At last, I’ve got Sky HD. The install happened on Saturday, and now I’m enjoying glorious pictures. Well, nicer ones with the occasional wow factor. Here’s the rundown on how things work and are going so far.
Let’s start outdoors, with the disk upgrade:
Hanging off the disk is the new “octo” LNB. That’s octo as in having eight outputs. Previously, I had a quad LNB as does anyone with a Sky+ box. You needed the quad because Sky+ required at least two outputs, and a standard Sky LNB has only one. The quad let you have Sky+ along with capacity for an additional regular Sky box or two.
Sky HD is just like Sky+ — you need two outputs. And if you already have Sky+ like me, you’ll might want to keep that box under a multiroom subscription. So that’s four outputs needed. But I asked for the octo, because I’ll use the fifth lead eventually to run a spare Sky box as a free-to-air/Freeview box (and still will have three spare ones after that). I’d heard octos were available, and the installer didn’t hesitate to put one on. I’d recommend you ask for it to ensure it’s provided.
Here’s a close-up, where I’ve pulled the little covering box down from the LNB, to expose where the leads go in:
You can see I’m using only four of the eight so far. Adding extras is easy — just attach the additional cable.
Onward to the Sky HD decoder box, which is contained within its own pretty box:
What have we got inside? Here’s everything:
Specifically, you’ve got the Sky HD box itself, a power cord for the box and a remote and batteries. There’s an RF cable, a phone line cable, a Scart cable and amazingly, and HDMI cable.
Actually, perhaps it’s not so amazing they threw this in. Without that cable, you’re either not going to get actual HD quality or you’ll have to get it through a component video output. And since your TV likely only has one HDMI (mine has two; more are beginning to do this) and one component input, you’ll want to save component for your DVD player. Giving you the HDMI cable ensures you aren’t going to be calling Sky and complaining.
I actually already had an HDMI cable — two, in fact, which I’d ordered in advance to be on the safe side. I found them from MediaAtlantic, unbranded Belkin ones for the incredibly low price of £8.80. Of course, they might not be Belkin at all. They didn’t come in Belkin packaging (and MediaAtlantic did explain this on the product page). But they don’t have anything I can see on the cables themselves to indicate Belkin actually made them, either.
Still, with most generic cables I’ve seen selling in the £20 range, I figured it was a good gamble. They’re working fine as far as I can tell, and perhaps down the line I’ll upgrade to one from someone like Monster, just to be safe. Certainly I’ve seen the difference a good Scart cable can make — and that Sky cable, while nice to have included, probably isn’t that great. The Scart cable certainly is cheap.
Let’s look at the box itself some more. From the front, nothing thrilling — standard buttons (and your Sky card goes into a hidden slot on the right-hand side, visible after you fold down a panel. The slot you see is for the still never-to-have-materialized interactive card):
And now the far more interesting back:
Closeup from the left-side:
Going from left-to-right, you can see the two dish input sockets, then the phone input. A serial RS-232 socket as on all Sky Digital boxes is there, still doing absolutely nothing after all these years. There’s an aerial in socket, along with the usual two RF outlets. You’ve got an optical audio out socket as with Sky+, not needed if you use HDMI to my understanding, which will carry both digital video and audio. You will need it for surround sound, to run to a separate amp. To date, I’ve not seen any HD set with built in surround. Why remains a mystery I’ll have to research. My old CRT set and plenty of others had true surround sound built in — and personally, I hate the complication of a separate amp.
Yes, that’s a USB socket you can see — and no, it doesn’t work to my knowledge. There have been high hopes we’ll be able to plug some type of device into this in the future. Given how Sky never made use of the serial port, I’m not holding out much hope. Next you’ve got component video sockets, then analog sound inputs along with an S-Video connection.
And for the other side:
You can see the standard Scart outputs (non-European readers, Scart is a high-quality way of sending audio/video between devices used in Europe, with the main downside being the big-ass cables that like to fall out of their slots). Then there’s the HDMI slot, then an Ethernet port and a SATA port for an external hard drive. Neither the Ethernet or the SATA ports do anything yet, to my knowledge.
Let’s do the remotes:
On the left, the usual Sky+ remote. In the middle, the new one — slightly wider and much more comfortable to hold. On the left is my baby, my Harmony all-in-one remote that I’ll someday blog in more depth. Short story – get one, and you won’t look back.
Let’s pile them up:
You can see the new Sky HD remote (in the middle) is slightly thinner. Good news — it operates exactly the same as the regular Sky+ remote. Specifically, I didn’t have to reprogram my Harmony at all, which sends standard Sky+ commands. In contrast, the regular Sky remotes and Sky+ aren’t interchangeable. The only quirk I’ve noticed is that if I’m using PVR functions on the Harmony — fast forward, rewind, pause — I have to hit the correct button twice to get a reaction. I’ll look into this more down the line.
Next, some menus:
Look at the bottom of the picture above. See the HD Channels option for your red button? That’s new, and it brings up this:
That lists everything showing in HD on Sky. It’s all of one single screen page — what you see above is all there is. So far, the BBC is doing only boring previews. Sky One is active with stuff — more on this in a bit. And this week, I’ve suddenly watched Discovery and National Geographic more than in the past eight years, just to see something in HD
How about some settings? Look at this:
See down at the bottom, HD Resolution Output? That’s where you can see what level of HD is sent to your TV. Options are:
Mine is set to 1080i. That’s because the installer said that Sky is advising everyone who can run this at the moment to use it. He didn’t give an explanation, but I think the reason is based on what you get if you change it:
See that screen? After you do it, the picture flickers for a short period (a few seconds) and then stabilizes. I’m guessing that if you’re on automatic and flipping through channels being sent in different resolutions, you’d likely get that flicker and be annoyed quickly. As I’ll come back to, Sky also warns the box is sluggish and somewhat unstable. So 1080i may be deemed the safest route until things improve.
So let’s look at some pictures. If you’re watching HD, Sky lets you know by putting HD in the reverse bar on the info screen, as you can see below as Chloe works to save Jack in 24:
Ah, Chloe — I love her on so many levels.
Unfortunately, Sky doesn’t say what the HD quality is. Are you sending in 1080i? 720p? 576? Something else? Frankly, I’d like to know.
Picture quality? President Logan, can you lend an ear?
That’s the slimeball in HD. Now big caveat! I’m shooting a picture off my TV with my camera, which is going to lose quality for various reasons, not to mention a further reduction in reducing it for the web. But look at his ear. See how the border of his ear and the background is fairly sharp. Now look at this from my regular TV:
See how the ear has a fuzzy bit along it? That’s typically of what annoys me with regular TV. It gets all pixilated or ghosted at times like this around heads and objects that move. Plus, you can see the scan lines on the regular TV. Sure, far away, you don’t notice as much. But HD TV has many more lines, thus nicer pictures.
So far, the HD picture seems to have improved that. However, here’s another caveat. Some of what’s broadcast on Sky One wasn’t originally shot in HD, to my knowledge. In these cases, my understanding is that they are upscaling the image. In other words, take a low resolution photo and increase the resolution. You don’t get more detail, since you can’t somehow add what wasn’t there before. But perhaps it might look smoother or less jagged. That’s what seems to happen with the old shows. They have a softer, gentler appearance. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t make your mouth drop.
Now consider this from National Geographic, first the HD shot:
Then the regular TV shot, or more specifically, an HD picture sent through the Scart cable, so it should be coming out at a much lower resolution:
My photos don’t do it justice. The nature channels, to my knowledge, are using lots of actual HD footage. And there are indeed times when I’m amazed at the quality. No, I don’t think I could just jump in to a “real” picture. But the quality improvement is noticeable, and I want to see more of it.
OK, some more notes. Storage, you’ve got 160GB of it. HD’s going to take more, but I can’t say many hours your likely to get on the box yet. I’m still filling it up.
Sky gives you a special information sheet warning:
- It takes longer to start a box if it’s been unplugged
- It takes longer to switch channels between HD and non-HD
- Fast forward and rewind might not be as responsive
- The box might freeze or stop working
Reassuring! And minutes after I started using it, my box did indeed just crash and go dark for no apparent reason. I had to unplug it from the mains to get going again. The good news is, once it restarted, it’s been stable ever since.
Some other things. First, if you have Sky+, get all your programs off. We have multiroom, so Sky+ was our own box and viewing card, with an old Sky box in another room. Our main viewing card had to go into the Sky HD box — meaning our secondary viewing card had to move to the Sky+ box. And if you do that, apparently you lose access to all recorded programs. My DVD recorder was busy as soon as the installer left. When I was done the next day, with all stored programs removed, THEN I called Sky myself to do the card move around. That went fine, and HD channels were accessible in an hour or less. By the way, none of the series link stuff on the Sky+ box got deleted.
Also, while you pay more for HD, as I’ve covered before, there’s no extra charge for Sky+ to be your multiroom box. IE, you don’t pay for Sky+ functionality twice. So now we have a nice backup if the HD box goes crazy or heaven forbid we want to record three or four things at once. Of course, you still have to go into the other room to watch the other box and see it in regular TV.
Be aware the HD box puts out a lot of heat. A lot of heat. If you put it in an enclosed or tight space, I think you’ll have problems. It’s amazingly hot, the air blowing out of it. Fortunately, it’s still pretty silent despite this. I notice the hard drive writes more than any fan action.
That’s pretty much it, for the moment. Overall, I’m not blown away by HD, but it’s still early days. I’d definitely go for it if you were debating between Sky+ or not and you had an HD capable TV. FYI, mine is a Toshiba 32WLT66, 32″ being the biggest my wife will allow in the house. So perhaps I’d be more blown away with a bigger set. But I am pleased and looking forward to seeing more.
After writing this up, I did some looking around for what others are saying. Here’s a rundown on that:
- Sky HDTV launch runs into trouble from the BBC covers how many are getting delays beyond what was expected. Our initial date was pushed back two weeks. Sky was very apologetic and also provided a automatic £20 credit, if I recall. I do find it ironic to that the BBC is sort of dinging Sky in the article only to later say it is showing the “selected output of broadcasters such as the BBC.” Sky, at least, is putting out actual stuff in HD. The BBC’s waiting until the World Cup starts to do anything, to my understanding.
- SkyHD installation: first impressions from David Kaspar has a rundown on using component inputs and notes the flicker problem I suspected would be the case if you use automatic. He’s also got a tip on telling if content is being upscaled (Sky should indicate this itself, perhaps UHD to indicate upscaled HD versus HD for true HD). He’s also got a nice explanation of various HD resolutions. The Times has a nice guide, too.
- A few more thoughts about the Sky HD box from HDTV UK has some brief comments including 720p (a progressive picture, each line drawn in order) giving a smoother picture than 1080i (more lines, but half drawn, then the other half, such as lines 1, 3, 5 and so on, then lines 2, 4, 6). Others have also contributed comments such as getting to the HD channel being a pain (it is, and so is hitting green to get to the regular planner, and no, complaining about the annoying extra step isn’t lazy!). The site has a Sky HD category, so that might be worth watching for more updates.
Postscript: Some more reviews:
- Sky HD Review from Lordpercy.com looks at doing the DVI to HDMI thing, plus Sky saying think black vertical bands on either side of a 720p picture are an LCD problem (David’s article above says this happens when standard def content is upscaled to HD).
- Sky’s high-def box reviewed from Adam Berger at Gadgetell overs key details and observations on various types of content.