Sky Store – or Acetrax revisited?

Around about a year ago, I wrote a piece over on The Register looking at the state of play with ‘Over the top’ video services – that’s those that provide an IP service; in the UK these are found on a variety of platforms, including smart TVs, YouView and the Roku box.

Back then, Sky’s NowTV was relatively new, and had briefly offered pay per view, a situation which, according to their PR, would resume in time. Meanwhile, it had a load of films available for your monthly subscription, as well as access to Sky Sports.

If you wanted to just watch a single film without being tied to a monthly fee, your main choices were Blinkbox (owned by Tesco) and Acetrax, which was present on rather more sets and, despite the “independent” label on the corportate website, actually owned by Sky.

That situation didn’t last terribly long, as in May of 2013, the closure of Acetrax was announced. Since the summer, Blinkbox has had things pretty much to itself in the OTT pay per view stakes. Sky, of course, is not a company to miss an opportunity, and so it’s no surprise that this month has seen the launch of Sky Store on various platforms. Available through the company’s HD set top boxes, it’s also available on the web, the NowTV box (itself a rebadged Roku model with custom software), YouView and Roku, which is what I’ve been using.

You need to sign up on the website at store.sky.com to use the service, unless you have an existing Sky or NowTV ID, which you can use instead. Roku users can then install it like another ‘channel’ on their box, and sign in via the remote; you can install it without signing up if you just want to watch trailers – sadly not available for all films – or browse through the collection.

What’s on?

Sky claims 1200 films available at start; I’ve not counted, but it looks pretty reasonable. There are clear categories (somewhat easier to access than Netflix on Roku, where the categories shown seem to change and wander up and down the list), though of course some films appear in more than one – “Man of Steel” is both ‘Action’ and ‘Sci Fi’ for example; the latter category shows 150 films, and prices per rental range from 99p to £3.49.

It’s good to see recent films like that, alongside”Star Trek: Into Darkness”, “Pacific Rim”, “World War Z” and others; you don’t get such up to date fare on Netflix in the UK. However, there’s plenty of back catalogue too, and that’s where you may need to pay careful attention, as it could be all to easy to click and watch something that’s actually available on Netflix – like “Thor” or “Captain America” – and instead pay £1.99 to watch, a problem that may be exacerbated by the differing artwork that you’ll sometimes see for the same film on the two platforms. Clearly, there’s an opening somewhere for a web site that will help users work this out, much as Oric.com does for TV episodes; in the meantime, I’d advise those who do have Netflix to search for a film on that first, before checking Sky Store.

Watching

Viewing a film is pretty straightforward; select it from the browser, click the button to watch – which displays the price clearly – and then enter the PIN set on the website, to confirm the purchase.

One a purchase has been made, a film will appear in a library section of the site, so you can stack up a load of rentals in one go, and find them easily later. You have up to thirty days to start watching, on any device that’s linked to the account. However, once you start playback, the film is locked to the device on which you began to play – so you can’t start watching on the living room Roku, for example, and finish off with the laptop in bed. From the moment you start watching, a 48 hour countdown starts; watch as often as you like in that period – on the same device – and then you’re done. For occasional viewers, that’s probably fine, but some will doubtless find the restrictions a bit much – especially the inability to stop on one device and pick up again on another.

Quirks

While the overall picture quality is pretty good on my broadband – the web page says you need at least 2.5Mbps – it’s not exactly HD. The web site is pretty vague on this too, and says simply “Our movies are the same quality as a DVD” which isn’t a lot of help. That said, the ones I’ve tried so far are perfectly watchable. What’s more annoying, however, is that there’s no surround sound, even on a new release like Man of Steel; doubly annoying, since the Roku hardware is certainly capable of it, so you may find yourself reaching for the ‘Pro Logic’ button or one of the ‘Cinema’ modes on your surround sound amp.

For the hard of hearing, another blow is the lack of subtitles; this is strictly a no-frills experience. That even extends to some of the most basic functionality, fast forward and rewind. Don’t panic – you can do both. But, at least on the Roku implementation, you’ll be doing them with the only indication that something is happening being the elapsed time counter at the bottom right of the screen. Yes, that’s right – fast forward and rewind on Sky Store has less functionality than a VHS recorder; you’ll be effectively blind, and when the picture returns you’ll quite likely need to guess from your knowledge and memory of the film whether you’ve gone too far, or not far enough.

Overall

It’s no surprise that, after the closure of Acetrax, Sky has decided to get back into the pay per view OTT area, and there’s probably a better range of films for the UK than Acetrax ever managed. There’s a certain logic, too, in separating this out from the content that’s available on NowTV, in that users who have both will always be pretty clear what’s going to be included in their subscription, and what’s going to cost them, though I can’t say I’m 100% convinced by that.

But, while the film browser is certainly less clunky than the current Netflix experience on Roku, in my opinion it’s let down somewhat by the lack of HD, surround sound and subtitles, and the shocking inability to see the picture when using fast forward and rewind.

Some films are priced pretty reasonably, though at £3.49 for a recent release, I really would have expected surround sound; I’d put up with just ‘DVD quality’ for that. I’d be less happy if I ended up paying £1.99 to watch something that I could have seen included in my Netflix sub, where it would likely be in HD with surround sound and subtitles.

Overall? A useful addition for those who want a bit extra, especially recent movies without a monthly subscription, but for now, Sky Store definitely needs polishing.

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