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Sky was the first company to launch a digital television system in the UK, beating terrestrial broadcaster ONdigital -- later known as ITV Digital, and now Freeview -- by around a month and a half. Sky Digital promised improved picture quality, with none of the analogue satellite picture problems, and a massively improved selection of channels. Sky has never looked back, because its digital offering has helped it get into homes that would never have considered analogue satellite TV.
Sky continues to innovate, and is responsible for a massive increase in the high-definition content available in the UK. The company can also now claim to be the first to offer 3D broadcasts. A simple 3D loop channel is running at the moment, but Sky plans to broadcast sport and movies in the format, all using existing HD equipment.
In this review, we'll take a look at Sky's service as a whole, as well as the Sky+HD digital TV recorder.
Standard definition is dead
This year, Sky has totally stopped selling standard-definition boxes for its service. Now, you'll be supplied with an HD-capable box no matter which subscription you go for. The great news is that you're not forced to subscribe to Sky's HD package, but you can upgrade to it later if you want to.
It's worth noting that matters become slightly more complicated if you take a multi-room subscription with a second box. In that case, you're likely to get a slightly different receiver for the second room, depending on what you're prepared to pay for.
It's difficult to actually pin a price on Sky's service, as is the case with Virgin Media's offerings. There are numerous special offers on throughout the year. If you aren't in a rush, then just before Christmas is a good time to bag a deal, as are the periods before certain large sporting fixtures. It's usually the case that you'll get a free box, as long as you haven't had Sky before, and you can often bag free installation if you take a package that includes sports or movies.
It's also well worth signing up to a cashback site like Quidco, which, as we write, will enable you to net as much as £120 when you sign up for Sky online, and £95 for an HD install. The amount fluctuates though. As with all TV services, there's a minimum subscription term of 12 months, designed to recover the cost of your 'free' equipment.
The monthly cost of subscribing to Sky varies, depending on which channels you want. The most basic option, with the Sky+ box (basically a Sky+HD box without the HD package) and the 'variety' entertainment pack, costs £30 to set up and £18 per month thereafter. Additional 'packs' cost £1, or you can have them all for £23. If you want movies, then expect to pay another £16 per month. Adding Sky Sports 1 and 2 costs an additional £18. If you want everything, then set aside £48.50 per month. Channels like ESPN are also available for an extra £12 a month.
Our first gripe about Sky's service is that it costs an extra £10 per month to get the HD versions of your channel package. Sky deserves plenty of credit for spearheading take-up of HD in the UK, but we think this is too pricey. According to Sky's viewing figures, it has more than 2m subscribers to its HD package, which means it's getting £20m a year off the back of HD. We do appreciate that getting HD up and running represents a substantial investment, though, so we aren't too cross with Sky. But, in the long term, we think the HD fee should either be halved or dropped completely.
To conclude a long and complicated waffle about Sky's pricing structure, expect to pay £58.50 a month for all the channels in HD.
Installed in a flash
Sky sent its VIP installers to set us up. This isn't a service that's offered to normal customers unless they pay, but we've experienced a standard installation too. Both were done with skill and left our dwellings undamaged. The dish will be mounted in a place that gives it a good line of sight to the satellite, but will also be located as close as possible to your viewing room.
It only takes about an hour to get everything set up in an average terraced house. Non-standard installations might cost slightly more, but we've always found that installers will do their best to get you a result you're happy with. As usual, being pleasant to them and providing a cup of tea will boost their willingness to help you out.
Once the hardware is in place, the Sky engineer -- or a nominated third-party installer -- will talk you through the service. Ours explained how the Anytime catch-up TV service works, making us aware that we wouldn't see anything until around 48 hours had elapsed and the box had received some overnight content. The engineer also explained that the Sky box would take a while to update itself at first.
Box speed and stability
Our Amstrad-built Sky+HD box was extremely snappy when responding to our button presses. In terms of both speed and the stylishness of the interface, it leaves Virgin Media's V+ HD box for dead. Sky recently redesigned its electronic programme guide to take advantage of the HD box, and we're very impressed with it. Finding shows is very easy, and setting up recordings is super-simple. You can even search listings to find what you're looking for -- something that saves much tedious scrolling around.
The box we tested wasn't immune from crashing, but it only did so a couple of times when we were actually using it. We'd also sometimes switch it on only to find that it would be on channel 999 -- Sky's information channel -- which is a sure sign that it had reset itself. But, overall, we had very few problems. Anything that does go wrong can be fixed with a reboot. We can't say that about Virgin's hardware -- problems often need to be fixed by an engineer.
One of the most impressive features of Sky's service is also one of the least well publicised. Via its Web site, Sky allows all owners of Sky+ boxes to schedule recordings of shows they might have forgotten to set up via their set-top box. This means that, no matter where you are in the world, as long as you have Internet access, you can trigger your Sky box to start recording. There's also provision for mobile-phone apps too, which makes scheduling a recording even easier when you're out and about.
We tested this functionality, recording a movie on FX HD. The process went without a hitch. It's suggested that you give the box at least 30 minutes' notice before you start recording -- otherwise it might not have been sent the appropriate signals from Sky HQ to set it going.
More storage available
Sky's standard HD box has 500GB of storage, which sounds like plenty, but half of that capacity is unavailable to end users. This is because the Anytime service uses 250GB to store a selection of Sky's programming for you to watch on demand.
If 500GB isn't enough, Sky will sell you an upgrade to a 1TB box for £250. It's actually a 1.5TB box, though, so you'll have 1TB of space available to store your TV shows, with the remaining 500GB assigned to Anytime.
Anytime is Sky's competitor to Virgin's superb on-demand TV service. What makes Virgin's on-demand service so good is its inclusion of BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD. Sky has neither the rights nor the technical ability to offer access to these yet, so Anytime is just a mix of content from Sky One, Sky Arts, and the movies and sports channels.
Considered in isolation, Anytime is actually very good. It lets you try programmes you wouldn't normally watch, and there's plenty of good content to enjoy. It's worth noting that Sky will soon launch a proper on-demand service that uses the Ethernet jack on the back of the Sky+HD box to get video over the Internet.
Standard-def image quality
Sky's standard-definition image quality varies wildly. As a rule, if the channel name includes the word 'Sky', then it's a fairly safe bet the picture will look good. If the name includes the word 'ITV' followed by a number, expect the crushing disappointment of a TV picture that looks like it's travelled forward in time from the 1940s, been coloured in by a monkey with crayons, and then been made into a jigsaw puzzle by a five-year-old child with a pair of blunt scissors. This isn't Sky's fault though -- companies can lease their capacity directly from the satellite operator Astra, and opt to use less bandwidth than is optimal, which ITV does.
The good news is that the channels you really pay for, like Sky One, Sky Sports and Sky Movies all look top-dollar, even in standard definition. An upgrade to HD is always worthwhile, though, for reasons we'll explain below.
HD picture quality
We've got to take our hats off to Sky -- its HD content is the best in the UK, and represents the company's main advantage over rivals like Virgin Media and BT Vision. Because Sky makes a huge number of its own programmes, it can opt to provide them in HD. It imports those that it doesn't make itself from the US, where heaps of HD content is available. The upshot is that there are plenty of great TV shows, movies and sports programmes in HD on Sky, and they look terrific.
Sky uses 1080i as its broadcast system of choice. It's fairly generous with bandwidth for its own channels, meaning you never have to put up with a less-than-perfect picture. One of Sky's HD channels -- Sky Movies Action -- uses an entire transponder-worth of bandwidth, making for a seriously impressive picture. Whatever you're watching, though, the HD material on this box is really impressive, and we're grudgingly forced to admit that it's worth the extra £10 a month to get it.
Sound also gets a boost, with soundtracks for most movies, sport programmes and imported shows being broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1. It's slightly annoying that not all UK-originated content, especially that on Channel 4 and ITV, is produced in proper 5.1-channel surround sound -- often it's simply a stereo feed, with Dolby Pro Logic multiplexed in. Don't worry, though -- the big shows from the BBC, like Doctor Who, have glorious 5.1-channel sound, as do imports like House and Stargate Universe.
Dolby Digital and HDMI
As with virtually every other company making set-top boxes, Sky's hardware is currently totally incapable of outputting Dolby Digital over HDMI. This means that you'll need to run either an optical or coaxial digital connector to your AV receiver to get the best-quality surround sound.
While this problem isn't a deal-breaker, it is a royal pain in the behind, and we honestly can't see why it hasn't been fixed yet. Sky says it may alter its hardware to allow for this feature in the future, but existing boxes will be stuck with the current system that requires two cables to get proper surround sound. Boo and, additionally, hiss.
Video on demand
Sky's Achilles heel comes in the form of its catch-up-TV and video-on-demand capability. It doesn't really have the ability to offer the former -- aside from material offered on the Anytime service -- but it makes a reasonable attempt at the latter. Sky's pay-per-view system has a number of dedicated movie and event channels that allow you to purchase one-off viewings.
Movies work on a rotating system, with several channels dedicated to each film. In doing this, Sky can offer what's known as a near-video-on-demand (NVoD) service. Put simply, you shouldn't have to wait more than 15 minutes for a standard-definition film to start. Less popular movies will have less frequent start times, and HD movies don't seem to have anywhere near as many showings.
We are, however, pleased to see that HD movies are charged at the same rate as their SD brethren. Taking into account Sky's monthly HD fee, we suspect charging more might end in a revolt. We'd like to see more HD selections, and we're sure this will happen with time. Expect to pay around £4 for a movie, although lower-cost deals appear from time to time.
3D available for free
If 3D is your bag, then Sky might be even more worthy of your attention. The company has already started shooting football matches in the format, and it's intending to add more and more content over the coming years. At the moment, to get access to the 3D channel, all you need to do is call the subscriber centre, and you'll be given access to it. The channel is currently free to HD subscribers but that will almost certainly change when Premier League football starts in earnest once more.
Sky won't turn this service on unless you confirm that you have 3D equipment though. While we're sure it's possible to tell Sky a porkie, the company does this to make sure that you don't end up thinking your Sky box is broken.
Lots of dross
It's not our job to tell you what to watch, but it's worth pointing out that there is a great deal of nonsense on Sky. From channels trying to sell you fake-diamond-encrusted horse faeces to networks that show only the most unpopular TV shows from the '70s and '80s, there really is a wealth of stuff available from Sky that's utterly terrible.
That said, some people must be watching these channels, and there's plenty of capacity on the Astra satellites to handle all sorts of nonsense. We should really just say that it's all part of life's rich tapestry, but part of us wishes you could easily remove these channels for good.
Sky doesn't have the luxury of a high-speed network connection so that it can offer video-on-demand content to its customers, like Virgin does. On the other hand, it does have more hi-def TV channels than competitors, and the best premium channels in the UK. It's also committed to adding new services and offering people new and exciting ways to access its content. Sky Player, which we haven't touched on in this review, is a good example of this, offering streaming TV over the Internet to subscribers. Sky is also planning a true VoD service that should launch this year, offering catch-up TV and pure on-demand movies.
If you love sport, movies and TV in general, then Sky is the logical choice for you. We were very impressed by the service, which the company has continually improved, and we think it represents pretty decent value for money, although that extra HD fee is annoying.
Edited by Charles Kloet