Introduction and features
Sky Q is the broadcast company’s “biggest re-imagining of Sky ever”, and represents a whole new premium tier for its 2016 TV packages.
Andrew Olson, Sky’s Director of Product and Planning, took us through the core features of this brave new world of fluid TV viewing at a borrowed London home, replete with the full Sky Q platform.
Then he let us loose to get stuck in for ourselves.
And it most definitely is a full platform. Sky Q is not simply a new set-top box with a new design and new home page, and it’s also much more than just the company’s first Ultra HD-ready hardware.
Sky Q really is a top-to-bottom re-imagining of what TV should be in a modern, fully connected home – and it’s not confined to the home, as you can take your Sky Q out and about too.
At the heart of the platform are the new Sky Q Silver and Sky Q Standard boxes, but Sky Q stretches its TV tendrils throughout your home via up to two Mini boxes for multi-room, an optional Hub with Wi-Fi extender, and the facility for the Sky Q Android or iOS app to turn your tablet into a fully functional TV.
The Sky Q Silver box is the big daddy of the platform. It’s the highest-end of Sky Q’s high-end set-top boxes, with a 2TB storage drive enabling you to jam up to 350 hours of HD recordings into it.
It’s also the base camp for all the tablet and multi-room shenanigans Sky Q offers, thanks to its 12 discrete tuners. These enable it to record up to four different channels, while leaving the viewer to watch a fifth live.
A further tuner deals with the picture-in-picture preview for the mini-guide, another pipes all the image and TV guide data around, two more are dedicated to simultaneously connecting a pair of Sky Q Mini boxes to the system, another two are there to allow concurrent Sky Q viewing on up to two tablets, and the last one is left spare for future updates.
Originally we thought that spare tuner might be held over for the upcoming 4K Ultra HD service further down the line, but we’ve been told the 4K element of Sky Q will be piped down the standard live TV tuner.
Because the tuners come in blocks of four, and the Sky Q Silver sports three blocks, that twelfth tuner really is spare. But it does give Sky some space to innovate in the future – and something for us to wildly speculate about in the meantime… Streaming to Oculus Rift! Hololens! PlayStation Now game streaming!
4K Ultra HD
Ultra HD support isn’t going to be part of the Sky Q platform straight out of the box, but when Sky does launch it, it’s looking to do so with a wealth of content.
“What we wanted to do is to make sure when we launched it it wasn’t a stunt. That we really had a breadth of content across not just a couple of sports matches,” explained Andrew Olson.
“We have movies, we’ve got entertainment and we’re really trying to launch the broadest service we can, so that it’s something that customers will use all the time, not just a stunt.”
Sky also wants to let the penetration of 4K TVs become deeper, which it surely will as the year unfolds.
There’s no announced timeframe for this right now, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to expect that Sky will want to take the fight to BT, currently the only 4K broadcaster in town, just before the start of the new football season in August – especially with that thinly veiled barb of ‘just a couple of sports matches’ likely referring to BT’s own BT Sport Ultra HD channel.
There is, however, one thing that might affect Sky Q’s Ultra HD chops from a purely technical point of view, and that’s the fact that the Sky Q Silver’s outputs are both HDMI 1.4b, with HDCP 1.2 support. That in itself will only offer 4K resolution running at 30Hz.
Sky has said there will be an update post-launch to support Ultra HD, so if there is a HDMI 2.0 chip in the box and it just needs some firmware intervention we could well be happily moving on to the full 2160p resolution running at 60fps. And for 4K football, that’s what we’ll want.
If not, then it might be a bit of a concern for Sky’s premium 4K package.
We’ve reached out to Sky for clarification on whether the Sky Q Silver is going to be capable of the full HDMI 2.0 4K support of 60fps playback, but the company won’t go into specifics about its plans for the Ultra HD service until closer to launch.
It does worry us a little that there’s no reassurance that Sky’s boxes will definitely be able to nail the best in 4K video.
The top-tier Silver box isn’t the only Sky Q hardware on offer – there will also be a 1TB Sky Q Standard set-top box. This won’t come with any future 4K Ultra HD support, and only contains two blocks of tuners.
With those eight tuners the Standard box is able to record three channels simultaneously, while you can watch a fourth channel live. The fifth tuner looks after the picture-in-picture, the sixth takes care of the data and there’s one tuner each for a single Sky Q Mini box and one tablet connection.
Navigation and usage
This is the first time we’ve actually got our hands on Sky Q. All the initial demonstrations were carried out by trained Sky bods – and we were always told to keep our hands to ourselves.
Our time with Sky Q at its central London show home started with a short demo by Andrew Olson, and then it was all down to us as we got our hands on the new touch remote for the first time.
The new remote is a lot cleaner than the one that’s been in circulation for years. And much better looking than these sci-fi monstrosities…
The key feature of the new design is the responsive touch interface, which accounts for almost a third of the surface area. This sits directly beneath the thumb, and can serve as pretty much your only point of contact when using the remote.
The idea is that you don’t have to spend much time looking at the remote, and can just focus on the TV. And it really is that intuitive – we picked it up and it quickly felt natural thanks to its familiar use of swipes and button presses. Our thumbs have been doing this to our phone screens for years.
You swipe left, right, up or down to navigate around the screen, and the whole surface area is a physical button which you press to select an option. You can also swipe and hold to scroll down a long list or page.
The system responded quickly; there were no occasions when we had to re-try a swipe to get the Sky Q box to register, and it feels remarkably solid for a touch interface.
There are further gesture controls, such as sweeping in from the left to access the last channel you viewed in the mini-guide at the bottom of the screen (which also brings up a basic picture-in-picture mode with its little preview screen).
“What we were really trying for when we started this, I told people: it’s like a 60-inch iPad on the wall, that’s what we’re going for,” explained Olson. “Everything is sort of spatial. I just swipe left and right to go forward and back.”
And that’s pretty much it for the most part. The home and Sky buttons will take you straight to the home screen and recordings screen respectively. Tapping the record button with a program selected will initiate an immediate series link; a second tap will record just a single episode, and a third will cancel all recordings.
It’s all incredibly slick, and thankfully dispelled our earlier concerns – when we were kept well away from the touch remote at launch there was a worry that maybe it wouldn’t be quite the responsive controller we were hoping for.
It’s not just the remote that’s responsive – we zipped around the new, graphically-oriented interface quickly and easily. And we really tried to overload it, shifting back and forth as speedily as our thumbs would allow, and even then it responded admirably.
It’s all very clearly laid out, enabling you to get to where you want to go effectively and intuitively – and all without looking at the remote in your hand.
Not much has changed with the traditional-looking TV guide, but there are big changes when it comes to recordings, searching, and the new My Q page.
Olson explained that the recordings area is where you’ll start to see the major enhancements, and these are based on Sky talking with its customers about how they use the existing Sky+HD boxes.
“By and large the overwhelming usage case is they want to watch ‘the thing I just missed, the thing from last night or yesterday'; it’s the last 24 to 72 hours of recordings,” said Olsen. “So everything is now up at the top, newest at front, and then they’re stacked up by series.”
“The other use case is finding something very specific, ‘but I don’t remember quite when I recorded it’. The obvious thing is kids’ movies. So we’ve got this ability to scroll right to a particular letter of the alphabet and just jump right to the content.”
Another neat feature of the recordings tab is that it will keep you updated on the next episode of a particular show you’ve been watching.
When you finish watching a particular episode of a program, as well as detailing the previous and next episodes in the mini-guide during playback if you have them already recorded, Sky Q will show you when the next episode is being broadcast and when it’s available to watch.
Sky Q, My Q
This also feeds into the My Q pages, where you can keep tabs on the recordings you’ve been watching but have had to dip out of part-way through.
At the top of the My Q page are those part-watched videos, and all you need to do is swipe over to the thumbnail and click the button, and you’ll immediately go back to where you left off.
Sky Q a seriously slick, quick system – but it’s also incredibly powerful when you realise that it’s not limited to just that one box.
All the Sky Q connected devices in the home – whether they be a Sky Q Mini in the bedroom or one of the tablets attached to the network – can connect to the same My Q page to pick up whatever you’ve been watching, wherever you are in the house.
Exactly what you see on the page can differ, though, because My Q offers suggested content depending on what’s been watched on specific devices, and also depending on what time of day it is.
So, for example, you don’t need to worry about what you’ve been watching in the living room after the kids have gone to bed – in the morning they’re still only be offered a healthy diet of cartoons and breakfast news.
Search and ye shall find
The search functionality of Sky Q is where it’s trying to brings together the different ways in which we now consume our TV – live, on-demand or recorded – in one interface.
Using the same alphabetical scrollwheel the recordings screen offers, the search function brings you to a page dedicated to a particular show or movie.
On that page is a display highlighting whether there is recorded or on-demand content available, or when the next live broadcast is going to be so that you can schedule a recording.
It’s also here that you’re offered recommendations for similar content, whether you’re checking out TV shows or movies.
Multi-room and mobile
The raison d’etre of the premium Sky Q ecosystem is to allow greater, and easier, penetration of Sky viewing throughout the home. Right now you need to purchase a whole new SkyHD Digibox and plumb that into your dish, as well as pay a further monthly premium on top of your standard subscription, to get on the multiroom train.
Sky is still keeping pricing close to its chest right now, so we don’t know what it’s going to cost you to go multiroom with Sky Q – or indeed the basic cost of the service. But as Sky Q is set to be the top-tier premium for Sky customers it’s not going to come cheap – so if multi-room is included at no extra monthly cost that would be one hell of a selling point.
Obviously the extra hardware will come at a cost, but the Sky Q Mini boxes are actually relatively basic devices; they have little else to do other than stream content via the dedicated tuner in the base Sky Q boxes.
“The application, if you will, is running from here,” explains Olson while we sit at the end of his faux bed in the bedroom of his faux Sky Q house. “But it gets all of its data from the box downstairs. That’s using one of the dedicated tuners in the Sky Q Silver box.”
There are only HDMI and power connections in the sleek little Sky Q Mini box. There’s not even a physical network point, as the boxes contain Wi-FI connections and the potential for Powerline networking post launch.
“Powerline will probably not be turned on the day we launch,” says Olson. “It will come quickly after. We’re really focused on getting the Wi-Fi perfect for everyone, and then we’ll turn on the Powerline afterwards.”
But even though it’s essentially just a streaming box, the experience of using the Sky Q Mini is practically indistinguishable from using the main box in your living room.
Aside from the more basic, non-touchy remote (the touch surface is replaced by simple arrow and select buttons), it responds just as fluidly as the Sky Q Silver – and we were testing it on a Wi-Fi network with a floor and a few walls between us and the router.
The interface remains the same and you have exactly the same access to content, whether live, recorded or on-demand. You can also control the main box from the Mini too, scheduling recordings at will.
Essentially we couldn’t tell the difference at all. There was no artifacting in the images, nor delay in response.
Just as vital to Sky Q’s new vision of TV is the powerful mobile device performance. At launch it will only be possible to access the platform via an Android or iOS tablet, but phone support will follow soon.
Olsen says tablets were the priority for the simple reason that they were highlighted in Sky’s research as the mobile device most used for viewing video content; phones were mainly used for scheduling.
In the Sky Q home the tablet is no longer just a device for streaming content; it becomes a fully fledged TV. Just as for the Sky Q Mini there’s at least one tuner in the main box (two in the top-of-the-range Silver box) that’s dedicated to delivering the tablet experience.
And as with the Mini, the tablet experience is almost indistinguishable from the TV experience – you have unfettered access to all the elements of Sky Q, but with one important advantage: you can take it outside the home, side-loaded to your tablet.
For the first time practically anything you record on your Sky Q box can be downloaded to your tablet and taken out and about to watch pretty much at your leisure. It’s not quite as seamless as the at-home experience – there are a host of caveats in place – but it’s still a very powerful feature.
“It’s not everything, it’s the majority of content,” said Olsen. “We’ve done deals with basically every content provider. All the pay TV providers are there with the vast majority of the content, the only one that’s not available for the sideload is the BBC.”
The way Sky Q handles the mobile content is impressive too. All the transcoding work is carried out at the point of recording, making it incredibly quick and easy to get the videos out onto your tablet.
“There are two transcoders in Sky Q Silver, one in the Sky Q Standard,” explained Olsen. “As soon as the file recording is done it starts to convert it if the transcoder’s not being used to live stream to a tablet at that moment.
“So as soon as it’s done it’s available to transfer, but since the file has already been converted to both the smaller size and the transcoding’s been done, it’s just a file transfer at the full speed of your Wi-Fi network.”
This downloading feature – being hailed as Q Sync – carries the same restrictions as the downloads from Sky Go Extra. That means content loaded onto your tablet must be viewed within 30 days of download, and within 48 hours of first playing the file. You are also restricted to only being able to copy across recorded or downloaded files twice.
That’s going to be a bit of a struggle when the kids want to watch the Minions movie on every car journey from here until their twenties, but at least Sky is keeping its draconian rules consistent across its services.
Once you have Sky Q you’ll never need to bother with Sky Go again, as the new app replaces it completely. You can even stream content directly from the internet when you’re in the home, bypassing the Sky Q box’s tuner entirely if needed.
We only got to spend a short time playing around in the Sky Q world – a fantasy realm of seamlessly connected media, accessible from practically every screen in your home – but we’re excited about what it offers, and its potential.
None of its features, from its recording, streaming, transcoding capabilities to its device-agnostic stop-and-go video viewing around the home or its multi-room audio chops, are that groundbreaking or even particularly new.
But it’s the first time they’ve all been brought together in such a slick, simple package. Or in such a powerful box. Twelve tuners? Damn…
This is how modern media consumption should be, moving beyond the traditional physical boundaries of TV into a more connected, seamless world.
That touch remote is slick and the on-screen interface modern and responsive – but those things aren’t what have us excited about the potential for Sky Q.
It’s the way it networks around your home, creating an expansive, seamless multi-room experience whether you’re watching on the sofa, on the Mini in the bedroom or on the tablet in the bath.
And, while restricted, the ability to download and go with almost all the content you can squeeze onto your tablet is a bonus too.
We haven’t been able to verify Sky Q’s 4K chops yet, as there are still no demo broadcasts available –and that’s really our only technical concern with the platform. Everything else works seamlessly, but we’re yet to be reassured that the Sky Q Silver will be able to perform its Ultra HD duties at 60fps.
Not all rosy
There are, though, a few almost unnecessary features rolled into Sky Q too. While it’s neat having the Bluetooth functionality of the boxes opened up, the facility to use your TV like a Bluetooth speaker or multi-room audio system is something few folk are likely to take advantage of.
Olsen contends that Sky’s research shows the lounge TV is most likely to be plugged into the best audio system in the house – but if so then it’s also likely to have better ways to play your source audio than via the TV.
Then there are the sidebar apps. Thankfully there are only a few applications included, which squeeze the viewing screen to the side to display things that you would normally just be checking out on your phone, like football scores or Facebook photos.
There’s also no hint that Sky is going to open up its box to enable it become the one place to watch all your media. There may be YouTube and VEVO takeover apps, but the competing TV-streaming big boys of Netflix and Amazon are nowhere to be seen.
That’s not a huge surprise, but there’s still a touch of disappointment in the fact that users are going to have to switch to different devices to get their Jessica Jones fix.
Sky has said it’s open to working with other partners, but we’ll have to wait and see whether that would include such direct competitors.
But the real elephant in the room is the cost of Sky Q.
The fact the new premium platform is going to be supplementary to the existing Sky+ service, which Sky says it’s committed to improving and updating alongside the new setup, has us worried the monthly subscription cost could potentially push well into triple figures.
Hopefully we’re wrong, and Sky won’t demand a monthly premium on top for using Sky Q Mini boxes that you purchase separately, as is the case with Sky’s current multi-room setup. But right now we have zero official word on pricing, or a rollout date.
Those few concerns aside, Sky has succeeded in creating a supremely slick and eminently usable premium TV experience, even if it could be well beyond the realms of what most of us can afford.
It’s modern, responsive and opens up a whole world of content to almost as many screens as you have in – and outside of – your home.