A couple of years ago when Sky TV launched the first MySky receiver and hard drive video recorder it changed the way my household watched television. It did this by eliminating the need to watch television shows “live” and we quickly learned how to “drive” the MySky box with masterful ease, skipping ads at will, eliminating the chaff and watching more of what we actually wanted to see instead of what a programme director had decided for us. If you’re new to hard drive based video recorders, let me back the truck up a little to explain. Inside a MySky box is a hard drive churning away buffering (recording) the last 60 minutes of whatever channel you happen to have on at the time. What this means is that you can rewind up to an hour’s worth of TV to see something you missed the start of. Similarly, you can also pause whatever you’re watching, go make a cup of tea, come back to the lounge, dunk your Gingernut and start watching again without missing a frame of your favourite show. As an added bonus, you can then fast forward the same amount of time you were paused until you catch up. So right off the bat MySky changes the way you interact with your TV. Of course, there’s more to hard drive recorders than just pausing and rewinding live TV. All that storage space offered by the internal hard drive can be filled with many hours of television ready for viewing at a time that suits you. But setting a video recorder to record a show has traditionally been one of those painful tasks that’s best avoided, even by hardened technology lovers. So how do you make proper use of all that built in storage without a degree in computer engineering? Enter the EPG. Sky’s electronic programming guide (a list of every show screening on Sky Digital for the coming week) makes picking and choosing which shows to record as simple as scrolling through a list and pushing a button. MySky will then record the show and save it for viewing at a later date and you can even tell it to automatically record a particular show whenever it screens using a feature called Series Link. Two tuners let you record two channels at once while watching something you recorded earlier (And soon the box will be firmware upgraded so you can record two channels and watch a third). But none of this is new. In fact, functionally, the new MySky HDi box works identically to the old one. In all my testing I couldn’t find a single major way in which this box differs from the previous one. Other than a new colour scheme, all the menus remain the same, as does the EPG layout and the banner menu that flashes up at the bottom of the screen when you change channels. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because MySky worked quickly and intuitively to begin with, and while we would have loved some advanced, TiVo-like features (our favourite would be the way in which a TiVo examines what types of shows you watch then records stuff it thinks you may like) we’re not left disgruntled with the day-to-day operation of the device.
However, what makes the new MySky HDi a must have toy isn’t necessarily found in the hardware itself. Instead, it’s the long-awaited upgrade Sky has made to its delivery platform. MySky HDi’s single most important feature is the fact it can display high definition video and output 5.1 surround sound, meaning that for the first time the visual and audio quality on offer from Sky is some of the best available. Movies on Sky’s HD channels are now approaching Blu-ray quality and have certainly surpassed DVD quality. Sport looks even better – crisp, vivid pictures will have you marvelling at previously unseen detail. If you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself watching endless hours of sport you don’t even like just because it’s in HD. So exactly what content will you get in HD after paying $599 for the box and adding a $10 per month “HD Ticket” charge to your existing subscription? Two of Sky’s movie channels (Sky Movies and Sky Movies Greats) and two sports channels (Sky Sports 1 and 2) are now broadcasting in high definition. In addition TV3 is also broadcast in HD and Sky will eventually start broadcasting Prime in HD also. We can but hope to one day see other channels make the shift to HD – Discovery and National Geographic would be natural selections, and perhaps even ESPN. I wondered how Sky’s HD service compared with Freeview HD so I undertook some A-B comparisons using TV3 as a benchmark. A few episodes of CSI later and I was unable to detect any discernable difference in quality between the two platforms. Both looked great. Of course, not all content on these HD channels is actually in HD (and it’s easy to tell, especially with sport), but I found that even if you’re watching material which isn’t filmed in high definition, the picture quality across Sky Sport and Sky Movies is vastly improved over its old self by virtue of the fact all content is upscaled to 1080i or 720p (depending on which of these resolutions you have your MySky HDi box set to) and bitrates for these channels are twice as high as they used to be.
All-in-all I can report that the picture quality provided by MySky HDi is superb, as is the performance of the box as a PVR. One thing is for sure, once you’ve watched live sport in high definition, going back to non-HD content is just plain depressing.