Three years on from launch, Sky’s Q pay-TV service has changed quite a lot, and so has the competition, both from old and new players. So is the satellite broadcaster’s box still the one to beat?
When Q launched in 2016 it dragged Sky’s pay-TV platform kicking and screaming into the TV-anywhere age first ushered in by services such as Netflix.
There were some great bits, such as the ability to stream your recordings around the house both to Q Mini boxes attached to TVs and to apps on tablets and phones. There were also some not-so-great bits, such as a polarising touch-sensitive remote that some simply couldn’t stand.
After three years of maturation, Sky Q has improved in all the right areas while keeping the good bits just the way they were.
Sky Q is arguably the best regular TV-watching experience you can get for a couple of key reasons. If you pay the extra £5 a month, proactively everything is in HD, apart from FreeSports, which is in HD exclusively on Virgin. It’s fast to switch in and out of channels and to the guide. You can also edit the TV guide, not only to remove channels you don’t want to see, but to reorder them into your preferred list.
I can’t tell you how much of a revelation that has been. No more is there standard definition BBC 1 right at the top – who wants to watch SD content in 2019? My Favourites guide shows me just the channels I want and in an actually logical order.
The New Series guide is excellent too, keeping you abreast of the latest shows starting up in the very near future. Go here, set them to record and relax. If you don’t watch TV with adverts – as I don’t – discovering when new things are going to be broadcast is really difficult without something like this.
More 4K TV
If you’ve bought a 4K UHD TV, and it’s likely you have if you’ve bought practically any new large TV in the last year, then you want things to watch on it. While there are some 4K movies and TV shows on services such as Netflix or Amazon, Sky has the most broadcast and TV show 4K content available.
You need the Sky Q Experience pack and the 2TB Sky Q box to get 4K, but you can watch all of Sky’s Premier League games and many English Football League games live in 4K, alongside F1, darts, rugby, boxing and others. The one hole is BT Sport, which is not currently available in 4K on Sky, but is on competitors.
TV other than sport is accessed through on-demand in 4K, with a large proportion of TV shows shown on Sky’s various channels are available to download in 4K, including series such as Game of Thrones.
Sadly that doesn’t include the traditional terrestrial channels, such as BBC, ITV or Channel 4. The Q box doesn’t support HDR yet, although it is coming. There’s also no way to automatically grab the 4K version as soon as something is recorded, meaning I ended up recording a programme as a placeholder then downloading it in 4K before I wanted to watch it.
Sky’s handling of on-demand content is also excellent – seamless and entirely within the same user interface without throwing you out to another app such as iPlayer. Shows are downloaded to the box but you can watch them while they’re downloading, which means there’s no buffering to deal with – great for those without really fast broadband.
There’s so much on-demand content that Sky rivals Netflix for binge-watching potential. If you’re watching a box set the next episode will download in the background while you’re watching, meaning it’s ready to go when you are. And with the right package you also get Netflix thrown in, which is searchable alongside everything else.
Voice search and control
Sky Q had unified search at launch, which worked very well. Voice search has since been added, making it much faster. Hold the button the remote and ask for what you want, be it a show, movie, actor or anything else. It’s so much faster than manually typing out letters.
You can also navigate the interface and control playback via voice. Hold the button and say “go home”, “open the TV guide” or “skip 30 minutes” to do so instantly. It’s very slick.
Aside from regular TV and sport, Sky’s movie service has moved on somewhat too. While you can certainly watch movies on the various Sky Cinema channels, everything being shown and more is available on-demand, with 200 or so in 4K with Dolby Atmos soundtracks too.
There are about 1,000 movies on Sky Cinema at any one time. New ones become available after being in the cinema and after being on pay-per-view services including the Sky Store – Sky’s separate rental or purchase movie service that isn’t included in a Sky Cinema subscription. That means you have to wait some time for the latest blockbusters, and that you could have bought or rented them from Amazon, iTunes, Google Play or Sky before they are included in your subscription.
TV around the house
Q changed the way Sky delivered content to multiple TVs, essentially turning the main box into a hub to feed smaller Mini Q boxes or the Sky Q on a smartphone or tablet.
The Mini Q boxes remain unchanged and are great for putting Sky on another TV, but only in HD, not 4K. Better is the new Sky Go app, which has superseded the Sky Q app and is available on a wider range of devices, including iPads, iPhones, Android devices and Amazon’s popular Fire tablets.
With the Sky Go app you can watch live TV, continue watching recordings in the home or download them to go, or set things to be recorded remotely on Q box. The one thing you can’t do is watch content that was downloaded to the Q box in 4K in the Sky Go app, so you have to stream it directly in HD. You also can’t cast or output it via cable to another screen and there’s no Windows 10 Sky Go app, but you can access some functions in a browser.
The Sky Q main box makes an annoying vibration noise every so often that requires you to get up and press the top of it to stop
When it rains heavily or there’s thunder in the area the signal can cut out completely and/or cause the box to crash requiring a power off and on again
Press the ... button on the remote for apps (Sky news, sports, photos, weather and help) – but I never found a use for them
Press the Sky button on the remote to go straight to recordings
Press and hold the button on the Sky Q box to find the remote
On-demand content in 4K is blissfully advert-free at the moment
There’s Spotify and YouTube (but not in 4K) on the Q boxes, and you can use Apple’s AirPlay to stream music to them too
The audio output (optical or HDMI) of the Sky Q box has less variation in volume between adverts and channels, and is of higher quality than many other broadcast and streaming boxes
As is the case with every pay-TV provider, how much you actually pay is complicated and depends on what type of content you want to watch.
The Sky Q box comes in 1TB or 2TB versions. The 1TB box can record three shows at once and watch a fourth, the 2TB box six shows and watch a seventh and can be 4K-enabled with the additional Sky Q Experience subscription.
Sky Entertainment in standard definition is the starting subscription costing £22. HD an extra £5 a month, which includes 42 channels in the Entertainment pack and unlocks HD content in on-demand and kids’ packs, and HD, two-screen in Netflix. BBC, ITV and Channel 4 HD channels are in HD regardless.
Ultimate On Demand includes 500 of Sky’s box sets and Netflix subscription for £12 a month.
Sky Sports comes in HD by default and ranges in price from £18 to £30 a month depending on how many channels or sports you want. BT Sport is an extra £20 a month at least.
Sky Cinema comes in HD by default and costs £11 a month.
Sky Kids TV is £5 a month and is aimed at children up to 12 years old with 11 channels and over 5,000 episodes on demand, plus access to the Sky Kids app and a Kids Safe Mode on the Sky Q box.
Sky Q Experience costs £13 a month and is required for 4K, but also enables viewing on the Sky Go app or Q Mini boxes in the home. It includes Sky Go Extra (£5 a month otherwise), which allows you to download content on a tablet or phone, and 4K four-screen in Netflix if you have Ultimate On Demand as well. HD isn’t required, so you can have 4K without having regular HD if you wanted.
There may also be set-up fees required and Sky routinely runs offers that discount services for fixed periods. There’s a set 18-month contract for new subscriptions, but some add-ons are rolling 31-day additions.
Prices are also different if you take out more than one service with Sky, such as broadband and phone with TV, and often far better value.
Sky Q delivers the best possible pay-TV experience in the UK right now. There’s no better place for accessing 4K TV content, which unlike movies is still fairly hard to actually get through other means apart from original shows from Netflix and Amazon.
The user interface is modern, fast and nice to use. You can properly edit the TV guide to your liking. On-demand content is handled in a seamless, native way rather than throwing you out into what are effectively smart TV apps. Voice search and control is simple, effective and practically instant. You can watch live, recorded or downloaded TV on your phone or tablet, both inside and outside your home. If you want more you can get Q Mini boxes to attach to secondary TVs, too.
The two notable omissions are lack of HDR support and even if you pay extra to access BT Sport, it’s not available in 4K. But the biggest problem is the not inconsiderable price. Like most pay-TV competitors it requires you take everything from one provider (phone, broadband, TV and mobile) to make it better value.
With so many over-the-top competitors now, including subscription and pay as you watch options, there’s a question mark hanging over all pay-TV services. Even Sky has one in the form of the cheaper, streaming-only Now TV.
But with Sky Q you get what you pay for – a premium TV service with a premium price.
Pros: fast box, slick interface, editable TV guide, TV all over your home, large selection of on-demand content + Netflix integration, fully-integrated catch up, excellent voice control, unified search, 4K, Dolby Atmos
Cons: expensive and complicated pricing, lacks Amazon Prime Video, no HDR, no 4K YouTube