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Virgin Australia launches Wi-Fi in-flight entertainment

After months of testing, the airline has formally launched its BYOD Wi-Fi enabled in-flight entertainment system.

Virgin Australia has formally launched its new in-flight entertainment system, which allows flyers to stream content to their own devices via Wi-Fi.

The service's main navigation from a mobile phone. (Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET Australia)

The system has been under trial since late 2012 and has now been rolled out across 37 aircraft, both domestically and on short-haul international. The roll-out will continue, with the service set to be enabled on all of Virgin Australia's Boeing 737-800 and Embraer E190 fleet by the end of this year.

The Wi-Fi service allows flyers to connect iOS and Android devices, as well as Windows laptops, to an on-board server. For mobile devices, the connection is made via a dedicated app from Google Play or the iTunes store, while the Windows laptops need Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in installed.

Mark Hassel, Virgin Australia's chief customer officer, told CNET Australia that the new entertainment service is all part of the airline's plan to attract more premium and business users.

Hassel said that Australians are quick to adopt new technologies and that the high prevalence of smartphones and tablets on flights made this the perfect time for the service. Feedback given by users to the airline has suggested that many passengers would prefer to use their own headphones and devices.

The system runs off a Windows server installed on the plane. Virgin Australia has four wireless access points on each 737 that uses the service — three are required and one is installed as a backup in case of failure. Virgin Australia said that the system is robust enough that every single flyer could stream content simultaneously without any issues.

(Screenshot by Nic Healey/CNET Australia)

CNET Australia took a quick test of the service on a flight to Melbourne as a guest of Virgin Australia. The app was installed on a Galaxy S4 — this must be done, obviously, before taking off. You also need to register the app online to approve the digital rights management software, which again must be done before you're in the air.

Virgin said that it'll be launching an education campaign around the need to download and register the app, but primarily it'll be alerting flyers via email the night before their scheduled departure.

Once you're up in the air and the seatbelt light has been turned off, you can turn your device back on and connect to the on-board wireless network. On the S4, the app had a simple UI that was easy to navigate. On a tablet, the interface was a little different but still intuitive.

The content included music, movies and TV, along with destination guides, airport information and more. While TV seems most likely to be the choice for short flights, Virgin Australia noted that movies are surprisingly popular, with people seeming to choose favourites and watching certain scenes rather than the whole film.

On the TV shows we tried, sound was clear and the image was perfectly watchable, both on the S4 and a 10-inch tablet. (At the moment, the Android app treats 8-inch tablets as if they were mobile phones in terms of the UI — this is expected to be fixed soon.)

Certainly, being able to watch TV on our own device and with our own (high-quality) headphones held a lot of appeal. Battery drain for using the app seemed quite minimal, although travellers should factor this in. Virgin Australia is installing power stations around its boarding areas to help passengers charge devices before flying.

The nature of the system means that not only can content be changed but that the apps themselves can be upgraded as new operating system versions arrive.

Virgin Australia noted that the airline is looking into a way that breaking news headlines and sports highlights could be uploaded to the plane via a 4G connection when on the ground, although this was not set into a road map for the service.

Virgin Australia's Wi-Fi entertainment service is currently available on flights within Australia, as well as trans-Tasman flights to New Zealand and flights to the Pacific Islands.