This is our first impressions of the Sky Q box – we watched a live demo run by a Sky employee, so please consider this a very early insight until we get to spend more time with the box and its functions ourselves.
That said, the demo was running on a live system, and we know that these boxes are out "in the wild" and running properly. Here's what we think.
The Sky Q box isn't really something that can be reviewed in isolation – this is not just a 4K-ready set-top box with a new user interface. This is the centrepiece of a completely new concept of consuming media, knitting together your television, your tablets and phones with a new hub and, potentially, nifty (secondary) multi-room boxes that are one part mini streamer and one part Wi-Fi hub and extender.
The box is slimmer and smaller than its predecessors, measuring in at 330mm x 210mm x 43mm (W x D x H), and available in two SKUs: a 1TB version (which can support one other mini box) and the flagship Sky Q Silver, bringing 2TB of storage and support for two secondary boxes.
These secondary boxes are called the Sky Q Mini, which serve as multi-room boxes capable of streaming and also (fantastically) providing a Wi-Fi hotspot.
The boxes link up together courtesy of a Sky Q Hub, which utilises either Wi-Fi or your power lines to give you a decent connection. It's a nifty idea and, although not the sexiest feature of the Q, it might well be one of the most instantly useful for many households.
All of the boxes are nicely designed: the main Q box is thinner and smaller than the Sky+ HD and perfectly acceptable. Meanwhile, the mini boxes are smaller still and all of them, including the hub, share design notes.
The remote control is reminiscent of the Amazon Fire TV remote crossed with the current Sky remote, with a touch panel to navigate around the menus. The remote uses Bluetooth for the main box (but not for the mini boxes), which means that you can hide everything out of site if you so desire.
The decision not to make the Mini Bluetooth-enabled is slightly curious – as often this is the room that people most want to hide boxes out of sight – but it's a minor gripe, especially because the Wi-Fi connection means you can do without ugly cabling for your secondary boxes. I can see this being a major boon for multi-room, if Sky's pricing is not too prohibitive.
Let's deal with the obvious things first, the user interface (UI) is fast and glossy. When you bill your brand-new box as the evolution of television, you'd better have things speeding along, and Sky appear to have ticked off this particular achievement.
There were some bits that were not shown – the sideloading functionality through the Sky Q App, for one – but we did get a proper look through what the new interface, and much of the on-box functionality, looks like.
For people who have used other services, the MyQ page of the UI will probably be the most welcome arrival. This page allows you to quickly see new series, recommendations based on your viewing and also to continue watching recordings or that next episode of your favourite series.
There is also a Top Picks page, which offers up the key new offerings on Sky's platform, and you can get to Sky Box sets, Sky Movies, Store, Sports Music and Online Video.
The "Recordings" tab is a significant improvement and is a great showcase of the more graphical, prettified UI that is at the centre of the new Sky Q experience. There are lots of filtering options, and it's a clean experience that seems intuitive and straightforward.
Using the search options showcases the groupings around individual programmes – what you have locally recorded, what is available on catch up, what is going to be on that week, etc.
The example shown was for Arrow, and there is also a "more like this" option to make sure that you're not missing out on your other superhero fodder. We're hopeful that this will be more sophisticated than the current offering through the Sky box, so we're looking forward to real-life usage to see how useful this proves to be.
The music functionality brings together a host of services, aimed at taking advantage of the fact that so many of us have our best audio gear running off of our television. As well as a selection of Sky music shows, there is also a Vevo app, Spotify and Apple Air Play functionality.
There is also a load of options in the Sky Q box that you would expect to see on a decent Smart TV. Given that these options can often feel a little old school already, these may well not prove to be everyone's cup of tea.
The sidebar, for instance, allows you to access (currently very limited) selected apps. That means you can check the new headlines or sports results while your TV continues to play in a slightly smaller bit of the screen. It seems a little redundant in an age of smart devices – but for some it may prove useful.
Sideloading and devices
The thing Sky's customers wanted most was, apparently, being able to watch their programmes on their devices – and this may well be the key new part of the Sky Q system.
First up: two of the 12 tuners can be used to stream to your device – be it on demand, live or your recording – when you are on the same network as your box. It's brilliant for those with nice tablets and families who want to watch something while, say, the football is on.
But perhaps even more important is Sky's hope that it can make all of your recordings capable of being "sideloaded" onto your tablet. That means put on your device as recordings, which you can watch offline. We're told that this isn't actually offering everything right now – but it is significantly more than you would see in the current Sky Go app for download in the Sky Go Extra add on.
We've yet to test this, for availability or for quality, but make no mistake about it, this is the Sky Q killer app.
The big unanswered question around the Sky Q system is price. We'll find out "closer to launch" but the reason that it's such a big question is because this is a fantastic piece of kit.
We're sticking our finger in the air when we suggest that this could add £12 to £20 to the subscription, quite possibly with a one-off payment for the box, and you'll be tempted into adding those mini boxes. This could well end up a >£100 per month habit.
The UI is fantastically realised, swift, intuitive and capable of dealing with 21st Century viewing – where linear, on demand and PVR mix.
The sideloading is simply sublime as a concept, although we'll need to see just how much content will be allowed to be downloaded and cached in this way.
Sky has proven to be clever in its negotiations with content partners in the past, and we're hopeful it will be a significant amount of the things you record. But don't hold your breath over re-watching a BT Sport football game on the Tube or expect that you can watch BBC programmes offline outside of the iPlayer.
The lack of UHD at launch is an irritant but, given the lack of content, an understandable decision, although we'll be frustrated if this is just going to turn into an August push for football subscriptions.
And the decision to leave out Netflix and Amazon functionality is perhaps short-sighted for a platform that can transcend the rivalries and become the primary platform for the TV addict.
Ultimately, for those who genuinely care about their television viewing and who are prepared to pay that premium this is, it seems, by far the best option around.
But Sky Q knocks those rivals into a cocked hat currently, and that means that this is a thrilling new arrival to the UK market – innovative, clever and genuinely a stride into a new era of television viewing.
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