Musings of a PC

Thoughts about Windows, TV and technology in general

Using Sky Player with Windows Media Center

I recently wrote an introductory blog about the availability of Sky Player as an add-on for Windows Media Center. In this blog, I’m going to talk about what Sky Player offers in more detail and the user experience of it.

Sky Player has two entry points within the Media Center menu structure – the first is under TV, the second under Movies. The latter takes you straight into the Sky Movies section of on-demand and live viewing, whilst the first takes you into the top level of the system where you have more navigation options:

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The top level options are:

  • Sky Movies
  • Sports
  • Entertainment
  • Lifestyle & Culture
  • News
  • Documentaries
  • Kids

Picking any of these takes you to the next level:

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where you are offered a list of channels, plus the other navigation options of Highlights, Watch Live, Categories and A-Z.

If you pick a channel, the content is further sub-divided into Latest, Most Popular, Categories and Watch Live:

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The range of channels and content that Sky has to offer can make navigation a little bit cumbersome, particularly if you aren’t entirely sure which category Sky might have placed a channel under. If you know which channel you want, it can be simpler to navigate to the top row of options and choose either Live TV or On Demand, where you then get a list of all of the channels:

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For Live TV, this is also integrated into the guide (more on this later) and, as you navigate across the channels, the screen shows you the current programme being shown. It does not, however, show when that programme finishes or what the next programme is.

Watching live is a reasonable experience although I think the user interface needs a bit of cleaning up. For example, here is a screenshot from watching a live film:

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Part of the problem is that this interface has not entirely been designed with the remote control user in mind. For example, the double-pointer to the right of the channel name displays a list of channels when clicked on but there isn’t a remote button that correlates to that. Pressing up and down on the remote control correlates to the single up & down icons that are slightly further right of the channel name. These allow you to look at what other channels are broadcasting without actually changing channel:

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However, I could not find a remote control button that mapped onto the Watch Now clickable area and so wasn’t a particularly useful bit of functionality. Pressing channel up/down on the remote did change Sky Player channels so that was functionality well implemented.

I really don’t understand why there are volume options in the interface, though. I would have expected – and preferred – for all of this to be handled centrally by Media Center’s volume management.

Another example of where the user interface has been designed around the desktop is when you display programme info:

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The info pane will automatically close after a while, so what is the X doing there? Yes, it will close it but that is a desktop operation and not a remote control function.

It isn’t possible to pause a live stream in Sky Player. This is a shame as it would have been a nice bit of added functionality. As it stands, all you can do is press Stop. You don’t appear to then even be able to press Play to resume the stream! I suspect that this is a bug and there needs to be a bit more work here …

The remaining significant functionality of watching Live TV is the ability to adjust the quality being viewed by pressing the green button. There are three levels – high, medium and low:

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The difference in quality isn’t easily noticeable when the playback is small but is most certainly visible when WMC is running full screen and on a 50” screen! The quality of playback under “High” is acceptable but not, I would say, brilliant. I don’t have any figures such as resolution or bandwidth, but I felt that even the High quality playback was actually slightly lower than Standard Definition.

The guide for Live TV is well implemented, looking almost identical to the TV Guide:

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You cannot record programmes from Sky Player which is, I think, a serious deficiency. The desktop version of Sky Player allows you to download On Demand content and play it back offline. There isn’t the equivalent functionality in the Windows Media Center version and this would be a welcome addition to a future version.

Sky Player is also integrated into the main TV Guide:

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but there isn’t much level of detail here beyond the channel names against each category and the option to watch live TV, although that function didn’t seem to work properly for me. Another bug uncovered, perhaps?

Watching On Demand is a relatively straightforward process although, as noted above, navigation is cumbersome. There is, however, quite a flexible search interface and I’ll cover this below.

Once you’ve picked a channel and category, you are then presented with a sideways scrolling list of programmes or movies … which can be quite long depending on what you’ve picked.

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Picking an item displays the synopsis and any purchase information:

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You can then play the item if you have free access or if you are willing to pay for it.

The controls for On Demand viewing are simpler than those for Live TV:

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You can immediately see that you can pause and resume playback. Again, there are volume options which are unnecessary. There isn’t an option to change the quality of playback, which I don’t have an issue with but, as noted with Live TV, it would be nice to have the capability to download/record the item to hard disc for offline viewing. Sky clearly have this technology within the desktop application and it would be great to see this migrated.

There is also a progress bar to show how far you are into the programme. As with Live TV, this is mouse driven! You can click/drag the bar to change your position within the programme’s duration. However, there isn’t the equivalent for a remote control user and there isn’t the equivalent of “fast forward” or “fast rewind”, so if you are watching on a TV with a remote control, your playback options are somewhat limited to pause, play and stop.

As I’ve noted a couple of times, if you aren’t entirely sure which category a channel fits into, or where a programme might have been broadcast, there is a search function built in:

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You can use the buttons on the left-hand side to filter the results somewhat, although principally by Sky’s idea of how the broadcasting is structured rather than genres for films, etc.

Searching will match against any part of a title:

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Selecting a match then performs a further search, which I found a bit weird but I guess there is a reason for it. This secondary search matches any words you’ve entered against a programme’s title or synopsis.

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Once you’ve found what you are looking for, you select it and you can then play it as before:

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It should be noted, though, that searching is only against the On Demand content and doesn’t search the Sky programme guide for Live TV options.

Conclusions

All in all, this is a good implementation of the Sky Player technology as a native add-in for Windows Media Center. There are, as has been highlighted, some rough edges in the user interface but they don’t really get in the way of enjoying the content. I remain concerned, however, about the usage restrictions as noted at the end of the previous blog, and I would really like to see support added for offline viewing.

For both Sky customers and non-Sky customers alike, this is an easy way to gain access to Sky content. I think that the pricing could be improved by reducing it somewhat but it would be interesting to see what the take-up is at the current pricing levels.

If you have Windows Media Center, why not give Sky Player a try and tweet me at @pcolmer to let me know what you think?

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