A closer look at Sky Q

From the redesigned UI to the new app and touch remote, this is the next generation of Sky service.

Sky's hardware hasn't changed a great deal since the Sky+HD set-top box debuted nearly 10 years ago. Viewing habits, on the other hand, couldn't be more different. Catch-up and streaming services, smartphones and tablets, torrents and YouTube have all played a part in eroding the value of a primetime slot and a hardline to the living room TV. More changes are also afoot, with high definition about to give way to Ultra HD, thanks to the dabbling of BT, Netflix and others. It's a sensible time for Sky to start afresh with Sky Q, a new generation of products headlined by the compact, 4K-ready "Silver" set-top box.

With Ultra HD output, a 2TB drive and 12 tuners for watching live TV, recording concurrent channels and accommodating other boxes/devices, the Q Silver box is for serious home entertainment setups. For less demanding households, there's also the more modest Q box with a max output resolution of 1080p, a 1TB drive and a couple fewer tuners.

Getting Sky set up in multiple rooms used to mean multiple set-top boxes. It still does, but the new Sky Q Mini is only as big as it needs to be to feed off the primary box. Exclusive to broadband customers but not required for TV services, the Sky Q Hub router adds powerline networking support to any Q box, as well as turning them into WiFi repeaters.

While we're still waiting on pricing/availability details and a timeline for the launch of 4K broadcasts that's tighter than "later this year," Sky's been keen to show off the new Q family, including the completely redesigned UI, new app and of course, that fancy touchpad remote.

A fresh face

Sky's set-top box UI has evolved from simple and graphically challenged to feature-rich, visually driven and recommendation-savvy over the last ten-plus years. Every iteration has been an improvement on the last, but Sky Q is an opportunity to start from scratch, presenting the best features in a new way and adding a few more for good measure. Don't worry: The picture-in-picture (PiP) view of what's currently on still persists throughout much of the new UI, so you're rarely not watching something. Curiously, though, it commands an entire vertical panel of otherwise dead space.

In general, the UI tries to keep text and lists to a minimum, preferring to appeal to you with hero images, DVD covers and screenshots wherever possible. Several of the main menu options will be familiar, or at least self-explanatory. The new EPG is, well, much like the old EPG, or any EPG. It's a spreadsheet of channels and shows, though scrolling animations and other visual effects are a little more elaborate than before (this is true of the UI as a whole, in fact).

Aside from allowing the PiP to take over a quarter of the screen, Sky's made a relatively radical change to the behaviour of the EPG. The cursor, for lack of a better word, is now anchored to the top of screen, just below the broadcast/channel information. To put it another way, this means you no longer scroll down a list, the list scrolls up to you. The idea is your position in the EPG is always right next to the description of what's on, so your eyes needn't flit between two focal points. During my brief play, I couldn't decide whether I got on with it or not; whether it was efficient or claustrophobic.

Other core menu entries include Catch Up TV, where you'll find content from iPlayer, ITV Hub et al., and Recordings, aka the new Planner. The Movies, Box Sets and Store sections surface everything there is to watch, rent and buy across Sky's various channels and services. Top Picks is where you'll find a human-curated catalogue of potentially good stuff, while My Q is the page that puts the algorithms to work. Like any recommendation engine, it suggests shows and films to watch based on your prior viewing habits, but this also changes throughout the day (if you tend to watch news in the morning and sitcoms in the evening, for instance).

Recommendations are almost a secondary feature of the My Q section, though, which also lists all your half-watched recordings for rapid retrieval. My Q is persistent across boxes and devices, so that's where you go to find the episode you paused on the TV to resume on your tablet (Sky calls this "Fluid Viewing"). The remaining menu options are reserved for specific types of entertainment: Sports, Kids, Music and Online Video. Sports surfaces any matches or events that are currently live, alongside upcoming pay-per-view fixtures. Filtering by sport expands this further, adding relevant broadcasts beyond competitive events (like Match of the Day, for example).

The Music category is somewhat similar. Live music channels appear alongside radio and Sky Arts content, and thanks to Vevo integration, you can also browse that service's catalogue to pick specific tunes. From the Music menu, you can allow Apple devices to highjack your TV's speakers using AirPlay. That source can also be pushed to any Sky box in your house for a kind of makeshift multiroom audio setup. If Apple products aren't your thing, you can pair to any box via Bluetooth and repurpose your TV speakers that way, you just don't have any multiroom options.

Online Video is kind of like Sky Q's version of YouTube. In fact, while it's curated by Sky and lives within the Q UI, much of the content is pulled straight from YouTube. Sketches from partners like Funny Or Die and CollegeHumor populate the comedy-themed pages, GoPro and Red Bull clips have their group, and so on (yes, there's one for cute cat videos, too). Dedicated YouTube and Vevo apps are present on Sky Q, but by integrating their content directly in the UI, the idea is you access them in a more seamless and natural way. There are also a couple "in-TV apps" that work in the same way as Xbox One's Snap feature. They take up only a portion of the screen, so you can keep an eye on the football scores while watching something else at the same time. These will be limited to news, weather, help and photo widgets (pulling from Facebook and Instagram) at launch, with more promised in the future.

Blending live TV fed by satellite with catch-up, on-demand and bitesize clips fed by internet services is a major component of the Sky Q experience. This has already been realised to some degree with various updates to the Sky+ UI that pull multiple content sources together. Within the new Sky Q UI, however, everything is intimately linked from the outset. Say you're searching for a particular show, or even a specific episode. When you track it down, you'll land on that show's dedicated page. It'll tell you when it's next being broadcast on live TV, what episodes are available on catch-up, and whether you can rent the entire box set from Sky's store. Basically, it'll highlight every possible way to watch, and also suggest other content of similar genre or theme. It's all about removing barriers so you spend less time looking and more time watching.

My initial impressions of the new Sky Q UI are, on the whole, favourable. Most importantly, it's slick and responsive to navigate despite being visually intensive (there's little point in a fancy UI if it's sluggish to use). I'd argue the persistent PiP takes up a little too much space on-screen, however, and the menu proved a little overwhelming during my brief demo. Recommendations lurk around every turn, and several sections surface the same content in slightly different ways. The UI is busy with what to watch, where to watch it, and what you might want to watch afterwards. If a Sky Q box was under my TV at home, though, I'd probably get used to the menu structure pretty quickly and appreciate being able to do anything in as few "clicks" as possible.

The Sky Q app

You can take pretty much everything I said about the set-top box UI and apply it to the new Sky Q app. By design, they look extremely similar, because when you're at home your tablet is supposed to behave exactly like a TV hooked up to a Sky Q box. The app isn't made to be a second-screen experience: You can't use it as a makeshift remote, nor can you "fling" what's playing on your tablet to a bigger screen, like with EE TV. You can, however, schedule recordings via the app and access everything from live TV to catch-up and on-demand services -- you name it. A tablet does everything a set-top box can when it's linked to your home network, but you aren't limited a great deal when you leave the house.

Like the existing Sky Go app, there are a number of live channels you can stream over cellular or foreign WiFi networks, and catch-up, on-demand and Sky Store services will also work as normal. In addition, the Sky Q app allows you to download anything you've recorded on your main set-top box to your tablet for the first time. Offline viewing is fully supported, though due to rights restrictions, downloaded content will disappear 48 hours after you press play for the first time, or after 30 days if it remains unwatched. Sky is also working with BBC to enable iPlayer downloads from within the Sky Q app. At launch, the Sky Q app will available to iPads and Android tablets, but a smartphone-optimised version is due out later this year.

The Sky Q touch remote

With Sky Q, the blunt object that is the Sky+ remote gives way to the slimmer, sexier touch remote. As Sky tells it, the new flicker was designed to be used without ever needing to be looked at. Gone are the separate buttons for the EPG, box office and programme information, replaced instead by a single home button that brings up the Sky Q UI. There is also one currently dormant button on the side of the remote that'll be used for voice search when it launches later this year. Sky already built a comprehensive search feature for its Sky+ boxes, and it's made the transition over to Sky Q. Whether it be a specific show or film, your favourite actor or football team, search will find any relevant content for you. When voice search comes into play, you'll have the added benefit of not typing terms out on the remote's numpad.

The main design feature of the Sky Q remote is its circular touchpad, because who needs buttons in this touchscreen world? Since we spend all day on our smartphones, the idea is the touchpad is both a familiar and intuitive way to get around a modern UI, and Sky's not wrong. Swiping left and right or up and down to move through the UI felt natural enough, while holding a swipe lets you to scroll indefinitely. The pause, fast-forward and rewind bar above the touchpad is also capacitive, meaning you can drag your thumb across it to manipulate the speed. I found this especially neat, kind of like moving though the timeline at the bottom of a YouTube video. The remote includes a couple of other handy features, too. It connects to boxes via Bluetooth so line-of-sight isn't an issue, and if you lose it down the back of the sofa, press a button on your set-top box and it'll bleep away so you can find it.

The remote is thin, light, and perhaps a tad over-engineered. To illustrate the point, a simpler remote is bundled with Sky Q Mini boxes that uses IR and omits the voice search button and the touchpad. There are normal buttons in its place, of course, and I found it just as easy to navigate the UI on this model without glancing down at my fingers. Don't get me wrong, the touchpad feels great under-thumb, but I worry the novelty of swiping may wear off in time and you'll be left wanting a normal remote with normal buttons.

While I have my reservations about some of the new UI elements and the utility of the touchpad remote, the Sky Q suite is exactly what the company needs right now. The set-top boxes are no longer the size of game consoles, the Sky Q Mini should make multiroom setups more affordable, the UI is responsive and the new Sky Q app is fully featured. Throw in all the extras like 4K support, powerline networking via the Sky Q Hub, AirPlay compatibility and more, and you've got yourself a pretty attractive package. That's easy to say right now, of course, because we're still in the dark on perhaps Sky Q's most important feature: price.