- Picture quality of downloads is good
- More content and channels available than you might expect
- The service is available at no extra cost to Sky subscribers
- Presentation is cumbersome
- Programme catch-up service is inconsistent
- True on-demand content not available in HD
- Mix of HD and standard def content
- Both pre-loaded and true 'on-demand' content
- Files download to HDD for viewing
- Content available depends on Sky sub
- Watch on-demand content while it's still downloading
Prior to that red letter day, the Sky Anytime+ service, with its extensive catch up functionality, was only available to Sky TV subscribers who were signed up to Sky’s broadband package. Even back in 2010 when the Anytime service first launched this situation seemed blatantly unfair; why should one Sky subscriber be able to get this extensive value-added service FREE so long as they changed their broadband to Sky, while other Sky subscribers paying the same subscription fees but using other broadband platforms weren’t able to get it?
Sky’s suggestion was that it had to be this way so that they could have complete control over the delivery of the service in its formative period. But it’s also hard not to think that Anytime was being used as a rather grimy marketing ploy to try and ramp up subscribers to the Sky broadband service.
Whatever the truth of the matter, though, the ironic thing has been that the longer Sky stuck to its ‘Anytime+ for Sky broadband users only’ policy, the more it’s seemed to us as if the policy has been hurting Sky rather than helping it. For while Anytime+ was ahead of the game in on-demand TV terms, but it quickly had the wind taken out of its sails by the growth of on-demand TV services from other sources – especially Smart TV platforms and, of course, Virgin’s TiVo receiver for cable subscribers. And with Anytime+ such a closed shop, many people have instinctively turned to these rival options for their rapidly growing on-demand needs.
Sky has certainly offered innovation elsewhere since 2010, especially with its rather brilliant Sky Go service. But nonetheless, for at least the past year, Sky not giving the majority of its subscribers a ‘proper’ on-demand service on even its most recent 1TB Sky HD receiver has started to really hurt the platform’s appeal – as well as its reputation as a technology innovator.
The arrival of Sky Anytime to ALL Sky subscribers with a Sky HD receiver and ANY broadband contract is long overdue. But is the service as it stands today really worth networking your Sky receiver for?
First, it’s pleasing to discover that the process for ‘converting’ your HD receiver to Anytime isn’t at all difficult. A quick phone call to Sky or visit to Sky’s website is all it takes to register yourself for the service, and aside from that all you have to do is connect your receiver to your broadband router via an Ethernet port or optional (£60) Sky Wireless Connector.
If even the above procedures have you shaking in your boots, fear not: for £40 a Sky engineer can be sent out to set things up for you, using a wired connection.
Having followed the above procedures and rebooted our Sky HD receiver for good measure, we were rather surprised not to find the Anytime service being shouted about by anything on the Sky Planner menu. There’s just the same Anytime menu entry as before.
The change when you select the Anytime option, though, is immediately obvious. For in place of the simple text lists of programmes Sky had previously ‘sent’ to the old Anytime section of your box’s memory in the hope you might want to watch them, you’re now greeted by five flashly presented ‘showcase’ programmes, accompanied by swish HD stills from the content they contain. You can scroll across the ‘Showcase’ list, with just over 30 titles available in this initial section at the time of writing.
Some of the programmes in this showcase are actually already installed to hard disk as part of the traditional Anytime service. But many others are truly ‘on-demand’; which is to say they’re stored on Sky’s servers, and have to be downloaded to your receiver when you want to watch them.
It’s worth noting here that some of the programmes available in Anytime are in HD. But these programmes are only those that were already uploaded to your box as part of the normal Anytime service. On-demand content to be streamed to your box is only available in standard definition. More on this later.
Just above the main list of programmes on the Sky Anytime+ screen are sub-category headers to help you find something you want to watch more easily. The categories on offer are: Sky Store, Movies, Entertainment, Docs, Kids, Sports, All, and Channels. And within each of these sub-categories you tend to get similar sets of sub-folders to delve into, usually based around All, Most Popular, Recently Added, Last Chance, and various genre definitions.
Not surprisingly, the free on-demand content available in these sections is largely dependent on the level of subscription you have. For instance, if you’re not a subscriber to Sky Movies, you won’t be able to access films on demand from the Sky Movies library. However, the Store section of Anytime lets all Sky customers with a Sky HD box choose from thousands of titles available to rent. Rental prices range between £1.49 and £2.00, the films take in anything from the latest blockbusters to smaller indie movies and back catalogue titles.
For us, the highlights of the Anytime proposition were the Entertainment, Docs and Sports sections. The Entertainment section, for instance, provides the facility to catch up with previous episodes of some quite high-profile programmes, such as Hawaii Five-O, Touch, Luck, Grey’s Anatomy, and Mad Men.
Some of these programmes have the past few episodes available to watch, some have just the most recently shown episode available to watch, and in a few cases you can even access an entire series.
This inconsistency in terms of how far back the on-demand episode lists go for different channels and programmes is potentially a bit annoying. But then it’s difficult to blame Sky for this situation; after all, different content providers have different rules about how far back they want ‘catch up’ services to go, and it’s actually fairly standard practice in the catch up TV world to only have a single episode of a series available on catch up at any one time.
So you could argue that having more than one episode of any series in the Entertainment section is a bonus. And by that reckoning, having full season collections of some series, such as An Idiot Abroad and Boardwalk Empire, could be considered a major result.
The problem is, once you have found some series available as full on-demand ‘boxsets’ or with a few catch up episodes, you can’t help but expect the same level of provision for every show – no matter how unreasonable such expectations might be.
As a perfect example of this, it’s hard not to feel annoyed that the full first series of Game of Thrones isn’t available to watch on Anytime+ ahead of the second series starting. But of course, the reality of this particular situation is that with Game of Thrones Season 1 recently launched on Blu-ray, HBO was almost certainly never going to give Sky the rights to make the first season available for free on Anytime+. At least for now. Once you give people a taste of something like Anytime+ does, though, it’s just human nature for those people to want more.
However, while issues over on-demand rights to different series will repeatedly cause disappointments for some viewers when they can’t find their favourite programmes available on catch-up, the reality is that the overall amount of content available on Sky Anytime+ is actually pretty high.
This is down in no small part to the high number of channels on-board the Anytime+ system. Look under the Channels banner and you’ll find the following list of on-demand participants: ITV Player, Sky1, Sky Living, Sly Atlantic, Watch, Gold, Dave, Comedy Central, FX, Challenge, MTV, alibi, Sky Arts 1 & 2, Home, bio, Discovery Real Time, Home and Health, Good Food, Sky Movies, Sky Sports, Sky Sports F1, ESPN Classic, Sky News, The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, National Geographic Channel, National Geographic Wild, History, Military History, Crime and Investigation Network, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, The Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Nick Jr, and Cartoonito. Oh, and the BBC iPlayer is also due to arrive on Anytime+ before the end of the year. Phew.
The amount of content available is arguably greater than the current Anytime+ interface is capable of comfortably handling. There’s certainly a persistent sense that the current presentation format for the Anytime+ listings doesn’t handle the amounts of content particularly effectively, making it a bit of a chore to track down programmes that might not be featured on either the Showcase or Most Popular categories.
To be fair, it’s not especially easy to see how Sky could change the
presentation radically while remaining within the established structure
of its current electronic programme guide. But maybe it’s time for this
while EPG to undergo a revamp? Also, we couldn’t help but think it would be hugely helpful if the Anytime+ content could be added to Sky’s excellent Sky listings app, as this would make finding desired content much easier.
When it comes to actually watching Sky Anytime+ on-demand programming, it’s good to discover that Sky doesn’t insist on making you wait for an entire programme to download into your box’s memory before you can start watching. As soon as you have enough downloaded to support uninterrupted viewing while the rest of the programme downloads in the background, the ‘play’ icon becomes available and you can start viewing.
This ‘viewing point’ is generally reached within just a few seconds of a download starting, even using our bog-standard 6Mbps BT Internet connection.
In terms of file size, this clearly differs radically depending on the running length of what you’re downloading. But as a basic guide, a 90 minute standard def documentary came in at 1.14GB. And you will be pleased to know that none of the on-demand content contains any adverts.
When it comes to the image quality of downloaded material, actually, while it’s a little variable, for the most part it’s not bad at all. Obviously the HD fodder pre-loaded via the standard Anytime+ service looks pretty much pristine. But the standard definition on-demand material also looks less compressed than we’d expected too. There are signs of compression, but they’re generally cleverly hidden away in dark areas or background areas of picture that you’re not really focusing on.
Of course, the quality of on-demand image Sky can deliver is probably helped by the fact that it downloads programmes to hard disk for playback, and so can risk/cope with less compressed data streams than services which have to stream video for viewing completely live.
That the on-demand stuff on Anytime+ is stored to HDD (downloaded programmes appear in your main Planner alongside ‘normal’ recordings made through the EPG) is also beneficial because it means you can watch the download when you like – and pause and restart it when you like.
Given that Sky’s on-demand approach doesn’t require your broadband connection to handle live streaming, though, it’s perhaps a pity that Sky doesn’t provide you with at least the option to download HD versions of its film and TV series if they’re available. Also, none of the standard def downloads appear to ship with Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks when maybe that too could be provided as an option for enthusiasts patient enough to wait for a longer download.
Sky might argue here that it doesn’t have much of a choice where HD and Dolby Digital audio are concerned. After all, there are still some HD receivers out there with pretty puny amounts of memory built-in, and these could quickly completely run out of recording menu if they suddenly find themselves downloading large amounts of on-demand HD content. But for us, at least having the option to downloaded HD versions of suitable programmes would have been appreciated.
As we draw to the end of this review, it occurs to us that you might be thinking that when you already have 200 channels of TV to watch on Sky as it is, it surely isn’t necessary for Sky to add a bounty of on-demand services. But our personal experience is actually that the sheer amount of TV stuff to try and keep up with on Sky means we routinely miss shows. In fact, the lack of any on-demand catch up service on Sky has been a source of irritation for longer than we can remember. So actually Anytime feels like a modern necessity rather than a rarely used luxury.
There’s no doubt that Anytime+ has its faults. It should have been made available to all Sky HD box owners regardless of broadband provider a long time ago. Its interface doesn’t do a great job of streamlining the quest for on-demand content. And the rather hit and miss nature of what’s available to watch will inevitably cause irritation from time to time.
But if our experience is anything to go by, for all its flaws Sky Anytime+ overall delivers one of the better-quality on-demand services around, and has enough content available on it to quickly become a big part of your viewing life.
Let’s not forget, either, that if you’re already a Sky subscriber with a Sky HD receiver, Sky Anytime+ is actually free. And the hefty sums you have to stump up for your Sky subscription each month certainly feel substantially easier to live with once they’re also bagging you the Anytime+ service.
Basically, while we’re not sure the new, ‘universal’ availability of Anytime+ will necessarily lure in millions more subscribers to Sky’s platform, it’s an undeniable fact that if you’re already a Sky user with a Sky HD box and broadband connection and you haven’t yet availed yourself of Anytime , then, well, you’re a bit daft, frankly.
Score in detail