As the biggest addition to Sky’s all-conquering offering since the introduction of Sky+, Sky Q wants to be the Sonos of TV, allowing you to watch telly all over your house and even take recordings on the road.
It's the Sky Q Silver package that we're testing here, which allows you to simultaneously watch one channel, record four others and stream to either two separate Sky Q Mini boxes (one of which is included in the bundle), two tablets, or one of each. Phew.
You can go with the slightly more affordable, standard Sky Q box, but it has fewer tuners and half the hard-drive space. It can’t stream to as many secondary screens, either, plus - and this one's a biggie - it won’t be able to receive 4K when Sky HQ flicks that big switch later in the year.
Whichever version you go for (it's got to be Silver really, hasn't it?), you'll be shelling out more for an already pricey package – is it really worth it? We put the kettle on, kicked off our winklepickers and sat down on the sofa for a weekend to find out.
It's a setup
David Beckham might’ve been ahead of Stuff in the Sky Q installation, er, queue but as the future king of England we’ll let him off. We were still pretty high up the list, so the engineers were still getting used to the setup process when they paid us a visit, meaning it took a little longer than you might expect. No doubt this will improve as they get more practice.
In the vast majority of cases you won't need a new dish or even new cables: just a small part of your existing dish (called the LNB) needs to be swapped out. In our case, though, Sky's engineers decided we might as well have our super-old dish replaced, and who are we to disagree?
That wasn't even what took a while. In order to stream between boxes, Sky Q creates its own mesh network – a dedicated wireless network that’s separate to the one you use for everything else and therefore avoids interference. It makes placement of each box crucial for maximising speed, and the engineers spent a good couple of hours making sure everything was performing as well as possible. If it means our telly viewing isn't interrupted by other people streaming Netflix or playing Destiny while we're trying to catch up on Last Week Tonight, it's two hours well spent.
If there’s a large gap between your router and the Silver box, and the Minis aren’t spaced out enough to daisy chain the signal, you might need to give the network a bit of help. Ours required Sky to install a booster halfway between the router and the Silver box, which isn’t ideal, but once it was up and running it was as stable as a wired connection, and has remained so ever since.
Even with Sky supplying your broadband, each house is likely to be different, but because Sky includes servicing as part of the Sky Q monthly cost, it's in the company's interest to make sure everything is working as it should be.
The Sky Q Silver (or standard) box forms the heart of the Sky new system and will in all but the rarest of cases be the device that's installed under the telly in the lounge. This is the box that connects directly to your satellite dish and receives all of that lovely digital entertainment, which can then be watched directly or pumped to your Minis and tablets.
It's far sleeker than the +HD box that it replaces, about half as tall and less plasticky, meaning it’ll fit in far more nicely alongside the PS4. There’s Wi-Fi built in and you get a 2TB hard drive inside to fill with recordings and downloads – that’s about 350 hours of HD.
The interface has been completely revamped and is now much more befitting of the Netflix generation, with less reliance on text and more dominant imagery. The main sections are now sorted into a single column and selecting one opens a sub-menu to the right. It feels similar to – and is quite possibly inspired by – the way Apple arranges its menus on iOS: simple, modern and easy to understand.
There are a few new portals that are worth extra mention here. Sitting below Recordings in the main menu is My Q, which is itself split into three sections: Continue, New Series and For You. Continue basically does what you'd expect, highlighting series or shows that you've started but not finished. New Series suggests whole new shows based on what you've previously enjoyed.
For You is much more interesting than both of these, though, because it suggests things that you might like to watch based not only on what you've watched before, but also on what time of day it is. No-one wants to watch The Wire at 7am, so it won't be suggested. And when your nipper comes home from school it'll be the likes of CBeebies that gets highlighted. Then when you settle in for your own TV at 9pm or so, that's exactly what you'll be presented with. And if you've got multiple boxes in the house, each one can have a different set of recommendations based on what's usually watched on that TV at that time.
It's all great in theory, but generating good recommendations means Sky needs time to learn your viewing habits and so far we haven't had the Sky Q setup for quite long enough. We'll update this review once our co-habitation has borne televisual fruit.
It's also well worth highlighting the new Sports section of the Sky Q interface - after all, that is still why a lot of us have Sky in the first place. The Sports portal now allows you to filter by sport if you're a one-sport kind of person, but also allows those who like everything to see all of the live sport coming in the next few days.
And speaking of sport, the new apps panel, which can be accessed picture-in-picture style at any time, looks especially useful for sports fans in that it can be used to keep an eye live scores and the like without interrupting whatever it is that you're watching. Not a sports fan? You can access Sky News, Weather and even your photos (from Facebook) using the same app panel.
The Sky Q Silver box arrives ‘UHD-ready’ but unfortunately the shows aren’t. When they do arrive “later in 2016”, Sky’s 4K channels will cover sports, movies and entertainment. We asked about HDR (high-dynamic range, the contrast-enhancing next-gen tech du jour) and Sky replied: “We always aim to offer the highest picture quality and HDR will be considered once the standards are finalised by the industry". So that's a "no comment" then.
UPDATE 18 March: Sky has now confirmed that 4K content will arrive "this summer" - hopefully in time for the Euro 2016 football championships in France this June or Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Speaking at the Connected TV Summit in London, Sky's Director of Strategy Nick Hern also confirmed that voice control will be coming to Sky Q at some future date.
One last portal that deserves special mention is Online Video. Here you can access specifically optimised versions of the YouTube and Vevo apps, as well as a load of content curated by Sky itself.
This latter feature is rather cool, as it allows for super-quick access to whatever kind of video takes your mood. Tough day at work? Click Quick Laughs and you'll get an instant boost courtesy of a sneezing panda, a child biting another child's finger, or whatever hilarious little internet snippet has recently gone viral.
This is another one of those features, though, that seems rather niche at least at this stage. With a bit more time and some clever curation it could become a neat added extra, but we suspect most people will stick to their phones for cat videos.
It might not be motion sensitive or look particularly premium but the Sky Q Touch remote makes the chunky old one look positively antique. The circular panel under your thumb is used to navigate the menus. Swipe up or down and hold to scroll – the longer you hold for, the faster it goes – or left and right to delve deeper into the menus or come back.
The crescent-shaped panel above it is also touch sensitive – tap in the middle to play/pause, or swipe to either side to fast-forward or rewind. The further you move your finger, the faster it goes. It’s responsive but can be a bit inexact when you’re trying to find a particular spot. It’s hard not to feel like buttons would do a better job of something so precise.
If you lose your fancy new remote, press the Q button on the front of the box and the missing zapper will beep so you can dig it out of its hiding place. Down the back of the sofa, right? It always is. There’s also a tiny hole just under the Sky logo at the top of the remote that houses a microphone. Sadly it’s not for a new interactive karaoke channel but an as-yet-unavailable voice search function.
Every time you press the home button the menu defaults to the Top Picks page. We’d prefer if it opened on the last menu you used but it’s a minor gripe with what’s definitely a suitable upgrade. It’ll also control the telly as well as the box, so you can pretty much retire the one for your TV.
There’s a button at the 4 o’clock position around the remote’s circular touch pad that opens a sidebar of apps to show news and sport headlines, weather, and display photos from Facebook or a Bluetooth-connected device. You’re also able to stream audio over Bluetooth or AirPlay. It all feels a bit gimmicky to us, but it may be of niche appeal, especially if it's further developed. Live Premier League scores from across the league while you watch one game live could be handy, for example.
The multiroom-enabling Sky Q Mini boxes are plug ‘n’ play – all they need is power, a Wi-Fi (or Ethernet) connection and an HDMI cable plugged into a telly and they’re good to go. That means you can move them between TVs if you want to without too much upheaval.
Sky’s ‘Fluid Viewing’ is, in our humble opinion, a rather silly marketing term that simply means you can watch telly wherever you want, starting in one place and seamlessly moving to another if that's what you fancy. Silly name or not, the good news is that in action it’s very impressive. Pause a recording on the Silver box, pick up a tablet or switch to a TV with a Mini box attached and within seconds you can resume watching where you left off via the My Q menu. You can even switch back to watching on the main telly a bit later.
In fact, you don't even need to pause the first box, so if you decide you love whatever you're watching but can't bear to remain in the same room as the person you're watching it with, you can just take yourself off to your bedroom and keep watching in blissful solitude.
Each Mini and tablet has access to everything the Silver box does, including everything you've saved to its hard drive, so using one is a lot like sitting in front of your main telly. You can delete recorded shows from the Silver’s drive using a Mini, too, but this isn't supported by the tablet app - at least not yet. Picture quality appears to be just as good as from the main box, even without a direct wired connection to a satellite.
Mini boxes come with normal remotes that have good old-fashioned buttons where the touch panel would be. They also connect via Bluetooth, though, so you don’t need to point it at the box in order for it to work, although try shaking off the habit.
It's always been good value to get your broadband from Sky if you've already got the TV, and with Sky Q there's a handy extra bonus: the Sky Q Hub router, which comes with Sky Q, enables your main Sky Q box and Mini to act as Wi-Fi hotspots, improving your wireless network right through your house. In the future Sky will also be switching on a powerline feature, which will send your network data through your mains as well as via Wi-Fi, with the system intelligently using the best option at any given time.
While we're on the subject of networking, one slight negative on the Sky Hub front is that the router itself has just two Ethernet sockets. One suspects that the majority of Sky customers use Wi-Fi almost exclusively, but those that do like to use Ethernet to connect devices such as NAS drives could find this a bit annoying.
Streaming to a tablet – and it only works on tablets, not phones – requires the new Sky Q app. It’s easy to setup – just fire up the app and it’ll detect a Sky Q box on your network.
The app almost exactly mimics the TV interface, enabling you to set recordings, download shows to watch on the go, or stream live or recorded shows within your home. Quality and reliability are good, probably because it’s streaming over your home network rather than the internet as it does with Sky Go.
You can only cache Sky’s own programmes to a tablet to watch offline, so disappointingly you can’t take Only Connect with you on your commute. Downloading to tablet storage is quick, though: three minutes to get a 32-minute Alan Partridge episode from Silver box to iPad Mini, for example. Downloads remain on your tablet for a month if unwatched or 48 hours from the moment you click Play, at which point it's automatically deleted. It's a lot like renting a movie from iTunes or similar, except you're obviously not paying extra for each download on Sky Q.
A pretty penny
And now we come to the thorny subject of price, and it's not all that straighforward.
The standard Sky Q Bundle costs £42 a month, £6 per month more expensive than the existing Sky HD Family Bundle, to which it's most comparable in terms of content. That content is essentially everything except Movies and Sport, which will add £17 a month or £25.50 a month respectively, or £34.50 if taken together.
On top of that selection of content, your extra £6 per month nets you streaming to one tablet (to which content can be synced for taking outside the house) and the ability to record three shows while watching a fourth live.
It doesn't sound like a bad deal, but here's the kicker: you have to pay a one-off setup cost of £99 if you want the standard Sky Q box or £149 for the Sky Q Silver box. And those prices assume you've also subscribed to Movies, Sport or Sky Broadband at the same time - they're £249 or £299 respectively if not. And you won't own your Sky Q box because the "kit is loaned to Sky customers and needs to be returned at the end of the relevant subscription".
And the Sky Q Silver Bundle? That's £54 plus £99 for setup (£299 without at least one of Movies, Sport or broadband), plus the same additional costs if you want Sport and/or Movie channels. This bundle includes the Sky Q Silver box (obvs) and a Mini for one other room. As discussed above, the Sky Q Silver is able to stream to a second Mini, but you'll have to pay an extra £99 to get a second Mini box. On top of that streaming to Mini/s, the Silver bundle includes streaming/syncing to two tablets, rather than the standard bundle's one.
TL;DR Sky Q doesn't add quite as much to the existing Sky HD prices as you might expect, but then Sky HD wasn't exactly cheap to begin with.
Sky Q verdict
Nobody’s pretending a Sky subscription isn’t already an expensive way to watch TV, even before upgrading to Q. However, comparing it to a £7.50-per-month Netflix subscription is disingenuous. It offers so much more than just the content.
There’s no doubt that Sky Q makes everything else look old fashioned, but it’s also hard to shake the feeling that it solves problems that for some people probably don’t currently exist. Just look at the homes the people in Sky’s Q adverts live in: they’re luxury penthouse apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows or they're large, four-bed houses.
In those abodes and even in more modest family homes Sky Q will make a great deal of sense. It's a more seamless, neat and, OK, fluid experience than the rather archaic multiroom option that Sky was already offering. For those of us in one- or two-bedroom houses, though, Sky Q's extra features will look like luxuries that might not be worth the extra expense.
But don’t let that take away from the fact that this is impressive, well-realised technology that you can’t get anywhere else. Sky Q isn’t for everyone (at least not yet), but neither is a Tesla Model S, and that doesn't mean that both aren't brilliant.
Sky Q works flawlessly and could change the way you watch TV - especially when 4K finally arrives.