Sky is leading the way in digital television at the moment. With the exception of niche operator Euro 1080 (now HDI), Sky will be the first major UK television broadcaster to offer dedicated HDTV channels. And it's the Sky PVR system which has set the benchmark for digital set-top boxes.
But while the current Sky box still leads the way in terms of usability and interactivity, it is limited by a stingy 40GB of hard drive storage space. Sky will continue to manufacturer the 40GB boxes for some time, but subscribers now have the option of purchasing the higher capacity Sky 160, which has a hard disk of 160GB. Not only that, but the 160 features a twin tuner, so you can record one channel while watching another.
Interestingly, the 160 is manufactured by Thomson, not Pace which makes Sky's 40GB box. But other than the hard drive, there isn't much to differentiate the 160 from the 40. You'll notice two new USB ports on the rear panel, but they haven't been activated yet. The idea is that these will allow you to connect to your portable Sky device when they become available, probably later next year.
There's a good range of connections including Scart, component, S-Video and DVI. The box decodes Sky's Dolby Digital broadcasts, but that still mostly applies only to movie channels. There's a little fan noise but it is inaudible once the TV's on.
The 160 comes with the latest Sky interface, including an improved Planner that has better sorting capabilities. You can also now record an interactive stream within a TV channel. And there have been a few other minor tweaks to the menu options too, including enhanced parental controls. These upgrades are available free to all Sky owners, though, whether you buy the 160GB box or not.
By far the biggest downside, however, has to be that rather over-optimistic price tag. With Christmas discounts on the 40GB box, the Sky 160 is selling for a whole 300 chips more. We have found some online discounts of up to £100, though, so shop around.
Still, you could upgrade your 40GB box for a fraction of that (not something Sky encourages, of course, but check out the upgrade kits on simplydigital.co.uk). We've also seen 250GB Pace Sky boxes selling for less. It's not as though the 160 is particularly well made either. It looks nice, but the façade plasticky, and the connections door is very flimsy and begging to be snapped off by the kids.
But remember, the early Sky boxes started at about the same price, so expect it to become more affordable during the course of the new year.
Of course, if you want to archive material from the hard drive, you must still hook up a DVD recorder. We'd like to think Sky will build this into future Sky boxes. We'd also like to see better compression options. The hard disk capacity might have been trebled, but it's still quickly gobbled. The manufacturer claims 80 hours of recorded footage, but our unit reached its ceiling a good five hours short. The ability to change the video compression rate would give more flexibility.
And one final thought: though the Sky on-screen interface is still one of the best of any digital TV set-top box, it still doesn't quite have the panache of Tivo - and Tivo's easier to upgrade too.
It's not cheap and it has a few flaws, but the Sky 160 box is still a must-have for the UK's Sky subscribers.