Hands on preview: 4K ready Sky Q remixes the future of TV

posted on Tuesday, 26th January 2016 by Steve May

4K  Streaming  Broadcast  Sky Q 

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Sky aims to reinvent the pay TV experience with its new Sky Q platform. Unlike regular Sky+, Sky Q mashes satellite delivered content (still the best way to deliver a consistent, premium high-quality TV signal) with the power of IP delivery and throws in content apps for good measure.

After an initial preview last year, we’ve now had an in-depth play with the system, and managed to look a little deeper into the system’s mechanics - and it’s certainly impressive. But expect to pay  for the technology. Entry level monthly subs start at £54, rising to £88.50 for sports and movies.

At the heart of Sky Q is the Silver set top box. Despite being half the size of the latest Sky+ HD box, it packs a 2TB drive, has 12 tuners and is 4K ready. The HDMI output on the Silver is v2.0, but will be firmware updated to v2.0a to support HDR (High Dynamic Range) content. It can record four channels simultaneously, as well as support connected Sky Q Minis, which are client devices with no local storage.

It also transpires there’s a Standard HD Sky Q PVR, with 8 tuners, although the company has said little about this budget option (hiding it from view in the proverbial loft. This has a 1080p chipset, with broadcasts 1080i max). The ecosystem also includes a router/hub for those taking Sky broadband, and a Wi-Fi signal booster.

The box is also AirPlay compatible and Bluetooth enabled. Bluetooth is used for the Q Touch remote but can also be paired with a smartphone or music player. This is quite possibly the first ever licensing of AirPlay for a non-speaker device, and adds some great functionality, especially if the main STB is connected to a home cinema/sound system.

Sky Q Director of Product Planning and Design Andrew Olson told Inside CI: “I've had parties at my house where I've a Silver STB in the living room, a Sky Q Mini in the kitchen and a Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air in the yard, and I was sending the same music to all of them.”

For Android users, there are a number of apps which support AirPlay natively. They can also stream via Bluetooth. “There's even an app for Windows, called AirFoil, which will send streams from Windows as AirPlay,” adds Olson.

Main Menu (1)

My Q

Usability to a leap beyond traditional Sky. Recordings on the box list the most recent at the top, but there's also an A-Z. You can jump direct to recordings using this. Voice search is planned, but it's not active at launch. One key new feature is My Q. This presents new series with  personal recommendations, while a Continue function allows you to pick up shows where you left off. My Q will automatically record the next episode of a show you were watching. Cleverly, if it's an on demand asset, it still shows up, but with a download icon.

Personal recommendations are based on viewing patterns, per device. Each Sky Q box collects non-identifable viewing data, stamped with the box ID. This is then uploaded into a recommendations engine. So each box gets its own unique recommendations.

Multiroom streaming is a major part of Sky Q’s appeal. What was an awkward bolt-on for Sky+ here becomes fully integrated. The Mini uses a keypad based IR remote, unlike the Bluetooth Q Touch zapper on the main box. It's fully compatible with the Q Touch though, which is an optional upgrade.

The Mini elegantly replicates the user interface of the main STB, as do partnering apps for iOS and Android, and allows you to access recordings directly. You can set recordings on the Mini, but they’re stored on the main box. All content streams over Wi-Fi. At launch, the Mini will not offer Powerline. It’s another a TBA feature. “We're going to turn that on sometime after launch,” we were told.

Sky Q Silver - With Remote - Crop (1)

The much debated Sky Q Hotspot functionality is only available if you use the system with a Sky router. If you have a BT or Virgin router, for example, the Q box will connect over 2.4GHz or Ethernet. It then creates its own private network over 5GHz between the Silver and any Minis. You can also connect the devices over 5GHz, but the video stream remains a private channel between devices. The 2.4GHz and 5GHz chips in the units are completely separate and concurrent. 

One key point with potentially huge ramifications for power users is that the Mini is unable to play 4K recordings from the Silver box. That's because the Mini chipset only supports HD. “We don't think this is a problem as the penetration of 4K is so low,” says Sky’s Olson, “but you can imagine over time there will be a version of this that will support 4K but as of right now this is exactly the same as the Sky Q standard PVR. It has the same chipset.” Indeed, any 4K recordings on the planner of the main box will not appear on the Mini at all.

Context Menu

So how does this work in larger residences? A little awkwardly it seems. “We do have a path where we can install multiple Silvers, but only one Silver can act as a master for Minis,” explains Olson. “The others will act as traditional PVRs, they will be an island unto themselves. They'll be able to record and playback their own content, but they won't be able to share or watch shared content.”

It seems those with communal dish facilities would require an entirely new wideband LNB and signal routing infrastructure to accommodate Sky Q. It’s difficult to imagine this will be practical in the short term, but where there's a will there's probably a way...

Overall the system works beautifully, although the Q Touch Bluetooth takes a bit of getting used to – my swipes just didn’t seem navigate the box reliably. The user interface, which is rich in thumbnails and programme art, looks gorgeous and the recommendation engine and contextual menus (pictured above) are wonderful.

Installations for the system will begin at the end of February. Sky Q Silver bundles (one Silver and one Mini) are £54 a month without Sports or Movies, or £88.50 with. The initial setup charge for a Silver STB and Mini is £99 (rising to £299 if you don't subscribe to Sport and movies/or broadband). If you opt for an HD Sky Q box with Mini, it’s a £99 set-up (£249 without extras). Additional Minis have a £99 setup charge each. Sky tells us there will be no additional subscrption cost for a second Mini, beyond the £99 fee. 

Sky is promising a comprehensive bouquet of UHD channels later this year, so expect an additional subscription as and when.

Also read:
The real cost of upgrading to Sky Q revealed

Steve May

Steve is a veteran of the UK consumer electronics industry, having covered it for
various media outlets for more than 20 years.

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