Sky HD Box £299

1st Jan 2007 | 00:00

Sky HD Box

High Definition television, what more do you need?

TechRadar rating:

4.5 stars

It's as easy to use as its predecessor but with some truly fabulous bells and whistles

Like:

<p>Ease of use</p><p>Features</p><p>Picture</p>

Dislike:

<p>Still in a process of growth so not a lot of HD content as yet</p>

With the birth of Sky's HD receiver, you can enjoy not just movies in pristine high definition, but also live sports, documentaries and music. Similarly, a lot also comes with surround sound for the first time, making this a genuine home cinema revolution.

Fulfilling orders for Sky has been a tall order, but this Thomson-made Sky HD box is worth waiting for. For existing Sky customers, the box costs £299 plus an extra £10 a month subscription. It's not cheap, but then the Sky box cost more than that when it launched.

The Sky HD box boasts 160GB storage space - enough to fit 80hrs of standard-def programming or around 30hrs of high definition footage. The hard disk is actually 300GB in size, with 140GB roped-off and not able to make recordings. On-demand services - where films are 'pushed' onto the hard disk through the box's Ethernet input - should arrive later this year with Sky broadband. Also mooted is Sky-by-text-message, where recordings can be mobile set.

Connectivity is the last word in futureproofing. As well as featuring HDMI to carry HD, SD and sound into your TV in a completely digital way, the unit also has component video outputs in case your plasma, LCD or projector lacks an HDMI input. Any display will of course, require an XGA or WXGA screen resolution if you're to make out the extra detail on HD broadcasts. If you are using component video, there are analogue audio outputs.

To make use of the Dolby Digital surround sound that comes with many of the HD broadcasts (and SD movies), there's an optical digital output to connect directly with your home cinema amplifier. In a nod to home cinemas, there's another new feature for Sky - audio delay. It's designed to get the pictures in-sync with the surround sound if the latter is routed through an amplifier and 5.1 speaker set-up. Reached through the Sky HD box's on-screen menus, audio delay can be set from 20ms up to 200ms, in 20ms steps.

Those onscreen menus are almost identical to those found on Sky , with a few caveats. High-definition channels - of which there are six from Sky (Sky One, Sky Movies 9 & 10, Sky Sports HD, Artsworld HD and Sky Box Offi ce HD) and two others (National Geographic HD and Discovery HD) in the subscription package, plus the BBC HD free-to-air trial channel - are accessed via the red button when in the main menu.

Get in tune

It's also easy to tune in to Sky's standard-definition channels and schedule recordings by scanning the electronic programme guide (EPG) up to a week in advance and pressing the 'R' button. Its two tuners allow two simultaneous recordings, but if you're watching another channel at the time a you will need to cancel one.

Sky HD does lack the ability to record SD programmes in varying quality (to save room on the hard disk), as most personal video recorders (PVRs) can. Programmes can be scanned through at 2x, 6x, 12x and 30xspeeds, echoing skipping around DVD chapters.

That functionality applies to the box's pause live TV facility. It's able to record for 60mins, after which it returns to the live programme. Sadly, the box doesn't upscale any of the standard-definition channels, but high-definition TV was worth the wait.

Although the box itself can be set to output 720p 'progressive' resolution, Sky's installers will set it to show 1080i through HDMI unless otherwise requested, for that's what everything (so far) is broadcast in. Coming to us in MPEG4 compression - better quality than Telewest's MPEG2 - the nine HD channels do nevertheless vary in picture quality.

A blast of football on Sky Sports HD startles in its detail and clarity, but also in its brightness and vivid colours. Although there's still some noticeable jagged edges around pitch markings, a switch to England in action on the BBC's HD channel revealed no such issues, so we'll put that down to source material.

Still, passages of play are more enjoyable to follow, although the standard of the HD Ready TV on which you're watching is paramount. Some pitch side cameras are still SD, and so are slow-mo shots, although pre-match and half-time footage is shot in HD.

The same applies to cricket where only the main wicket camera is giving HD pictures, and any other programmes that rely on old or archive footage (although with the entire 2005/2006 Premiership season shot, but not broadcast, in HD, that's less of a problem for Sky Sports HD). National Geographic HD is another channel that uses a lot of SD clips, but its Seconds From Disaster still featured enough close camera shots in HD to make it worthwhile.

Channel idents are often large, but excellently rendered: no more fizzing around onscreen graphics makes HDTV such an experience and more the incredible 3D depth. Versions of HD movies look so much cleaner and richer than the SD broadcasts, but it's the set-piece natural history programmes such as BBC HD Planet Earth and Discovery HD's Sunrise Earth that impress the most.

In the latter, glorious shots of deep orange behind silhouetted forests combined with a subtle 5.1 mix of passing birds and ships delight. Moments of Planet Earth look almost 3D, such as shots of Antarctica's wastes and a sequence tracking a pack of wolves on the hunt.

Little picture noise is evident, although grain and noise occasionally pop up behind close-ups on Artsworld HD, which is more to do with depth of field. HDTV is still evolving and the presence of SD programmes on HD channels (eg The Simpsons on Sky One HD) is highly irritating but we hope that more genuine HD channels will appear in time. We're sure that the broadcaster has an excellently featured and idiot-proof set-top box to help it further revolutionise TV.

TVSky
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