Right from its launch we reckoned the new Sky Q system sounded like just what we needed at the Automated Home so we placed our order the first day it became available. It’s been 10 days since it was installed, so is this the 21st Century TV experience we were hoping for or is it all a bit of a let down?
Our engineer turned up around 9:30am and was perturbed to hear we were a BT Internet house. The next 5 minutes were spent on the trials and tribulations of a Sky installer especially on how it works fine with Sky routers but everything else is a “lottery.”
When I mentioned we wanted to by-pass the whole wireless thing completely and go the hard-wired route with the builtin Ethernet ports he admitted he had no idea how to set that up or even how a LAN worked.
Worst of all he told us he was only allotted 85 mins to do our entire system – fit new dish and LNB, install the main Sky Q Silver box and 3 Sky mini boxes, perform software updates etc. He’s expected to do 7 installs a day!
The engineer was a great guy, he worked super fast replacing our near 20-year-old rusty dish with a new one (normally you only need to change the LNB for Sky Q). The new set up was tested at the LNB and then again at the end of our cables – all green lights.
The Sky Q Silver Box
Our old Sky+ 1TB box was removed and the skinny new Q DVR slid into its place under the Mac mini and Sonos. It looks good in black although you can skin it in a variety of ways. Remember if you are upgrading from an existing Sky system you will no longer have access to the recording or season passes on your old box. Our engineer told us he hadn’t fitted any of the regular (non-Silver) Q systems.
The Silver box is the brains of the whole operation and from what we can find out its 12 tuners are shared out across the home to the other devices something like this:
- 4 Tuners for Recording
- 1 Tuner for Live TV on the Silver Box
- 2 Tuners for Live TV or Recordings on the Minis
- 2 Tuners for Live TV or Recordings on the Tablet App
- 1 Tuner for the TV Guide
- 1 Tuner for PIP on the Silver Box
- 1 Tuner for future use (4K?)
Its 2TB’s can store up to 350 hours of HD TV (there’s around 300GB reserved by Sky for other uses). Round the back there’s a S/PIDF optical audio out but full Dolby Digital audio is available over the HDMI cable now. There are a couple of USB ports and an HDMI IN for future use.
The Silver box will get a software upgrade to enable Sky’s 4K service coming later this year (50fps 2160p UHD output utilising HDMI 2.0 and HDCP2.2). The non-Silver Q box and the mini boxes will stay at 1080p. I’ve noticed some regular Sky channels have very, shall we say ‘average’ picture quality these days. I don’t know much about how these things work but it makes me wonder is Sky compressing channels even more to squeeze the maximum out of each transponder, making room for the 4K channels?
Things are very different here, mostly for the better. The UI has a much more contemporary feel and it looks really bright, crisp and sharp. The old Backup button has gone and you mostly need to use the left arrow for equivalent action, plus the new Dismiss button.
It’s easy to see what’s downloading (box sets, purchases and on-demand) and you can easily pause the queue. Un-deleting items is a breeze too as is picking up from where you left off on your shows from the My Q section. The ‘For You’ section of My Q is supposed to recommend shows but after 10 days it still says it’s learning what I like.
One real annoyance is that the Home button takes you to the ‘Top Picks’ section rather than the TV Guide we all want to see.
There’s an inconsistency between the apps and the TV UI as to how the season pass is represented that could confuse newcomers. On the app it is represented with a circle around the R, and by a green bar with arrows at each end on the TV.
If you have episodes of a show from several different seasons, helpfully they are now split and shown in separate folders.
After just a few days of use I really like the new UI.
The main Q box comes with 2 remotes, a regular IR one and a new Bluetooth touch one. I’m usually an advocate for all the latest tech, but I’m still undecided on the swipey bluetooth Sky Q touch remote. It takes a bit of getting used to, for example you may feel you can press the top, bottom and side of the touch pad to navigate screens but there’s only one result of pressing the pad – Select – everything else needs to be a light swipe.
Like the new Apple TV remote, if you touch the swipe pad the wrong way when picking it up you can easily jump away from your place during playback. In addition to having to train your muscle memory to use this new remote you also have to switch back to the old button way when using the other style of remote on all the mini boxes in the bedrooms. Hmm. You can buy the Bluetooth remote for your mini’s too if you like it (£40) but if Sky wanted us to get used to this remote they should have supplied them for all the boxes. On the upside Bluetooth means it works without being pointed directly at the box and even works in adjoining rooms.
There’s a dedicated Search Button to find your shows and recordings, but it’s a bit of a chore to key in text. It will be much easier once the phone apps arrive and a voice search feature is due to be turned on in an upcoming software update (Bluetooth remote only).
TIP: Although not immediately obvious, the Sky logo at the top of each remote is actually a button that takes you straight to your recordings which is very useful.
Sky Q Mini
From the main Sky Q box your live channels and recordings are sent via IP either over WiFI or in our case wired Ethernet, to the Sky Mini boxes around the home.
The Silver package comes with a single mini box and we ordered 2 more for a total of three. Currently there’s no self-install option for these minis so you’ll pay a £50 installation fee on top of the £99 cost of each box if you order more after your install.
You can have 4 minis on one Q Silver system, (none on the non-Silver Q box) but you can only use 2 simultaneously. This seems a strange limitation as you are able to use 2 tablets as well as the 2 minis, although presumably they use a lower bit rate. Hopefully this limit will be relaxed in the future as in our house we definitely have times where all 3 boxes could be used at once. For now you get a message when the maximum number are in use and you have to get a family member to switch theirs to standby to let you use yours – or watch on a tablet instead.
Up until now we have always distributed our Sky around the house using the RF modulator built into the old Sky+ Box, so to suddenly see sharp 1080p on our bedroom telly is fantastic.
The Mini’s remotes are easily setup to control your TVs volume. Other useful features include pressing the Home button to turn on your TV as well as the box and a long press of the standby button to turn your TV off too.
The UI to choose your channels and recordings on the minis is identical to the main box. A nice enhancement here would be to allow each mini to filter its own recordings.
Fluid Viewing is Sky’s marking moniker for pausing your telly in one room and picking it up in another and this works well.
If you’re a Sky Broadband customer, then each mini box becomes a wireless access point (2.4GHz and 5GHz b/g/n/ac) expanding the coverage of your WiFi using this AirTies mesh network. If (like us) you have a different broadband provider then this feature is disabled.
The system also has builtin Powerline Networking hardware to send your AV packets across your mains wiring, but strangely this is currently disabled.
Tablets & Apps
You can watch live channels and your recordings with the Sky Q app on an iOS or Android tablet. This works great in our house and now it’s easy to take Sky to the bath!
Rights management issues rear their ugly head here though. Try to watch a BBC on demand show on your tablet and you’ll get a message telling you that you can’t do that. But record the same show yourself instead of downloading it and it plays fine. Wait, what? The BBC only want you to watch on-demand from their own iPlayer app. That’s just nuts Auntie.
You can copy shows to your tablet to view when you are away from home. I was able to confirm from my router traffic that shows sent from my Sky Q box to my tablet were actually downloaded from the Internet instead of coming across my LAN. It looks like your recordings are really sent from the Sky Go platform to your tablet so it’s worth checking you have plenty of data (or and unlimited bundle) with your home broadband contract.
The apps also disable the option to output the tablets display to a TV. So you can’t get round the 2 TV mini limit by hooking up your iPad or Android tablet to your telly.
There’s currently no phone app for Sky Q, although they are confirmed for release sometime later this year. For now you can use the old Sky+ app to schedule recordings and catchup downloads, but you cannot see your planner or watch live TV or recordings like with the tablet app. It seems a pity that Sky couldn’t have had the phone apps ready for the launch of the system, we all carry a phone, not a tablet. It’s another indication that Sky Q has been launched before being fully baked.
So far there’s no way to watch Sky Q on a PC or Mac (the way you can with Sky Go) and no word if that’s coming later. Personally I’d far rather watch on my MacBook than a tiny tablet screen with a wheezy speaker.
In the end our engineer spent well over 2 hours on our installation. That’s without any of the wireless pain that many of his other installs entailed. Sky promise Q customers a special experience, but they’re putting far too much pressure on their hard working engineers, due to both lack of training as well as giving them too little time to do a good job.
It’s still very early days for Q and most of the issues discussed on their forums are related to WiFi problems. But we’ve not seen a single issue using Q via the good old CAT5 cables we buried in our walls in 1999.
Like many similar tech products released, Sky Q is a bit of a work in progress at launch. There are lots of little improvements that need to be made, but I’ve no doubt many of them will come over time.
There are other features here we haven’t even got into like Airplay and Bluetooth music playback.
It’s a shame Sky won’t allow apps like Netflix and Amazon Video on the Q and Mini’s which would make this the only system most of us would ever need.
Pricing is a bit opaque but Sky say the typical ongoing monthly cost for existing Sky+ customers will be around £12 extra (as it was for us), while new customers can get on board from £42. In addition we paid £299 up front costs plus a £50 installation fee. Not cheap then, but we feel you get what you pay for here.
The Sky Q Silver system provides the benefits of an expensive matrix switcher setup and actually gives more functionality in most use cases. Before Sky Q arrived family members in our house would have to check with one another if they were using Sky before they’d be able to watch a live channel or one of their recordings. Now we just watch what we want, when we want to.
Bottom line? Sky Q has changed the way we watch TV for the better and I think it’s fantastic!
+ HD across the house
+ Multiroom with Full Sky Experience in each location
+ 4K UHD Support this year
+ Record 4 shows at once while watching a 5th
+ Watch live channels or recordings on your tablet
+ Huge 1.7 TB Capacity for your recordings
+ 1 Remote to operate TV & Sky
– Currently limited to simultaneous 2 mini boxes
– Waiting for Phone apps to arrive
– Engineers need more time and training