Disclosure: We have a Sky World subscription with HD and a Sky+ HD box supplied and paid for by Sky as part of a 3 month customer feedback program.
Let me start with a little history. We have been Sky subscribers before and became early adopters when the Sky+ Personal Video Recorder (PVR) was launched in September 2001. This new Set Top Box (STB) from Sky had an internal 80GB HDD and allowed you to record up to two channels (you could also watch either of the channels that were being recorded), pause live TV, and also watch a recorded program while another two were recording. This was a real change from using a VHS video recorder which required programming in addition to making sure that the Sky STB was set on the right channel. The arrival of Sky+ also introduced the recording of a program selected from the on-screen TV guide and also allowed you to record a “series” so that each program in a season would be automatically scheduled as each one aired.
Fast forward to 2006, two years after our first child was born, and like many families with young children we realised that we were no longer getting value for money from our Sky subscription since we simply didn’t have time to watch what we were paying for. Initially we downgraded our subscription, by this time the Sky+ PVR service was free even if you didn’t take any of the movie or sports channels, but then finally cancelled it altogether a few months later. I initially purchased a Freeview PVR, I can’t recall the make or model, but quickly returned it as although it had two tuners only one channel could be recorded at once and there was no series link.
As an enthusiast I’d followed the news about Windows XP Media Center Edition but had never tried it since it wasn’t available except when purchased with a new computer. I’d started using the public beta of Windows Vista and since this included Windows Media Center (WMC) it was an opportunity to try it out. Fortunately when we had the Freeview aerial installed I had them run a cable to where the computer was located so all I had to do was get a USB TV tuner and run through the WMC setup. This was really straight forward and within a very short time I was able to watch and record TV on the computer.
We started off simply recording programs on the computer and then burning them to a DVD to watch in the living room while continuing to use the Sky STB to watch live TV. The USB tuner was quickly sold and replaced with an internal PCI dual tuner (Hauppauge Nova-T-500 which is still being used today) so that we could record two channels at once. Shortly after Windows Vista was launched in 2007 (although it was available in November 2006 for businesses it wasn’t publicly available until January 2007) I built a budget HTPC to go in the living room and this replaced the Sky STB. This was a little noisy but bearable and the WMC interface was well received in the house. Since then we have altered our setup slightly, upgraded to Windows 7 Media Center (7MC), switched to using an Xbox 360 as an “Extender”, added another dual tuner (same model), but most importantly we were very happy using Windows Media Center for over 3 years (despite a few bumps in the road along the way).
Now thanks to a website that my wife registered with we are in a position of re-evaluating our choice and doing a direct comparison between Sky+ (which now supports High Definition so has a larger HDD) and Windows Media Center. Did we choose Windows Media Center or did we just inflict it on ourselves in a moment of madness to avoid the commitment of a Sky subscription?
Windows Media Center introduced the Metro UI which is familiar to anyone using the New Xbox Experience (NXE) on their Xbox 360 or if you have one of the new Windows Phones running the Windows Phone 7 OS. The Metro UI is very clean and simple to use and is quite similar to the interface used on the Playstation 3. You scroll up and down to select different sections (Pictures & Videos, Music, Movies, TV, etc) and then right and left to pick an item within that section (recorded tv, guide, live tv, etc). When you select an item this takes you down into a detailed view so, for example, selecting “recorded tv” would show you all of the recordings that are available to watch. This makes it very simple to navigate and ensures that only the area of interest is shown on the screen. The panels representing each item are also large and easy to understand with text labels underneath. When you are watching a live or recorded program and you go back into the main interface this overlays the UI in a semi-transparent way. If you go into an area that needs to show detailed information, recorded TV for example, then that program is placed into a preview window at the bottom left of the screen.
The Electronic Program Guide (EPG) is again clearly laid out with each station occupying a row with the channel name on the far left and programs flowing out to the right where they disappear of the screen indicating that you can scroll right for more. At the bottom of the screen is an area that shows information about the program you have selected. If you highlight a channel you can select it to be taken to a single column view of shows on that channel. There is a further option on the left which allows filtering by favourites, films, sport, etc, although this is intelligent and will include any channel currently showing a film and isn’t channel content specific (the exception here is favourites which only ever shows your favourite channels). In the channel setup you can also hide channels that you aren’t interested in as an alternative to using favourites or even re-order them to your own preference (for example you could swap BBC1 HD with the SD version of BBC1 so that it appeared first).
The Sky+ interface is a stark contrast with a small row of icons at the top of the screen, an area for describing the highlighted icon or television program, and the available settings or guide data at the bottom. To the top right there is a preview window so you can see the program that is currently showing on the last selected station. You can choose an alternative view in the settings which makes the guide full screen and removes the preview window (the audio still plays), the downside is that you now have to press “i” on the remote to view program information. When accessing the guide in the default configuration you have to select a program twice; the first time it appears playing in the preview window and the second makes the program full screen. This all looks quite busy and I feel this comes from the fact that the single interface is trying to be a “jack of all trades” rather than having a UI that is designed for the task in hand as is the case with Windows Media Center. Strangely when you are watching a recorded program and you go to the guide this preview window doesn’t show the program that was playing but reverts back to the live TV station that was last viewed.
The EPG follows a similar layout to WMC although it isn’t possible to just view a single channels guide data and the filters are based on the category of the channels and not what content is currently showing. While it is possible to set up a favourites filter, it isn’t possible to hide or re-order channels although Sky have announced that from February 2011 they will be swapping the position of each HD channel with the current location of the SD version (for those subscribing to the HD pack).
Windows Media Center is the clear winner for us here both in terms of clarity and customisation.
The amount of storage available to Windows Media Center is only limited by the size of hard disk drives you decide to use and you can always use software to copy the recorded TV to a secondary location like a Windows Home Server (WHS) to increase this even more.
The Sky+ HD box we are using has a 500GB HDD although some older models have less and the latest even come with 1TB drives in them allowing for up to 240 hours of recordings. This certainly is sufficient for most households I would expect and is certainly a massive increase over the 1st generation boxes that had 80GB of storage (although only recording in SD then of course).
Since Windows Media Center runs on a computer it is always going to have an advantage over the Sky+ STB so to be fair lets base this on what storage space an average household might need to take advantage of recording programs for viewing later. I’m going to call it a draw from my perspective since we tend to record, watch, and then delete programs rather than archive them for keeping.
This is where things got interesting for us since I feel we don’t watch or record a lot of TV. The experience of going back to Sky+ has highlighted that what little we do record does tend to be on at similar times. This is partly due to on-going programs like Coronation Street which are on twice some evenings. We have made an effort to switch to Sky+ HD while our subscription is active but are having to fall back to WMC due to clashes with programs that we regularly watch or record.
Windows Media Center supports up to 4 tuners of each type (DVB-T/T2 for Freeview or DVB-S/S2 for Freesat) but you can use a mixture of each type at the same time. This gives a maximum number of 8 tuners so as you can imagine this gives incredible flexibility no matter how much programming you record. Currently we have 2 dual DVB-T tuners installed giving us 4 in total.
Sky+ HD includes two satellite tuners (DVB-S2) which can’t be increased even though the dish on the external wall supports up to 4 feeds. If this is sufficient or not would really depend on your viewing habits and how much you record.
Another win for Windows Media Center because I feel that 2 tuners isn’t sufficient especially when you consider that we are recording the same channels on Sky+ that are available on WMC. It is also important to note that WMC would offer far more flexibility even with only two tuners since it uses intelligent scheduling and I’ll cover this in more detail later on. I do appreciate that with catch-up TV services that this might not be such an issue for others.
Availability of HD Channel
Windows Media Center supports two types of tuners, as described above, but subscription TV support is limited and so only a handful of HD channels are available. At the moment the tuners we use are only capable of receiving standard definition. If we did install tuners capable of supporting HD then there are currently 4 HD channels available over Freeview, although not in our area until later on in the year, which are are BBC1 HD, ITV1 HD, Channel 4 HD and BBC HD (which shows various BBC programs in HD not just those from BBC1). The alternative for getting HD channels into WMC is Freesat and this currently offers BBC1 HD, ITV1 HD and BBC HD.
Unfortunately it was agreed that the EPG could be encrypted for HD channels on Freeview and as yet WMC doesn’t support this encryption. This means that there will be no guide data available for these channels and so no direct way of scheduling recordings. There is a way to make these available, since they are just simulcasting, and Ian Dixon (blog | twitter) has details of an application to achieve that here. The EPG available on Freesat isn’t encrypted so you will be able to schedule programs to record in addition to seeing what is on.
Sky overwhelms WMC with 50+ HD channels available and so is the clear winner here even carrying HD versions of ITV2, ITV3 and ITV4. The downside is that to receive the HD channels you must pay an additional fee per month. Regardless it is clear that Sky wins over WMC in this area if you are specifically focused on getting HD content and don’t mind the commitment of a monthly subscription.
I had intended this to be just a single post but after the lengthy introduction and amount of information I feel needs to be in each section I’ll break it up into parts. So that about wraps up part 1, with the scores tied at 2 points each, so look out for the next part soon.