Sky Player is Sky's attempt to give its subscribers added value by providing an online on-demand service for both PC and Mac owners.
Users can stream or download shows from channels they already receive as part of their TV subscription package and rent or buy selected shows and films.
For those with Sky Broadband Max or multiroom there's the bonus of live streaming of Sky channels aided by an EPG.
A non-subscriber can still buy or rent shows or watch shows on demand on a monthly subscription basis; £15 a month gets you the eight-channel Entertainment Pack which, sadly, doesn't include Sky1. Sky Sports channels can be added from £26 a month.
After registering you must install two small programs – the Sky Player application and Microsoft Silverlight, which allows for playback of the service's DRM-protected content.
The excellent Sky Player interface acts like a super-slick webpage. If you have access to live TV streaming you're presented with an EPG displaying a grid of programme information. This can be browsed day by day and used to schedule remote recordings to your Sky+.
A Windows Media-style player (used here for all video playback) in the top right-hand corner displays the selected channel, which can also be viewed in a small pop-up window and enlarged to full-screen. There are three streaming qualities – low, medium and (best for full-screen) high.
On-demand offerings come from channels including Sky 1, Sky Arts, Sky Travel, Sky Sports 1-3 and Xtra, Sky Movies, Sky Box Office, Eurosport, ESPN, Sky News, National Geographic, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, Bio, and History. Hopefully, the likes of Discovery and FX will be added soon.
Sky has cheekily 'included' BBC channels as part of the service but what's offered is just web links to BBC iPlayer. Content is organised first by genre, then channel and there's a search option and a recommendation feature.
Of the Sky-owned channels, the most recent episodes of shows are free usually to view. Older episodes are rent or buy only. If free, you can stream them (again in a popup player) or download them to the recording library, where they can be kept and watched for up to 7 days.
Otherwise, TV shows cost from 98p to rent or £1.96 to buy and rentals can be kept for up to seven days but watched repeatedly for up to 48 hours after first viewing. The same applies to Sky Box Office films, which cost £3.43 to rent. Films from Sky Movies are kept for 29 days and can also be watched repeatedly.
The peer-to-peer Kontiki system is used for downloads and you can pause them or close the application while still downloading. A 40-minute TV show takes up between 380MB-400MB and a 90-minute movie between 700MB and 900MB.
Download times for recent episodes of Lost using a 10MB cable connection running at near full capability ranged from 15 minutes in the afternoon to 45 in the evening. Saw IV (900MB) took an hour.
Streaming is an impressively smooth experience with shows starting straight away. Picture quality – as is also true of downloads – suffers minor artefacting but it's only noticeable in full-screen.
Sky Player is a well thought-out, very user-friendly service – if in need of a few more channels especially for non-Sky subscribers. Also currently missing is support for streaming around the homes and HD downloads.
But if you are a Sky subscriber with internet access you're essentially getting an additional Sky catch-up service for nought. The question is, how long before Sky adds Sky Player to its receivers?