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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 V HD box, 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.
Expensive HD movies
There are two methods for watching on-demand films via Virgin. The first is to subscribe to the company's PictureBox service. PictureBox is an NBC Universal company, so movies are mainly from Universal, and mostly comprise older material. This service costs an extra £5 a month.
Then you've got pay-per-view movies, which are available in either SD or HD -- depending on the title, HD isn't always available. This is where you might want to prepare for a shock, because we found that the average price for a 24-hour film 'rental' was £3.99. Where available, HD movies were either £4.50 or £4.99. We compared that to Sky, where the same movie, Law Abiding Citizen, was available for £3.99 in both SD and HD.
It's fair to say that Sky's HD pay-per-view service is seriously limited. There are only two 'channels', so you might have to wait to get the movie you want. But this doesn't seem to stop Sky from offering a pretty respectable selection of films. On the flip side, Virgin seems to have unlimited capacity, but not the amount of movies we'd expect.
Hardware and user interface
The Samsung-built V+ HD box is attractive, and will suit any modern TV. We think it looks better than Sky's Amstrad HD box. On the front, there's a simple display. When the box is turned off, the display shows the time. When the box is on, it shows channel information. If something goes wrong, an error code will appear here -- that's handy when you're on the phone with Virgin's customer-service department.
On the back of the box, there's a subscriber-card slot, an HDMI output, a digital audio connector, and an attachment for the coaxial cable carrying the TV signals. As with the Sky+HD box, the HDMI output doesn't carry Dolby Digital audio to an AV receiver. To get proper 5.1-channel surround sound, you must also connect an optical lead to your home-cinema system. We're genuinely outraged by this, and can only hope that the next generation of boxes doesn't suffer the same fate.
Sadly, despite the appealing design of the V+ HD box, the Virgin user interface hasn't improved much since the inception of HD. Whereas Sky has brought in a whole new electronic programme guide to make its HD boxes more usable, Virgin seems to be using a really ugly SD interface. There has, however, been an announcement that Virgin will adopt TiVo's user interface this year. As we understand it, however, this won't happen until the end of 2010.
Also, using services like on-demand TV is a rather arduous experience. It takes many seconds to navigate through each menu, and the content you want is often several layers deep, making for an even more plodding process.
During our three-month review period, we only had one problem with our Virgin service. At an early stage, something went wrong and the box reset itself. When it had restarted, it showed an error message: 'LD30'.
A call to the customer-service department proved painless, and the staff were helpful and friendly. They booked an engineer to visit us, check the box and fix any problem. Unfortunately, the appointment was nearly a week away, and we're very impatient. We searched the Internet instead, and, after some sniffing around, we found a forum post that told us to hold down the power button until the box reset, and then press the 'down' button on the front of the unit. The box then happily reset itself again, and resumed working perfectly.
If Virgin wonders why it's not making as much money as it should, perhaps it ought to try and eliminate unnecessary engineer appointments. It would be a trivial matter to alert the customer-services staff to the problem we encountered. The technical experts at Virgin certainly know about the issue, because we asked them about it in the official newsgroup, which is now, incidentally, closed in favour of an Internet message board. The experts confirmed the problem and solution, and explained that a bug fix was on the way.
We've made a fuss about how Virgin doesn't have as much HD material as Sky, how its HD pay-per-view movies cost more than Sky's, and how slow the V+ HD box is. But none of these issues made us dislike the service. Its picture quality is excellent for the most part, and what HD material there is looks brilliant. For the record, the 50Mbps broadband is also stunningly good -- we enjoyed blisteringly fast speeds and suffered no downtime in our test period.
We also love the availability of on-demand catch-up TV from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. This alone will be worth the subscription fee for many people. You get all the advantages of the Internet-based services, but with broadcast quality, and there's no need for a laptop.
It's important to note also that Virgin's offering could get better and better. Virgin's broadband will reach 100Mbps at the end of the year, and 200Mbps in 2011. The TiVo interface should be a boon for the company too, adding a user-friendly front end to a powerful back-end system.
Whether or not Virgin's plans come to fruition, the services it currently offers are still excellent. If you're in a cabled area, the V+ HD service is likely to prove a blessing. If you're desperate for HD content, though, you might want to consider the alternatives, because Virgin just doesn't have quite enough.
Edited by Charles Kloet