Was Scott Bartley on drugs when he gave Sky TV’s On Demand upgrade a good review?

As a social media storm breaks out over Sky TV's $120 million decoder upgrade, NBR's reviewer is prodded for second thoughts.

Sky TV is in the midst of a $120 million project to upgrade its 800,000 or so decoders on-demand capability – either upgrading their software or, if they’re pre-MySky, replacing them altogether.

This mega-budget programme is key to Sky’s efforts to fend off competition from the likes of Netflix, and to its overall future.

It also set off a firestorm on social media. The new interface is unreadable, some have complained, while others have griped that it’s slow to respond – and generated thousands of “likes” on Facebook in the process.

Late last year, Sky TV offered NBR a MySky decoder with the On Demand upgrade. I passed it on to Scott Bartley, who reviews gadgets for the “Toybox” section in our print edition because Scott (unlike me, at least for years) has used previous Sky decoders.

Scott liked what he saw. He wasn't impressed that Sky On Demand doesn’t offer HD or 4K content (the breadth of content depends on your level of Sky subscription; Scott found it good overall). But in terms of usability he gave the thumbs up to the “fresh, modern interface”. He found performance snappy. The interface made a good compromise between a new look and maintaining some of its old navigation cues, he wrote.

So how does that gel with the howls of pain on Facebook?

Those who follow Scott’s reviews know he’s quite willing to call a spade a spade, and dump on a product when it deserves it. Through his time as reviews editor for NZ PC World and home theatre title >>FFWD, and now NBR, he’s now one of NBR’s most experienced consumer electronics and IT reviewers. When I'm actually spending my own money on a gadget, the first think I do is check in with Mr Straight-Up. So what's the story with his On Demand review? Had Sky agents drugged him, locked him in a room and replaced him with a robo-Scott? Had his coffee been spiked with LSD?

Yesterday, I asked Scott if he stood by his review. He does.

Is he experiencing any of the problems being discussed by the social media mob?

“Nope, it’s all running sweetly for me,” Scott replied.

“I've read those complaints with interest. They've not been my experience.

“I like the new layout as it brings the experience into the 21st century. I understand that change can hurt. If I was old, or thick, I might pitch a fit about it but it's all familiar territory for anyone who's ever used a smartphone, or a web browser for that matter.

“The new MySky interface is a positive step forward from the old, archaic user experience.

“Performance has been just fine. No slowdowns, no lethargic channel changes.”

Scott notes he’s using Sky On Demand on a brand new MySky decoder. He speculates some of those having trouble (if it is indeed not just cultural factors) are those getting the software update on older boxes.

I think there’s also the factor that internet-delivered content can take a while to start, and sometimes it freezes, especially if you’re just on a regular copper broadband connection [like most of us] rather than VDSL [souped-up copper] or UFB fibre. Those who’ve been using Netflix and other streaming video on-demand services for a while simply take this as a fact of life as New Zealand’s internet [while improving all the time] is still sub-par for hassle-free streaming in many locations. But for many Sky TV customers, it’s a new phenomenon, and they blame Sky, rather than their broadband connection or home wi-fi or another delivery factor outside Sky’s control.

Simply put, most people don’t like change, and the challenge of managing the expectations of 800,000 customers over a relatively short roll-out window was always going to be too much. Indeed, Scott predicted in his original review that it would cause headaches for a “certain subset” of users.

That bug fix
There have been media reports about a bug fix being on the way. Sky TV comms director Kirsty Way tells NBR the incremental upgrade is not a bug fix per se but rather tweaks to the fonts, text size and colours, based on customer feedback.

She says the percentage who’ve complained is “in the low single digits” and that the coming upgrade will not blow out the project’s $120 million budget.

On the slow response issue, she says, "We will work to improve speed, generally this comment -- about speed -- is an initial reaction and once you are used to the new layout, using the new features, it goes away.

"In saying that the box is processing a lot more so the speed will be a little slower.

"If it is unreasonably slow there could be something not working right, a restart -- power on and off -- may help."

When in doubt, restart.

As Scott sums up, "People have to cut the cord sometimes and deal with change. I like that Sky is doing new things using the internet and breaking away from the old way of sitting on their monopoly. They probably didn’t want to, but they are and that’s a good thing."

Will Sky On Demand be enough to hold off the new media hordes? I don’t know. It will be fascinating to watch, and the outcome is by no means certain. Just don’t judge it on a few early gremlins, and the early-days cultural kickback.

If you're travelling by Air New Zealand, remember Koru Lounge wi-fi provides you with FREE access to NBR ONLINE premium content.

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