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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BusinessMarch 9, 2023

Review: Sky TV’s new Sky Box still doesn’t seem ready for release

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

After eight months of delays, Sky TV’s set-top box is finally making its way into homes. But maybe it should have been pushed back a little longer.

All I see are boxes. I can’t get rid of the boxes. They’re floating all over the screen like cursed pop-up ads for 90s porn sites. But there’s no small ‘x’ button in the corner to close them all. Why are they there? Why won’t they disappear? I just want to watch Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and all I can see are bloody boxes. 

Sky Box
John Oliver and some cursed boxes. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

I mash buttons, smashing the face of my new white remote control in vain, desperately trying to make those boxes disappear into the digital ether. It doesn’t work. The boxes stay, hovering over the screen, taunting me with their straight lines and sharp corners. Those boxes are ruining my viewing experience.

Later, while trying to watch Premiere League highlights, netball and The Chase (don’t judge me, it was a rough day), the boxes remain stubborn, aggressively pursuing my attention when all I want to do is watch Erling Haaland score more goals and Paul Sinha get a general knowledge question wrong for once in his life.

Sky Box
Sky gives the term ‘boxing out’ a whole new meaning. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

It had arrived in a box, so it kind of makes sense I guess. Sky TV’s new Sky Box is the first set-top offering from the local media and entertainment company in more than 15 years, and the launch hasn’t gone to plan with delays and a payout to keep Vodafone TV operational.

Now, in early March, the first customers are only just getting their hands on their Sky Boxes during what is being described as a trial period. Former Vodafone TV users have been offered priority, followed by Sky customers who pre-ordered their devices. Vodafone TV customers are first, says Sky, as that service will be buried, for good, on March 31.

The Spinoff first began discussions with Sky about trialling a box last August. A courier package turned up at my door about two weeks ago. It contained a blue box, a gleaming white device, a nice new remote control and a pleasant welcome note that said, “Welcome to entertainment reimagined.” Does it live up to that promise? Here are some thoughts…

The good

For those thinking of investing in Sky’s new products, you have a decision to make: which one? The Sky Box combines Sky TV’s plethora of live channels delivered with all of your other streaming services, including Netflix, Disney+, Apple TV+, Neon, TVNZ+ and ThreeNow. It costs $200 but to get one you’ll need to go on a wait list.

If you don’t care about live TV and you just want to replace your Vodafone TV box, it’s the Sky Pod you’re after. It’s smaller, circular, doesn’t require a satellite dish, plugs in via an HDMI cable, and combines Sky’s streaming services with everyone else’s. This one costs $100 and it’s exclusive to Vodafone TV customers for now. (The Spinoff requested both for review, but received just the Sky Box.)

Sky Box
‘Entertainment reimagined’ promises Sky TV’s new Sky Box. (Photo: Supplied)

Out of the box impressions: It’s very white. I like white! My Playstation 5 is white. I have several white T-shirts. White is a good colour. Does it get dirty? Sure, but nothing a little Jif can’t fix. It’s smart, sharp, looks good on the shelf and is small, about the size of three iPad Minis stacked on top of one another. Best of all? It doesn’t have a Sky card poking out the front like the devices of old.

Setting it up takes some wrangling with cords – power, antennae, HDMI – and if you haven’t had your Sky dish in use for years like us, you’ll need one of Sky’s technicians to come around and sort that out. Connecting your Sky Box to a Google account is easy and means all of your passwords are sitting there, ready for use. That makes installing all your streaming apps a breeze, and you’ll also have access to voice control options.

Once you’ve done that, you’ll find Sky Box’s home page is simple and clean, the menu systems flow nicely, and, when you get rid of those damn boxes, shows stream in 4K. The remote is well designed and works great. So does voice control. It’s when you dig a little deeper that issues start to emerge.

The bad

When Vodafone TV announced it was closing last year, I replaced mine with a new Apple TV system. I’m very happy with it: it’s fast, intuitive and simple swipes on the remote control with my thumb move the cursor exactly where I want it to go. With a bluetooth setup connecting to my speaker system, Apple TV has become my home entertainment hub, the thing I use to play music, listen to podcasts and stream TV shows and films whenever I’m home.

It may seem unfair to compare a local company’s set-top box with an offering from the world’s most profitable company, one with a global reach and an impregnable grip on the zeitgeist. But it’s  all I’ve got, so it’s what I’m doing.

The Sky Pod. (Photo: Sky TV)

The Sky Box is not as fast, or intuitive, as Apple TV. It is noticeably laggy when clicking on services, entering apps, switching channels or stopping and starting shows. I watch a lot of Premier League highlights packages, and there have been occasional weird stutters making for a jagged viewing experience. (I checked my internet speeds, and they’re fine; my Sky Box is connected using an ethernet cable.)

The boxes popping up all over my screen are incredibly annoying. They show up every time I tried to view live channels and content from the Sky Box’s TV Guide. Sometimes they disappear on their own. Other times they hang around, hovering over the action and destroying my viewing experience. I hate those boxes with passion. (When I asked Sky, it responded: “The TV Guide is a priority for us and a focus of continuous improvement.”)

Sky Box
Sky Box offers Sky TV with other streaming services in one device. (Photo: Sky TV)

I’ve also had reboot issues. Twice now my Sky Box has decided to turn itself off and on again, a process that takes about a minute. Perhaps that’s updates being installed, but it doesn’t tell you that. Mostly, whenever you push the power button, whatever you were watching last comes up. That’s fine if it’s Liverpool decimating Manchester United, but less good if it’s a grisly machete attack in The Last of Us and the kids are in the room. (A parental pin is available for R18 content.)

When it comes to the Sky Sport Now app, it’s just not working. “No content” is the message whenever I use the app with the Sky Box, something that’s patently not true as it works just fine on Apple TV. When I asked Sky, I got this response: “There is a vast On Demand catalogue that is being updated every day with fresh highlights, replays, Sky show content and sport documentaries from our partners.” I couldn’t see any of that, but I found a workaround, with highlights packages listed under the Sky Box’s “Browse” section. It takes some scrolling, but they’re there.

Sky Box
Sky Box is one of two new products being released by Sky TV. (Photo: Supplied)

I didn’t test this out, but Sky admits the device’s recording function isn’t yet working properly – it has some “fine-tuning” and “tweaks” to do, which includes increasing the speed of channel changes. It says software updates should solve these issues in the coming days.

The ugly

Sky TV’s issues are well documented, so here’s a quick recap. First scheduled for launch in June, Sky Box was delayed, and delayed, and delayed some more. Over that time Sky TV paid $7 million to keep Vodafone TV operational, even though it was slated to finish on September 30. It will now end on March 31, a date by which Sky TV will be hoping its Sky Box and Sky Pod devices are fully operational and in as many homes as possible.

Everything is riding on this. Sky TV’s future is not guaranteed. Sports rights are constantly up for renewal, its SoHo channel and streaming service Neon relies heavily on HBO content, and a planned global Warner Bros Discovery streaming service – including HBO content – means it could lose it all. Sky TV recently lost its National Geographic channel to Disney TV+. It has proposed cutbacks to 170 jobs by outsourcing services.

Sky Box
The TV Guide viewing zone for Sky Box. (Photo: Chris Schulz)

After a career casually reviewing tech products and gadgets for various media outlets, I can say this: the Sky Box is the first time I’ve ever trialled a device that you can’t walk into a shop, purchase, take home and set up. There are no firm deadlines on when everyone who wants the new Sky Box will get one. Clearly, after months of delays, and significant extra expenses, the launch has been well and truly bungled. After two weeks with my Sky Box, it still doesn’t feel ready for release.

Yet the promise of Sky Box is a good one, so don’t put it back in its box just yet. The hardware seems to be in place, it’s just the software that needs to be sorted. In time that can, and probably will, happen. But all those on-screen boxes need to disappear, fast. The first job of a television streaming device is to stream television. If you can’t see the content, it’s no use at all.

* Sky Box, $200; Sky Pod, $100. Join the wait list here

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