Sky Q is the UK company’s top-tier TV service, and proof that Sky is able to keep pace with a world that’s increasingly used to streaming on-demand content whenever it likes, rather than circling stuff in a TV guide with a dried-up biro.
The blockbuster feature at launch was Fluid Viewing. Using the flagship Sky Q Silver box tested here as a base, you can wirelessly connect two Q Mini boxes to watch Sky and all your recordings in other rooms in the house – without the need for a second satellite dish. And you can do the same with two tablets, taking your recordings on the go, thanks to the Sky Q app.
Sky has also added the Sky Kids mobile app into the mix, as well as making a huge effort to make the Q menus more helpful for finding child-friendly content.
With its first software update, though, came one of two massive leaps forward – the Q Silver box is now capable of outputting in 4K/UHD resolution, with 4K content on the rebranded Sky Cinema and Sky Sports. Voice search has also since been added, as has support for Dolby Atmos surround sound both from broadcast and on-demand movies – a big deal for true home cinema aficionados.
The Sky Q Silver package has the flagship Q Silver box at its heart. Despite being much smaller than the Sky HD box, it houses a whopping 2TB hard drive for storing 350 hours of recorded HD video, as well as five tuners. This provides the capability of recording four programmes at the same time, while watching a fifth channel.
It’s also now completely ready for 4K/UHD, thanks to Sky Q’s first software update. There’s been no mention of it ever getting HDR capabilities, though, which puts Sky at a slight disadvantage compared to Netflix and Amazon, who already offer certain content in 4K HDR. I say “slight” because, frankly, the number of people with HDR-ready TVs right now is still negligible.
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The Sky Q Mini boxes look like shrunken versions of the main box, and can be used to connect two other TVs to Sky. Unlike Sky multiroom solutions of the past, the Minis don’t need to be connected to the main Sky dish. Instead, when plugged in they wirelessly stream from the Q Silver box.
A setup that includes a Q Silver box and two Q Minis is akin to having three full Sky boxes in the house, all with access to your recordings, and each being able to show the full range of channels.
The Q Mini boxes aren’t 4K-ready, though, so you won’t be able to enjoy Sky’s UHD content in your spare room.
The Wi-Fi is run by a new Sky router – the Sky Q Hub. Neatly, the Q Hub shares the same styling as the other boxes.
Sky claims the Q setup will eventually support Powerline to send the broadband signal over your electrical wiring, which will be useful in homes where Wi-Fi signals struggle.
Sky Q – The new UI
The moment you turn on the Sky Q box, the company’s acknowledgement that viewing habits have changed in recent years becomes apparent. Rather than opening onto a broadcast TV channel, the Sky Q box takes you directly into the menu, leaving you to decide whether you want to watch catch-up TV, a recording, on-demand content or live TV.
The whole UI is light years ahead of Sky’s previous menu system. There’s extensive use of cover art and background images – no more spreadsheet-like recording lists – and a large preview pane for showing the contents of each sub-menu.
The default menu item highlighted when you turn on Sky Q, or press the Home button on the remote, is My Q. This is a personalised pane, giving you the option of carrying on watching shows you’ve started watching but not finished, as well as pushing a selection of recommended shows from catch-up or on-demand, as well as new movies in Sky Cinema.
That ability to easily find shows you’ve already started, rather than wading through your recording list, is very handy, but following the first software update, Sky took that cleverness to a new level. If you start watching an episode from an on-demand series, the next episode will automatically begin downloading while you watch. And when you get to the end of an episode, the next one will auto-play after 30 seconds. Your remote-prodding fingers are gonna get so lazy.
Backing this up is the enhanced search function, which not only displays exact matches to your queries, but it also now pulls in related shows and timings for when the next episode of your search topic will air.
One of the cleverest features, and one that’s a real headliner for the Fluid Viewing concept, is the smart pause function. This allows you to pause content you’re currently watching on one box and then move to another room, or fire up your tablet, and continue watching the same item from the same point. You can even do it with live TV, as long as you start recording it before you pause. Very neat.
The Online Video option is another attempt to offer as varied a viewing selection as possible, providing access to YouTube and Vevo through your Sky box. There’s also curated content from partners such as Red Bull and GoPro.
Also interesting is Music. In addition to curating various shows from Sky Arts, MTV, VH1 and so on, the sub-menu also contains dedicated options to access Vevo or browse radio stations. There’s also Your Music, which flags up that you can play tunes through Sky Q via AirPlay or Bluetooth. If your TV is connected to a soundbar or home cinema system, Sky Q could be your perfect all-in-one entertainment system.
Oddly you actually have to go into Setup to get this working, rather than being able to do it all through Your Music. It’s still a nice feature, though.
Since launch, Sky has launched the accompanying Soundbox soundbar. It costs £799 standalone, but Sky customers can bag one for £299 – or just £249 if you have a Sky Q Multiroom package. Read our Sky Soundbox review for the full verdict, but the short version is that it’s a bargain at the discounted prices, and features some useful optimised listening modes that appear in Sky Q’s help menu when the ‘?’ button is pressed. It’s a no-brainer if you’re struggling along with your TV’s built-in speakers.
Sky Q – Remotes
There are two new controllers on offer with Sky Q. Both are far sleeker than the Sky remotes of old, but it’s the Q Touch remote – supplied with the Q Silver box – that sees the biggest departure from the previous setup.
The Sky Q Touch is a Bluetooth remote that, as the name suggests, is touch-enabled. A circular touchpad replaces the standard D-pad and it also doubles as an OK button when you click down on it.
I encountered little trouble getting to grips with the touchpad, swiping up and down through the menus, and left and right to go in and out of sub-menus. For faster scrolling up or down, you can just hold your finger on the top or bottom part of the pad; the further towards the edge you hold it, the faster you’ll scroll.
It all works fine, but it’s actually less precise than using a simple D-pad. It wasn’t uncommon for me to overshoot a menu item while swiping or scrolling. This isn’t a problem I’ve had with the standard Sky Q remote – with its usual rubber D-pad – that’s supplied with the Q Mini boxes.
This isn’t a big deal, though, and you might love the novelty of all that swiping.
What actually proved rather irritating is Sky’s decision to make the trio of buttons that sit above the pad touch-sensitive too. There’s absolutely no benefit to it, but there is one huge drawback – an increased risk of accidental presses, especially when kids are involved.
On a number of occasions, my kids accidentally paused or started rewinding live TV just by touching one of the buttons when simply picking up the remote. Plus, it isn’t initially obvious how to return to live broadcast, either – you just have to swipe right, but it isn’t necessarily intuitive.
The standard Q remote (left), Q Touch remote (middle) and the chunky old Sky+ HD controller
Something that was improved by Sky’s first software update is navigation through a piece of video content. If you pause a recorded or downloaded programme, you can then swipe on the touchpad to move through minute by minute, or do the swipe-and-hold move to get to a specific time.
Rather intriguingly, the Q Touch remote also has a microphone. Voice search wasn’t available at launch, but it is now – and it works surprisingly well. The new remotes also both feature a dedicated button to open the on-screen search function.
Another new button on both remotes has a rather mysterious three dots across it, like an ellipsis. Turns out this is the Apps button. Pressing it brings up a sidebar on the right of the screen with the current selection of available apps.
There aren’t many apps yet – Sky News, Sky Sports News HQ, My Photos, Weather, and Help – but more are promised. Each of them take up varying amounts of screen real estate, and share the screen with whatever you’re watching at the time. As a result, you can check the news headlines or tomorrow’s weather while you’re catching up with this week’s Legends of Tomorrow.
Sky Q – Ultra HD performance
There are two different areas to consider here: the quality of Sky’s live Ultra HD sports broadcasts, and the quality of its downloaded Ultra HD content. Let’s start with the broadcasts.
Detail levels are beyond anything you’ll see with normal HD footage, especially in close-ups of players, and background items such as adverts and crowds. You can also make out logos on shirts and shorts that are just blobs in HD, and there’s more definition to the grass.
The studio footage from the grounds where the matches are filmed is also shot and broadcast in native 4K. This also contains outstanding levels of detail in the usual stand-out areas: the weaves of the presenters’ suits, set detailing, skin and hair.
Sky’s new native Ultra HD on-screen graphics are also gorgeous.
Mostly, native Ultra HD football coverage is so good that it’s a shock when the adverts come on.
For fans of numbers, one UHD Arsenal v Liverpool match took up 59.5GB of memory on my Sky Q Silver box, while the HD version occupied a still substantial 23.3GB. This appears to reflect the fact that Sky’s HD picture quality has improved over time.
One issue with the UHD football is that the cameras Sky uses seem to struggle with contrast, struggling to adapt quickly enough to sudden shifts in exposure.
This leads to bright areas looking momentarily overexposed and dark areas looking momentarily too dark – issues that temporarily reduce the amount of visible detail. BT’s Ultra HD football coverage seems to handle extreme lighting more successfully, which makes its main action shots look more refined. Sky gets better when lighting conditions aren’t so extreme, though.
As for downloaded UHD content, the picture quality varies from title to title, between solid and jaw-droppingly good.
The level of difference suggests that the inconsistencies are more likely to be a result of shortcomings in the sources than issues with Sky’s UHD delivery. In fact, some of Sky’s film and TV descriptions feature the words “Remastered for UHD”, which means they’ve been crafted into UHD from sources that were less than native UHD in resolution.
These remastered titles look slightly better than HD versions of the same content upscaled by your TV, but they’re softer, less detailed and noisier. Sometimes, they’re also less naturally coloured than the content that’s come from native UHD sources. It’s good to see Sky using the “Remastered” description, though, as it’ll help to manage expectations. If only Ultra HD Blu-rays did the same.
Even with native UHD films and TV shows, the quality can vary. Forrest Gump, The Martian, Pixels, The Blacklist and the Big Cats documentaries are spectacularly detailed, sharp and richly coloured. The Martian actually looks crisper than the Ultra HD Blu-ray version. Others, such as Spectre, are closer to standard Blu-ray quality for the most part, delivering only the occasional stand-out UHD moment.
The Revenant is the most useful title for assessing Sky’s UHD picture quality, since it’s been one of the most spectacular Ultra HD Blu-ray releases so far, and makes for a good comparison. The Sky Ultra HD download does a pretty good job of delivering fine detail in trees, landscapes and forest floors, but there’s a more plasticky look to skin tones, which suggests there’s slightly more compression involved with Sky’s file. Overall, Sky’s version still looks comfortably better than HD.
One other important point raised by The Revenant is the lack of HDR (high dynamic range) in Sky’s pictures. HDR’s extra brightness, contrast and colour range play a big part in delivering glorious Ultra HD Blu-ray pictures, so it’s inevitable that you feel their absence from Sky’s download. Sky has suggested more than once that it may be able to add HDR to its Sky Ultra HD service once HDR standards have settled down. Here’s hoping.
Sky Q – The App
The Sky Q app, available for iPad or Android tablets, is a massive leap forward, and offers something no other TV solution can – offline viewing.
While the old Sky Go app was excellent, it was a limited Sky experience, with only a handful of available live channels and no access to content recorded on your box.
The Sky Q app, on the other hand, does it all (almost). The interface is nearly identical to the UI on your TV, with the same options for TV Guide, Catch Up TV, Recordings, My Q, and so on. You can treat your tablet just like a Sky-connected TV. You can even set recordings within the TV Guide by tapping on the mysterious icon – another three-dot one – and selecting whether to record the series or just the single episode.
The main difference from the full-fat TV menu is an option called On My iPad/On My Phone. From there you can select recordings on your Sky Q box that you’d like to download for on-the-go viewing.
Everything about the Sky Q app is slick and smooth. It works beautifully and makes a huge amount of sense.
Sky’s done a fair amount of work making Sky Q as friendly as possible for children. In addition to a dedicated Kids sub-menu that gives direct access to children’s channels, on-demand content and any child-friendly recordings you’ve made, Sky’s also introduced the Sky Kids app.
The Sky Kids app is available for iOS and Android, and enables you to stream all of Sky’s on-demand children’s content through a colourful, super-simple UI.
Each child gets to add their own profile, with their name and choice of cartoon avatar. They also need to enter their date of birth and gender, which Sky uses to suggest the most suitable content for them.
All of this works pretty flawlessly. My son received recommendations for an array of superhero series and stuff about wildlife, while my younger daughter was pushed towards many of the shows she already loves, such as Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, and a few new ones like The Lion Guard that she now adores.
The shows are all displayed in a decent-size frame with other episodes from the same series selectable below it, but you can go full-screen too. Arrows on either side of the main UI take you through the content available from each of Sky’s kiddy channels, such as Nickelodeon, Milkshake, Disney Junior and many others. There’s a ton of child-friendly stuff in there, although you can’t watch the live broadcast channels.
And now for the major downside: the inability to download any of the shows for watching in the doctor’s waiting room or on a long train journey when the kids are bored, kicking the back of someone’s seat and whining because you won’t let them have Haribo.
If you’re a parent letting your child use your iPad, this kind of makes sense – after all, you don’t want little Harriet jamming up your storage with 20 episodes of Doc McStuffins. But there could always be parental password entry required for a download, which would sort that problem.
Of course, you can always download kids’ shows to the Sky Q app to get around this, but it’s a little frustrating that it’s not been built into Sky Kids. Also, you might not want your little ones in the main Sky Q app when they’re sat in the back of the car and you can’t help them get around the more complicated UI because you don’t want to crash into the central reservation of the M1.
Sky Kids is a great addition then, but one which could be a whole lot more useful.
Why buy Sky Q?
Sky Q is the most complete TV viewing solution out there right now. It covers pretty much every conceivable need, and does it ridiculously well (apart from the gimmicky Q Touch remote).
There will be plenty of people who don’t need everything that Sky Q offers, who get what they need from Netflix or Freeview – and that’s fine. There will be an even greater number of folk who’ll balk at the price. But with all that you’re getting, this seems churlish.
The introduction of 4K content on Sky Cinema does mean that the more expensive Q Silver option is the way to go, though. And the forthcoming prospect of Sky without a satellite dish means it’ll become a viable option for even more people.
Dolby Atmos soundtracks from both streamed and on-demand movies will also be enough to have you questioning the future of Ultra HD Blu-ray.