When it comes to HD content delivery, we’re able to choose between an expanding array of options from Blu-Ray Rental via a service like LoveFilm, to HD downloads through Xbox Live, to broadcast HD television.
I’ve tried downloads, LoveFilm and even buying the odd Blu-Ray DVD in an effort to take advantage of my 1080p television but all of these solutions are either expensive, in the case of the latter, or simply inconvenient. I’ve never liked standing in a video store trying to find an obscure but interesting film and LoveFilm was a complete disaster, we got through a few films but ultimately our rented DVDs ended up sitting on a shelf for months and we were paying to keep them there.
Now I’ve grown accustomed to being able to find a film to watch in Sky Anytime, or their wide array of film channels, it’s no surprise that the best solution I’ve found yet to get HD broadcasts into my HD Television is the successful Sky HD service.
Sky’s Broadcast HD is convenient, allows for casual viewing and costs only £10 a month on top of an existing subscription (or £20 if you want to go multi-room), comparable to the cost of a LoveFilm subscription, but offering prime-time, Sky 1 television series in HD too.
I’m going to start with a look at the Sky HD box itself. These new boxes from Sky demonstrate a refreshed, modern aesthetic that looks far more pleasing to the eye than the original blocky white boxes of the standard definition Sky+ and right now they’re either free, or damned close to new customers. Until HD becomes the standard for all Sky service, you really can’t say fairer than that.
The remote has also received an aesthetic refresh, becoming just a little bit sleeker and donning a black and silver fascia to make it look a little more up-to-date.
The Sky HD box is also a sound, and very carefully thought out piece of kit. Furthermore, every Sky HD box will eventually receive the updated program guide which, whilst it’s receiving a little negative press, is almost certainly an improvement over the now very dated looking guide we’ve all come to associate with Sky.
So, why do I say “carefully thought out?” Well, the biggest surprise I had when the Sky HD box was installed is that it somehow manages to simultaneously drive both its SD and HD outputs. This means that it’s constantly and transparently downscaling the HD picture and piping it out through the analogue outputs. This is something that frustrates me about, for example, the PS3 which needs to be explicitly told to drive a particular type of output- making it a royal pain to switch between a video recording, or a gaming setup.
The Sky HD box, however, will let you hook up your existing SlingBox, if you have one, via the Scart sockets where you’ll get the same SD picture you ever got remotely. This means that there’s no pressure to buy a SlingBox HD when you upgrade to Sky HD. Furthermore, if you’re interested in backing up some of your favourite TV series you can do it to something like the Pinnacle Video Transfer unit by hooking it up to a spare analogue output (yes, obviously the result will not be HD) and still navigate to the programmes you want to back-up on your television screen.
As with the ordinary Sky+ box, the Sky HD box includes a built-in hard drive and twin dish inputs to allow you to watch and record, or record two channels simultaneously. The hard disk size has been bumped up to a capacious but perhaps now a little dated 160GB which provides the same miraculous recording results as the Sky+ box. HD is recorded and played back in exactly the same quality as you see it in real-time, and up to 80+ hours of recording time is touted. Of course, the actual amount of content you manage to record depends heavily on whether or not it is high definition, and how compressed that particular channel happens to be.
If you want to record HD content only, you’ll find that capacity dropping to about 30 hours, so if you’re big on using Sky+ to record and permanently store your favorite television (rather than use it to time shift) then you would have to consider a hard drive upgrade. Sites like XTendedPlay.co.uk offer hard drive upgrade kits for Sky HD with capacities ranging up to 500gb which should, in theory, give you about 80 hours of HD recording. These kits come with detailed instructions and tools, but you still stand to void your box Warrantee unless you wait for it to expire first. You can also upgrade to 1TB if you’re feeling brave, at this size it needs to be pre-formatted using a desktop PC.
The content available is more than varied enough to justify the price, with the typical array of movie channels all boasting HD equivalents, alongside such gems as back-to-back, HD, Disney films. Then there’s the regular television, Sky 1 HD means that, if you’re an avid watcher of dramas on this channel, you’ll get to watch all of your favourite shows in glorious high definition, really taking advantage of your TV set.
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Sky’s HD broadcasts, they’re not on a par with Blu-Ray, obviously, but you really need to scrutinise the picture in order to notice the difference. I’ve got a 720p, HD Home Cinema Projector in at the moment, and watching Sky HD broadcasts on it is truly stunning. I was, for example, able to record Blade Runner: The Final Cut in HD and use it to test out the projector. And that’s where the problem lies, once you’ve started feeding a real high definition signal into your TV you’ll find yourself wanting to spread that clarity over a larger surface area. Projectors and larger television sets become more tempting, with the former probably being the wiser choice. Simply pointing an HD projector at a reasonably-close-to-white living-room wall produces stunning results and will set you back around £550- much less than the 60″ or 100″ TV you’d need to match it.
Sky Sports, unsurprisingly, is where HD really comes into its own. It seems to have a generally much clearer picture than HD movies and doesn’t have the artifacts that seem to appear in a few older HD movies (most probably due to their conversion from 35mm film). If you like your sports, then Sky HD alongside a sports package is a cracking good, no, essential setup. If you were persuaded into buying a television with a super fast response time then you shouldn’t be without HD. After all, if you are set on catching every moment of sports action, you might as well do it with a crystal clear picture. I’m not a sports fan at all, but will happily stick on Matchplay Darts simply to marvel at being able to see every crack in the well-worn board and every bead of sweat on the players’ foreheads. Yes, I’m a stickler for fidelity, be it audial or visual, and really don’t care what I’m experiencing as long as it sounds or looks good.
The only thing objectionable about Sky HD is the price. Sky are pretty insistent that they’d love to offer the service at no extra cost over an ordinary subscription, but they’re under the thumb of content providers who want to nickel and dime consumers for everything that they can. In that respect, we could probably consider ourselves lucky that our Sky subscription costs aren’t a function of the number of people in our households- or worse, the number of people likely to accidentally watch a snippet of TV through the living-room window. With the current price of Blu-Ray, however, simply buying one a month would end up costing you more than an HD subscription cost, so if you really want to enjoy a few HD movies it’s probably the most economical option. Unfortunately this only applies to existing Sky customers, and you only get the channels in HD that you’ve already added as a pack for your standard subcription. A fully kitted out Sky+ HD subscription, with every available channel would set you back about £55 a month- that’s not a small number!
With the near-free, or sometimes free, price of the HD box it feels a lot more like you’re subsidizing a fairly decent piece of hardware than paying through the nose for the HD content itself. It would be better, however, if the box offered more storage space as standard rather than increasingly lower prices. I have no definitive information but, at a guess, I would think the content providers have something to do with Sky HDs somewhat limited HD recording capacity. At just 30 hours, it is clearly targeted more toward being a comfortable time-shifting solution than a permanent storage for recorded HD films. If you’re tech savvy enough to format and fit a 1tb hard drive you ay squeeze 50-60 films on there (a rough guestimate loosely based on facts).
Still, an extra £10 a month isn’t bad, it’s just a huge shame that existing customers can’t take Sky HD and go multi-room with their existing Sky+ or Sky box for just £10. Multi-room is an exceedingly nice and convenient setup that runs rings around wireless TV streaming solutions, or the SlingBox/SlingPlayer combination at getting TV into your bedroom, but £20 for both HD and Multi-room will break the boundaries of affordable for most, myself included. Alas, this means that the HD has to go until it becomes the de-facto standard, and multi-room stays because it’s simply too convenient to pass up.
There’s little to say about Multiroom itself. The setup is vastly superior to TV beaming solutions that I’ve tried, and also far more responsive than a SlingBox/SlingCatcher combination. If you have an existing Sky+ box and go multiroom with HD, being able to record 4 channels simultaneously is pretty neat, or you can watch two and record two. We tend to record the same things upstairs and down, so we have the opportunity to watch our favourite shows in either HD or SD. Unfortunately there’s no way to “beam” a recording from downstairs to upstairs, or vice versa unless you have the aforementioned SlingBox/SlingCatcher combination.
All photos feature the InFocus X9 projecting on an ordinary, off-white living room wall. The iPhone doesn’t do it justice.