The future of TV is here, but is it worth the price?
FOR Great content; slick design; multi-room TV really works AGAINST Expensive; some features seem a little niche
Sky Q is the biggest overhaul Sky has given to its package since it introduced Sky+, aiming to do for television what Sonos did for music – 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.
They‘ve got the look
The Q boxes are easily the most attractive Sky has ever produced. The 2TB Silver box befits the premium price you’re paying, both in appearance and build quality, 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 will output Dolby Digital over HDMI if it’s selected.
There’s no doubt this is the bestconnected 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, however, each box works as a wi-fi hotspot.
Using the Mini boxes is almost identical to using the main one. The interface 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, although our original ipad Mini lags a little when scrolling through the EPG. Our ipad Pro had no such problems.
Sky is keen to point out that the system also allows you to stop watching a show on one TV and pick it up on another screen elsewhere. You can, and it works
“The Sky Q Silver box works as a hub. You can watch four channels live and record a fih all at once. It’s just a case of finding enough screens”
seamlessly, but it’s not really something we’ve ever had any cause to use.
Fluid Viewing extends outside 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.
While the Silver box is capable of receiving Ultra HD, it wasn’t available at the time of testing. It is scheduled to be ready in time for the start of the Premier League season (a week after this magazine went to press), but for most, HD will be good enough right now.
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 that you’ll watch 99 per cent of the time quality is excellent, particularly on Sky’s own. 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 blessed with a pleasantly rich colour balance. Contrast levels are good, with deep insight into dark scenes and plenty of punch in brights. Motion handling is smooth and mostly stable.
Importantly, the quality on the extra boxes and tablets dotted around the home is excellent too, despite no direct connection to the satellite. 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.
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.
When it comes to music, on its own it will never replace a proper stereo system or even a decent Bluetooth speaker but you can 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 experience problems early on too. But a software upgrade, which should be available across the board 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
“The quality on the extra boxes and tablets dotted around the home is excellent too, despite no direct connection to the satellite dish”
naturally rests under your thumb. Swipe left, right, up and down to navigate Q’s redesigned menu, and push it to select a channel, download a show or confirm a setting. Simple.
That user interface 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, and the crescent-shaped area above it is perfectly placed for the fast-forward and rewind functions it offers.
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 handset that’s identical except for a set of standard directional buttons in place of the touch panel. It’s this style of remote you get with the Minis.
Netflix’s original content grabs the headlines these days, but you can’t argue
“That user interface makes the old Sky+ EPG look antique, and using the touch panel to swipe around its menus soon becomes second nature”
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 sometimes feels like Sky is trying a bit too hard to be ‘down with the kids’.
Managing the competition
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 animal.
The number of possible package permutations is dizzying, but the most basic Sky Q Silver is £54 per month, plus £99 for installation – that’s £18 per month more than a basic Sky HD package. That set-up fee rises to £299 if you don’t sign up for the Sport and/or Movies package (both together is an extra £34.50 a month, just movies is £17, just sports £25.50), or commit to Sky Broadband. For that you get only one Mini box, to add a second it’s another £99. Plus you don’t get to keep the boxes if you decide not to renew.
Kit that can keep up
If you're thinking of upgrading to Sky Q right 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 from in a one-bedroom flat.
But as an overall package, Sky Q feels utterly contemporary, combining almost every way of watching television and allowing you to access each of them all over your home (and, to an extent, outside it). This is as good as TV gets – if you can bear the not-inconsiderable cost.
We think the box design is Sky’s smartest effort yet. Nicely finished, too
On the side of the remote control is a small button with a microphone logo. Sky is planning to enable a voicecontrol feature further down the line