Hands-on preview of the new Sky HD EPG

A few weeks ago – presumably to ensure not all the high-definition TV attention was on the Freesat HD launch – Sky announced a forthcoming update to its Sky HD electronic programme guide (EPG).

We reported the story here, highlighting the main new features, but I’ve since had the chance for a hands-on play with the updated EPG, and there are some hidden delights that’ll make life a lot easier for Sky HD users.

New HD highlighter

For example, as those of us know who regularly trawl through the EPG on the hunt for high-def gems, there’s still a lot of standard-def (SD) content lurking on HD channels. Well, a new feature allows you to highlight all native-HD shows and movies in orange (shown above). That means no more getting over-excited about, say, a classic film on Channel 4 HD that turns out to be a sludgy SD transfer.

This HD highlighting needs to be activated via the customisation area of the EPG’s options menu – which is where you can also choose to view the channel listings with or without the new mini TV option, which allows you to keep an eye out on the action as you browse.

Hello mini TV; goodbye music
I can see the pros and cons of this small screen (shown above right). On the plus side, I can see it coming in handy to browse the guide/your recordings during ad breaks, while still keeping an eye out for the show restarting. However, it does cut down on your at-a-glance listings – reducing the number of channels per page to a mere six. Turn it off and you actually get one more channel per page than with the existing HD EPG.

What’s missing from the customisation menu is an on/off option for the music that’s traditionally accompanied the TV guide. That’s because Sky’s canned the tunes completely – a sad day for the musicians who used to send in their compositions in the hope of EPG airplay (yes, really).

Meet the blue ‘back’ button
But let’s get back to some more useful updates. If you’re a fan of shuttling between shows – maybe two concurrent Champions League games, or head-to-head X-Factor/Strictly Come Dancing – the Sky HD remote’s blue button is about to become your friend. Press it and you’ll go straight back to the last channel you were watching, with no need to go via the TV guide itself.

Browse while you watch
If the mini TV allows you to keep an eye on the action while browsing the full guide, the new now/next/later menu bar (shown above) reverses that scenario – allowing you to peruse a cut-down version of the guide at the bottom of your main picture.

It shows you what’s coming up on that channel for the next 12 hours, with the ability to scroll down to other channels, plus to hit the ‘i’ button to get show information (as you would on the full planner). It also simplifies recording, as we'll come onto later.

Full search – at last!
As you’ll know if you’ve had the frustrating displeasure of using the current A-Z search, it’s far from easy to find a show on Sky. The recent searchable guide on Sky.com has been a revelation – it’s saved my viewing bacon several times by finding second screenings of shows it’s missed – and I’m delighted to see an on-screen version of this is due in the new EPG.

As shown above, you can use your remote control to input up to 10 characters; hit search and seven days of programming will be searched, with the results able to be stacked and sorted (see below) so you can easily see what you’re after.

The new search function also allows you to browse the week’s programming by genre and sub-genre – for example movies/comedy or sports/football.

Recording tweaks
Another aspect of the current Sky HD EPG that really irritates me is the long-winded process of recording a whole series – or ‘series linking’ in Sky parlance. Once you’ve found what you want to record, you hit the R button and you’re taken to your planner, from where you hit ‘series link’. There’s then a hold-your-breath pause while you wait to see if Sky will play ball.

The new EPG aims to make that a lot simpler. When you hit the record button (and, as illustrated earlier, this can be from the mini now/next/later guide as well as via the main line-up), if it’s part of a a series, you’ll instantly be given an option of ‘record once’ or ‘record series’.

Another neat update is the addition in the TV listings of an ‘R’ symbol (see bottom left, below) on programmes you’re already planning to record – no more duplicate recordings in the planner.

Stack up those shows
Next, back to one of the features Sky chose to highlight in its initial release on the new EPG: series stacking. I didn’t understand the full appeal of this until I had a play with the system, and then it came to me: no more hunting around on my planner to find various episodes of a series I’ve recorded, possibly missing one and then watching a show out of order (hell, Lost and Heroes are random-enough as it is…)

Series stack (shown below) removes the strict chronological ordering of the planner and allows you to view all recordings of the same show in a single block-listing, which you can expand or collapse as needed. A boon for over-tired watchers everywhere…

Lock and load
Finally, if there are shows on your planner you don’t want younger members of the family having a gander at, Sky has made it easier to PIN-protect any recording – not just the time-, channel- or certificate-specific content it already requires PIN access to.

The EPG update is due by Autumn: Sky says it’ll be rolled out over a two-week period, with every Sky HD customer receiving a written guide to the new system via post, with interactive tutorials also available at Sky.com and on Sky Anytime.

By then - as reported here - we could also have some price-cuts to write about to....