Sky and BIB (British Interactive Broadcasting) launched their interactive service in late 1999, one year after the launch of Sky Digital. Designed to be an alternative to the world wide web being delivered through the TV, the early service looked promising.
The service was originally to be branded BIB, but changed to Open…., I’m not sure if this is in reference to the OpenTV middleware stack used by BSkyB at the time. The Open interface was to mimic the experience of a TV High Street, with various banking, shopping and entertainment services being offered.
One of the loading bumpers for Open….
Austin Powers 2
The main Open…. menu
Shopping Menu – Shows a list of retails who have a storefront through Open
Even more shopping, E-commerce was supposed to be a huge draw for the service, considering the popularity of shopping channels of the time. Payment is made via a credit card, which the customer enters, and information is sent back encrypted via the phone line. At some point it was planned to use the interactive card as a form of payment
Home banking services were offered, designed after the popularity of online banking
Entertainment sections, which leads to the popular game section
Music section, where you can check the latest charts, and purchase physical albums
Another loading screen, these were common to see on interactive satellite TV, since data is fed through a carousel like system, this means the digibox has to wait for the data to be transmitted
Film section, surprisingly there isn’t much integration with Sky Movie channels at the time (Premier & MovieMax)
Email – initial offerings were BT’s talk21 service. Email was not push based, you were not alerted when an email came through, instead you had to load the service and connect to open via the telephone line which would then display your inbox. Emails could be typed using the Open keyboard.
Whats New section
Any new additions to the service would appear here
Games – games were originally delivered on open itself, they later had their own dedicated section (Game Attic), before being spun off into Sky Gamestar and having its own place on the interactive menu.
Sky Sports Active
Sky sports active, one of the defining feature was the ability to choose your viewing angle when watching a main sports event, which was offered when Sky had first launched digital. This could be done via the interactive service, but it was also possible to tune into the stream via the other channels feature
One of the classic games on Sky Digital, and the most well known. Beehive Bedlam was one of the only games that stayed free to play, with the exception of the master levels update in 2004, however the classic levels were still free to play
Early EPG concept
An early pre launch EPG background design, also note the channel text below the Sky logo
Another look at the Sky guide design
Meanwhile, here’s the actual EPG design Sky launched with, note how it says TV GUIDE LISTINGS rather than ALL CHANNELS
Panasonic were one of the major manufactures of Sky Digibox’s, and were considered to be one of the more reliable makes in terms of reliability and performance.
The front panel is typical of the average Sky box of the era, 4 led lights followed by 9 front panel buttons along with two card slots.
A loot at the system details screen, showing the software and revision information
Lifting the Lid
A very clean design, similar to the 2500S5
On the left you can see the main CPU and MPEG2 decoder, seems to be a custom Panasonic MN2 processor (MN2WS0002AD). Whilst I’ve not been able to find a lot of detail on it online, It’s a lot faster than the ST 5512 found in the Pace 2500S5
Not sure about the Panasonic chip towards the bottom, the MN7D022B3M, nothing much turns up online. Not much can be found with the Conexant chip either (SMARTSCM/336 CX88168-12) however one MAME driver source page has it down as a modem
Second card slot
Another view of the MN2 chip with the flash rom (bottom) and memory (Samsung chip next to the MN2)
Main central processor MN2WS0002AD, Looks like it’s missing a heatsink, or maybe Panasonic figured it didn’t need one. Most likely Sky winged about the price so Panasonic had to cut corners. Still the box feels cool to the touch when in use.
The front panel removed
Vs Pace 2500S5
Vs Pace Di4000N
The DSB40 comes from the same generation of digibox as my 2500S5, yet it feels so much faster in operation thanks to its processor. I’m not sure why Pace held onto the St5512 for so long when over digibox’s were moving onto more capable processors. Unfortunately I’m not able to find any further information regarding Panasonic’s MN2 chips that they used, only that they were used for Directv and OpenCable boxes also, and they were mostly MIPS based designed like the NEC EMMA used on some digibox’s.
Then again this box is running older software, maybe the later versions were more demanding?
The only major issue the the telephone cable connector, once you insert the wire, its suck to the digibox and cannot be removed without removing the back panel. I’m not sure why this is, if the connecter was mismatched for the case or maybe it was a cost saving design.
Since Sky had launched its digital service back in 1998, very little had changed form its Sky Guide interface. Whilst numerous software upgrades were deployed that added certain features and altered the background, the menu structure and user interface remained the same thought-out. Unfortunately when the HD era rolled around, it was clear a new EPG and menu system had to be designed to accommodate the higher resolutions that HD offered.
Even though SkyHD launched in 2006,the software seen below wasn’t deployed until 2009, so existing HD boxes used a modified version of the old Sky+ guide with HD support.
The message banners have had a new colour design, gone is the yellow and blue in favor of white and blue.
The search and scan banner has been redesigned to accommodate the extra resolution offered by HD
Now its possible to see what’s on now, next and later, with the option to scroll forward upto 6 hours
You can now view information for future programs, and programs broadcast on other channels
Message that appears when asked to check your viewing card
Channels that don’t offer digital text will display this message, informing the user to access analogue text via their tv remote
When a program is about to start thats in your persdonal planner, you will be informed via the on scrren message,
The main TV guide screen has been revamped. Gone is channel genre list, which has been replaced with a tab-like view of genres that allows for the EPG to be filtered.
Selecting a future program gives you an option to set a reminder for this single program, or to add a series link. This differs from the older EPG, where you would add the program and would then enable the Series Link option.
Sky’s answer to Virgin Media’s Video On Demand service, which used the reserved hard drive space of the Sky+ drive to load ‘Push’ on demand content. Despite only having 140Gb of storage
Sadly the Anytime Push service has been axed in favor of Sky On Demand, which is delivered via a broadband connection.
The best part of Anytime. Unfortunately it does not give back the reserved diskspace.
The Sky+ Planner, which shows programs that have been recorded.
Unfortunately playing back recordings requires the use of a viewing card, which the current box is unable to read.
Contents of the planner can be sorted by alphabetical, or grouped by unwatched but recorder, or anything that has already been viewed.
Still no sign of life for Sky Box Office, which was axed in 2016.
Not much to see here except for one last remaining service. Does it load?
Here’s a service that does load, BBC Red Button
Meanwhile on Sky News…
Radio channels had their owns section in this EPG, however still no genres
The Services menu from the previous Sky Guide has been split into two, Options and Settings. Probably because the EPG design does not allow for a submenu to be under another menu.
General Sky+ Settings, you can add padding to the start and end of a program
Language and subtitles, not much has changed from the previous EPG
You will notice when you move the cursor down to the bottom half, the background colour changes to indicate it has been selected.
Adding channels has not changed in regards to the previous Sky Guide, you are still limited to two symbol rates
Anytime can be turned off, but does not reclaim the disk space, Mini TV can also be disabled, extending the guide interface
Seems to be doing a good job considering there’s no signal strength
Single feed mod optimizes the HD box to work off one feed, useful if you only have one feed from a dish or multiswitch however you cannot wewatch and record one program at the same time.
Overall its a mostly well designed EPG with a lot of much needed improvements to bring it in line with system that Virgin Media and BT offer. The introduction of the mini TV in the guide was a welcome addition,
Whilst the new software takes better advantage of the Sky HD digibox hardware, it does fall into the trap of being too cluttered, sometimes getting stuck of confused as to where you are on screen. Whilst Sky had tried hard to make the colours stand out, they are just different shades of blue, which can get repetitive. Also the tab interface could be better designed, since it looks separate to the main TV listings area, with a slight gap between the two sections.
A look at Sky’s interactive services offered in 2002, back when interactive TV was a thing
Also can’t mention Sky interactive without the Red button dude, who’s sole purpose was to promote Sky interactive services by pressing your red button, even though that only worked on a Sky channel.
Sky’s interactive game service
Sky Gamestar – Cartoon Network
A dedicated section of gamestar with games based on Cartoon Network shows
At one time you could order Pizza through your Sky Digibox
The Classifieds and info section, for local jobs and marketplace
View and book local listings, this only worked with Odeon cinemas, which was useless because there were no Odeon cinemas in my area.
Sky used to advertise their services and competitions whilst interactive screens were loading
A dating service that relied on the internal modem
Before internet banking there was Interactive TV banking, again I only saw HSBC and LLoyds TSB being supported, other banks were not on the service
Exclusive to the Sky Movie channels, shows local cinema listings and to purchase DVD’s, a nice feature of this service was you could see behind the scenes clips from moves.
Download ringtones, logos and custom voicemail, back when ringtones were polyphonic (think Nokia 3210, Ericsson T28s)
Sky Active: Shopping
Home shopping was considered to be a main feature of interactive TV, since customers could see the items themselves. Sky allowed a range of retailers to have presence on interactive, and even had their own storefront, SkyBuy
Some sort of eBay/Gumtree service, customers could buy and sell locally
Sky News Active
Activated by the red button, a very useful service where you can browse news headlines, view ‘Active Channels’ which were small channels dedicated to certain subjects or headline coverage. These could also be tuned in using the Other Channels feature, bypassing the service
Sky Movies Active
This is where you could see the behind the scenes stuff from movies, similar to bonus scenes on DVD’s
Another view of the main Sky Active home screen
Sadly Sky axed most of their interactive services, so here is the interactive menu that you are left with
Does it work? Well…
It seems the only OpenTV interactive TV services available is BBC Red Button and the S4C language changer, none of which use the modem/return path. I’m not sure if the services offered on Sky Q are the same, I believe it’s mostly Netflix/Prime type of applications that are video on demand services.
I’ve been meaning too document the HD era of Sky for some time now and whilst I do have a HD Sky box (the DRX595), I’m interested in the early era of SkyHD.
The HD EPG has been through multiple iterations, first it launched with an upscaled version of the Sky Guide interface that graced many Digibox’s since 1998. Sky redesigned the EPG exclusively for the HD boxes in 2008, which is the EPG I’m currently interested in below, unfortunately the majority of all HD boxes run newer versions of Sky HD guide, all except for one
This was the launch STB for Sky HD, and remained the only box until 2008 when Sky started sourcing from Pace, Amstrad and Samsung, and were the only boxes that had analogue HD outputs (Component/YPbPr). Whilst the other boxes continued to receive updates after 2011, Sky began to phase out the Thomson models, which remained on the 8.3.2 EPG, and was the last OpenTV based EPG.
Admittedly Thomson were not the best manufacturer of Sky digibox’s. Don’t get me wrong, they’re mostly fine but nearly all Thomson (and Grundig, more on that later) digibox fall suspect of faulty PSU capacitors, which can cause myriad of issues from being stuck in standby to no satellite signal, and the HD box was sadly no exception to this.
The box seemed to have been in use for a few years, and has had a bit of wear and tear.
Well it looks OK so far…
Seems to have had a lot of dust and grime build up over the past few years from the previous owner
The hard drive seems to have taken the brunt of it all, since there is a fan situated right below it that serves as the air intake.
At this point I figured I had to take the box outside and clean it with a can of compressed air to get the dirt out.
A common issue on Thomson SkyHD (and Sky+/Digibox’s) is the power supply capacitors failing, all thanks to capacitor plague. This isn’t unique to Thomson Sky boxes as it can affect Grundig models as well, Thankfully it’s fixable even in 2021 either by yourself or you can send it off to be repaired. You can see in the above picture that one of the capacitors has started leaking, whilst others are bulging slightly.
This can also affect other consumer electronics from the 1999-2006 era, notably the clock capacitor on the original Xbox and various PC motherboards.
This box specifically had issues finding a satellite signal, and would only display ‘no Satellite signal is being received’ on both tuners, respective of either single or dual feed being used. Also a audible whine could be heard from the power supply, which is usually not a good sign.
its worth mentioning that Sky no longer support this box for HD channels, whilst SD subscription channels and HD Free-To-Air channels will work, HD subscription channels will not work, since Sky moved to a different card pairing method this this box does not support, still for Freesat or basic subscription use the box will continue to work. The box also does not support any catch-up or On demand services offered by Sky.
Another thing to mention with this box is it will no longer recognize any viewing cards, this is probably due to fault with the box, either the card reader has failed or the contacts are dirty. This makes it impossible to use it with Sky+ modes since they require a Sky+ reenabled viewing card to work.
With this in mind I may decide to change the hard drive for a dummy Sata-SD card adaptor, since it makes no since having a hard drive that wont be used. I’m not sure what HDD space requirements the box has, since the box likes to reserve 140Gb for Anytime use.
The Thomson SkyHD box was quite large compared to the previous set top boxes Sky have deployed, lets see how it compares:
The Sky Guide user interface has been though a lot of changes ever since its launch in October 1998. Being one of the first Digital TV platforms in the UK, however despite having numerous software updates throughout the years, its core design remains the same albeit with certain alterations being made in light of new feature being added to the service.
Screenshots below are captured off a Pace 2500S5 running EPG software version
Search & Scan
Pressing the blue button cycles through the selected favorite channels, Personally I’ve never understood why it cant just open up a small menu showing favorite channels along with what’s being broadcast now, the way it’s been implemented seems like it was tacked on at the last minute, and if you have nearly 50 favorite channels it can take a while to cycle through them all.
If you wondered what the messages button does, It just shows the message above. Originally it was supposed to received broadcast style messages to the digibox, informing customers of any changes to their service
Low battery icon, supported on 2001 and later revision remotes
Main grid style view, programmes highlighted in white have audio description, this can be changed in the Language & Subtitles menu in the Services section.
Pressing i on the remote brings up a synopsis of the program selected. Also wtf is going on with modern Simpsons?
Sky added further categories in 2005 to accommodate the amount of channels. However in 2021 some of these genres are redundant, there’s only one channel in the Gaming & Dating category for example.
Viewing channels based on genre
No more Lifestyle & Culture channels, Sky merged the genre back into Entertainment
TV Guide: A-Z Listings
Viewing A-Z list of programs by genre. This has always been a mess since the same programme is repeated multiple times due to the advent of +1 and HD simulcasts, Ideally Sky should have combined the same program title into one per channel, instead you can have pages of the same program if it is repeated on multiple channels at different times.
Programs can be viewed by subgenres, which can be selected using the bottom row of colour buttons.
TV Guide: Personal Planner
The Personal Planner was introduced in 2001, and serves as a timer and reminder feature of Sky Guide. Programs can be added here and the digibox will remind you when the program starts. Autoview will make the digibox switch over to the channel automatically, useful for recording programs to a VCR (remember those?). Series Link automatically adds the next program to the personal planner, like the Season Pass feature of the Tivo.
To be honest, I found the Personal Planner to be buggy, many series links will randomly disappear over time.
TV Guide: Favorite Channels
The Digibox can store up to 50 favorite channels, which a separate EPG being introduced that lists the favorite channels exclusively, introduced in the EPG 3.4 update
Sadly Sky axed it’s Box Office Pay-Per-View in 2016 in favor of its on demand service. So this part of the guide is now dead.
Shows telephone numbers for broadcasters and departments on Sky. I thought this was a wasted feature since how often do you contact these broadcasters?
A better feature would be to allow the user to enter and save their own phone numbers, then should a contact call, a small message would appear with the callers phone number and name, like a caller display feature. It would certainly give customers a good reason to plug the Digibox into the phoneline. The only time I’ve seen this feature implemented was on a BT Freeview box.
Services: System Setup
Second Location Picture Format refers to the RF2 output, if the second TV is 4:3 with the main set being 16:9
On-Screen icon timeout referrers to the red button props that appear for interactive. Previously the red button icons would stay on screen unless the user pressed the Backup key
Model number referrers to the driver stack implemented on the digibox, and varies for each box model and revision
Version Number – First two characters refer to the Digibox manufacturer, the next two are the major revision (model/CPU chipset), the last two refer to the minor Digibox hardware revision. This field is static and remains the same throughout
Serial Number – identifies the digibox uniquely
Viewing Card Number – Refers to the viewing card number currently inserted
Operating System – the core operating system on the digibox, using a modified OpenTV1.2 with the NucleusOS realtime kernel
EPG Software Version – Version of Sky Guide currently running
Signal Strength – How much signal is being received, determined by the size of the dish, quality and length of the cable run and the quality of the tuner used in the box.
Signal Quality – Signal to noise ratio
Lock Indicator – If the digibox can decode the transport stream
Network ID – Used to identify the satellite the user is on, Astra 28.2 is 0002 with Astra 19.2E being 0001, Hotbird 13E is 013e
Transport Stream – The transponder that the digibox is tuned to
Services: Installer Setup
This menu is hidden in plain view, since it can technically disrupt normal operation of the digibox.
LNB Setup – To change tuning parameters of the LNB if a non standard LNB is being used, not needed if using a Sky Minidish.
Default Transponder – The transponder where the Digibox loads its TV listings upon bootup
Telephone Settings – If the user need to specify a prefix to access the outside line
RF Outlets – To change the RF output channel
Manual Tuning – Manually tune a frequency, similar to Add Channels but shows the signal strength and quality.
Services: Auto Standby
Services: Other Channels
Other Channels lets you add channels that are not on the Sky EPG, but are broadcasting on the 28.2E satellite. These could be regional channels not populated on the guide, or test channels.
In theory you could use this feature to watch channels on different satellite providing your dish is pointed to the satellite. In practice you are limited to two symbol rates (22.0 and 27.5) which restricts what transponders you can tune into (on 19.2E this isn’t much of an issue since Astra frequencies tend to stay consistent). The digibox isn’t a good receiver for this purpose since it wasn’t designed for it, it only barley works with the standard Sky digital service.
Services: Favorite Channels
Lets the customer program up to 50 favorite channels. This was originally 20 channels with the limit being increased in 2005.
Pressing i gives you a channel description, this also appears when you access a channel that you are not subscribed to.
A list of interactive services, or service. Sadly this menu used to be full of different service that were available back in the day (Playjam, Sky Active, QVC, DirectGov, Gky Gamestar)
Unfortunately MySky no longer loads
Pressing i gives you a description of the service
What happens when you disconnect the sat feed, the box cannot load listings, showing that the full listings are not cached in the digibox itself
A weird glitch, BBC Alba and Premier Sports on channel 65535
I believe this is due to a channel being restricted via the encryption, yet the customer is enrolled on the package. Could be due to area/post code restrictions,
Low battery message, supported on v4 remotes and later
Nag screen that appears when you boot up the digibox without a telephone line connected, since Sky have axed all of the interactive services (except for BBCi which does not use the telephone) they might as well remove this prompt
Appers when you switch on the digibox from the mains
All regular Sky digibox’s can only decode MPEG2 SD channels, if you go to an HD channel you simply receive this message. You used to be able to get tv listings for HD channels but Sky remove this to conserve memory since they were running out of EPG spaces
Appears when you insert the viewing card backwards, rumored to charge Sky for the subscription rather than the customer
When you have no signal being received for that channel transponder
Sometimes the digibox can’t load the program information, this message will be diplayed for a few seconds before the synopsis appears.
One of the many Digibox’s Pace produced over the years, and one of the first to have the tuner integrated on the mainboard, previous models had the tuner enclosed on a separate metal box fixed onto the board, or as a ZIF style socket module.
Another box from the same era was the PaceDi4000N for ntl, although this is a cable receiver you can see some similarities in the design.
Its quite a minimal clean design compared to the other boxes Pace have produced, like the Di4001
Back to the 2500S5, you can see the CPU of the box
The main, and only processor STi5512SWE. This chip incorporates the CPU (ST20) running at 60Mhz, MPEG2 decoder and graphics processor, basically a receiver on a chip. I’m not sure how it compares to other digibox’s of the era in terms of speed, considering this box was made in 2002.
ST processors were stupidly popular in many satellite receivers, and this one seems to be an NDS variant
Not sure what this chip does, maybe I/O for the RS232 port?
The unused PCMCIA slot
Flash memory chips (right) that store the EPG software and operating system. Each chip is 2Mb for a total of 4Mb Flash. There are two unpopulated banks for a potential of 8Mb. The chip at the top left, above the Omega chip is part of the RAM.
View of the dual card slots, the bottom is for the viewing card, whilst the top is for the interactive card.
Appears to be the modem used for the Digibox’s return path. This allows for the digibox to communicate back to Sky for box office events and interactive. Unsure of the port on the right
The front of the box with the panel removed, showing the location of the remote sensor
So I stumbled on a document regarding Sky’s WapTV designs, which were supposed to be the next major milestone for interactive TV. Seems that at some point you would have been able to browse and manage your household and utility bills online via the services section of the digibox.
Meanwhile here is what the Services section looks like on an actual Digibox;
My guess is the existing services menu options listed above would be nestled under the ‘SKY’ option. Maybe with a link to the Sky customer zone, which was an interactive service that allows customers to manage their Sky account, now known as ‘MySky’. Instead it was listed under the interactive section. Links to the ‘program My Remote’ and ‘PIN control reset’ would have also been useful here. Overall the services section was very underused on Sky digital. Interesting is that there is no other option for Broadband or Mobile (unless it was bundled under TELEPHONE)
That said can we all appreciate how good the EPG background looks? I don’t see why we couldn’t have had that background instead of the light blue from the later revisions of SkyGuide.
Also in-case anyone is interested in the document, I have attached it below.