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Sky - John C. Kirk

Mar. 24th, 2006

02:38 am - Sky

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As I've mentioned before, I have Sky installed in my flat. The main reason for getting the dish is that I don't actually have a roof aerial, so this was the only way I'd get any kind of decent reception. I went for Sky+, and I've had mixed results with it so far: when it works properly, it's very good. When it works badly, it's very frustrating. Sadly, this is representative of the digital vs analogue divide as a whole: there's no middle ground. So, I'm now considering alternative strategies.

I rarely watch programs live on Sky, unless I have a music channel on in the background. So, what I usually do is record programs, then watch them afterwards, even if I'm around when they're on. This has two benefits:
a) I have a series link set up, so that it will automatically record every episode, and I don't have to worry about working late and missing something.
b) I can fast forward through the adverts. The average TV episode is 45 minutes without adverts, or 1 hour with adverts. That means that by skipping the ads I can watch a complete extra episode in a 3 hour period. (Not that I necessarily watch TV for 3 hours at a time, but the principle still applies if I watch 1.5 hours a day.)

There were two main problems with my Digibox:

a) Going into the TV guide via the remote would tell the TV to go out of "Sky mode", i.e. select a different SCART channel. This happened with my old and new TVs, both Toshibas, so I assume it was some kind of compatibility problem where the Sky box and the TVs happened to use the same infra-red signal code for different things. (It didn't happen if I used the button on the Digibox itself.)

b) Every so often it would freeze during playback, and then resume a few seconds later, skipping over whatever happened while it was frozen. After unfreezing, the sound would typically be mute for another few seconds.

The problem with the remote was annoying, but I could live with it. The playback problem was a lot more frustrating, to the extent that episodes would often become unwatchable. Because of that, I still haven't seen Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars all the way through. This never happened with live TV, which made me think that it was a problem with the hard drive inside the box, although I had some trouble convincing Sky tech support of this, and I'd void the warranty if I went digging around inside the box myself. It was erratic, but the likelihood of it happening seemed to be directly proportional to how full the hard drive was. So, I was able to briefly solve the problem by doing a complete system reset (i.e. erasing all my saved programs), but then it came back when the hard drive filled up again.

Since I'm paying Sky an extra 10 quid a month on a separate service agreement, they agreed to send someone out last month to take a look, and he basically replaced the box with a new one. The good news is that this solved the problems. (The old remote with the new box had the same issue, but the new remote with the new box didn't, so I guess it was just a rogue controller.) The bad news is that I have new and exciting problems to take their place. It's nowhere near as bad as before, but I do find that every so often it skips over a second or so in the recorded program (no freezing, just a jump), or that the sound blinks out briefly. I haven't missed anything important, but it is something that disrupts the story (the equivalent of a mobile phone ringing in the cinema). I could phone tech support again, but I doubt they'll be much help, and if I get someone to come out then that means I need to burn up another day of my annual leave. Admittedly, I still have half a day leftover from last year, so I'm not exactly short on it, but even so there are other things I'd rather do as a holiday.

Aside from their adverts, Sky also have the habit of talking over the end credits to TV episodes. The credits shrink to half their normal width, and the music gets muted, so that the other half of the screen can show a preview for whatever's coming up next. That's mildly irritating, since I quite like a lot of theme tunes (as per my recent post), but not too bad. However, they recently surpassed themselves by doing this during the actual episode! This was the climactic scene of Stargate Atlantis, where the heroes are in a life or death situation, and then it got muted/squashed to give me a preview for Dream Team or some other such program that I have zero interest in watching. In fairness, I think this was just a screw-up rather than a new policy, but it was still annoying; I watched the end of the episode when it was repeated a few days later, and that didn't have the same problem.

While I'm talking about Sky, I mentioned their movie download scheme last month, and I've now had a chance to try it out. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think they're really exploring the full potential.

The basic idea is that if you subscribe to their movie channels then you can download films from their website free of charge. These are DRMed, i.e. they can only be watched on the machine you download them to, and they can only be viewed for 30 days. Their signup process could definitely be improved; for instance, it asks for your mobile phone number, and says that this is optional, but then won't proceed without it. I don't know what happens if you don't have a mobile.

When I looked through their list, they had 237 films altogether, covering a reasonable timespan (1934-2005). It's good that they're not just focussing on the latest releases, but this is nowhere near to their entire back catalogue. All the films have a comment saying when they'll be removed from the online list, so it's not as if they're gradually converting everything over. I can understand why they put a 30 day limit on your downloads, because otherwise people might sign up, slurp down the entire archive, and then cancel their membership. This way, you're limited by how many films you can physically watch in a month (assuming that you also need to sleep/work), so you need to stay as a Sky customer. However, I don't see any good reason not to make all their films available at once.

I downloaded Ella Enchanted, which is one that I've been meaning to watch for a while. (I thought it was quite entertaining.) This film was 92 minutes long, and the video size was 640Mb, which took me 3 hours to download over a 1 Mb ADSL connection. The video had a framerate of 900 Kbps, at a resolution of 540 x 432 (5:3). I'm not sure how the download time compares to other file sharing utilities, but it seems a bit excessive for it to spend twice as long downloading as it takes me to actually watch the film. This is where TV has the advantage, along with the fact that I can change my mind 5 minutes into the film if it looks terrible. When I viewed the film full-screen on my monitor (rather than in a small window), it was a reasonable size, but it wasn't as good as watching it on a real TV.

Anyway, given all these frustrations, I'm now considering my options (these aren't mutually exclusive).

Plan A: Get a Windows Media Center box. I need to research these in a bit more detail, but the basic idea is that this would give me the recording functionality of the Digibox (and more hard drive space), with the benefit that I can maintain it myself rather than relying on the primates who work for their tech support. This would replace my existing DVD player (assuming that I can get one that's multi-region), presumably giving support for DivX films (e.g. Evil Overlord). By connecting this box to my network, I could also use it to play videos that I've downloaded (legitimately!), e.g. film trailers. Yes, I know that I could build my own PC to get the same functionality, but this may come in handy as general IT experience. There is an upfront cost associated with this, but it should also save me money by getting a reduced monthly subscription, so in the long run it should work out in my favour.

Plan B: Cancel my Sky subscription altogether, but hang onto the viewing card, so that I can use the equipment to watch "Free To View" channels. This includes BBC1 (for Dr Who and Torchwood), E4 (for Smallville and Lost), Five (for House), and Sky Three (where I've been watching Tru Calling, although that's just finished). Basically, I'd miss out on Sky One (for Battlestar Galactica, Stargate SG-1, and Stargate Atlantis) and LivingTV (for Charmed), but both of the Stargate series have just finished their seasons, and Charmed gets repeated on Five the following year. The advantage is that this is free, the disadvantage is that I miss out on some things I'd like to watch, and/or have to wait a while for them.

Plan C: Go down the DVD route. By doing this, all the picture/sound quality issues disappear - it's either perfect or I'll be asking for a refund. I'm trying to avoid cluttering up my flat with DVDs that I'll only watch once, which is where the rental option comes in (handily saving me money too). For instance, I've just seen the final episode of Tru Calling from season 1, and after a quick websearch it looks as if Sky may not have the rights to show the 6 episodes from season 2. However, the whole lot are available on DVD, so I've just signed up to Amazon's DVD rental scheme (free for the first month, £5.99/month after that for 3 disks a month, getting one at a time). They treat each disk in a boxset separately, but that's ok; since I've seen all of season 1, I only need the final 2 disks from that set anyway. So, I've added them to my rental list, along with the first season of House (since I've only just started watching that, a few episodes into season 2). I've sorted them into an order of preference, so as long as Amazon don't do anything really stupid like sending me episode 5 because they don't have episode 1 in stock, it should all be fine. And if they do screw up, I can always try one of the other places that offer similar schemes (e.g. Sendit.com). There is still a delay compared to Sky (e.g. Atlantis season 2 finished on Sky last week, and doesn't start on DVD until next month), but it's quicker than waiting for terrestrial. And for something like Galactica, I'd be willing to buy the region 1 DVDs, if they turn up sooner.

Anyway, I'll try out the DVD rental option, to see how convenient that is, and I think I'll stick with my current Sky package until the current season of Galactica has finished. After that, when all the big series are on hiatus, I won't be missing much if I cut back, and the worst case scenario is that I can save myself some money for a few months then resume the service again.

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Comments:

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From:sulkyblue
Date:March 24th, 2006 09:12 am (UTC)
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Just to let you know - using a Sky Viewing card *does not* get you the same channels as you would on Freeview, most notably you don't get E4. I don't 100% understand why that's the case, but it is, 'cos that's what we currently do (use a viewing card without a subscription and not getting E4). I haven't heard my brother have any problems with his Sky+ box beyond his flatmates filling it up by series linking Neighbours.

Personally, I have to admit I adopt a policy of watching downloads of various series and then buying the dvds when they come out. This isn't so much because of the issues you describe (which sound very annoying) but because I'm unwilling to deal with the delay between US airings and UK. I'm usually pretty dedicated with my dvd buying so I adopt an attitude that the companies probably make more money off me in the long run, although I acknowledge the shaky justification ;0)

I have Farscape on dvd if you'd like to borrow it, gimme a shout when you're thursday barnighting and i'll try to pass it on. The first half of season 2 of Battlestar is available on R1 but there's no sign of it on R2 or the second half of the season. Grumble.
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From:johnckirk
Date:March 24th, 2006 12:57 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the info about E4 - that's interesting, if annoying.

I keep meaning to gather all my thoughts about dubious downloads into one place, but I haven't got round to it yet. As it stands, I do think that there are some grey areas, e.g. downloading one episode that I missed because of a power cut so that I can understand the following week's episode on TV. And I have no qualms about borrowing/lending DVDs etc., even if that does reduce the money that goes to the producers, so I'd be happy to take you up on your offer of the Farscape DVDs, thank you :)

As for Battlestar, I got a bit confused by people talking about "season 2.5" depending on whether you count the initial mini-series, and whether you're buying half-season DVD box sets...

One other advantage to watching episodes earlier is that it's easier to avoid spoilers. For instance, when Buffy season 6 was about to start on Sky, they had posters all around London saying something like "She's back from the dead!" This was before they'd got to the end of season 5 on the BBC (although I'd already watched the episodes on VHS), so I can imagine that this would be rather irritating for some people.
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From:sulkyblue
Date:March 24th, 2006 02:52 pm (UTC)
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The Battlestar issue is caused by SciFi Channel in the US splitting the season so that there was a long gap between the first 10 episodes and the second ten episodes of the season. Hence 2.0 and 2.5

The issue of spoilers is one that particularly annoys me. I want to be able to actually use the internet and take part in discussions, read news stories and interviews and all of these are based on US airings. Frankly, I find it pretty difficult on occasions to avoid spoilers even for the 2 or 3 days it takes to download the episode.

I would happily (well, willingly) pay a small amount to have access to episodes earlier... but until the networks catch up with that, I'll just keep downloading (or smiling sweetly and getting other people to do so) and purchasing dvds.
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From:elvum
Date:March 25th, 2006 10:41 am (UTC)
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IIRC Channel 4 have some ill-advised multi-year contract with Sky to provide encryption for their channels, so you need a subscription to view them. The BBC was in the same boat at one point, but now only pays Murdoch for the privilege of being listed in Sky's EPG.

Have you actually tried Freeview in your flat? What you really want is a combined satellite/terrestrial PVR, but I'm not sure they exist yet...

540x432 is significantly lower-res than even standard-definition TV, fwiw. What was the quality like? Could you see any obvious artefacts?
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From:johnckirk
Date:March 25th, 2006 10:52 am (UTC)
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I haven't tried the normal Freeview, because (as I understand it) they only work through a roof aerial, which I don't have.

As for the film quality, there was only one point where I noticed an obvious problem (a scene changed, and some of the colours were a bit blurry). Mind you, it probably helped that I was watching it from a foot away, whereas I normally have more distance between me and the TV.
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From:elvum
Date:March 25th, 2006 11:55 am (UTC)
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We use Freeview via a set-top aerial - it works fine, and there's probably a number similar to your situation of houses between us and the transmitter. If you can borrow a box sometime (possibly from bob?) it's definitely worth a try.
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