I've decided to put together a proper, in-depth review for the Vodafone TV (since one doesn't seem to exist anywhere else). Yes, reviews for it exist, but they all seem to be as shallow and vapid as the reviewers behind them. I mean, for the love of god, one referred to traditional TV as 'linear'. Don't be like that guy. That guy is an idiot. The proper, time-worn, nomenclature is 'Broadcast'.
Side Note: yes, I'm aware it is referred to as linear in the programming sector, but most people aren't, you know, making broadcast TV every day.
The other reason to have a crack at this, is that there doesn’t seem to be anything comparing the service Sky provides via Vodafone against the service Sky provides via Sky. Self-feeding monopolistic tendencies aside, we’re stuck with Sky for the foreseeable future, so I hope to at least answer a few questions that current Sky subscribers might have about subscribing to Sky with Vodafone Sky. Sky?
This is outside of my usual wheelhouse in terms of this blog, which thus far has mostly been grumpy rants about programming – but at least my background will help shed a little more light on the subject (at least, hopefully, more than: I plugged it into my TV and it worked). I particularly want to cover the questions I had, and continued to have, even after looking through other reviews and documentation from Vodafone (who seem to follow the modern trend of repeating a few bullet points over and over again on their website).
I’m also not going to go into too much depth about the ‘Streaming’ aspects or apps – like Netflix or Prime, since they’re all basically the same on any device. Hitting the Netflix button on your TV remote is no different to loading the app on Vodafone TV (although with more steps). If you care about streaming services, this might not be the place for you.
It's the way of the future + Vodafone
First, let’s get the main detail out of the way: 3-day rewind is just magical. No sooner than I had it plugged in and activated on a Sunday, was I able to rewind live broadcast TV back to Friday night’s programming.
With current technology, let’s assume you’re at the mall grabbing some dinner. You think to yourself: Oh, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is on in 20 minutes – but you also need to grab something from the supermarket. You miss the first half, so have to schedule a recording of the 1am repeat on Sky and watch it the next day – or wait for it to be posted on-demand (in lower quality) the following day.
With the Vodafone, you can simply jump back to the start of any show that aired within the last 3 days (assuming it’s one of the channels + show combinations they have license to do so – a claimed 90% of content).
One trick to get around the issue on a skybox is to leave the channel on one you’re likely to watch to enable timeshifting to rewind to the program you want to watch (assuming you have the luxury of forward-planning) – but that only works for one channel, since you can’t control what the other 3 tuners do in the background.
Now, anyone born young enough to be fond of the Star Wars prequels will simply say, but I can watch anything I want on Netflix – whenever I’m ready, on my 13” MacBook screen. I’m not going to watch what they tell me to watch. Well no. You can’t. The fact that there are approximately 17 billion streaming services on offer today, proves that you can’t – even if you subscribe to every streaming service, there is still some content that is only available on broadcast TV (or linear if you’re a dingus).
Delivery + Vodafone
Since it does everything over a standard broadband connection, it’s not susceptible to rain fade – as long as your internet is working, even the heaviest rainclouds can’t stop the signal (Mal).
Unfortunately, just like rain fade, it’s failures do align with external events where you most want to watch TV:
- When it’s wet and dreary outside (Doesn’t work reliably on Sky)
- When your internet connection is having issues (Doesn’t work on Vodafone).
It does, however, mean that each channel is essentially a live stream transcoded for the Vodafone TV box. In the same way that you can jump about / timeshift a live stream on Youtube, you can do that with each channel provided.
Conversely, for the two people left in New Zealand that don’t know: Sky delivers its television over satellite feed – which is just as cool from a technology perspective: your TV is coming frooooom spaaaaaace! Both have their advantages and disadvantages and Sky / Freeview satellite is still the only choice for the middle of nowhere where internet delivery is still well behind national average.
The Vodafone is entirely internet based, whereas the Sky box has 4 internal satellite tuners to capture broadcast television waves in a reflective dish and focus them onto a point that the decoder turns into moving images and sound. Since satellite is delivered on transponders and each transponder can carry multiple streams (channels), you can do some fairly cool stuff with the hardware (although SKY won’t let you, because, you know – profits + licensing).
Both the Sky and Free-to-air channels are available on both platforms, however +1 channels don’t make an appearance on the Vodafone side (with 3-day rewind, they’re kind of irrelevant anyway).
Speaking of that 3-day rewind: on paper it’s not something you might ever consider using all that often, but it has a tonne of uses. If two things we want to watch overlap, we’d either record one and watch it immediately after the other show – or wait for the plus one.
Perhaps the most criminally inefficient use of the recording is when one show overlaps another by 5-10 minutes. We play the recording from the start and delete it immediately after it finishes. An extension of this, is the occasional ‘safety’ recordings on Sky - in case something glitches out we can jump back into the recorded version (even if the intention is to watch the live version).
All of these points are avoidable outright on the Vodafone box, by jumping back to an earlier point in the broadcast at any time.
Obviously, if need to extend your viewing radius out by more than 3 days, you can still record – but around 80% of our recording uses are more for catchup than anything else (otherwise known as disk thrashing, et al).
While VOD services fill this gap in a pinch – broadcast still has better visual quality than TVNZ OnDemand or ThreeNow does.
Oh, and there’s no minimum term limit for Sky channels via Vodafone, you’re not stuck with the 12-month contract Sky
crams-down-your-gullet offers you as a ‘welcoming gift’.
Picture Quality + Sky
Sky wins here. For now.
Satellite has the added benefit of being a fixed bitrate transmission system. It’s not any cheaper to transmit less data, so why not allow the full width of the pipeline to improve picture quality?
The Vodafone has a blocky, heavily MPEG encoded video quality that is visibly lower in quality than broadcast (be it Sky or Freeview). Channels appear to be streamed to the device at around 6mbps, which is roughly equivalent to what a DVD can do – but the Vodafone spreads this over an HD image (for HD channels). Now, while it is possible to achieve decent quality with those settings with modern codecs, it’s something that really should be spec’d up in the future (luckily, that’s a server-side change that can improve all boxes in the field – although it would require beefier servers to handle the increased transcoding, so... cost..).
Presumably, it’s pulling down 1080p from HD sources, versus the 1080i from broadcast channels – but that’s little comfort when the bitrate is so low: hell the trailer I’d made for Terminator: Dark Fate is encoded in 8.5mbps and that was to save space + bandwidth on my web server (admittedly with a far smaller audience than Vodafone though). You can mitigate this a little by dropping the resolution on the device itself to 1080p and letting your TV do the upscaling (my Panasonic has an MPEG remaster mode that reduces the obvious blocks), but side-by-side Sky wins here.
Now, the hardware is capable of doing 4K + HDR from other sources (Netflix / Youtube), but if the primary use case is for broadcast TV, expect a visual hit. At least, until Vodafone hire me to advise on the technology side of things..
Whether or not you notice is another question. I certainly do, but apparently no-one else that has reviewed the unit has (or cares enough to review more than one aspect of a product – a modern conundrum for another time). I suspect most people will fall into the ‘meh’ category, and that’s fine, there are other concerns at play – but even my wife (who normally wouldn’t mind if there’s a minor visual aberration) questioned why it looks so crap.
Brightly lit scenes are fine, but a romantically lit restaurant easily becomes a dark murky mess and dark night scenes have no contrast at all – unless there is little visual information in the frame, the encoding in use doesn’t perform particularly well at all. Worse still, it would appear that the encoding in use isn’t content adaptive, so it tars every scene with the same brush – adjust your image settings for one piece of content and it’s completely wrong for the next thing.
- Expect your viewing to be completely washed out in one scene, or over-saturated to the next.
- Expect skin tones to look ok in some content, but orange / brown / green in others.
Vodafone anyone complains that it’s my internet connection, or the box hasn’t had time to adapt to the stream yet – all testing is done via Gigabit Ethernet and a Gigabit Fibre connection at various times of day. There is no problem with 4K content over the same cabling, and the ‘visual’ pop-in of the stream buffering / loading takes a few seconds to stabilize (usually after the first ‘pop’ but occasionally there’s an intermediate step in between ‘low’ and ‘full quality’).
Basically, If Vodafone were to increase the transcoding bitrate and allow for a ‘pass-through’ resolution to allow external hardware to do proper upscaling, that would resolve these issues entirely.
Sky doesn’t get off entirely here either though, side-by-side the imagery from Sky tends to ghost with motion (combing is sometimes prevalent on text, but not as common). However it does look spectacular on relatively still scenes (or at least, as spectacular as you can get without buying Blu-ray / UHD versions of the same content).
In any case, after spending half an hour on the Vodafone, returning to the Sky decoder is always a significant visual upgrade.
Sound + Vodafone
The audio output on the Vodafone has a richer, more balanced sound than the Sky decoder. The mixing is friendlier to the vocals too, I don’t have to juggle the remote as much as I would with Sky – which has a predilection to blast music / sound effects and skimp entirely on the voice range (quiet dialog + loud boom). The Vodafone emits the same loud boom, but also clear voice – a win in my book.
All is not lost here for sky though, since it has outputs that can power a proper home theatre setup. The Vodafone can only do that if your amplifier supports HDMI passthrough (although most modern setups do).
Accessibility + Sky
Another win for the Sky box. Subtitles and Audio description is all behind the Yellow button. Hit once and down for talking descriptions, or Yellow > Right > Down to enable subtitles.
On the Vodafone, each option is buried in the settings menus. To be fair, either of these are usually a set once and forget affair, but I do find myself resorting to the subtitles occasionally if I can't quite understand an accent the first try – or I can’t catch the punchline to a joke over the audiences’ laughter.
I also tend to pop on subtitles at night and mute the volume when the rest of the house has gone to bed, or when I'm working.
As for the remotes – the Vodafone remote looks nice, but isn’t practical in use – operating entirely by touch is tricky. The Sky remote has raised buttons that are far easier to navigate without looking, or by the vision impaired.
The Interface + Vodafone
I’m fond of the simplicity of the Sky interface but adore the Vodafone’s UI. It’s a little fiddly here and there but has a number of little flourishes that SKY currently can’t deliver on their STB (like the posters in the guide). It all looks like a high-end MediaPortal theme and I’m all for that (it also doesn’t appear to fall over quite as frequently as MediaPortal either).
The 20-second skip is handy and fast-forward / rewind with thumbnails is a nice touch (if a little too unwieldy at higher speeds compared to the Sky box).
For the streaming services, unfortunately there is absolutely nothing here that you can get anywhere else. For all the talk of ‘everything in one’ place, you still have to trundle over to the apps section and open Netflix or Prime as a separate app. Each app still also has it’s own interface and way of doing things too, so don’t expect it to integrate as tightly into the dashboard as the Sky service does. Obviously, with their commercial partnership, Sky would naturally want things this way around.
Search appears to filter the TV guide and a ‘Sky Go’ equivalent and doesn’t extend to other services. TVNZ OnDemand is left out in the cold and so is Netflix, and Amazon Prime. You still have to look through every service to find the show you want to watch, something that is always going to be faster to do on a laptop instead of on-screen keyboard from a remote. Global search would be technology likened to witchcraft here but is something that isn’t going to happen with each platform offering their own catalog / service.
Also, Disney+ seems to be left out in the cold, so you’d still have to have a way to plug that into your TV another way. Since any smart TV will have most apps built-in anyway and failing that, Chromecast or even a semi-decent DVD / Blu-ray player (or good old laptop HDMI output) – streaming isn’t any more useful on this device as any other. Especially given the limited target market, it’s unlikely anyone will be knocking on Vodafone’s door to get their app released on the Vodafone TV (at least not before the likes of Sony or Panasonic get it first
Both Sky and Vodafone are relatively rock-solid in their stability.
I encounter the occasional issue where invisible glitches on Sky lock the interface or video, but they’re relatively infrequent. On the Vodafone side, we did have an issue where a show had crossed the boundary of live-to-catchup and wouldn’t fast forward, but simply restarting the show got us back on track – not ideal, but not the end of the world.
Privacy & Ownership + Sky
While the Sky box could theoretically ‘dial-home’ if it has an internet connection and divulge your viewing habits to ‘headquarters’ in a bid to sell you more designer perfumes or golf balls, they currently don’t (the call from Sky to become one of their ‘Nielsen’ families confirmed that – it would require a separate decoder).
By means of the technology, on the Vodafone: this information is inherently collected by the server – it needs to know what you’ve requested to watch, so it can display it for you.
Is this a deal-breaker? Probably not. But the more privacy focused among us might see it as an issue.
I personally don’t, because Vodafone already knows if I’m home or not based on my cell phone location and probably a great deal more (if they were that way inclined), based on my mobile data usage.
Or my txt messages. What TV shows I like is a lower priority in terms of privacy. Besides, you can find out what TV I like: here anyway.
There is also a
data-harvesting ‘Intelligent TV’ function that you must opt-in for. As far as I can tell, it only really adds suggestions to your screen and does something to the “Kids” app that I have no inclination to enable as I neither need suggestions on what to watch, nor have children.
The next topic to explore, would be content ownership. Who owns your recorded TV? Well, Sky and Vodafone are on equal footing here. Both services have the option to preclude content from being recorded. Both services have the option of recalling previously recorded content and deleting it from your device.
One massive benefit the Vodafone does have over Sky is if you have two Vodafone TV’s (since it’s all cloud based) you can grab your recordings from either unit (that includes Sky if you have multi-room, so you can record on one and watch on the other).
The thing to watch for is when storage becomes a concern for Vodafone – are they going to oust your older recordings in favour for new ones? Is a policy change going to reduce your space limit (Microsoft have done it before with OneDrive, why not Vodafone too?).
Are they hoping that an overwhelming number of customers pay them for a Sky subscription to subsidise the service for the rest of their customer base that only want to use it with Freeview?
Do they get to decide what is more important for you to keep? At least with the Sky box, the ability to remote delete is only really used if licensing expires or some other extraordinary circumstance – otherwise it’s a physical hard drive sitting in your box, if you want to fill it with 2,000 recordings of the same Two and a Half men episode over and over again – nothing’s stopping you, except maybe taste and/or sanity.
To wrap up (an already, far too long post)
A “few” (15) years ago, I built a Media Center PC (remember those?).
In fact, my wife and I used one as our daily viewing platform for around a decade. It was capable of doing both UHF Freeview (HD), Satellite Freeview via a DVB-S card and Sky using a capture card and IR blaster to automate channel changes on the set-top-box. While this worked for our use cases, our viewing habits started shifting more toward the Sky channels and away from Freeview.
This started when complete drivel managed to take over the airwaves to appeal to the masses – I cannot stand manufactured tension from the likes of Masterchef and cannot fathom the need to run Popstars over multiple nights in a week (other than the fact that it’s cheaply made and broadly appealing to the ever-dimming masses - why would you bother with licensing scripted drama if those are the economics you’re dealing with?).
After tinkering and improving constantly, I finally managed to put together a machine that could archive all Freeview channels at once (although HDD space limitations meant we kept that to recording what we wanted to watch if we were out).
Once the habits drifted toward more engaging content on Sky, the analog conversion from the older style skyboxes tended to get in the way, so we upgraded to the new HD box with Sky. This meant an upgrade to the media center to be able to handle HDMI input, but that still limited us to one channel at a time – with no chance of background recording. After a little time with this setup, I gave in and upgraded to MySky which allowed us to record in the background and timeshift – on an always-on, always-connected box (no need to remember to boot the lounge computer to make a recording!).
Enter Vodafone TV. Where MySky was a big shift in convenience 5 years ago (and particularly more recently with the decoder firmware upgrades), it’s still based on older technology. Vodafone TV (or at least the concept) seems to be the way forward. It makes everyday TV that extra bit more convenient and if they can work out the kinks, or the (somewhat less likely) possibility of Sky using this as a pilot and building something similar (I imagine there’s several hundred non-compete clauses stepping in the way of that - but could happend depending on the friendliness of the two companies). It’s definitely a contender for one of the more recent technologies I’ve actually been impressed with (even if the ‘streaming will kill TV’ naysayers cluck their repetitive tune).
A worthy contender, but perhaps only once the issues are ironed out. If there is commercial interest to do so and Vodafone / Sky execute it properly, it might just entice me to swap over.