Sky HD And Multiroom First Impressions

It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that I could leverage my humble journalistic position to obtain a Sky HD box to sample the service. I have been watching the price since its release, but could never really quite justify taking the plunge, partially because I was highly sceptical of the picture quality.

Now the price is right, and LCD televisions are prevalent enough to put Sky HD into the minds of many more customers, it seems like a sensible time for me to cast my sceptical eye over the product and service and cast my belated opinion into the sea of reviews already occupying the internet.

Furthermore, the new Sky HD EPG software is working its way gradually onto boxes nationwide in a very careful and phased manner meaning I have the perfect opportunity to run through its features and improvements when it finally arrives on my box.

This morning I had a Sky HD box installed and a Sky+ box relocated to the bedroom which was previously serviced by a SlingBox/SlingCatcher combination. I can say right off the bat that Sky Multi-room runs absolute rings around the SlingBox + SlingCatcher combination, but there are benefits and drawbacks to each.

A SlingCatcher and SlingBox combined will set you back about £300, if you need to somehow network these two together then you will easily spend a further £60 on HomePlug devices which are arguably the best way of doing this, shy of a 20-meter network cable. Multi-room will set you back £10 a month.

The SlingCatcher and SlingBox combination will have an infuriating lag on remote input, that makes fast-forwarding through advertisements somewhat of a chore. Furthermore you can only watch one channel in both rooms, making it an inflexible, sluggish and over-engineered solution.

This harsh reality, combined with the lacklustre media playback features and infrequency of firmware updates to the SlingCatcher has dispelled most of the awe and wonder I originally had for the device. If you’re considering a SlingCatcher for use in a bedroom at home and have Sky Multi-room as an alternative then plumb for the latter. Sure, it’ll cost more in the long run but it’s worth it. Particularly when you factor in the potential ability to watch or record up to 4 programs simultaneously.

On the topic of SlingBoxes I was very surprised to discover that the Sky HD box keeps all of its outputs active at all times. This means that, should you upgrade from Sky+ to Sky HD, you can keep your existing SlingBox Solo and hook it up to the Composite output, where it will receive the same (albeit in SD) picture that your TV will be receiving via HDMI. Nifty. This dispelled the fear that my beloved SlingBox would become unusable or obsolete and have to be relocated upstairs following the HD installation.

The setup now is actually quite a lot better than it was before. When sitting upstairs it’s now possible to watch both the upstairs Sky+ box and, via SlingPlayer, the downstairs Sky HD box. There are probably few scenarios where we would want to do this, most of them involving our daughter wanting to watch mind-numbingly obtuse and weird Play Disney programs and us wanting to watch something vaguely thought provoking. It’s always nice to be able to watch TV discretely via SlingPlayer on a netbook or laptop and eventually on the iPhone when I swallow the steep price of the SlingPlayer App.

The other benefit is, of course, for guests. Whilst we comfortably watch and even record TV in our bedroom, a guest can use the SlingBox-served Sky HD at their leisure, viewing upstairs on their laptop or simply right on the big screen.

Anyway, back to the HD-ness of HD, I haven’t yet had much time to watch it but did spend a lot of time watching a documentary which was, unbeknown to me, actually being displayed on my television via my old, composite SlingBox connection. I didn’t really look close, but remember thinking “hey, this actually looks better than I expected.” Suffice to say, my expectations of Sky HD were extraordinarily low, and were easily met. There’s quite a number of HD channels now available, too, so if you particularly like your movies and primetime Sky 1 television in HD then the extra £10 is a £10 worth spent and a £10 that will go further towards bringing more content providers into the fold. Unfortunately, £10 for HD and £10 for Multiroom add up to quite a steep £20 a month extra. I’ve been assured that Sky, if it were in their power, would charge much less for these services but, unfortunately, like any other content deliverer (is that a word?) they are under the thumb of their content providers to charge for every simultaneous viewing and nickle and dime us for every kind of content.

This leads me to believe that, in light of the recent Xbox 360 and Sky+ partnership, an upgrade to HD with an Xbox 360 to deliver on-demand content to your bedroom could be a wise purchase depending on what key dramas actually end up being delivered via the 360-based service. That is to say… Sky Player needs Sky 1 before I would even consider using the service as the primary means of watching TV in the bedroom. The current nickle-and-dime you for on-demand episodes could easily work in conjunction with this. At the moment, though, Sky Multiroom is a nigh-on unbeatable service for subscribers that, sadly, SlingPlayer and those godawful wireless television streaming devices can’t touch the usability and convenience of.

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