Sky has unveiled what it calls the ‘next generation’ of home TV. We examine its key features including what we know about its pricing and release date
Since launching Sky+ in 2001, Sky has added feature upon feature to its offering, such as high-definition broadcasting, on-demand services and mobile streaming for remote viewing.
However, the hardware and basic user experience has remained familiar. The remote and set-top box are pretty much the same as is, largely, the interface used to select programmes or recordings.
In the last 14 years, the arrival of online streaming, smart TVs and YouTube has changed how we watch videos enormously. Not only is Sky’s dominance of the living room television being challenged by BT, TalkTalk and others, but the living room is no longer the only game in town, with viewers watching on-demand video on smartphones, tablets and laptops.
In response, Sky has unveiled Sky Q, which it describes as “the next generation home entertainment system, opening up a new way of watching TV”. As well as a newly-designed interface that puts on-demand TV and recordings, as well as live TV, at the centre, it has also announced a collection of new hardware products that it says will allow users to transport the Sky experience around the house.
Sky says Sky Q will not be a replacement for Sky+ or NOW TV, its internet TV box, but a “new premium option”.
“We wanted to re-imagine TV so that it’s flexible and seamless across different screens and to put a huge choice of entertainment at their fingertips,” Sky’s chief executive Jeremy Darroch said.
At the centre of Sky Q is a new set-top box, which, as always, is connected to an outside satellite dish. It has a 2 terabyte hard disk, which can store up to 350 hours of video, and 12 tuners, which will allow watching and recording of multiple channels across devices.
Additional Sky Q “mini” boxes will connect TVs in other parts of the house, such as a bedroom or kitchen, and connect wirelessly to the main box. These offer a full, independent, Sky service on additional TVs, rather than mirroring or interfering with what’s on the main box.
A new remote uses a touch-sensitive pad, which lets users navigate menus by swiping and tapping, rather than the arrow buttons on the Sky+ remote. It connects to boxes via Bluetooth, rather than infra-red, meaning it doesn’t need to be pointed at the TV to work. And if you lose it, pressing a button on the Sky box will trigger a bleeping sound from the remote. The remote will support voice control, although this won’t be available at launch.
Finally, Sky has unveiled the Sky Q hub, a new broadband router, designed to work with the other hardware. It can connect to boxes using your home’s electric wiring when this will enable a better signal than Wi-Fi, and in this case, can turn Sky Q boxes into a Wi-Fi hotspot to boost connections in parts of the house away from routers. This so-called “powerline” networking will “supercharge” your Wi-Fi, Sky says.
The TV hardware is ultra-high definition (4K) compatible, although this won’t be available until Sky launches the services later in 2016.
Sky has completely re-designed the menu, putting on-demand services and recordings at the front of the new interface. For example, searching for a show will allow you to select from recordings, catch-up TV and upcoming broadcasts.
Selecting shows, services and recordings is far more visual than under Sky+, with a new tile-based menu to browse around.
A new menu feature, called “My Q”, is designed to be a hub for what you might want to watch. For example, you can pick up a programme that you stopped watching last night, find the next episode in a series you’re watching, or open a recommendations section that will offer shows tailored to your viewing habits at different times of the day.
There are also some new menu features for sports and music. For example you can see what games or matches are being shown live, search by sport, or specific music content.
At the core of Sky Q is what Sky calls a “fluid viewing” experience. Essentially, you can pick up where you left off on a different TV box, or on Sky’s tablet app, by going to the “My Q” section and pressing play.
However, although boxes and tablets are connected, they are totally independent. The 12 tuners in the main Sky box means that different programmes can be watched on five different screens, whether tablets or connected TVs, with four other channels being recorded, without interruption.
A special Sky Q tablet app will essentially replicate the experience on tablet computers, allowing access to live TV, recordings and catch-up, as opposed to the current Sky Go app, which only allows live TV and on-demand viewing. Viewers will also be able to download programmes onto their tablets for offline viewing later.
Broadly, this allows you to take the full Sky Q service with you around the house, whether you’re watching on a TV or tablet.
A smartphone app will come soon, Sky says, and its director of product Andrew Olson said a version for PCs was a possibility too. In the meantime, you can send sound from apps like Spotify or Apple Music to your TV over Apple’s AirPlay or Bluetooth if you want to play music through a TV sound system.
Content and apps
While Sky has continually updated its technology, its key advantage has always been content – it invests heavily in sports rights, movies and other programming.
That hasn’t changed much with Sky Q. Sky’s own content is still at the centre of the product. However, it has added a few new features.
Sky has signed deals with several publishers, such as GoPro, GQ and Wired for a new section it calls “online video”, which will offer on-demand videos about various subjects.
Additionally, it has a few “apps” – accessed via the menu – including YouTube and music service Vevo. Sky also has its own Sports and News apps, as well as Facebook photos, that lets users browse scores, news and information on a side screen while continuing to watch video.
Other apps are likely to join the service, although Sky will have to work closely with any that want to develop them. This is unlike internet TV boxes like Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV, which have an open ecosystem for which anyone can develop apps.
It is unclear whether rival content providers like Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Instant Video will at some point feature.
Release date and price
Sky has not announced pricing for Sky Q, although given that it isn’t getting rid of Sky+, which charges based on what channels one might want, an educated guess might be that Sky will charge a premium above that.
Some element of the pricing could involve charging extra for additional hardware. The main box might come with the service, with Sky charging more for the “mini” boxes.
Stephen van Rooyen, Sky’s chief marketing officer, compared Sky’s strategy to a BMW, with Now TV representing the Mini brand, Sky +HD a 3 Series BMW and Sky a top-of-the-range 7 Series.
The service is due to launch in early 2016, with features like Ultra-HD, smartphone support and voice control coming later.
Sky has always had the UK’s best TV content, and has successfully been able to charge a premium for it. As time has moved on, it has added new technology – recording, high-definition, catch-up, remote viewing and so on.
Sky Q represents an evolution of this idea. Sky still has most of the best content, but viewers want to be able to watch it in their own way. The new service essentially lets users take the experience with them, with as little hassle as possible.
If you’re a “cord-cutter” – someone who does without a pay TV subscription, relying on internet services like Netflix, iPlayer and YouTube for your TV fix – this probably isn’t going to change your mind. It is not the radical re-thinking of the TV experience than some might have hoped (although nobody seems to have come up with a realistic idea of what that might be), being more of a significant upgrade than a revolution.
But for Sky’s 10 million-plus existing customers, or those on rival platforms, it is enough to keep it ahead of the competition. Pricing is likely to be crucial to how many homes this will sit in in a year’s time.