-demand content. It can be watched by anyone who has a Sky Q Silver box, the subscription packages for UHD content, and a compatible 4K TV.
By compatible 4K TV, I mean one with an HDMI input that supports the HDCP 2.2 anti-piracy protocol introduced for 4K content.
Sky’s mix of broadcast and downloaded Ultra HD content doesn’t appear on a dedicated UHD channel. Instead you access it via “red button” links, and on-screen prompts that pop up if what you’re watching in HD is also available in UHD. There’s also a dedicated Ultra HD menu tucked away inside the Sports, Box Sets, Sky Cinema, and Sky Store headers.
Given the number of messages I’ve received from people struggling to find the new Ultra HD content, it might be worth Sky adding a simple Ultra HD header on the main homescreen menu.
The Ultra HD platform is impressively stable. The only ongoing issue I’m aware of at the time of writing sees all of Sony’s 2015 and 2016 4K TVs suffering serious judder when playing Sky’s Ultra HD content. This is down to a problem with Sony’s TV software. Fortunately, a fix via a firmware update is on its way and may even have happened by the time you read this review.
SKY UHD – SETUP
Once you’ve had Sky Q installed, with a Sky Q Silver box attached to your main 4K TV via an HDCP 2.2-enabled HDMI connection, getting a UHD feed to appear is straightforward.
Simply head into the Sky Q Silver’s Settings menu, scroll down to Setup, then to the Audio Visual menu. There’s an option to set Picture Resolution. Naturally, you’ll need to choose the 2160p setting, which outputs native UHD at 50Hz. Your Sky Q Silver box will check that the TV is compatible with this feed, generating an error message if it isn’t.
If you want to limit the likelihood of a compatibility error message appearing, make sure you connect the Sky Q Silver directly to your TV rather than running it through an AV receiver, video sender or other “intermediate” device.
Once you select the 2160p output, everything that comes out of the Sky Q Silver box will be displayed at a 2160p resolution. The receiver uses upscaling processing to turn non-UHD content into UHD.
This might annoy some users who would perhaps rather use the upscaling processing in their TVs. Sky’s argument is that some TVs take a frustratingly long time to switch between their HD and UHD modes.
Another setting to check is the On Demand Default Download Format option, found in the Preferences menu beneath the Audio Visual option. This defaults to HD, but 4K fans will probably want to adjust to UHD, especially if their broadband is fast enough to download UHD content.
SKY ULTRA HD – CONTENT
So exactly what content does Sky’s Ultra HD service offer? Well, Sky’s UHD crown jewel is its coverage of English Premier League football. At least 124 games will be broadcast via satellite in UHD over the course of the 2016-2017 season. These games can be recorded as well as watched live, although they’re unlikely to be available to download on-demand in Ultra HD.
At the time of writing, 30 films are available in UHD to anyone with a Sky Cinema subscription. These are: Amistad, Angels & Demons, Annie, Captive, Chappie, Everest, Forrest Gump, Fury, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Groundhog Day, The Guns Of Navarone, Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, No Good Deed, The Patriot, Mall Cop 2, Pixels, Project Almanac, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Spectre, Spider-Man 2,Spider-Man 3, The Spongebob Movie, Talladega Nights, Terminator Genisys, Think Like A Man Too, Top Five and The Wedding Ringer.
The Sky Store has 11 more films, all available to rent for a week for £3.49. These titles are: The Revenant, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Zoolander 2, Risen, The Night Before, The Big Short, The Amazing Spider-Man, Flight, Battle: Los Angeles, Shutter Island and World War Z.
As for TV shows, 17 series are available, including a mix of drama and documentaries. These shows are: The Blacklist, Fortitude, The Last Panthers, The Enfield Haunting, The Tunnel, The Tunnel Sabotage, David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive, Galapagos (with, you’ve guessed it, David Attenborough), Big Cats: An Amazing Animal Family, Richard Hammond’s Jungle Quest, National Geographic Wild’s Giant Sea Serpent: Meet The Myth, River Jaws: Monster Catfish, Secret Life Of Pearls, Wild Namibia, Wild Sri Lanka and four seasons of Strike Back.
SKY ULTRA HD – PERFORMANCE
There are two different areas to consider here: the quality of Sky’s live Ultra HD sports broadcasts, and the quality of its downloaded Ultra HD content. Let’s start with the broadcasts.
First impressions are strong. Detail levels are comfortably beyond anything you’ll see with normal HD footage, especially in close-ups of players, and background items such as adverts and crowds. You can also make out logos on shirts and shorts that are just blobs in HD, and there’s more definition to the grass.
The studio footage from the grounds where the matches are filmed is also shot and broadcast in native 4K. This also contains outstanding levels of detail in the usual stand-out areas: the weaves of the presenters’ suits, set detailing, skin and hair.
Sky’s new native Ultra HD on-screen graphics are also gorgeous.
Mostly, native Ultra HD football coverage is so good that it’s a shock when the adverts come on.
Toggling between the HD and Ultra HD feeds of the same games, the difference between the two is palpable, even though the HD feed is actually shot on the same Ultra HD cameras. In general, there’s a softer look to the HD picture, especially with mid- and long-distance shots, or when there’s a lot of motion in the frame.
While the Ultra HD football broadcasts delivered so far all look good, there’s room for improvement. Motion looks slightly more blurry than I’d hoped it might at 50Hz, and the main in-game camera footage looks a touch softer than the close-up shots, meaning the benefit of UHD feels slightly less defined.
For fans of numbers, the UHD Arsenal v Liverpool match took up 59.5GB of memory on my Sky Q Silver box, while the HD version occupied a still substantial 23.3GB. This appears to reflect the fact that Sky’s HD picture quality has improved in recent weeks.
One last issue with the UHD football is that the cameras Sky uses seem to struggle with contrast. All of the first three Premier League broadcasts, as well as the Liverpool v Barcelona International Champion’s Cup game, took place in bright sunlight with very defined shadows. On numerous occasions, Sky’s UHD cameras struggled to adapt quickly enough to sudden shifts in exposure.
This leads to bright areas looking momentarily overexposed and dark areas looking momentarily too dark – issues that temporarily reduce the amount of visible detail. BT’s Ultra HD football coverage seems to handle extreme lighting more successfully, which makes its main action shots look more refined.
Sky gets better when lighting conditions aren’t so extreme. An evening match between Chelsea and West Ham looked significantly better – at least on a par with BT’s typical images.
As for downloaded UHD content, the picture quality varies from title to title, between solid and jaw-droppingly good.
The level of difference suggests that the inconsistencies are more likely to be a result of shortcomings in the sources than issues with Sky’s UHD delivery. In fact, some of Sky’s film and TV descriptions feature the words “Remastered for UHD”, which means they’ve been crafted into UHD from sources that were less than native UHD in resolution.
While these remastered titles look slightly better than HD versions of the same content upscaled by your TV, they’re softer, less detailed and noisier. Sometimes, they’re less naturally coloured than the content that has come from native UHD sources.
With this in mind, it’s good to see Sky using the “remastered” description, which will help to manage expectations. If only Ultra HD Blu-rays did the same.
Even with native UHD films and TV shows, the quality can vary. Forrest Gump, The Martian, Pixels, The Blacklist and the Big Cats documentaries are spectacularly detailed, sharp and richly coloured. The Martian actually looks crisper than the Ultra HD Blu-ray version.
Others, such as Spectre, appear to be closer to standard Blu-ray quality for the most part, delivering only the occasional stand-out UHD moment.
In a perfect world, every UHD download Sky is offering would look like Forrest Gumpand The Martian. But we don’t live in a perfect UHD world. Content creators are still only just getting to grips with filming and mastering natively for 4K/UHD, and different studios take different approaches to creating their UHD masters. You could argue that being able to see source-based inconsistencies shows that Sky’s delivery system is actually working very well.
The Revenant is the most useful title for assessing Sky’s UHD picture quality, since it’s been one of the most spectacular Ultra HD Blu-ray releases so far, and makes for a good comparison. The Sky Ultra HD download does a pretty good job of delivering fine detail in trees, landscapes and forest floors, but there’s a more plasticky look to skin tones, which suggests there’s slightly more compression involved with Sky’s file. Overall, Sky’s version still looks comfortably better than HD.
One other important point raised by The Revenant is the lack of HDR (high dynamic range) in Sky’s pictures. HDR’s extra brightness, contrast and colour range play a big part in delivering glorious Ultra HD Blu-ray pictures, so it’s inevitable that you feel their absence from Sky’s download. Sky has suggested more than once that it may be able to add HDR to its Sky Ultra HD service once HDR standards have settled down.
SHOULD I BUY SKY ULTRA HD?
Although there’s room for improvement with Sky’s live UHD broadcasts, and there’s inevitable inconsistency with third-party UHD films and TV shows, Sky’s new Ultra HD offering is impressive.
Whether you feel there’s enough Ultra HD content right now may depend on how much of a football fan you are, but the amount of non-football Ultra HD content will doubtless expand swiftly. The cost of entry will vary considerably from person to person, depending on whether or not you already subscribe to Sky. Value for money is definitely higher if you intend to watch a lot of football.
Looking to other UHD sources, Ultra HD Blu-ray players cost hundreds of pounds up-front, with each disc costing £20-30. Meanwhile, you have to pay monthly subscriptions – as well as coughing up for very fast broadband – if you want Netflix and Amazon’s Ultra HD content.
BT’s Ultra HD Sport offering is cheaper, covers a greater number of sports and delivers slightly better UHD picture quality. However, you need a very fast BT broadband connection; Sky’s option is available to almost anyone. BT’s service is also lacking in non-sport UHD content. Virgin recently unveiled a UHD box, but its service isn’t expected to launch closer to the end of 2016.
If you’re a 4K TV owner and a football fan, Sky Ultra HD is a no-brainer. Currently, it’s short of other types of content, but Sky will be adding plenty more in the months to come – and what there is now looks spectacular.