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Finally I get some information on SKY Q from a the point-of-view of how it effects satellite/TV installers and ultimately CI’s (customer installers) such as myself.

I attended a quick seminar this morning hosted by primary supplier of Satellite and TV distribution infrastructure equipment needed for Satellite and TV signal infrastructure for all markets, from a small studio flat, to a high-rise hotel or block of flats. The gist of the seminar was to primarily discuss the impact and implications of SKY Q on TV/Satellite installers and what could now be viewed as being their ‘legacy’ TV and satellite distribution installations.

The seminar unfortunately did not show an actual SKY Q installation, so I did not get to see it in action, however the seminar did give me a number of valuable insights from a technical perspective of how the system works, and what is required to get new SKY Q customers up and running. I must state off the bat, no matter how compelling the offering from SKY, it does have a number of very negative implications for both the end-user and the installer alike.

So this post will give only a cursory overview of what SKY Q is from a end-user’s point of view, and will focus more on my thoughts of what I like and don’t like about it.

SKY Q Overview

SKY Q will be have two main ‘hubs’, being SKY Q Silver and SKY Q. The Silver offering has a larger hard disk for recording, has more tuners and will be capable of displaying 4K UHD content, which SKY have indicated they will starting broadcasting limited content sometime in summer 2016, this moved up from the end of 2016. Both of these set-top boxes act as both the primary set-top box for you TV, as well as a media server for streaming content to tablet PC’s (they mention iPad, so I do not know if Android is supported) and their SKY Q mini set-top boxes.

SKY Q product line-up

The real change here is that the typical home will only require one set-top box with a connection to the satellite dish, and the rest of the screens in your home will only need a SKY Q mini and a wireless network in order to view SKY content, by virtue that the primary SKY Q box has a lot of tuners (16 on the silver and 8 on the standard box), it is capable of recording and streaming a number of different channels (or on-demand content) simultaneously, and serving the needs of the other screens in your home.

SKY have a number of accessories to help boost Wi-Fi coverage and speeds throughout a home, as wireless network coverage and speed is an essential component in ensuring SKY Q works correctly.

On the surface this does seem to simplify installations considerably, you only need a couple of cables going into one SKY box and in theory, this would make coaxial cables distributed elsewhere in the home fairly redundant. Additionally you need not worry on which SKY HD box you recorded your show, as the one device will now store the home’s recordings on one device rather than across several sky boxes in a multi-room installation.

The streaming to a tablet PC is a definite modern twist that is both worthwhile and something I am sure consumers have been wanting for quite sometime. In addition to this, SKY Q Synch will allow you to copy or synchronise recording onto your tablet device, so you can view your recordings away from home, away from the SKY Q hub.

With 4K content, a consolidated set of TV recordings and the ability to potentially watch SKY on 7 or 8 devices simultaneously from one central hub is clearly a revolutionary and much welcome set of developments that are perhaps long overdue, but finally arrived.

Sky own the equipment

The equipment will always remain the property of SKY, the end user does not purchase or own any of the SKY Q equipment, instead it is rented or leased to the customer, very much in the same manner that Virgin does with their equipment. This is not a bad thing at all, because this means that SKY is ultimately responsible for the equipment, and has to ensure that equipment is either repaired or replaced should it ever become faulty. In the past, if your SKY HD box packed up, it was your responsibility to pay for a replacement (unless the unit was still under warranty), and this has been a bugbear of a lot of SKY customers who have been on the sharp-end of situation such as this. Imagine all of that money spent on the subscription and then you have to pay for a replacement product where you as the consumer have no absolutely no alternative choices to choose from; so if the product is of shoddy quality, and it conveniently packs up outside of warranty, it becomes your problem, and not that of the manufacturer or service provider. So, yes, this is a very good thing – if SKY has a range of products that are reliable, that is good for everyone, and if not, they will have to bear the costs of maintaining said equipment.

SKY will handle SKY Q installations in homes

All home installations, or rather homes that do not make use of commercial or communal TV/Satellite systems (IRS) will be undertaken by SKY’s own appointed installers. You really do not have a choice in the matter. It makes sense that they have adopted this policy, as there is a number of key changes they have to apply, one of which is replacing your satellite dish’s LNB (the pod found on satellite dishes), plus they need to setup a wireless network in order for the SKY services to stream to the various mini and ipad devices. Installations will cost between £100-£300.

SKY will not necessarily be able to handle installations in commercial or communal settings, as a SKY Q installation might require a serious overhaul or changes to some very expensive equipment in multiple-dwelling units (MDU). Working out who is responsible for this equipment, getting landlord’s permission and ensuring that other users in the MDU are not affected by a new SKY Q installation is territory that SKY would rather avoid, thus this is where the tradition Satellite/TV installer has to get involved with a SKY Q installation.

So what are my concerns?

Well my concerns are thus:

  • It is not a true multi-room video distribution system, and I fear consumers might interpret this system as being one. Thus, you would still need a traditional video distribution system if you want other video sources to be distributed around your home, and if you have invested in this infrastructure, then there is really little point in going for SKY Q other than the increased storage space, 4K content (which has yet to appear, and we do not have any details of what this content will be and how much of it there will be) and being able to view on your iPad – although viewing live broadcasts on a tablet PC is possible with devices that the price of a month’s subscription on SKY Q
  • The changes applied to your SKY dish could render other other set-top boxes/receivers useless – for example FreeSAT. You might very well need to install separate infrastructure to support the reception of FreeSAT and potentially you terrestrial TV signal too – so you could potentially have two dishes outside your home, or you will need to invest in new switching hardware. This issue obviously does not faze SKY in the least as this effectively wipes out their competing off-air services quite conveniently. This is not impossible to fix, but it has definite repercussions on end-users who use their satellite dish and TV/Satellite distribution systems for something other than SKY only.
  • This system is seemingly dependant on wireless networking, i.e. Wi-Fi. SKY says that if you use their HUB product, then all of the SKY Q boxes will act as wireless access points, thus boosting the wi-fi coverage in your home – this is a good thing right? On the surface yes, but when you dig deeper you find out that the SKY Hub implies that you need to be a SKY broadband subscriber… so if you want to use a different ISP, you lose this feature – i.e. only the SKY Q box itself will be an access point, with no range extension possible. So here is the first sign of, well, how do I put this delicately, bullying from SKY. It would be possible for you to install a range extender regardless of the broadband provider you user, but SKY have opted to ensure that this is not an option, or rather if you want to use their wireless network system, you have to commit to their Internet service too. I’m afraid this sort of bullying I have seen before, where SKY fight hard to disallow you using your own network router equipment (their modem/routers are rubbish), so they can retain 100% complete control over your network traffic over their internet line. This is not something anyone should be comfortable with – both as a SKY customer being told what network equipment you can and can’t use, and as a non-broadband customer being told that your SKY Q service’s performance will be inferior because you want a better or cheaper broadband service from someone else. I am sure this will be challenged by someone, and OFCOM can then take several years to think about these business practices are truly in the best interests of the public after SKY have taken them to lunch several times whilst they deliberate over the matter. I can’t help but be sceptical (or is it cynically) in thinking that if you do not use SKY’s networking equipment whether SKY Q will deliberately under perform to give end-users an incentive to change their provider?
  • Staying on the subject of Wi-Fi networking, I am someone who firmly believes that if a device is to remain in a static position, such as a TV, then it should exist on a wired rather than a wireless network. It is here where I was given the most perplexing information of all – and that is that SKY wants you to run SKY Q wirelessly, but possibly it can be run over a HomePlug (Ethernet-over-Power), but you can’t run it on a switched Ethernet using high-quality structured cabling. Technically this does not make sense at all, other than to simplify the installation for themselves at the cost of the client. Further it is bonkers to suggest that it will work fine on a HomePlug system, but not a proper network. The sorts of ‘VIP’ customer they are aiming this product at typically have excellent structured cabling systems in their homes, so it beggars belief as to why they are seemingly deliberately designing their system not to take advantage of the best possible method of networking a media streaming product. Does anyone disagree with this point of view?
  • My penultimate thought on SKY Q’s ‘wireless only’ approach means that SKY Q could effectively hog your wireless bandwidth. All bandwidth is finite, especially wireless bandwidth. Further, wireless networking is susceptible to interference from a number of sources, including your neighbours. Interference, SKY Q’s wireless bandwidth requirements and your own collectively could result in you getting less than optimal performance out of your wireless network.
  • The last though, and it is one that is pedantic, the term ‘wireless mesh’ has been used in the marketing literature of the SKY Q. They are implying that mesh network will exist if all of the various SKY Q boxes and the SKY hub are used as wireless access points. As a network engineer, I am a little annoyed that this term is being used, as I doubt very much that it will be a true mesh network, then again, the technical information has been thin on all aspects of the SKY Q system.
  • The new SKY remote control uses bluetooth, which means that there might be range issues if the box is installed some distance away from your screen.The good news however is the SKY Q set-top boxes still do accept infra-red commands.
  • This is a minor issue, but Magic eye, TV link and other IR systems will no longer work

Unanswered questions

There are so many unanswered, but I thought I would put a few down, which I hope in time will be answered:

  • Will 4K only be available on SKY Q silver?Meaning will there be other 4K receivers/set-top boxes in the future?
  • Does SKY Q Silver also imply that there will be a Gold and Platinum product coming sometime soon?
  • Will the traditional SKY HD+ be phased out, and SKY Q will become its replacement?
  • Will SKY make an API available, or IP command set to custom installers and app developers for better integrated control of this system? It is claimed that SKY have never refused to do so, but then again they have never agreed either. As a custom installer and Smarthome programmer I hope to see this change, this one act alone will change my view on SKY and how they conduct business in a big way. I hope that they will be more open with control in the future, if not immediately now.
  • What impact does SKY Q have on Internet and wireless bandwidth? Both for on-demand content streaming as well as usage data and other reporting these devices are likely to feedback to SKY

Time will tell as to what impact SKY Q will have on the TV viewing habits of the UK public, or, indeed, how many people will migrate to this service. One thing is for certain, for good or bad, SKY Q will definitely have an impact on those who choose to subscribe to it, and I am keen to learn from their experiences in choosing to do so.

 


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TEA London always advise clients to strongly consider installing a dedicated home theatre PC (HTPC or MCE) in their front room, as opposed to installing several hardware units that collectively can perform the same function as one machine.We will perhaps write a different article in the future which can convey all of the benefits and virtues of a HTPC over the more traditional approach of installing dedicated components, such as a blu-ray player, PVR and so on, to perform these same tasks.

We currently recommend Windows 7 based machines for these purposes, and with that in mind this article specifically mentions equipment that has been used and tested on Windows based PC’s. It is likely these PC’s are compatible with other operating systems such as MAC OS and Linux, however we suggest you check with the manufacturer and supplier first before making any purchases based on our recommendations.

Key features

We have been building, installing and supporting HTPC’s for over 5 years now, and in this time we have tried and tested a number of wireless control systems, i.e. keyboards, mice and remote controls. We primarily assess the suitability of these controllers for simple and accessible media control; after all the MCE PC is more often than not going to be used for the playback and control of media such as videos, photos and music, so there is little point in a keyboard not having buttons to control volume, playback, and so on.

The next, and perhaps the most important feature the controller needs is its wireless range. Most wireless keyboards systems have very limited range, most on the market are limited to only 2 metres or less, despite what the manufacturer may claim. Most wireless are designed to work within a limited range for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that generally speaking keyboard and mice tend to be placed on a desk, and are normally very close to the wireless receiver, some manufacturers put the controller’s receiver unit onto an extension cable, so you can place the wireless receiver within inches of the keyboard and mouse. The advantage of this should equate to lower power consumption and therefore a longer battery life. The practicalities of the same principles being applied in the front room however is less than ideal. For one you want to have complete freedom of movement where you can be within 1 metre of the wireless receiver or 5 metres away from the receiver. You do not necessary want any wires dangling out of your AV storage unit underneath your TV, nor do you necessarily want a cable to be pulled from the TV/PC to the back of the so you can ensure you are within range of the wireless receiver. Using a keyboard with a limited range can be an incredibly frustrating experience, where if you move a keyboard only a few inches to the left or right, the keyboard may very well go out of range, or worse only some of the keys you press are received by the computer.

It is because of this, above all else, that the range of the wireless keyboard/mouse/controller is perhaps the most important consideration. As a rule of thumb, the more office orientated, and certainly the less expensive the keyboard, the less suitable it will be for the task. We have found that keyboards that use radio frequencies (RF) in the 2.4GHz band tend to work very well, and there are a few on the market that run at much higher frequencies than this; these theoretically should give a longer range and more reliable transmission of commands.

That said, we can now move onto our brief review of our two current favourite wireless keyboard and mouse combinations.

Logitech Dinovo Mini

The Dinovo mini has been a favourite of ours for a few years now, I personally use one on my HTPC. There is very little not to like about the unit, and when it is demonstrated to prospective clients, it is always met with great approval. On the plus side it connects using Bluetooth connectivity, the Dinovo comes with a Bluetooth fob which plugs into any USB port in your computer. We have found that it is better to insert this fob into, if you have them, the front USB ports of the computer. We have had some erratic results with the range of the keyboard when inserting it into one of the rear USB ports, we can only assume that this is because there is far more electronic noise or interference at the rear of PC than there is at the front. Although you are bringing the receiver closer to the keyboard, this is only by a foot or two, but we have found that the overall workable range of the keyboard increases considerably. We found in some scenarios the range of the keyboard was only 2-3 metres when inserted in the rear of the PC, but this increases to well over 6 metres (more than ample for the average front room) when using a front USB port.

The unit comes with its own rechargeable battery and power supply. We found that through standard use of the keyboard the battery lasts over 2 weeks between charges, sometimes longer through light use. The unit does conserve power automatically, and tends to put the keyboard in standby when its lid is shut. the unit does indicate when the battery is running low, it does give plenty of warning when it needs charging, further you can use the keyboard when it is plugged into its charger, so you do not have to wait for the unit to charge up in order to use it. You can use it whilst plugged in with ease. We have not measured the charging time, but it is fairly long, over 4 hours would be our estimate, so being able to use it whilst charging is handy if you accidentally let the battery run completely down.

In essence this is a keyboard you would hold in the palms of your hand, and you would type with your thumbs. A process which may sound a little odd, but is surprisingly easy to do. This is obviously not the ideal keyboard for those of you who intend doing a lot of typing on your HTPC, such as responding to emails on a regular basis, and so on; but for those of you who merely need to do the odd internet search, or type in the odd bit of information here and there, this is an ideal choice for the front room.

Its has a neat compact design that would allow it to fit in with any front room’s décor. It certainly looks less obtrusive than the average remote control. It features a lid that neatly protects the keyboard, so if it slips off a sofa’s arm and ends up in between the cushions, the unit is quite well protected from accidental damage or key-presses.

One of the nicest features of the keyboard, is its integrated touch-pad mouse. It responds accurately to the tracking performed with your right thumb. it works just as well as a standard mouse. This touch-pad has a dual personality, where is can also acts as standard navigation keys, i.e. left, right,up and down, making it ideal for navigating through menu systems such as Windows Media Centre. You can switch between ‘mouse mode’ and ‘navigation key mode’ by toggling a switch that is located very close to the touchpad; it is close enough for the modes to be selected using your right thumb, and thus all navigation tasks can easily be performed by just the one digit of your hand.

The keyboard features a full set of media controls at the top of the keyboard, so you will be able to control the playback of media easily. The top media controls also include volume and mute controls. The left side buttons enable easy channel changing in Media Centre.

The only real niggles we have found with the keyboard, is because of its very compact size, not all keys are present on the keyboard. So certain buttons have to be accessed using the keyboards FN key. To, for example, press CTRL-SHIFT-ESCAPE you have to press 4 keys simultaneously, which on such a compact unit feels like you are performing a Vulcan nerve pinch; if you consider the keyboard is designed for thumb typing, this means you have to use more than just your thumbs to perform certain keystrokes. The keyboard also lacks function keys… so calling for help or doing a page refresh is no longer a simple, single keypress.

At around £80 this is not a cheap keyboard, and niggles aside, it is almost the perfect keyboard for the front room. Having used one for some years now, I can vouch for the reliability and build quality of the Dinovo Mini. No problems have been experienced with it, and the battery still seems as strong as it was from the start, so from first impressions to long term use, this unit has never failed to impress

Gyration Air Mouse Go Plus

The Gyration Air Mouse Go Plus is a keyboard and mouse suite that follows the more traditional looking approach to a keyboard and mouse combination. In fact the keyboard is fairly unremarkable looking in many respects. Just a small compact keyboard with a removable lid, that clips neatly underneath the keyboard so you don’t have to contend with it lying around or going missing.

What makes the Gyration suite good is the mouse, which we will come to shortly. Firstly we will talk about the keyboard. Despite appearances the keyboard is of a rugged design, but is still lightweight and compact enough to sit comfortably on your lap or sofa arm. There is a nice feel to the keys, where each press is definite and responsive. The keyboard has a single indicator light, which lights up with each key press. this is very useful feedback it not only tells you whether you did hit a key properly, but provides you with feedback that the keyboard is working (i.e. batteries are not flat) and key presses are being sent.

There are a full set of media controls at the top of the keyboard as well as user definable shortcut keys.

The primary reason why we recommend the Gyration keyboard is its range… it is just phenomenal. the manufacturer states that the range is up to 30 metres on this model, with other models achieving much further distances. Given what the average size of a room is in the UK, it is likely you could type from several rooms away if it were practical to do so.  There are few others on the market that can achieve these distances with the reliability of the Gyration keyboard.

The keyboard uses two standard AA batteries. You can opt to install rechargeable batteries, but there is no means of charging these batteries whilst they are installed in the keyboard. We have found through extended use that bog standard Duracell batteries last well over 4 months with standard use. In some areas where the keyboard performs lighter activities, such as boardroom and presentation applications, the battery life has exceeded a year – proving that despite the incredible range of this keyboard, it is still incredibly energy efficient.

Gyration comes into its own, and the brand name makes more sense when you take a look at their mouse. The Gyration mouse behaves and functions like any other ordinary optical mouse, where it can be used on any suitable flat surface and tracks movements with good accuracy. It is however not designed to be used exclusively as a traditional mouse, can also be use in the ‘air’ in a similar fashion to a Wii controller. The mouse has a ‘trigger’ button on the underside of the mouse which when engaged activates its ‘gyration’ function. Simple arm movements can then move a mouse on screen.  It takes a little getting used to, but after a few minutes of use, you do get the hang of it and you are able to control mouse functions as well as a normal surface based mouse. The fact that the mouse can be used in the air is useful from a front room perspective… no need for a flat surface to be found in order to use the mouse, just pick it up and wave it around.

The mouse does include a rechargeable battery and a charging dock. The battery life is nowhere near as good as the keyboard. The mouse sadly loses charge if you leave it off its dock. We have have found that the mouse can discharge itself without use only after a week or two. So this means that it is safer to leave the mouse on charge when not in use. This is our only real critcism of an otherwise great product.

The Gyration suit is ideal for those of you who need a normal keyboard for typing in the front room. It is compact enough to be tucked away neatly, but large enough for it to feel and function as well as a standard keyboard does. The mouse’s air function makes it perfect for the front room too, where you are no longer constrained to work from a flat surface.

At a retail price of around £89, it is similarly priced to the Dinovo Mini, so you decide which is better for your needs.

Remember you can always use these in conjunction with a Media Centre Remote control (or universal remote control) so for the Gyration option in particular you can keep it tucked away for those lengthy typing and mouse controlled applications and use a remote control for typical media control. We like the £20 Compro K300 remote control, which includes the all important Media Centre compatible USB infra-red receiver fob.

©Tea London 2004 - 2013