The Sky Q service has been a number of years in the making. Now that it's here we've had it installed in the home and, over the past two weeks, we've had plenty of time living with the ecosystem.
For the purpose of this review we've got the Sky Q Silver box with a Sky Q Touch Remote, two Sky Q Mini boxes in separate rooms, the Sky Q Hub powering it all, and the Sky Q app on an iPad for watching content elsewhere in the house, or on the go. We already had a Sky Fibre broadband internet connection from an earlier install. As such we've not tested the standard Sky Q box, but that is simply a cut-down version of the Silver box (read our Sky Q Silver vs Sky Q feature), so the experience will be similar.
Now Sky Q it is available to buy, here's what you can expect. Is it worth that upgrade?
Sky Q Silver box review: The big daddy box
The Sky Q Silver box is at the top of the Sky Q food chain, yet is still housed in a box that is slimmer and less boxy than the Sky+HD hardware - at about half the size. It has a staggering 12 TV tuners inside and is 4K Ultra High Definition compatible, so when 4K content becomes available - potentially later this year - it will be able to handle that.
The Silver box is also the storage hub of the home - even though the router is technically named as such, as it (or the standard Sky Q box) is required to make the whole system work.
The Sky Q Silver box has a 2TB hard drive inside for recordings or to store downloaded shows and movies. And that HDD can be accessed by all other connected devices around the home, including Sky Q Mini boxes, Android tablets or iPads.
The 12 TV tuners can't all be utilised for recordings (that would be insane). Instead, one is used to provide the live TV broadcast, one for picture-in-picture view of another channel while looking at the on-screen mini-EPG, and four are for recordings to allow four simultaneous different channel recordings at once, while watching another. There are two tuners set aside for connected tablet devices, and two for Sky Q Mini box connections, so they can all watch content live from the box, plus a network tuner. The final remaining tuner is set aside for future use.
The standard Sky Q box similarly splits its eight tuners, but three are for recordings rather than four, while only one is utilised for external tablet use, and just the one for simultaneous viewing on a Sky Q Mini box. Ultimately that means less simultaneous recordings/viewings from the standard box. Both Sky Q boxes also have a HDMI input as well as out, which could be used in the future - although that functionality isn't available at launch.
All Sky Q devices will eventually be able to talk to each other over powerline connections, which means that if they cannot detect a Wi-Fi signal or that's not fast or strong enough, they look to transmit and receive network signals through your home's existing electrical cables instead. However, that feature isn't enabled at launch, much to the chagrin of our installers.
You can use a direct Ethernet cable for connection - we have for our setup - but again, Sky engineers have been told they shouldn't at the moment, and even then you have to have a direct cable from one box to another, or if it must go through a network switch, a decent network switch. We tried with a cheap offering at first, and it didn't work.
Sky Q Touch Remote review: Buttons and touch-control
Both Sky Q Silver and Sky Q boxes come with a Sky Q Touch Remote. The build isn't as "spongey" as the previous remote, but functionality has been vastly improved and a plethora of buttons you probably never used have been ditched. It really adds something different to the TV experience by adding swipe controls to the usual button-press experience.
Connected via Bluetooth rather than infrared - so you don't have to have direct line-of-sight to the Sky Q box - it's an ideal connection if you want to hide the box in a cupboard out of view. Plus, if you lose the control down the side of the sofa then a quick press of the "Q" logo on the Sky Q box will force it to beep so you can attempt to try and track it down - with three kids in the house, we've already used this feature a lot.
On the remote itself is a large, round touch-panel that we've used the most. It works in a similar way to the latest Apple TV remote - in that swipes and occasional presses on the pad replace almost every other function you've previously needed a button for. A click of this touchpad brings up the on-screen electronic programme guide (EPG), which can then be navigated through using the touch functionality.
The touch features don't just extend to the black circle on the remote, as the silver dial to the top of the dial can be used with swipes to control the speed of fast forward and rewind, although you can still tap if that feels a little too "futuristic". We like that the rewind and forward functionality can be manipulated by swiping your thumb or finger around the top of the circular strip; move it more towards either edge and the zipping back and forth through video speeds up or slows down respectively.
There are still plenty of traditional buttons, though, including a red record button to make sure you won't miss a programme, but gone is a direct button to the TV guide (no, really). Newly welcomed additions are a dedicated button to your recordings, search, and a HDMI input switch so you can finally ditch your dedicated TV remote once and for all. There's also a three-dot button used to jump to the app side-bar and a voice-control button that is currently defunct awaiting that feature to go live.
Meanwhile the standard Sky Q Remote, which comes with the Sky Q Mini boxes, has mostly the same functionality, albeit minus the Touchpad which is replaced instead with dedicated selection of buttons. The experience is akin to the remote Sky HD customers will be used to, but with the functionality of some of the new buttons detailed above. This remote is infrared rather than Bluetooth too, so you will need a direct line of sight to the Mini box - a shame as that means you won't be able to hide them away like you can the main Sky Q box.
And before you ask, no you can't use the older Sky remotes with Sky Q. You can, however, use the Sky Q Touch Remote to control a Q Mini - not that such a remote comes with it, but you can buy extras separately if you really want.
Sky Q Mini review: TV in other rooms
Even though the Sky Q Mini is essentially a media streamer only, it clevery acts almost exactly like the Sky Q or Sky Q Silver box that feeds it. You will barely know the difference, with little or no lag in video streaming between them.
The one thing we have noticed on the user interface that was different to that on the main set-top-box is you don't get the picture-in-picture feed on the pop-up EPG or access to the apps like YouTube or Vevo. Other than that everything - all recordings and streamed shows - are instantly accessible in the same way as they are on the main box.
It is super quick in operation too, having the same tech inside as the Sky Q box, save for the tuners. That means 1080p "Full HD" output quality.
Multiple Sky Q Mini boxes can be situated around a home, but only two can be used concurrently. They will also act as Wi-Fi extenders if you have the Sky Q Hub broadband router, working to boost your Wi-Fi signal around the house.
Sky Q Hub review: The source of entertainment?
Dual-band, with 2.4GHz and 5GHz bandwidths working concurrently, Sky Q has Gigabit Ethernet support, but only two sockets rather than the four previously found on the Sky Hub.
That's a huge pain, especially if you've got lots of other devices needing a connection and a surprise given the amount of smarthome connected devices requiring a bridge to connect directly to your router these days. For us we've had to get a network switch (NetGear) to cope with "connected bridges" for Philips Hue and Honeywell Evohome, as well as move away from a wired Xbox One and PS4 to Wi-Fi only.
The other perhaps strange move from Sky is that currently you need to use the Sky Q Hub router to be able to talk to the Sky Q box and any Sky Q Mini boxes you have. Start using another router and the system knows and won't work. Sky clearly wants you to stay within the Sky system.
This above point is likely to change, but at the moment your network will be powered by Sky broadband and connected via the Sky Q hub with Sky Boosters and nothing else. For most that won't be a problem, but those who want more out of their networking capabilities will be disappointed.
Sky Q review: A new user experience
The hardware aside, the user experience is by far the most important part of the Sky Q setup. Yes, those TV tuners are necessary and the multi-room features exciting, but the main menu system and smart abilities of the software are what make Sky's new tech next-generation. It's like the Sonos of TV, or Sling box if you can remember that far back, taking many of the features other streaming services have adopted as standard and applying that to all your TV stations.
It all starts with the homepage (Top Picks), which will come as a revelation to those who already use a Sky box. Although the user interface (UI) on those boxes have been refined to within an inch of their lives, this is a bold new step in the right direction, with a layout that makes it so much easier to navigate - although it does encourage more scrolling and adds a number of additional cool features to initally figure out.
Rather than a top bar of tabs on the conventional Sky boxes, navigation in Sky Q is through horizontal planes, which run from left to right. On the left, there's a picture-in-picture view of the current channel. On the right-hand side you always see the relevant information of content for a specific section. It's initially complex but after some learning it's easy to understand. Flick through menus in a similar way to media apps such as Plex, by selecting subject headings in simple to access lists. They are all meticulously thought out, so that the content you most want to get to quickly is available through as few swipes on the touchpad as possible.
The other thing you immediately notice about the Sky Q UI is it's very picture based and content rich. All films and shows are represented by cover art, whether they are your own recordings, streamed/downloaded shows, or content available on the internet (such as YouTube or Vevo videos). And that's also key to Sky's philosophy behind the new system: it needn't ever matter to the end user; it is about presenting the shows you want to watch when you want to watch them, regardless of the source. The new UI really showcases the depth and breath of Sky's offering.
The menu system has new highlights sections: Top Picks an example of showcase featured shows, or, for example, the Kids section which is even broken down as far as "shows on Milkshake". The upshot is that we've already watched a number of programmes we didn't know even existed.
There are additional software tools that help aid that goal too, including the My Q section of the homepage. This is split into several sub-categories, with curated content suggestions, suggestions of programming based on other shows and films you've enjoyed in the past, and perhaps most excitingly, a function whereby additional episodes of series you are currently watching automatically appear in your collection as they become available.
Watch episode five of Supergirl, for example, and episode six will appear in your My Q section as soon as it has been broadcasted, while things you've got half way through watching are ready to watch where you paused them. It's like the "You're watching" feature in Netflix and makes things a lot easier to pick up where you left off.
Sky Q review: Fluid Viewing, not for live TV
Which is handy because that's one of the big selling points of Sky Q: Fluid Viewing. This feature lets you pick up where you left off on devices around the home. Start watching a recorded show in the lounge and if you want to go and curl up in bed you can simply fire-up the Sky Q Mini and carry on. It's the same on a tablet too.
Perhaps somewhat misleading is that this is not possible with live TV. There is a work-around, by recording the show before you move locations, but nonetheless something that confused us at the start. Also don't expect to stream personal videos, Netflix, or Amazon Prime to your TV through the box - because you can't.
It's not just about jumping from device to device though. If you click on the touchpad during a TV show that is either recorded or streamed, you get an option to scroll through other episodes and subsequently download them, all while you continue to watch the one that is currently being played. And if you do the same with a film, you can see recommended similar films.
Music is now heavily catered for too. There's a dedicated section in the UI that highlights the broadcaster's Sky Arts coverage a lot better, while music channels, national radio, and now Vevo all get equal billing. Vevo offers three 24-hour music channels along with the ability to create your own radio station based on the starting artist similar to Spotify Radio. When you've given up trying to work out what to listen to from the various channels and services from Sky you can Bluetooth or AirPlay music from your own device to the TV. Then send the track to all boxes around the home, synchronising them if you're having a house party. Sonos who? Multi-room eat your heart out.
On the whole the new Sky Q software experience is a good one. It's picture rich, easy to find your way around and comes with new features like the ability to share Facebook pictures or even go as far as check your bill. In terms of parental settings it's as good as you would expect, giving you peace of mind if you've got kids.
This system isn't always perfect though. There's no quick way to get to the TV guide, for example. Instead it's a lengthy process involving four steps. That's partly down to Sky trying to promote that the box is so much more now, and perhaps a response to how we've all changed the way we watch televisions - but those keen to see what's on TV quickly will find it laborious.
Then there are strange tweaks that make sense but that will be alien to most current Sky users. Pressing "i" on the remote while watching a show or movie brings up the information card, but pressing it again as you used to on Sky HD doesn't dismiss it - you have to use the dismiss key instead. Likewise you now press down to go up the channels, rather than pressing the up key. That's logical for many competitor EPGs, but it's the reverse of what Sky has used for so long - we suspect many long-time Sky subscribers will be initially baffled. Things like this aren't going to destroy the experience, but you should expect there will be some learning to do, and more so than we expected.
Sky Q review: Apps make for more than just TV
Aside from the new EPG to master, Sky has introduced Apps within the Sky Q experience. There are two types of apps: ones that you can slide load while watching television like Sky News or the weather; and more traditional ones that provide content.
The first apps that you will get with Sky Q initially are for music and video services Vevo and YouTube. There is currently no Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. They are both as in-depth, smooth-to-run and intuitive as equivalent apps on any other platform. It's worth noting, though, that YouTube is not capable of 4K video streaming, even on the Sky Q Silver box. Whether that changes in future is yet to be seen, but for now it is capped at 1080p. It is rare to get 4K streaming with YouTube on separate set-top-boxes, though, typically it's internal TV apps that are 4K-capable - but with Sky Q pushing the future of TV, you might have expected such a feature straight out of the box.
Sky has secured content deals with other video sources, but rather than present them as separate applications, it places the video clips in one of its own homepage menus, with similar styling to the rest of the Sky Q experience. There's plenty to discover, with different categories (including "cute") and we anticipate many more content partnerships to be struck in the future.
Sky Q iPad app review: Sky Q on the go
The Sky Q app - we're using the iPad - offers a similar experience to the main UI, but on a mobile device. Much of the offering will be familiar to users of Sky Go - albeit with a different styling - but there is the headline feature, something nobody else has managed before: remote access to recordings as long as you are on the same Wi-Fi network.
Not only can you watch your recorded shows streamed from the Sky Q Silver or Sky Q boxes elsewhere around the home, but you can download them for offline viewing. Yes, relaxing in the bath, you can finally watch all those shows you've got recorded on your Sky Q box downstairs. For Sky customers who've wanted to do this, but have never been able to, it changes everything.
Move away from the home network and you'll have to make sure you've downloaded what you want to watch before you leave the house though. Not all content is available to download because of rights deals, but the vast majority will be, and we've already enjoyed Sky Q on a plane.
Of course, on-demand content will be available for download and to watch offline too, so the app really will be the one-stop shop to watch pretty much anything you want, at home or away, and is perfect for travelling.
Having spent two weeks using Sky Q at home it feels like Sky has created a device to suit all tastes and needs, with a strong multi-room focus and a modern outlook on household entertainment desires.
The new user interface is vast and has the power to change how you watch television, encouraging you to watch more content when, where and how you want to. There's still live TV aplenty, but it's almost been pushed to the background. Of all the features it's being able to watch our recordings remotely that we've been waiting on for years, which is finally here.
With pricing being within affordable rather than other-worldly levels - certainly compared to previous Sky pricing, although some will certainly disagree - we have to say that Sky Q has all the potential of being the best TV service we've ever had.
However, currently it's very much the version one experience, without the 4K content that the service can and will deliver in the future, and with some small issues to still iron out. But the good news is that the service will get better over time as more and more features are added.