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Over Christmas I was taking a look at Sam Knows the well regarded broadband information site, and I made a bit of a discovery. Up until then I’d all but resigned myself to the fact that we weren’t going to get super fast broadband in Arborfield any time soon. It took a long time for us to get ADSL enabled, and since we’re a pretty small exchange I expected upgrades to 20Meg either from an LLU provider or the BT 21CN programme, and especially FFTC services to be a long way off. However looking at the Sam Knows page for the Arborfield Cross Exchange it turned out there was now an option. There was still no movement from BT who didn’t even list our exchange on either upgrade scheme, but Sky Broadband had LLU enabled the exchange and were now offering an up to 20Meg broadband service. Now they certainly aren’t as well regarded as Zen Internet who I was with, but equally they aren’t regarded as the worst, coming above average in most of the surveys I found. They also now didn’t require you to take a TV service from Sky to take the broadband, and offered a fast, unlimited service for a good price to the competition, and the bottom line was they were the only provider who were either offering, or planning to offer 20Meg service on our exchange.
So I took the decision to switch, and the changeover took place on Thursday.
Up front it’s worth highlighting on of the big points that may be a concern. Whilst other providers may get a bit unhelpful if you use a router other than the one they supply, Sky go a stage further and actually write into the terms and conditions of their service that you must use their router. On the one hand this allows them to provide a much more idiot proof solution in that the router is heavily locked down, to the point that for a lot of users you just need to plug the router into a plug and the phone socket and it will just work. However if you have more complex requirements, for example you need to run a VPN to an office network, or have a more complicated setup it’s a bit of a pain as the supplied router is pretty limited, and the special Sky firmware deliberately removes several of the more advanced features.
In my case it’s more of an annoyance, and I’ve had to do a bit of shuffling around to ensure that the router which on the LAN side is only a 10/100 Ethernet router doesn’t slow down the rest of my network which is almost entirely 10/100/1000 Ethernet. I’ve also discovered that the rebadged Sagem router that Sky supplied goes into a bit of a sulk if it’s not in charge of the DHCP service allocating IP addresses to the other devices on the network. Again it’s not too much of an issue so far, more a hassle having to reconfigure the existing devices on the network to cope.
Whilst it is against the terms and conditions, it’s not impossible to use a third party router on the Sky service. The forums on the Sky User site will point you towards tools to find out what your ADSL password should be, and includes discussions of good alternative routers. However my experience of running for a couple of days with my old router has not been great.
Previously I was using a Draytek Vigor 120 hooked up to the WAN port of an Airport Extreme – which for the BT Wholesale based Zen Internet connection was great. Using it produced a much faster and more stable connection than I ever got with any of the other routers. However having swapped over to Sky the Vigor connected at, and resolutely sat at a 4Meg connection. Looking online at the support forum for the Draytek this is an issue with Sky. Taking a look at the configurations of the Draytek and the supplied router there is another difference. Whereas the Draytek is connecting using PPPoA, that is not what the Sky router is using, instead it is using MER, a new protocol that doesn’t use the traditional username and password, but instead uses the MAC address of the router to validate the connection. Other routers including my Draytek should support the protocol by spoofing the MAC address to make the connection, but a look over at the Sky User forums finds that people can’t get third party routers to work with this protocol. Since under the Sky terms and conditions you shouldn’t be using another company router anyway Sky aren’t much help! Whilst other routers can still connect by falling back to the depreciated PPPoA connection Sky seem to be gradually moving all of their users over to an MER connection.
Within a couple of hours of swapping to the Sky supplied router today, now I had the time to fiddle with the networking connections the speed of the connection started to tick upwards towards the expected 14-16Meg that my line should be able to support, so it does look like there are some compatibility issues with the Sky implementation.
At the moment I don’t have any real need to run a different router, and the network seems pretty stable with the Sky router in place, however I will be keeping an eye out for any details of other routers that may work with the Sky MER implementation.
I guess like most people in the current economic climate, we’ve been looking at ways to save a bit of money. We’ve swapped telecoms providers saving on mobile calls, and now on landline costs, made a number of other changes, but one of the things I quickly identified was the Sky TV bill.
We’ve had Sky pretty much by necessity since we’ve moved here since down to a combination of factors about the only transmitter our roof aerial can pick up is stuff from the Crystal Palace transmitter in London. It’s not the best reception at that distance, meaning that reliable reception for digital services is not really a possibility. Since cable services aren’t available to us the only option was satellite TV, which at the point we moved in was Sky.
We started with a single Sky box, but as many people discover, recording from it is an absolute pain. Enter the Sky+ and an extra £10 a month on the bill, plus another £10 a month to have the old box plugged into the TV upstairs with the same channel selection. Then along came Sky+ HD to tempt us further, so by the end of this year when our lock-in ended we are paying over £40 a month.
I identified that we weren’t using any of the extra channels on the upstairs box – the TV was only used to watch CBeebies and the BBC News channel, both of which were available on the Freesat from Sky package, so dropping that would save £10 a month. However things moved on a bit a few weeks back when our original Sky box died. Having looked at the replacement options from Sky I went out and bought a Freesat box, and was pleasantly surprised. Although it has a slightly different selection of channels from Freesat from Sky it did contain the channels we used, and on top of that the box had built in iPlayer support. Unlike the phoney Sky Anytime video on demand service that wastes half of the space on your Sky+ or Sky+ HD box and a whole load of your electricity downloading programmes you didn’t ask it to, or the Sky Anytime+ service that is limited to Sky Broadband customers, this is video on demand for any user on any suitably fast broadband connection using the well regarded BBC iPlayer platform.
Having experienced that, I then started to wonder if we could save any more.
The basic problem is that whilst we could entirely downgrade to Freesat from Sky, we’d also lose the HD and recording functionality which Sky charge extra for. Looking at Freesat they have a wide range of Freesat+ boxes that have the more limited range of HD channels on the Freesat platform and recording functionality, but without the monthly bill. Indeed the Freesat+ functionality is more advanced than Sky+ in a number of areas.
The next question was whether there was stuff we wouldn’t be able to get on Freesat to which the answer was yes, but it was all stuff we could pick up on DVD, BluRay, or was available through Apple TV all for less than the amount we were paying monthly to Sky. Basically we pay for the things we wanted, rather than a large monthly outlay for hundreds of channels we didn’t really ever watch.
So decision made, I then looked around for options. We could directly replace the Sky+ HD with a direct replacement such as the well regarded Humax Foxsat Hdr, whilst that would be a good option, I then came across the Panasonic DMR-BS780EBK Blu-Ray Recorder which would also replace the Blu-Ray player and DVD recorder we had with one unit, with the added benefit that it would integrate nicely with our existing Panasonic TV. Thanks to a generous internet price matching policy from our local Panasonic specialist that gave me a significant saving over the retail, last week I took the plunge, cancelled our Sky subscription and put in the Panasonic box.
To be honest we’ve not really missed Sky. Most of our viewing is on the mainstream channels, we still have both BBC HD channels and ITV HD, Sky is apparently paying large amounts of money to Channel 4 and Channel 5 to keep their “free to air” HD channels on their system only, so although our Freesat box can pick them up, it can’t decode them, but it’s not too much of a loss.
The iPlayer functionality is excellent, and I have used it already – we’re also using it again over Christmas to get around a recording clash. If you do have a recording clash unlike Sky+ the box will try to help you sort it out. For example it knows when the same show is repeated later in the week and will suggest one of these instead, indeed if a recording fails for any reason it will automatically record one of these later showings.
It also knows when the same programme is showing on an HD channel, even if it is at a later time and if you select the standard definition version will suggest the HD alternative. The suggestions even go as far as suggesting other programmes you might find interesting, so for example recording Grand Designs sometimes gives suggestions of other programmes about homes and houses.
Looking at other functionality that the Sky+ doesn’t have, one of the big bugbears is that all Sky+ programmes are locked away on the Sky+ box on which it was recorded, short of opening the box up, physically removing the drive and copying that way there is no way to get the programmes off, even to another Sky+.
No such problem with the Freesat box. Whilst many allow you to archive programmes to USB drives, our Panasonic box includes a DLNA server, I just enable that option and I can watch programmes back on a computer, and if we bought a DLNA TV upstairs we could watch back programmes straight off the box across the network. Similarly I can push videos from my camera, pictures or music across the network onto the Freesat box.
It’s only been a week, but thus far it really feels like the right decision. Whilst there is definitely less choice, we have a lot more flexibility about how and where we can watch stuff, the quality isn’t any less – indeed for programmes downloaded onto the Apple TV the quality is noticeably better thanks to the heavy compression Sky use on some of their HD channels. Best of all though we’re saving ourselves the best part of £500 a year.
If you too are looking for ways to save money, sit down and look at what you’re actually watching, can you save some money by ditching Sky?
I thought I’d just provide a little update to my previous post about the less than pleasurable experience of upgrading to Sky+ HD.
First off, Sky themselves have refunded our £60 installation fee. I e-mailed in a complaint saying much the same as my previous post here (but without the Simpsons reference) and to their credit they replied saying that it was not the level of service they should have given and therefore refunded the installation fee.
The other outstanding issue was the really annoying audio/video synchronisation problem on our Amstrad HD box. After a bit of experimentation and online reading it seems the problem only occurs when the box is auto-switching the ouput resolution between standard definition and high definition channels. The solution is to lock the box to only output a high definition picture, by switching it from Automatic to 1080i.
However the downside with this is it sometimes does a lousy job of scaling standard definition pictures, especially if they we’re originally 4:3 – widescreen standard definition doesn’t seem to be a problem for us – also the upscaled picture is pretty poor quality in comparison to what you’d get from a standard definition Sky+ box or from the Sky+ HD box automatically switching.
The answer comes in the form of the SCART socket on the back of the box. This by design can only output a standard definition picture, but can be tweaked to use an improved RGB connection if the TV supports it, so it does produce a much better picture than the upscaled output over the HDMI cable.
Certainly it’s annoying having to swap, and it will be a lot better when the audio/video synchronisation problem is solved, but it’s a lot less annoying than the audio being three seconds behind the video!