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DIY Smart TV

If you have a bang-up-to-date expensive Smart TV – just ignore this. Otherwise if you’re on Sky HD you might find this useful.

For some time now, having given up on toys such as the Apple TV box and similar and while pondering the new Android box, I’ve been running a laptop (for lack of noise – and immunity to power glitches) next to the TV to run Plex – which has to be one of the best free Media players on the planet. Running on a laptop it gives you access to all your media using a standard Microsoft-type remote IR control. I’ve trained up a “One-For-All” to handle the Sky HD box, the TV and the laptop. My media is held on a Netgear ReadyNas – a black box with disks in it which reliably stores and makes available my pictures, music and video to the home network.

PlexPlex is a fine, easy to use software interface to your media and has available loads of plug-ins such as YouTube, Ted TV and lots more. With the laptop plugged into one of the TVs spare inputs, switching between Sky and Plex is a simple button press. The laptop is set to run external monitor only and hence can run without heating up or using it’s internal display.

With the likes of the BBC iPlayer and ITV’s equivalent it has for some time been possible to catch up on TV you’ve missed – the only problem being the players are not integrated into Plex so you have to fiddle with a keyboard and mouse – not ideal in a living room– and the quality is not as good a modern HD TV.

Along comes Sky On Demand according to the ads on TV. On pressing the RED button on my Sky remote,  I seemed to have only a small subset of what I’d expect – only seeing material that has already been automatically recorded on the “reserved” space on the HD box (this happens all the time – and explains why you don’t have as much room as you’d expect on your Sky box). Incidentally if you have the original Sky HD box you really should consider upgrading (either upgrade – or you can replace the hard drive yourself with a little work) as modern HD materials EAT disk space and so the latest units have larger hard drives – One Terabyte is good. I realised that Sky was choosing what it thought I would like (wrong) and storing them in a reserved part of the hard disk- but that’s it. No ability to do REAL on-demand from the Internet.

Typical 5-port routerLast night I decided to investigate and On-Demand is actually free – but you have to register for it on the Sky website. But first things first – you need a wired network connection to the Sky box – I’d not even think about wireless considering the amount of data we’re talking about downloading. 

I swapped my wired network connection from the laptop to the Sky box and sure enough – recognised immediately. As it happens I’d bought a TP-Link 5-Port Gigabit Unmanaged Desktop Switch from Amazon for £15 and so I simply plugged the network lead into that – giving 4 remaining outputs – one for the laptop, one for the Sky box and 2 spares. Perfect.

Now armed with broadband to the Sky box, going through Sky’s rather convoluted website www.sky.com/ondemand I was convinced I was going to end up paying more while signing up – but sure enough… no. After 5 minutes checking on the web I was still kitted out with Sky Anytime stuff as before and the promise now of the FULL package. But pressing the RED button produced nothing new – all I had were the same few inappropriately pre-recorded programs I’d always had available. To make matters worse, Sky have two access points on their website, the other being www.sky.com/tvondemand – which is confusing but turns out it’s the same thing and can be ignored.

Having signed up on the web, I gave up late last night, resigning myself to ringing Sky today to ask why no On-Demand… but when I got up this morning – lo and behold…. an overnight update left me with the full works. BBC iPlayer, ITV player, Channel 5 player and a host of icons for Sky stuff – all with no extra cost.  How it works? Simple – so for example I wanted a copy of the Harry and Paul Episode 3 from a couple of weeks ago on the BBC (I never watch BBC live and didn’t even know the program was on). Clicking the iPlayer icon I selected the episode – and a download began. 1.2Gig is needed for this 30 minute episode (see what I mean about broadband – this is going to eat up a LOT of data) and after about 10 minutes, despite the download being only 20% complete, a “Play” icon appeared.

I pressed Play and sure enough, not the normal web-streaming medium quality but the full, crystal clear HD playback stored on the Sky HD box just as if I’d scheduled a recording in the normal way. For reasons best known to the BBC this recording will only be available to me until part way through December but by then I’ll have watched the best bits of this superb episode to death. Harry’s Scottish accent “Everything is much, much better in Scotland than England, oh yes” and Paul’s Gypsy woman “I curse you” are the funniest thing on TV IMHO.

Add to this Apps for iPhone which not only let you set recordings on your Sky HD box from anywhere on the planet but also talk directly to the Sky box over the WIFI when you’re at home and let you control the box as if you were using the remote control (but better). There’s an iPad App but it kept failing on me and the Android equivalent right now does not give you local WIFI control. but given a little time these apps are going to be superb– the iPhone version works really well now and is FAR better than using the normal Sky remote for selecting material, but the larger screen of a tablet would be my choice as the TV programme guide is so limited compared to what you can do on a tablet.

And there you have it. A sparkly new Smart TV is one way, but not the only way.

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