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Sky+HD review: Sky+HD

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The Good Excellent HD picture and sound quality; speedy box; tonnes of channels; heaps of HD content; pay-per-view service is excellent.

The Bad We're upset by the £10 fee for viewing HD; too many channels that don't really deserve to be on the air at all; expensive.

The Bottom Line If you love TV, then it's quite likely that getting a Sky+HD box will be the best decision of your life. Sports fans will find more than they could ever watch while holding down a job, and movie lovers are pretty well catered for too. The hardware is also easy to use and rarely breaks down. There are dozens of useful extra services too, like remote-recording capability. Even if you just take into account the core TV channels, though, Sky is the market leader, offering a very compelling service

9.3 Overall

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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.

Sky's remote is oddly shaped, but comfortable to hold, with a logical button layout

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.

How much?
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 electronic programme guide is slick, both in terms of appearance and usability

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.

Remote recording
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.

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