First Look: Sky 3D

The dawn of a new era in television is upon us, but is 3D really the answer? We've given Sky's new 3D service a run for its money to see what's what before the service goes official. It's worth stressing at this point that Sky's 3D service is in its infancy. We've been watching the new 3D channel ahead of the official launch on the 1 October, and while that means that the technicalities of the service are almost complete, it's not fully up and running. As such, we're putting this down as a First Look review - it seems meaningless to claim a full review from a service that isn't fully operating, as you'll see.

3D in the home is going to be made or broken on the content that is available. Sky might have a 3D channel (channel 217), but with nothing to watch, it is not worth you upgrading your television to get the new feature is it? You've probably realised that when you go to the cinema, there is often an option to watch the big blockbusters in 3D. So Sky, deciding to be a leader rather than a follower, has stuck its neck out and started filming things in 3D - like football and rugby - in an attempt to lure the big Hollywood players into believing it has a viable service; thereby guaranteeing its invite to the 3D party. And from yesterday's announcement, it seems its offering is going to be pretty good.

For now the service is free. If you've got a 3D television, and are on one of Sky's top tier tariffs, all you have to do is phone up Sky customer services and enable the channel. We can easily see Sky charging for this in the future, once the content becomes available so be aware of that. Trust us when we say that once you're hooked you'll want to pay for it, so just bear that in mind.

To get Sky 3D in your home you'll need a 3D television and as we've just said a top-tier package from Sky. Before you start reading about the virtues of Passive 3D televisions (using the glasses like you get in the cinema) and Active 3D televisions (using glasses that are considerably more expensive) we can confirm that the Sky 3D service works on both.

You also don't need to worry about the new HDMI 1.4 cables, or a home cinema entertainment system that is 3D ready. We tested the new service using the LG LX9900 LED television, a Denon 2807 receiver (around 3-years-old) and a 1TB Sky HD box - it works perfectly. While a 1.4 HDMI cable via your Blu-ray 3D player would give you the correct "handshake", Sky's hardware doesn't currently support 1.4 so you won't get it even if you upgrade your cables.

The reason you don't need all the extra 3D kit is because of the way Sky broadcasts the new service. Locate the channel on your Sky EPG and you will see the service running two copies of the screen side by side ready for your 3D television to do its trickery.

That means that the signal is still HD, but spilt in two. Okay so it's not 1080i (the highest resolution Sky supports), but it's not like your eyes will notice. The picture is still stunning, and still very crisp. Pressing the 3D button on your television's remote control will turn the image 3D which will then allow you to don your glasses and start enjoying the action.

Currently that action runs from around 10am to 8pm. The content is varied and there aren't any regular shows at the moment. Of course you can record programmes to watch later (or use to impress your mates), but this requires you to spend 20 minutes zipping through the Electronic Programme Guide seeing what's good to watch. At the moment that means previews and show reels with the odd bit of content that's longer than 30 seconds.

So far we've watched a football match, a stack of movie trailers, some insects walking around a forest, some ballet, tennis, boxing and rugby amongst other things. As you can imagine some content works and some doesn't. Our favourite has to be the movie trailers and the insect clips, with the former really being the key to this whole service.

Sky has already confirmed that Ice Age; Dawn of The Dinosaurs, which airs over the launch weekend, followed by Monsters vs Aliens, Coraline, Alice In Wonderland, Bolt, Fly Me To The Moon, Cloudy with A Chance Of Meatballs and My Bloody Valentine will all be showing.

In addition to this, the following titles will be available via pay-per-view: StreetDance UK, Garfield’s Pet Force, Step Up 3D and A Christmas Carol - matching those available on the Virgin Media 3D service announced on 28 September. Furthermore Sky has confirmed that in January 2011 Sky 3D will exclusively broadcast all three of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story films in 3D: Toy Story 3 3D will be available pay-per view and Toy Story 1 & 2 at no extra cost. If Sky can carry on getting the big 3D blockbusters (Avatar is notably missing from that lineup) then it is on to a winner.

As for nature programs, so far our viewing has been restricted to clips, but what we've seen has been impressive, we especially like the tarantula crawling towards you - those who suffer from arachnophobia should watch out. Shows confirmed in this area include a "pioneering" feature about the prehistoric world written and presented by Sir David Attenborough, that will have its 3DTV premiere on the Sky 3D channel in December 2010.

But what about football, tennis, golf and other sports in 3D? The 3D effect certainly adds to the experience, but for us not enough to make it a must. Golf is probably the best of the bunch - presumably why Sky is launching the new 3D service with the Ryder Cup coverage in 3D. While football is helped by 3D, we could easily take it or leave it. Sports fans will get live coverage of football, rugby union and boxing, with an average of three live sports events each week, claims Sky, once the service is fully up and running. The fast shots and the staggered depth of field of the crowd just don't really interest us, sorry.

No, this is all about trying to recreate the cinema experience, lights down, nobody talking in your home. But it's not just Sky doing all the work. If you're about to upgrade your television, or have done so already, you've just upgraded to a state of the art TV that is going to give you the best picture you've ever seen in your home; regardless of whether you're watching 2D or 3D footage. Whether it's LG (Sky's preferred partner), Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, or any other 3D TV maker, none of the 3D ready sets on the market are sloppy when it comes to picture performance.

You are getting the crème de la crème that these manufacturers produce and that goes a massive way to increasing your enjoyment. You won't find a 3D ready set under 40 inches and there's a reason for that. It's all about filling your field of vision with TV screen. Whether you are watching 3D or not, the picture is going to look gorgeous.

So are there any downsides to the service? Well currently yes, but according to Sky it is working on a fix. The biggest one is that once you're in 3D mode you won't be able to use the Electronic Program Guide without hurting your eyes. While the image is 3D, Sky has yet to make the interface 3D enabled, and that means a mess of text that is just about readable if you close one eye.

The same goes for the play, pause, fast-forward, and rewind icons. It's a bloodbath that will come at you like a spear from a Zulu warrior. It's not pretty. Sky has confirmed to Pocket-lint that this will be fixed shortly, but at the moment it's not.

The other is content. As we've said this whole service hangs on whether Sky can get the 3D content. While it will be pushing to film plenty of sport that they have the rights for in 3D, if you're in it for the movies it's going to be slow going at the start.

Verdict

Sky 3D is a pioneering service that is free, but requires you to upgrade your television to get some, but currently not a lot, of content. That's not a big ask, that's a massive ask for most people.

The good news is that if you're ready to take the plunge to 3D, or have find yourself with a 3D ready television already, then this is a fantastic bonus above and beyond the rather dire state of affairs of Blu-ray 3D films available in the UK.

When we asked Mrs Pocket-lint whether she would watch 3D content after watching what basically amounts to clips and trailers, we still got a yes - strong praise indeed. But it is still a gimmick, something that adds to, but doesn't totally make, the movie. What is clear is that Sky's 3D service might only be one channel, but shows what is possible in the home. For us that means movies rather than sport, but once those movies start coming, if you're a movie buff this is likely to please.

As for the early adopter who likes his toys, this is as good as it gets in the run up to Christmas to impress your mates, but be warned, this isn't a cheap game to get into and we can imagine that whole families will find that Father Christmas has left them a pair of 3D glasses in their stocking.



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