Of all the pay-TV services in the UK, Virgin's is potentially the most interesting proposition. Not only does Virgin offer live TV services similar to Sky's, it also has the luxury of being able to sell cable-based phone services, broadband, and on-demand and pay-per-view video content. Because it owns the infrastructure, there are some serious discounts on offer if you take all of its services. While this review of the Virgin TV service and V+ HD box isn't concerned with the broadband or phone offerings, the package we're reviewing did include them.
Virgin's pricing structure isn't particularly easy to understand, and there are many variables to take into account. As we write, there's an offer on the Virgin Web site for two months of 'free' provision if you take the whole range of services, and agree to a 12-month contract. We got the TV XL service with Sky Sports and Movies, as well as XXL broadband and the M phone offering. The monthly cost of this service would be £78.50, and you'd be tied to a 12-month contract. For the first two months, the cost would be £27.50, as part of the special reduction -- you're only paying here for Sky Sports and Movies. You also pay £20 to have broadband enabled, and a £50 V+ HD set-up fee.
Phew. See what we mean? Not entirely simple. But then, there's plenty on offer here and it's a very comprehensive service.
More HD channels on Sky
Sky and Virgin Media had a very well publicised spat some time ago that resulted in Virgin losing some of Sky's premium channels, including Sky One. This has been resolved now, and Virgin again has a full complement of channels. In our package, there were 160 of them, including Sky's entertainment channels, and terrestrial offerings like BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.
Like Sky, Freeview and freesat, Virgin offers nonsense content such as Bid TV, QVC and what seems like an almost infinite number of +1 channels, which show TV shows one hour after they were first broadcast. It's almost as if the digital TV recorder hadn't been invented.
It's predictable, but still annoying, that Sky withholds its high-definition channels from Virgin. If you want Sky Movies HD, Sky Sports HD, Sky One HD and so on, then Virgin isn't the service for you. There's talk that Ofcom will force Sky to offer these channels to third parties, but Sky is making a fuss about aspects of the ruling.
There are 12 HD channels on Virgin. Sky claims 38 now and aims to have 50 by the end of 2010. Virgin is also expanding its HD line-up all the time, and the Ofcom ruling should help Virgin get Sky Sports in HD, which would be a massive boon for the company, as this is Sky's cash cow.
How free is 'free HD'?
With Sky, if you want HD channels, you have to pay an additional £10 a month. Sky is quite open about this, and, although we don't agree with the policy, it's at least clear what it is. Virgin, on the other hand, claims that there is 'no monthly fee' for access to its HD channels. That might be true, but, in order to get Virgin HD, you need to have the V+ HD box, which costs £5 a month on all but the most expensive tariff. The 160GB V+ HD box will also let you store up to 80 hours of television and record two channels at once, as well as pause and rewind live TV.
Virgin is, however, soon going to introduce a, with no PVR functionality. There'll be a one-off £85 charge to get that, but no £5-per-month fee. That makes it a good option for people who aren't interested in recording TV shows, but want to enjoy HD content.
UK's best on-demand service
When it comes to getting TV when you want it, there's little doubt that Virgin is the king. It offers content from BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD, as well as its own Virgin1 catch-up service. In this regard, Virgin beats Sky comprehensively.
This feature also represents incredibly good value for money -- Virgin offers free catch-up TV from iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD no matter which of its packages you're on. If you're the sort of person that can't face planning in advance to record your favourite show, or you just want huge entertainment libraries available at the touch of a button, then Virgin is the service for you.
We never had cause to question the Virgin service's picture quality during our review period. For the most part, pictures looked detailed, and we certainly preferred the standard-definition images to the Freeview alternative. Hi-def images look just as lovely as they do on Sky's HD service. The clarity of BBC HD episodes of Doctor Who blew our minds.
On-demand video also looks great -- iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD all appear to be broadcast-quality, or near to it. All of these services look better via Virgin than via the Web sites of their respective broadcasters. If only ITV and Channel 4 would add HD content to their on-demand services, as the BBC has.