We'll be bringing you a full review of the new Sky+HD 1TB box in the May 2010 issue of the magazine, on sale from April 7th, but in the meantime – and as I've just upgraded to one at home, replacing an old Thomson box in the process – here are some first impressions.
Out of the box, it's smaller than I'd expected. Given the press pictures I'd seen, I'd imagined it to be the same size as the older Sky+HD boxes we're all familiar with, but in practice it's closer to the new, sleeker Virgin V+ box.
Build quality seems better too, although that could be an instant, subjective view rather than anything more concrete: the new box is shiny rather than matt-finished, and much like the piano lacquer found on some budget speakers, that tends to imply solidity even if the truth is somewhat different. The remote's gone a dark, graphite grey too: again, no biggie, but somehow it seems a shade classier.
Other neat touches? The rear panel has subtle side-cheeks that extend a few millimetres back behind the main back panel of the unit, to ensure you can't push the whole box too far back into your kit rack (and so crush your cables). It's a small improvement, I'll give you that, but somehow it appeals to me.
As to the user experience – well, in the main, it's exactly like the standard box, only more so. Connections are exactly as with my other (conventional) Amstrad box, so it's still optical or coaxial digital for 5.1 audio and HDMI for video.
And usability seems fine: my aged Thomson ran very slowly with Sky's latest EPG, but the new 1TB box, which runs the very latest version of Sky's firmware, is much faster to respond.
True, it's prone to the odd chatter of processing noise – not apparent when you're actually watching anything, but sometimes noticeable when you're scanning the EPG for something to watch. But otherwise, it runs quietly, and I've not noticed it getting unduly hot at any point, either.
The only other slight glitch is that like my older box, it can take a while when first switched on to perform a 'handshake' with my Denon AVR-4308: I get sound (connected in my system via optical digital) but, for a few seconds, no picture.
But once the handshake is complete, everything's fine: I suspect it's because I've set the box's picture output mode to 'Automatic' to ensure native 576-line and 1080-line video gets fed into my Denon's video processing as is appropriate, and if that's the price I've got to pay to achieve superior picture quality, well, fair enough.
And now to the main event: recording time. Fairly obviously, there's bags of it – more than I thought, in fact. Sky recently confirmed to me that the box is in fact a 1.5TB design, with 1TB available for any recording I care to make, and the other 500GB parked for the Anytime service (400GB) and the operating system (the rest).
So, as you would when given this much space to play with, I've gone HD-recording crazy: no more paranoid hoovering out of previously watched recordings from my Planner for me.
I've had the box a week, and so far I've still only managed to fill up 10 percent of its available space – and that's with hours of HD in place. I can merrily set any HD content I like to record using Series Link, and I'm finding myself cherry-picking my way through the HD movies every night, recording any film that I might possibly, occasionally want to watch, simply for the hell of it.
In effect, I'm creating my very own Sky video server, and even the Anytime service seems to be responding to the general theme – suddenly almost everything it pumps into the box is in HD.
Now to the vexed question: is it worth £250 (plus a few more quid for installation, if necessary)? The final call on that will have to wait until our official test, but this is my view. I'm well aware that some of you will argue that it isn't great value, because hard-disk prices have fallen so much of late that the premium 'twixt the 1TB box and the regular version is unjustifiable.
Well, OK: if you've got the guts (and the technical nouse) to open up your existing HD box and whack in a larger hard-drive as a replacement, fair enough.
But for me, my new box has been money well spent: it's greatly increased the amount of HD I'm recording and watching, and I've only had it a week. That makes it worthwhile in my book – but I'll be interested to read what you think...