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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.

 


Netflix (UK) picks for spring 2014

Monday May 19th 2014

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I have to confess, I do like Netflix. It has probably consumed more hours of my time than any other of my unproductive endeavours.

Netflix do keep on changing their content, so from time to time they do introduce something new and fresh in their line-up, but because of their unique way of making suggestions to you, it is sometimes easy to miss these titles.

This my first Netflix list, so I have made a list not comprising solely of new releases, these are my suggestions based on the current Netflix line-up (May 2014).

It’s always sunny in Philadelphia

This is a sitcom based on initiallyIt's Always Sunny in Philadelphia four, then later, five friends who are devious, selfish, back stabbing, stupid, vain, and are generally ignorant and thus, very misguided. This leads to all sorts of misadventures that cross politically correctness boundaries in a crassly funny way.

It is really great left field comedy from the United States, that is refreshing and original due to the lines it continually crosses. Despite appearances, the main characters are all creative geniuses, both in scripting and how they deliver their roles.

Created and scripted by Rob McElhenney who plays the character Ronald “Mac” McDonald. Danny DeVito is especially good as the sleazy, evil genius uncle.

House of Cards

A Netflix House of Cardsremake of the British TV series and books by Michael Dobbs. The US remake makes a lot of worthy changes to the original series – more updates to modern times and of course following a US political theme as opposed to the original’s UK political theme.

If you enjoyed the original series, you will find this remake to be very entertaining and very worthwhile viewing.

For those of you not familiar with the series, it is a brilliant story of a Politician with high ambitions, who will stop at nothing in achieving them; and I do mean nothing.

As always, Kevin Spacey‘s acting is brilliant, this time as Frank Underwood (FU) – the original’s counterpart was Francis Urquhart – so they kept the FU at least…

Orange is the new black

Orange Is the New BlackAnother Netflix original. From the creator of Weeds – if you liked Weeds, then you will like this. It has the same dark humour with a continuous series of  ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ type situations.

It follows the imprisonment of Piper Chapman, essentially someone who really does not belong in prison, oh she was guilty of the crime she committed, she is just a bit too middle class for it.

Series features Jason Biggs (you know, the pie f*@ker from American Pie) as the boyfriend of the main character, Piper. He is one of the 4 male characters in an otherwise all female cast.

I find the humour deeply amusing, very dark, very funny. The second series will be delivered, as usual on Netflix, as a complete series, in early June 2014.

The almighty Johnsons
The Almighty Johnsons season 2.jpg

I think the same creative team behind the New Zealand series ‘Outrageous Fortune‘ are behind this series. Outrageous Fortune was culled by Netflix , so sadly it is a little pointless in me recommending you go watch it, It was a good series and refreshingly different.

The Almighty Johnsons is basically about 4 brothers and a granddad that are all descendants of Viking gods. The story centres on the youngest brother, who after turning 18, gets his ‘god powers’ . His brothers and grand dad initiate him into this family secret of what it means to be a god.

It is only when the first get their ‘God powers’ will they know which of the Norse gods they are a reincarnation or vessel of.  Suffice to say, when this is revealed early on, it sets a quest, that spans over its 3 series, for the youngest brother. He has to find the Norse goddess counterpart to his Norse god.

Despite the series lacking the budget and glitz that is typical in a lot of series now, its simplicity is what contributes to its charm and entertainment . It is fairly mindless entertainment, but sometimes that can be nice when you just want to unwind.

For some reason Netflix only feature 2 of the 3 series made – so it is likely that you will have to go dig around elsewhere to get the last series, only if you enjoyed it of course.

Lie to me

Lie to me PosterTim Roth plays an Englishman in America – using a rather thick Lundun accent, who is basically a human lie detector with amazing accuracy.

He and his team offer their services to a number of police authorities and clients, leading to various situations and storylines that are not uncommon in US TV series.

I am sure this series has been broadcast on satellite TV, for those of you who missed it, it worth a view. It is not too taxing on the brain. It is about as entertaining and taxing as House or Elementary.

Portlandia

Portlandia posterIt sometimes feels like an American version of Little Britain, but that I suppose it is easy to compare one sketch show to another. The unique comedy stylings of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein make this a stand-out sketch comedy series. It parodies life in Portland, which, from the show’s perspective would lead you to believe that Portland is inhabited solely by liberal, sandal-wearing, bike riding, artistic, left-field people only. Then again Portland was the city that emptied a huge water reservoir because somebody peed in it.

It is very clever at times, sometimes, like with the sketch genre, can also have a few misses, overall it is a very entertaining and funny series.

Wilfred

Wilfred (AU)This is a somewhat surreal Australian black comedy about the relationship between a dog and his owner’s boyfriend (she is a good looking blonde). It has won quite few awards and is based on an award winning short film.

The dog, Wilfred, is just a man in a dog suit, but for the purposes of the comedy is seen by all to be an ordinary dog, except by the owner’s boyfriend. Wilfred communicates with the boyfriend as you would expect two Australian men to. Wilfred is jealous of any new boyfriend, so they compete with one another to occupy the affections of the girl. Wilfred does not play fair, and turns out to be a really bad dog!

I recommend it because this is something different. The series features ordinary people, in ordinary surroundings, doing surreal things.

Trailer Park Boys

trailer park boys posterThis Canadian series is a ‘Mockumentary‘ following two petty criminals who are residents of a Canadian Trailer park. The two usually end up going back to prison at the end of the 7 first series.

Netflix are making two more series, some 7 years after the original series ended.

Trailer Park Boys has a cult following, and not hard to see why, I was hooked after the 3rd episode, and considering each episode is only 20 minutes long, it took under an hour for me to become totally hooked.

Like with the other recommendations I have made, this series is based in very ordinary surroundings, but with some very colourful characters that roam around the Trailer Park – from the Park Supervisor (Jim Lahey), to Bubbles – who seems to be the only one with any common sense, to the obligatory Wigger (J-Roc), to the various ‘town drunk(s)’ (all of them).

Highly recommended, and I look forward to the new series.

Lilyhammer

Lilyhammer_TV_Series-581299330-largeThis Norwegian TV series was broadcast on BBC Four . It is also the first original Netflix series.

Lilyhammer is about a New York mobster who is put into Witness protection and moves to the Norwegian town of Lillehammer, famous for once hosting the Winter Olympics. In no time the mobster reverts to his old ways and sets up a few illicit business’s recruiting the help the town’s often useless and bumpkinish criminals.

It is a genuinely charming, warm and funny TV series.

Rita

Rita TV Series PosterA Danish series about a school teacher and mother that has a strong rebellious streak.

It tackles quite a few controversial topics in a light and funny way.

If you enjoy Nurse Jackie, then you will definitely enjoy this series – it features a strong woman who often succumbs  to her own weaknesses.

It is Danish with subtitles, so not one for those of you who hate reading when watching a show. I hope Netflix will show the second season.

It goes without saying, that if you have not seen Breaking Bad yet, then it is probably time you did – believe the hype.


Using the PC for AV distribution

Thursday December 1st 2011

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Windows 8 Media Centre

Tea Londons Elton gives some thoughts on the future of home automation, and how the humble PC can play an important role in changing your TV viewing habits.

From a young age I have always been surprised how ideas and concepts imagined by the fertile minds of Science Fiction authors and scriptwriters became to be realised as significant technical accomplishments later on. I have come to understand that pretty much anything is possible if we have the vision to imagine it and the willpower to accomplish it.

Nowadays home automation presents home owners with the level of automation and integration so advanced that it is not so much what it automates for you, but more a case of how much you can invest in it. With the advent of affordable home control system products such as the hardware based Control4 systems to software driven systems like Stardraw Control, the notion of installing a home automation system no longer exclusively applies to the incredibly wealthy. It now puts it within reach of those consumers who can comfortably afford to buy, say, a Mac notebook computer.

In addition to installing home automation control systems, I still see the PC as the essential piece of ‘kit’ as the centre of any home AV system, and will likely win out over more complicated and specialised home control systems as time goes on. It already provides a compelling array of Media storage and delivery services. Windows Media Centre, which is a ‘built-in’ feature of most versions of Windows Vista and Windows 7, provides you with a media-centric, intuitive user interface that is designed to be displayed and comfortably on flatscreen TV’s.

We are looking forward to the next release in Windows 8, which is currently in test or ‘preview’ stages of development. The first version of the new Media Centre Metro application included in the latest preview release.

Some reasons why Windows Media Centre is good for you:

  •  Simplified file sharing. File sharing is not a big deal, it can be achieved with most computers or even with NAS drives, however something like recorded TV is not typically shared. Using Media Centre to record TV, means that recorded TV is stored as a video file, that can be opened by any other system capable of running Media Centre. If you imagine how, for example, SKY+ operates, where recordings are only accessible on the box that recorded a programme, you may begin to understand how this subtle difference can bring about significant advantages to you.
  • Windows Media Centre typically supports 4 tuners of any type or combination. So it is possible for you to have ‘PVR’ that is capable of receiving and recording both terrestrial and satellite TV. Normally a PVR is restricted to only receiving signals from either source.
  • With satellite tunes, Windows Media Centre supports DISEqC switching. This allows you to connect either a motorised satellite dish or an array of fixed position satellite dishes to one tuner.  Again this does may not sound like a big deal, but it is possible for you to have up to 4 ‘positions’ configured per satellite tuner, each position relating to a dish that is aimed at a different broadcast satellite. This greatly increases the number of TV channels you can view. Windows makes the selection of the various satellite dishes transparent, these positions are selected simply by you changing channel. Usually TV content is limited to ‘unscrambled’ channels only, but it is possible to get some PayTV or scubscription based TV services working on this system, if the encryption system used by the broadcaster is more ‘open’. Sadly SKY is not one of them – we suspect that even if people wanted to pay a premium to watch their services on a system like this they will never allow it to happen. Using a simple 2 dish configuration with a TV antenna, comprising of FreeSAT (ASTRA2) and a dish aimed at European TV Services (Astra1), you will have in excess of 1000 free-to-air TV channels at your disposal. A surprising number of them are broadcast in HD, with more and more broadcasters launching HD services on a regular basis.
  • Although Media Centre can’t natively decode scrambled services like SKY and Virgin, it is still possible for you to connect our set-top box to a Media Centre PC. The Media Centre PC will provide you with full TV listings in its programme guide, and can change channels on the set-top box automatically. The only real weakness in this ability is that it delivers video in full HD quality. You certainly can view and record HD channels, but the viewing experience will always be in standard definition. The ability to connect HD devices for the purposes of recording still remains a sensitive issue for the likes of Hollywood, so this is more political/business restriction, rather than a technological one.
  • The killer feature of Media Centre is its fully interactive TV programme schedule guide. It will provide you with a fully consolidated programme guide of all of your TV channels – regardless of whether it is a foreign satellite service or FreeView/FreeSAT services. It provides you with a 2 week guide that you can browse not only in chronological order by category, genre, actor and director,you can also use text searching. You can for example, browse for all films that will be broadcast across all of your available TV channels for the next two weeks. By selecting to record any of the films that suit your tastes, you can rapidly build up a movie library at no cost and perfectly legally. Remember the rest of the home can share and access these recordings too. The guide fundamentally works the same as any other interactive guide, however its two week time line and its flexibility in how you can browse the guide makes it by far the best interactive programme guide we have ever used.
  • I don’t think I need to remind people how easy it is to rip music CD’s and build-up a music library. You can also rip DVD’s and Blu-Ray content, but this is a more complicated area which also has copyright implications.
  • As Windows Media Centre is a PC. This means it can playback all mainstream media file and disc formats. It is a truly universal media player, wiping out the need for you to adopt one video or audio standard or install additional equipment for the purposes of playing specific media (it makes installing a separate Blu-Ray player, DVD Player, CD Player, AppleTV, or media streamer redundant). It can play proprietary content such as Windows Media or Apple iTunes content as well as all other open video and audio file formats. Of course it can also access web based services, giving you access to a vast array of online, on-demand video and audio sources.

Internet TV and other on-demand services clearly will become more popular with consumers than traditional off-air TV viewing (broadcast TV).  All mid-ranged or better flatscreen TV’s have networking capabilities. They have buildin-in ‘apps’ that will give you access to online services like YouTube, BBC iPlayer and Skype, even access to LoveFilm’s online content. This to some extend negates the need for a media PC to be attached directly to the TV. You could access media stored on the PC using DLNA. Flatscreen TV’s are becoming ‘smarter’, and they are progressively becoming purpose built ‘appliance computers’. Soon plugging your laptop into the TV will become a thing of the past.

The manner in which TV and PC’s are merging it would make sense to only install one or the other in any room – why have both?

Tablet PC’s  will ultimately become your remote control that can handle almost all control of your home automation system. From TV remote control to the light switch. You can view your CCTV cameras, or answer your door phone from the same device. Perhaps you might want it to open the window for you and automatically turn off your air con at the same time.

The automated stuff we used to watch in Sci-Fi movies is becoming reality. Things that seem far fetched today will more than likely be accomplished sooner than you think.

©Tea London 2004 - 2013