Sky is upgrading the electronic programme guide for Sky+HD, with a high-definition widescreen user interface. Several years in development and originally due to launch last year, the new guide is being rolled out progressively to Sky HD boxes. The upgrade is an improvement on the standard Sky interface but given the time it has taken, it is surprising that there are still some usability issues.

The original user interface, designed for the launch of Sky digital satellite television in the United Kingdom a decade ago and since used as the basis for many other platforms, is considered something of a classic but has been due for an update for some time.

The new version has been in the works for a while, as first reported by informitv last May. It was originally scheduled to launch in September, but was subsequently delayed.

With a high-definition screen now the assumed display for Sky+HD customers, there is more room and resolution to display more information.

The most obvious change is a small video screen in the corner, which shows the current programme or a preview of a selection, together with a brief description, which is a vast improvement.

The colour palette remains similar and familiar, but the background is now dark blue and the boxes now have rounded corners, which for some reason was once fashionable, as was the glossy reflection look that has been applied to the menu bars. These are all signs that designers have been involved, not just engineers.

The menus have been brought onto a single screen in two tiers, with a top menu row of tabbed icons with a middle menu row of options below.

Programme listings are displayed beneath this. There is an option to turned the video window off to show more listings on screen.

The select button is used to choose a menu option and descend to the level below and the ‘back up’ button can be used to move up a menu level. This is conceptually the same model as before, when the menus were on separate pages, but seems less intuitive in this layout.

The TV guide, box office, services and interactive menus still link directly to the relevant top level options. As before, the Sky button returns to television viewing, which is not immediately obvious, as does repeatedly pressing ‘back up’.

Any significant change is likely to feel a little uncomfortable, given the familiarity of the previous interface, which changed little since Sky+ first launched. No doubt the new design was subject to focus groups, rigorous user testing, eye-tracking studies and galvanic response stress measurements, but it would be interesting to know how many people found it all a little confusing at first.

The colour shortcut buttons now provide links directly to the anytime, planner, favourites, search, and guide according to context, and the channel up and down buttons are used to page down through listings.

Programmes to be recorded are now indicated with an icon in listings, which is an obvious improvement, and series links can be set without needing to enter the programme planner, although this is through a rather clumsy pop-up menu.

Multiple recorded episodes of a single title are now grouped in a series stack, rather than scattered according to transmission time, which tidies up the planner.

Search has been improved, with genre and sub genre filtering, but is still limited to triple-tap alphanumeric entry of programme title.

Now and next and later programme information in the programme banner now allows scrolling through the schedule on any channel up to 12 hours ahead without interrupting viewing.

Navigation is still limited by slightly sluggish screen updates, even on comparatively recent hardware.

In general, the new guide is a great improvement, but viewers may need time to familiarise themselves with the layout.

The rollout is being phased to address any possible issues. Sky is clearly concerned about the communication of these changes to viewers, mailing a colour guide to the new guide to customers a couple of days before their box is due to be upgraded and providing a video tutorial online and as a Sky Anytime programme.

The new Sky+HD guide addresses some of the flaws in its functional but now rather dated predecessor. It still falls short of the ideal interface but the upgrade is a considerable improvement. If provides an additional reason for Sky+ customers to upgrade to high-definition and rewards those that have already.