Sky Q is quite unlike anything Sky has offered previously. Instead of a system built around set-top boxes, Sky Q is all about streaming TV throughout your home.
What this means is that whether you're in your living room watching your main television, or in your bedroom with a smartphone or iPad, you can still get the same Sky experience.
This isn't the first time Sky has tried the multi-room approach. Previously its multi-room package spread Sky channels throughout the house with a network of installed set-top boxes. More recently, its Sky Go app appeared on Xbox and PlayStation, meaning that you could have multi-room, through the web, without having to get a Sky engineer in.
Then there was the introduction of its contract-free streaming option Now TV. All of these are good services in their own right but they are silos – they don't connect with each other.
Sky Q is the connective tissue for its television service and it is something that has been sorely needed. Since the launch of Sky HD a decade ago, the broadcast game has significantly changed.
It is now fighting against a number of content providers, namely BT, Netflix, Amazon and Virgin. Business models at Sky are being re-evaluated because of this. It's tougher than ever to sell content 'packages' – consumers are looking toward all-you-can-eat non-contract offerings.
Sky Q is a premium offering, there's no doubt about it, but it's successfully offering something quite unique. No one else has the same 4K library as Sky, and by the end of the year we're expecting this to be joined by support for the high-end Dolby Atmos sound format.
But what is Sky Q like to use? We've tested the system inside and out, read on for our full impressions.
Design and setup
Sky has always been a step ahead with technology, however. And Sky Q is packed with cutting-edge ideas – some of which Sky customers won’t even see for the first couple of months. Sky Q feels like a package that is one step ahead of what the customer wants, and Sky will want it to be that way for years to come.
Sky Q is completely connected – each box you add to the system speaks to each other so if you have recorded something on the main box downstairs, then you will be able to access it upstairs. If you are mid-watching something then the idea is you can pause (as long as it has been recorded or is being recorded), then pick up from where you left off anywhere in your home, thanks to the inclusion of an iPad app.
There are two options with Sky Q. The version we reviewed was the more premium Sky Q 2TB option but there is a 1TB box that can still take advantage of the Fluid Viewing experience, but isn’t quite advanced.
The standard Sky Q box offers 1TB of storage, the ability to record three things at once and watch a fourth, and you can also stream to one tablet. Both boxes also act as a Wi-Fi hotspot. Sky Q premium 2TB box ups the storage, can record four things and also watch a fifth and you can stream to two tablets.
There’s no difference in size when it comes to the main boxes. They both measure 232 x 155 x 34mm, which is a severe reduction in footprint when compared to the current HD box – which varies in size depending on the makers of the box but the biggest measures a chunky 398 x 283 x 81mm.
These main boxes are part of a bigger mesh network. The network is powered by a new Sky Hub that offers dual-band wireless 5G technology.
Creating its own mesh network means that there’s no additional pressure on your normal Wi-Fi connection. In fact, it will help Wi-Fi flow better through your home as each box you add to your Sky Q setup also acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The technology behind this mesh network is being provided by AirTies. According to this company, the service allows 10 premium video streams simultaneously from multiple sources including live broadcast, recorded on PVR, OTT from the internet or from a local NAS server.
Sky Q installation
To review Sky Q, we were given a bundle that included a 2TB Sky Q box, two Sky Q mini boxes and a Sky Hub. The Sky Q mini boxes have a similar design to the hub, meaning that they are even smaller than the main Sky Q system.
The reason they are smaller is because they only stream the content from the main box – all recordings are made on the main box, then mirrored to each Mini box.
As with all Sky setups, a Sky engineer will have to come around your house – and be warned, setting up will take longer than normal Sky.
Not because it is more complicated to do – getting the boxes to speak to each other is a little fiddly but the software side of the setup process has actually been shortened – but because they will want to talk you through all the new features. Of which there are plenty. Oh, and they’ll need to make changes to the dish itself.
If we were you, we would make sure you do the following before the setup takes place: keep a note of your current series linked recordings and binge-watch as much as you can on your current Sky setup.
This is because, all of your current saved programmes will be lost. Sky has no way of replicating the programmes you have on a HD box and porting them over. Thankfully this isn’t too much of a pain. We saw it as a programme purge, given the amount of shows that were gathering dust on our HD box.
While it’s not a pain, it is frustrating. We can understand that once you figure out a way to open up the Sky HD hard drive, it will be a gift to hackers but the amount of advanced technology on show with Sky Q, you would think the billion pound company would have figured out a way to help its users.
In total, the installers – there were two, Sky is still finessing how it installs this new system – were in the house for two hours.
Sky actually replaced my entire satellite dish. People with newer dishes won’t have to have the whole dish replaced, just a new LNB (Low Noise Block Downconverter to give it its fancy name).
Once this is done, Sky hooks your system up with the hub and figures out the best way to map the devices in your house – this is the longest part of the installation, as Sky need to make sure that nothing interferes with television signal and vice versa.
As mentioned before, each box you install in this modular system then acts as a hotspot. So even if your internet connection isn’t the best, Sky will make the best of it with its new technology. The hub makes use of the 5GHz band as well, so it really doesn’t interfere with any gaming or movie streaming you may want to do while watching television.
One of the key features mentioned at the launch of the Sky Q system was that the boxes would try to use regular Wi-Fi to connect your mesh together, but when the signal was too poor courtesy of multiple stories or just extra solid walls, it had the neat ability to use your power lines.
Somewhat frustratingly this feature is not currently enabled. So if you have a concrete house – like one of the reviewers – you will have to either accept holes in walls and more cables, or a Wi-Fi extender.
It’s a shame that the feature isn’t available at launch and it’s something you should actively think through if you are looking to put in multiple boxes and you have already had problems with the Wi-Fi reach in your house.
Sky Q remotes
The new Sky Q box also comes with a brand-new controller. Actually, it comes with two. It has a touch controller that’s half the heft of the traditional Sky remote and a Bluetooth non-touchy variant.
Sky is bundling them both as it is a little unsure if people will take to the touch one. That’s probably not their official line but that’s what it feels like.
The touch remote is fine. It does take a little getting used to but the touch part – which is situated on the top – is intuitive and it will have you swiping through all the different menus and services in no time.
That said, it’s clearly going to be divisive for many, at least until they have come to adjust to the new system. Of two longer-term testers we spoke to, one actively disliked the touch remote whilst the other loved it – which replicated what our reviewers thought.
And, and this is the most important bit, fast-forwarding is precise enough. We all try and get that perfect sweet spot of forwarding through all of the adverts and hitting Play just before anyone on a show or movie starts to speak and the touch control is capable of doing this with a bit of practice.
If you lose the remote, click the glowing Q on the front of your box for a few seconds and the remote will emit a whistling sound, which you stop by finding the remote and clicking any of the buttons.
Sky Q EPG
To go alongside the hardware change, Sky has completely revamped its EPG for Sky Q. It’s a massive and welcomed change. Gone is the the basic grid, in its place is a swish new vertical setup, with great animations and a more seamless way to mesh both live TV and on-demand.
Even things like how your recordings are stored have been improved. You can view them alphabetically if that’s your thing or dive straight in and see them all with shiny new visual thumbnails.
Multiple recordings of the same show are nested and any recording you have yet to view, has a white dot next to it. Recordings are also ordered from newest first – though you can change to alphabetical if you really want to.
There’s no clicking the ‘i’ button in the EPG anymore, either. Just slide (or click) to the episode you want and all its information is displayed at the top of the EPG grid. The live picture has switched from the top right corner, to the middle of the left panel. This is a sound move, as it means you have around four fifths of the display dedicated to the EPG.
The menu system will be familiar with anyone who has used Sky. There’s sections for movies, sport, the Sky Store, kids and music. Music includes content from video-streaming site Vevo. A new section is Sky Boxsets. Again, Sky is blurring the line between on-demand content and live programming and boxsets offers a whole host of television shows ready to be watched.
Giving boxsets their own section makes them easier to find – this is a theme that’s consistent with the new Sky setup – it constantly tries to offer up new content for you to watch.
One of the new areas is Top Picks. Here Sky touts its wares – there’s a mixture of everything, from things you need to pay for (box office movies were front and centre) to interesting tidbits from other channels. This area isn’t contextual, more a general best-of what Sky currently offers. Top Picks is also the default area the box heads to when you hit Home on the remote – it really really wants you to use this area of the service.
One section you won’t be using much at the moment is Online Video. Even the name of it sounds like your grandad trying to explain the internet.
It’s where you can munch on short-form content from YouTube and the like. It’s a little half-baked, though – unless watching funny short video is your thing. The aforementioned linkup with Vevo in the Music section is a much better way to showcase online video.
There’s also the ability to have a sidebar of apps where you can keep viewing your current programme, but also have information from apps, such as Sky Sports and Sky News.
It feels a little weird to view this sort of information on your TV rather than just using a smartphone or tablet, but Sky has continued to add functionality since launch such as track previews for Formula 1.
Sky has also recently added a ‘goal alert’ system, where you can set a notification to appear on the screen whenever someone scores in a game being shown on another channel.
With a single button press you can then switch to the channel in question to watch the event. This functionality is also being widened into other sports such as Formula One.
Another fun function is the ability to Airplay music through the box. The thinking behind this is, er, sound from Sky – your main TV is usually connected to the best sound system in the house, so why not allow users to stream their music through it.
The UI is remarkably simple to use – but there are some minor oddities that will take some getting used to.
An obvious example is the way the box handles hitting the end of a single recording. On the previous system you would hit Sky to go back to live TV or backup to go to your recordings and then to delete the show. The Sky Q just hits the end and, as far as we can tell, makes you go through the whole menu system, unless you swipe right and go to the last viewed channel and deal with the deletion later.
It’s remarkable that you have to go this granular to pick fault, however, given the sheer level of complexity in terms of the features this is an intuitive and refined experience.
Welcome to My Q
If you want contextual recommendations and to see the heart of Sky’s new system, then My Q is where you need to go. This section is the crux of Sky’s new setup. It’s here where you should be able to pick up any programme you have been watching and play it from where you left off, whether you are watching from the main box, one of the Sky Q Mini boxes or on the iPad.
Most of the time, this works great. But a word of warning: it only works if a programme has been recorded. So, any of your archived shows you can click on them, pause then watch elsewhere. When it comes to live TV, it won’t work if you simply pause it. You have to click record, then pause.
My Q is also the place that tells you (somewhat strangely) what new series are available and gives you contextual programming ideas in the For You section. These are based on other things you are watching but also the time too – so it won’t recommend you watch Mad Max: Fury Road before you have had your breakfast.
Strangely, when there was nothing in my My Q our system did say that there were connectivity issues. This does seem to be a teething issue but it does unnerve you a little.
My Q is also where the new Sky Q app comes alive. The app, which is available for both iOS and Android, is an extension of your Sky Q watching, but most of its functionality is limited to when you’re in the house.
Setup is really quick. Head into it and, so long as you’re connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your box, it’ll take just a few seconds to recognise that there’s a Sky Q setup ready to latch on to.
Once this happens, you are done. Strangely we didn’t actually have to log into the app until we started watching a movie. It looks like the log-in process only actually kicks into gear when you try and view premium content. The log-in is the same as your current Sky account password.
You may have noticed that Sky Go has recently been given a makeover – and its look is very much like the Sky Q app. The design mirrors the new Sky Q setup and is really simple to use.
Unfortunately Fluid Viewing (Sky’s marketing bumf for watching your stuff wherever you want) only works when you are within your home setup, so you can’t watch things in this way on the go.
Instead, much like Sky Go, you download the show or movie to your iOS or Android device – which is another big feature worthy of a deeper look.
‘Side-loading’ to a tablet
Being able to transfer your recordings to your smartdevice is a feature that many have been seeking for years. Catch-up TV and streaming have been around for a long time on multiple services and Sky Go Extra allowed you to go a step further and download an amount of TV and films to your device to watch offline.
But what the Sky Q app does is take this process and make it feel integral to your experience rather than bolted on. It looks and behaves like the main box’s functionality, and when you are out of range of your Q boxes and without a connection the offline functionality is clear and obvious.
Sky has done sterling work in securing a huge amount of content that you can side-load onto your tablet for offline or streaming viewing. It’s not everything – Channel 4 and BT’s content being obvious examples.
When you open the app away from your home you’ll see one of two messages – if you have a connection it will look like this:
Or if you are offline:
The streaming is great – you can watch catch-up for a great deal of content, or any content live streamed.
But it is the offline viewing that’s the real clincher. If you have downloaded programmes or films to your Sky Q app on your device you can watch this even without a connection.
A minor point of note but you will have 48 hours to complete watching. Unlike Amazon’s offline viewing, even if you go back online the licence doesn’t renew.
These recordings sit in their own section and the playback is standard def but fine – with the annoying crappy sound quality of Sky Go solved. On a smartdevice the player is the familiar one, with those big old black bars.
Pricing and bundles
This is where it gets a touch complicated. Sky, for the most part, has always been seen as a premium service. Sky Q adds yet another premium layer. This is a service that, if you buy into it completely, is for those who want the best TV experience around – an experience that will come at a price.
The good news is that it is attainable, even if you haven’t got the wage of a Premier League footballer. Sky Q is a modular system and its pricing reflect this accordingly.
There are, however, setup costs that you need to take into consideration when thinking about Sky Q. Currently the cheapest way to get Sky Q is with a one-off £15 fee for the installation of a standard Sky Q 1TB box.
If you want a 2TB box you’ll need to pay an installation fee of £199 for the 2TB box without Sky Multiscreen, or £60 with.
Sky Q Multiscreen will cost you £12 extra a month, with additional Sky Q Mini boxes costing you £99 each.
Meanwhile existing Sky+ customers will have to pay a £199 setup fee.
There are three tiers of Sky Q on a monthly basis. £20 a month gets you 270 channels, £32 a month gets you 300 channels and 4,500 episodes of kids’ shows, and £38 a month gets you an additional 50 channels, and access to 350 box sets.
There are also Cinema and Sports add-ons that cost you £14.40 and £22 a month extra respectively.
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a box that is at the absolute cutting edge of television technology. It’s brimming with bright ideas, wonderful features (some of which are actually enabled… more below) and yet brought together with a simple, clean and intuitive new user interface which is remarkably quick to fathom.
Sky has invested a lot in this system, emotionally and financially, and it shows. This is, by some margin, the best television box and experience available – knocking competitors like BT and Virgin Media for six, and it’s only getting better as features like 4K viewing and smartphone apps are released.
That means the ‘liked’ list is lengthy. The mini boxes and their WiFi hotspot capability is inspired, the streaming across devices and mini-boxes is more-or-less seamless, the ‘side-loading’ to tablet is fantastic, and everything looks clean, fresh and next-generation.
The lack of Netflix and Amazon Prime really does grate but it does feel like this will be remedied in the coming year or so. And there is no getting around the fact that it is very expensive.
Although we’ve seen the arrival of 4K at phone apps, the continued absence of powerline functionality means that Sky Q continues to feel like a work in progress.
The UI does have a few flaws – but it would be churlish to be too harsh about them at this stage, and we’re hopeful that the Sky Q app will be enabled across a broader swathe of devices as soon as possible.
The package bundle may only be a small jump up from what people are paying now – that is if you have Movies, Sport or broadband with Sky – but the installation costs are very high. Sky will no doubt be doing deals in this area so keep an eye out.
If you want Sky Q, then you will have to really buy into the premise of it, otherwise you will just baulk at these prices.
To be clear: Sky Q is expensive but you are paying for the best television experience on the planet at the moment. It’s slick, speedy and a fantastic mix of both on-demand, recorded and live content.
This point is further driven home by the arrival of the first non-streamed 4K television content.
Where the current Sky platform feels a little bloated with the on-demand offerings – they came after the fact, so that does make sense – Sky Q has been built with on-demand at the heart of the whole service.
The setup is sorely lacking other partners, though. For Sky to truly be the beating heart of the smart home, then it needs to collaborate with the likes of Amazon Prime and Netflix. Not having these services available from launch does hobble Sky Q. No matter how much Sky costs, there are still many who pay extra for these platforms and will want them in one place, through one box – you don’t get this with Sky Q.
But these will come in time and don’t ultimately detract to how good Sky Q is – it’s the best TV experience you can get in the home right now, and it’s almost certainly going to greatly improve in the coming year.