4K on Sky Q – can you tell the difference?

Spoiler alert: it sort of depends on what you're watching

Got Sky Q and an Ultra HD TV? Then you probably know you get 4K for free. Got one but not the other? Then you’re probably wondering if it’s worth upgrading.

Well wonder no more. We’ve wallowed in front of the TV so you don’t have to, getting square eyes from live Premier League football, Sky Cinema’s on-demand movies and downloadable Ultra HD box sets, in order to tell you whether it really makes any difference.

So, does it?

4K kick-off

Of course, it’s no coincidence that Sky picked the 13 August to makes its Ultra HD debut. That was the day unlikely Premier League champions Leicester City began the defence of their title against newly re-promoted Hull City.

With the Tigers seemingly in a mess after the departure of Steve Bruce, everyone expected Sky’s first 4K game to be something of a one-sided affair, with the only thing to comfort Hull fans being those extra pixels rendering Ahmed Elmohamady and co.

It turned out that they had much more to smile about than just the resolution of the telly, coming away with all three points after a 2-1 win. Which is probably for the best because on the 40in Samsung KU7000 we’ve been watching on, the football is probably the least impressive 4K offering on Sky Q.

It’s undoubtedly sharper, with more definition and detail on players and the crowd. There’s more depth to the picture and you can pick out scruffy patches on the usually pristine pitch. But it doesn’t have the wow factor of movies or TV. To be honest, that's no huge surprise. Football is filmed largely in long shots, so there’s less opportunity to show off detail, which is where 4K excels.

At the movies

Stick on a movie – Ridley Scott’s The Martian, for example – and the difference between HD and 4K is so obvious you’d have to be stranded on a hostile planet not to notice it.

We say ‘stick on’ but watching a film in 4K on Sky Q isn’t just a case of changing the channel or hitting the red button when prompted. It’s all on-demand, so you have to download it first before you can watch it. Unlike HD downloads, which you can start watching almost immediately, it takes quite a lot longer before a 4K film has downloaded enough for you to press play.

On our 12MB Sky broadband connection it took nearly three hours for the whole 18GB file for The Martian to download. We gave up sitting and waiting for it to be ready after about 15 minutes. That means it’s not such a spur-of-the-moment choice but at least there’s plenty of space to preload the Silver box’s hard drive.

So is it worth it? Abso-bloody-lutely. The difference is stunning. At first it might be surprising how hyperreal Ultra HD makes everything look but for The Martian that seems particularly apt. The outdoor shots in particular have a genuinely otherworldly feel, possibly enhanced by the orange space suits and the contrast with the sterile interior of the Hab that houses Matt Damon’s unfortunate Mark Watney.

It feels like you could pause almost any shot and just study all the tiny details in the background, or examine the added texture that it gives human skin. For the squeamish that will make Watney stapling up his own stomach at the start a rather difficult watch.

As always some scenes stand out more than others, so extreme close-ups of the stranded botanist’s newly sprouted seedlings are filled with soil detail, while the tiny green plant pops out from the middle of the frame. The external shots of the Hermes spaceship are also a treat for the eyes, boosted by the fact that they’re often so reminiscent of the spindly ships in Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Switch to an older, remastered film that’s less reliant on special effects and the result isn’t so striking but it’s by no means unnoticeable. After downloading all 177 minutes of The Godfather (we left that one going overnight) at first its opening scene in the gloom of Don Corleone’s quarters seemed to offer little in terms of a visual upgrade.

But the close-ups on the faces revealed more, and in the brighter outdoor scenes following it that hyperreal effect returns, filling the frame with life. It certainly doesn’t look like a film shot 45 years ago.

Sky’s 4K movie catalogue is fairly limited to begin with (plus there’s some proper guff among the films on offer so far) but it’s growing all the time. With the films that lend themselves to extra pixels it’s definitely worth the extra download time – just make sure you plan your viewing in advance.

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Telly addicts

TV shows seem to fall somewhere in the middle. They don’t take so long to download (about 40 mins for a 44-minute episode of David Attenborough’s Galapagos to be ready to play) but the impact also doesn’t tend to be quite so great.

It definitely looks better than HD but you might find yourself searching each scene for things that you can add to a list of evidence, just in case a sceptic turns up on your sofa and tells you they can’t tell the difference. Yep, those puddles of mud definitely look muddier than usual. And check out the intricate detail on that lizard’s skin.

Switch from a nature doc to drama and it is more noticeable, but until Sky has added big hitters such as Game of Thrones and Billions, exciting new HBO shows such as Westworld, or older classics like The Sopranos to its Ultra HD line-up, it’s the movies that are most likely to be your go-to 4K fix.

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