I have been a Windows Media Center user since 2005 and used it everyday in some way of other, I have gone from a single analog tuner to a dual DVB-T2 tuner with gigabytes of HD recordings and additional services like DVBLink and Remote Potato. But times change and with the BBC giving up showing all the Formula One races live in 2012 and with less and less content being offered by terrestrial broadcasters last month I made the decision to get Sky TV so a week before Christmas the dish and Sky+ HD box where installed.
This has given me a couple of weeks to compare Sky+ HD with Windows Media Center. First I want to say that if Sky’s premium content had been available within Windows Media Center (via Sky card) I would have stuck with Windows Media Center and not considered a Sky+ box, but its not available and the only option is to get Sky’s own hardware and Virgin Media and its Tivo box is not available where I live.
(I know there are some hacks to get Sky on Windows Media Center but its not they way I want to go).
The Sky+ HD box is a pretty well made devices, with component, Scart and HDMI output. I have it hooked up to my TV using HDMI (with a HDMI splitter so I still have my PC connected) and connected to my receiver via optical connection. The picture quality is excellent especially the HD channels, having tried going back and forward between the PC and Sky I think the video quality of the Sky box is slightly better than the PC but there is not much in it. As for audio the Sky box is better, I found the digital audio better with proper 5.1 audio rather than the Dolby Pro Logic output of the PC on many channels. But this is brings me to my first gripe with the Sky box, the audio levels are extremely inconsistent. Some channels are much louder than others, even on one channel the adverts can be way louder than the rest of the programmes. So I have found I have to keep changing the volume on receiver where as with the PC I didn’t have to mess with the levels. Overall the hardware does the job, the remote is pretty simple and 250GB storage is adequate.
The user interface on the Sky box is a step back from Windows Media Center, the EPG is useable and the planner is ok but its not as elegant as Media Center however its simple to use and does the job. One area that is pretty poor compared to Media Center is the search features. Search is much quicker in WMC, its easy to find TV shows and there is no equivalent to Media Center’s movie browser in the Sky box, I enjoy browsing the upcoming movies in Media Center and having a look at which I want to record and there is nothing like that in the Sky box. You can filter the guide by movies channels but there is no easy way to see a weeks worth of upcoming films. However there are other ways of browsing the EPG data and I will come to that later. Another feature of the Sky+ box is Sky Anytime where it downloads a selection of content for you to watch on demand, technically the service is good the content selection seems to be about promoting upcoming Sky shows and nothing that interesting.
One area where Sky are doing some good work is with Sky Go and Sky+ remote apps. With Sky Go you can stream live TV via their web site as well as on demand shows, it uses Silverlight for streaming and works on a Mac or PC, I found this works well but does require more bandwidth than a service like the BBC iPlayer. There is also a iOS app but that only offers Sky Sports and Sky Movies, this will come in handy when the F1 starts as Formula One is getting its own dedicated channel with the season starts in March. The biggest problem with the Sky Go service is that you can only have two devices registered against your account, so I have my Macbook and my iPad registered therefor I can’t have my iPhone connected, two devices is limiting and I am sure that I am not the only one with multiple devices. The Sky+ app and web service is actually pretty good, I found this much better for viewing the EPG than using the Sky box. You can use the web site or iOS apps to browse the EPG and setup recordings, this is handy if your out and about forgot to record your wife’s favourite show. The Sky+ apps work very much like DVBLink’s apps or something like Remote Potato but do have the advantage of being easier to setup.
Overall I have found the Sky+ to be just good enough to use and mean that I don’t use Windows Media Center very much anymore. The extra content and convenience of the Sky box have meant that for the first time in many years I am no long using Windows Media Center. There are some things I miss like being able to record movies and TV shows and then copy them on to my Windows Phone or iPad, but if you want the Sky channels where is little choice and the family find it easy to use. I am sad that I don’t use Media Center full time anymore and its sad that Microsoft and Sky never worked out a deal that would bring the premium content to the PC. I am still using my Media Center PC as a source for DVBLink so I can stream to other PCs in the house but that is about it now.
So Sky wins out on content and the Sky + HD box is just good enough. A couple of years ago I would be sat typing a blog post on my Windows PC while watching TV through Windows Media Center but now I am typing on a Macbook Air, watching Sky TV while checking twitter on my iPad…
Sky Planner via the browser
Sky Go via the browser
A screen from Windows Media Center which I am going to miss: