Virgin Media has finally released its first 4K Ultra HD set-top box and it’s being directly aimed at Sky Q. Like Sky Q, Virgin Media is concentrating on the multi-room capabilities of its new box; but there are a few key differences between the two.
What is Virgin TV V6?
The V6 is Virgin Media’s new set-top box and replaces the company’s existing TiVo box, which was announced in 2011. The new box still relies on the TiVo software, like its predecessor, but Virgin Media has managed to pack it into a much smaller package. Despite the addition of 4K Ultra HD streaming and ten times better performance, the V6 measures 230mm x 153mm x 55mm – a significant reduction compared to its predecessor, which measured 370mm x 240mm x 70mm.
Like Sky Q, Virgin Media is targeting the V6 as the solution for the streaming age. This means not only will users be able to stream content to their V6 box from services such as Netflix and YouTube, but they’ll also be able to take their content with them and enjoy it on as many screens as they would like.
The box itself only comes in a single variant; a distinct departure from Sky’s strategy. With Sky Q, consumers only need to acquire one main box and can then connect that to miniature boxes which can be placed throughout the house. Virgin Media’s approach means multi-room viewing needs multiple identical V6 boxes located throughout the house.
Ideal Home Cinema Set-Top Box?
Virgin Media has packed quite a bit of technology into its V6 box, that could make it ideal for the home cinema environment. In addition to support for 4K resolution content, Virgin Media has also included support for Dolby Atmos, which can be done both through HDMI and optical audio. Audio decoding is also supported with sampling rates of 32, 44.1 or 48kHz.
In terms of connecting the Virgin Media V6 to a home automation system, then the options are limited. Crestron, AMX and Control4 all use RS232 as their preferred way of component to component communication, but Virgin Media has not included support for that protocol in its latest box. That’s not all the surprising given its previous TiVo box also lacked support, as does Sky Q.
What is present is an IEC connector, a single USB 2.0 port, an HDMI v2.0a output with HDCP 2.2 copy protection, an optical S/PIDF for digital audio, a 3.5mm jack for analogue audio and a gigabit ethernet RJ45 port. In terms of wireless communication, Virgin Media has equipped the V6 with switchable 2.4GHz and 5GHz IEEE802.11a/b/g/n/ac 3×3 MIMO Wi-Fi, as well as IR and RF4CE remote control.
When it comes to considering the Virgin Media V6, many consumers are going to first compare it to its biggest competitor – the Sky Q box. In many respects, both are similar devices, although mileage may vary with Virgin Media’s offering, depending on if the company’s cable service is available in the area.
The Virgin Media V6 supports many of the multi-room functionality that Sky boasted with the Q set-top box. This includes the ability to watch a TV show or movie in one room and then continue it in the other. As mentioned earlier however, Sky’s approach is by using miniaturised receivers, whereas with Virgin Media it’s only possible by stumping up for the full box.
Sky wasn’t just keen on multi-room streaming either, it also constantly harked on about its ability to be completely mobile, thanks to dedicated apps for both Android and iOS. Virgin Media is offering much of the same functionality, although it’s going one step further. Alongside the V6, Virgin Media announced the TellyTablet; which is a 14in Android tablet designed for watching TV shows and movies on while roaming around the house. This is an extra £299 upfront, on top of the cost of the box – which we’ll come to later.
Like Sky, there are some limitations as to what can be done using the company’s mobile app. At home, users can watch live TV, on-demand content and their recordings from within the app, but once they venture outside things get a little different. Only a select range of on-demand content and live TV will be made available, while recordings will not. Users can still remotely set, cancel and delete recordings however.
Unique to Virgin Media is the ability to use its mobile app as a remote for the box. From the app, users are able to change channel, search the on-demand library using a full keyboard and then ‘flick’ programmes to their TVs. It will also be able to pause, rewind and fast forward programmes using gesture controls on the app.
More Pixels, Better Pixels
While the focus for both Sky Q and Virgin Media’s V6 has very much been on their multi-room and streaming capabilities, make no mistake – this is Virgin’s most powerful set-top box to date, and it comes with a few unique features.
While 4K Ultra HD viewing isn’t new in a set-top box, after all that was a major feature for Sky Q, what is unique is support for HDR. Sky currently states that it is ‘exploring’ HDR, although is not yet ready to commit. Virgin Media meanwhile is going all-in, going so far as to confirm that HDR will be coming to the V6 in the near-future as part of a software update, when content is available.
It’s unlikely that Sky will pass up the opportunity to support HDR on its set-top box, meaning next year it could entirely be possible that both reach feature parity when it comes to picture quality.
Thanks to its head start, Sky already has hours and hours of content available in 4K Ultra HD, including sporting events, blockbuster movies and others, but Virgin Media isn’t going to be left behind anytime soon. The company hasn’t yet made any solid commitments when it comes to content, but expect to see it start appearing in the company’s on-demand store shortly after launch. Virgin Media V6 customers can also access 4K content from Netflix and other online services which are available on the box.
Consuming All The Content
Virgin Media and Sky’s set-top boxes seem pretty even up to this point, but this is where it gets interesting – as both have killer features that the other doesn’t.
Firstly, Sky Sports viewers are likely to get more out of owning a Sky Q box than they will from Virgin Media’s V6. That’s because a recent update on the Sky Q platform made it possible to watch more than one event at a time through split-screen viewing. This is currently not possible on the V6.
Sky also has the aforementioned mini boxes, which are available to purchase for £99. Each of these mini boxes can be placed anywhere in the house and connected to the main box via Wi-Fi. Virgin’s V6 is slightly different; since there’s only one box variant available. This means each time users are required to purchase a full box and have it installed in each room.
While it may seem like a weakness, Virgin Media’s lack of mini boxes can actually be seen as a positive. Thanks to forcing users to have the same box in each room, the company can offer some additional benefits. While Sky may have the edge when it comes to the storage capacity of its main box, 2TB over 1TB, its mini boxes don’t add any storage capacity to the network – whereas each V6 does. Meaning two V6s are equal to a single Sky Q Silver.
There’s another bonus from having Virgin Media’s V6 over Sky Q – and that’s in the number of programmes that can be recorded at the same time. Sky Q is currently limited to just four programmes, while watching a fifth (although a software update is planned to bring it on par with Virgin Media), while the V6 can record six shows at the same time while watching a seventh. That means pairing two Virgin Media V6s together, users can theoretically record twelve channels, while watching a further two.
It’s All About The Software
Sky completely rebuilt its software from the ground-up for the launch of Sky Q, but Virgin Media instead opted to keep what has already become a familiar sight to its customers – TiVo.
While the user interface is largely the same to what users can currently experience on the existing TiVo box, there are a few enhancements that are launching alongside the V6. Firstly, Virgin Media is going directly head-to-head with Sky in the search department – with a supercharged search functionality.
At the launch of Sky Q, Sky ensured that it included a dedicated search button on its remote to enable users to quickly discover content no matter where they were in the interface – Virgin Media has followed suit with its latest remote, which upon a button press launches customers into a brand-new search function. It’s here where users can search for the content they want to see, no matter what platform its available on. That means searching for TV shows will come up with not only results from the EPG and Virgin Media’s on-demand store, but also from apps such as Netflix and BBC iPlayer.
Speaking of apps, Virgin Media has support for a bunch. BBC iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube, Hay U and Vevo are all supported out of the box. Sky Q meanwhile still doesn’t have support for Netflix, and it’s unlikely that it will be coming anytime soon, given the two compete.
In addition to third-party apps, Virgin Media is also bolstering its on-demand offering. While Virgin Media has already offered a whole range of premium content available for rental, the company is now extending those options by allowing users to buy content to keep on their box permanently. Users buying films will also get a DVD in the post if they opt to buy from the Virgin Media Store.
Everything Comes At A Cost
Virgin Media’s V6 will be exclusive to existing customers for the time being, with new customers set to be considered from January 2017.
Existing customers will be able to get their hands on the Virgin TV V6 before the end of the year, although they must be on a Mix bundle or higher. Pricing has been set at £99.95, although that is a one-off charge, meaning subscription fees remain the same. New and existing customers with a top-tier Full House or VIP bundle will benefit from a promotional price of £49.95. Virgin Media has not yet signalled whether this will be the price when purchasing additional boxes.
While the new V6 box is launching in the UK first, Liberty Global has already confirmed that the box will be made available elsewhere throughout Europe in the future. That means UPC Broadband customers in Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania Slovakia and Switzerland, Telenet customers in Belgium and Ziggo customers in the Netherlands will someday get the new box.