UK Satellite pay TV and ISP provider Sky has announced its new Sky Q set-top box family. The new product range, set to launch early 2016, features two flavours of multimedia home gateways (MHG): the standard box “Sky Q” and its premium equivalent “Sky Q Silver”, there is also a companion thin client branded the “Sky Q Mini”.
Sky Q Silver is 4K ready (HDMI 1.4, HDCP 1.2), it features a 2TB hard drive and with 12 tuners, subscribers can record up to four channels whilst watching the fifth channel live simultaneously. Up to two Sky Q minis can be connected to the Sky Q either over Ethernet or WiFi (2x2 2.4GHz 801.11n and 3x3 5GHz 801.1ac) and two tablets can be connected to the MHG as well. The standard Sky Q box is not dissimilar in ability with differences being; record up to three channels whilst watching a fourth, support for one Sky Q Mini and one tablet, not 4K ready and features a 1.5TB hard drive. The new Sky Q STB hardware ecosystem however, will not work with legacy Sky STBs.
Alongside this launch, comes a new user interface (UI) and a re-designed remote control. The “Sky Q touch remote” features new shortcuts buttons such as a dedicated search and recordings button, a touchpad for browsing and volume control, Bluetooth connectivity and voice control – this will be made available sometime after the launch. Additionally, Sky’s new Q platform will bring along with it a new Sky Q app and will be able to support apps, (not streaming apps) and AirPlay, in conjunction with this, Sky has breathed new life into its router. All the new Sky Q products support Powerline.
The pricing for the Sky Q platform and its new boxes or UHD service has not been disclosed. Read more about the Sky Q Platform.
Sky’s announcement of Sky Q, codenamed Project Ethan, has been highly anticipated; Sky’s last box innovation was nearly some 10 years ago with the deployment of the Sky HD+ box. Having been shadowed by BT’s UHD STB this summer, the Sky Q announcement shows that Sky’s next generation TV experience is not merely about providing UHD.
The new hardware ecosystem closely follows US satellite pay TV operators such as DirecTV and Dish Network, who have both embraced the MHG architecture. The advantages of deploying a MHG are plenty, beyond simply being about introducing multi-room functionality, for Sky, these MHGs will be able to distribute content over a managed network to unmanaged devices such as tablets whilst guaranteeing quality of service. MHGs also have a side-loading functionality meaning Sky Q subscribers, even without an active internet connection, will be able to consume recorded content out of the home, providing that the content has been synced to the tablet.
Regardless, most conspicuous is the absence of HDMI 2.0 support in the 4K-capable Sky Q Silver. The implication is that UHD content can only be delivered at 2160p30 and in certain genres such as sports, a higher frame rate is a differentiating factor; currently BT Sport delivers at 2160p50 (HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2). The omission of support for higher framerates could be seen an issue for Sky and its sports channels, but because of the MHG architecture, Sky can choose to deploy another Sky Q Mini thin client with support for HDMI 2.0 and HDMI 2.0a at a later date, when UHD and HDR content becomes more readily available.
Similarly, Sky has chosen to omit app support for OTT services such as Netflix, likely in a move to preserve its own in-house content’s positioning and to clearly differentiate Sky Q from its pay TV lite service Now TV. The pay TV provider has instead chosen to support AirPlay as well as YouTube and publishers such as GoPro, answering the subscribers’ needs to have a comprehensive pay TV experience which encompasses the many facets of their lives.
Most interesting is Sky’s decision to scrap its iconic remote. Sky Q brings forth a new re-designed remote featuring a touch pad, following the industry trend whereby controls are simplified and appeals to subscribers’ familiarity with smartphones – swiping, taping, voice control and designed with smartphone-like dimensions and ergonomics. The new de-cluttered touch remote also seeks to reduce customer frustration by introducing new shortcut buttons, which eliminates the need to scroll through multiple menus to access TV recordings or search content. Coupled with this new touch remote is the new Sky Q user-interface (UI), besides a complete overhaul in aesthetics, the new UI introduces a new tab called “My Q”, which provides subscribers with personalised recommendations. In addition to this, Sky's new Sky Q app is an improved version of the existing Sky Go App; designed to bolsters Sky's multiscreen and multiroom proposition. It suggests to subscribers that content consumption and discovery can be controlled by any connected device, overall Sky seeks to make its TV experience highly accessible.
Ultimately, Sky is playing on two fronts: its standalone pay TV lite service Now TV is designed for the millennials or cord cutters and now the new Sky Q is to appeal and keep those traditional but increasingly media-centric pay TV subscribers, who consume heavy amounts of broadcast and VoD/Internet video. The incorporation of OTT features and new accessories in Sky Q is about highlighting the fullness of a pay TV service and how pay TV will look as it moves into the next-generation. In decoupling their next-gen UI and UX platform from the issue of content resolution, Sky has positioned user-experience as the center of value, and resolution (UHD) as a mere incremental upsell. However implicitly, Sky is setting a precedent by cleaving its next-gen CPE strategy across 2 different boxes. Yet, the main precedent that Sky is setting has everything to do with UX’s being positioned as a first-line-of-defense against OTT, and as the key to new-subscriber acquisition. With respect to what occurred around HD, Sky’s approach represents a strategic reversal, and one in which resolution is no longer comprises outright center of (new) value.