Virgin Media V Plus Box

4th Jul 2007 | 23:00

Virgin Media V Plus Box

Virgin with all the tricks

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

Easy to use and packed with features, Virgin's VPlus Box surpasses SkyPlus, but there's not enough hi-def content to match SkyHD.

Like:

<p>Hi-def and three TV tuners </p>

Dislike:

<p>On-demand HDTV is a limited afterthought </p>

The problem with high definition TV is that there's not much of it. Even if you've an expensive subscription to SkyHD, the odd hi-def sport's buzz or blast of movie do little to satisfy a habit that demands repeat doses.

Virgin and Sky may have been snarling over which channels Richard Branson's company can show but fighting over HDTV will make for a larger scale battle.

The 160GB V box is used as a personal video recorder (PVR) by many of its 80,000 strong subscribers. It holds around 80 hours of recordings and or 20 hours of HD material.

Virgin's service gives you access to the BBC HD free-to-air trial channel at channel 108 in the listings, which can be seen in standard definition if you haven't got an HD-ready TV.

Much of the BBC HD material is accessible via the on-demand service and premium Sky HD channels such as Sky Sports HD 1/2 can be found on the V platform for a little bit more. Installation is free for those subscribing to a year's contract and costs £10 a month if you subscribe to Virgin Media's XL package or £15 for any other.

Big, black box

The shiny black box is slightly larger than its Sky rival. Connections are similar. You get the HDMI output, component video, two RGB Scarts, stereo audio outputs, RF in/out and an optical audio output. You also get an Ethernet interface for broadband, a service-only USB and a Serial ATA for expanding the hard disk at a later date.

The clearly-labelled remote control is comfortable in the hand and an upgrade on the regular NTL or Telewest job and can be programmed to adjust your TV's volume.

The remote's V button gives access to your recordings and lets you set new ones unless you prefer to do it with the electronic programme guide (EPG).

You can search by category but it's sluggish to load lists, and it teases you by listing channels you haven't subscribed to.

Series links can be set. The menu screen displays the available space on your hard disk, but not how much you have left.

Three TV tuners mean you can record two channels while watching another, which is one up on Sky and should satisfy anyone with a 'full' television life.

The V box even lets you set priorities so you can go through the motions of recording Big Brother's Little Brother for a friend while secretly knowing your box is programmed to record something more enlightening.

Exporting recordings is easier than with the Sky box. With your recorder linked up, you can quickly make a list from your hard disk with recording lengths given, and export away.

The hard disk can also be used to distort time itself with Delay TV. You can rewind up to 90 minutes and move back and forward from there.

Step back in time

But perhaps it's the sophisticated on-demand service that marks the V box out most from Sky's. You can step back up to a week to view shows from the BBC, Channel 4, Living and Bravo or delve into a decent library of comedy and drama series.

You can also buy single episodes of say Desperate Housewives (for 99p) or movies from FilmFlex costing anything from a nominal penny to a relatively extravagant £4.

On a hi-def hunt, we were surprised to find Kill Bill Volume 1 among a clutch of blockbusters. It wasn't flagged up but stowed away in the menu maze with a host of favourites from BBC HD Bleak House, Hotel Heliconia, Judge John Deed, Pride, Superhuman, The Blue Planet and Wild Weather.

While the HD libraries of 4 On Demand and the History Channel HD remain fallow for the moment, Virgin plans to add Planet Earth to its portfolio as it pledges to amass 700 hours of on-demand HD content.

Hi-def is streamed in both 720p and 1080i and the sharply rendered, vividly coloured pictures from the BBC HD channel comfortably look a match for SkyHD.

Where available, the V box offers Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound with the optical output valuable here for shipping out that information-packed bitstream from the rear of the box. That said, we lost our bread and butter stereo sound from time to time on various channels.

Other than a brief freezing of the box (solved with the time-honoured IT advice to turn it Off and On again), we experienced no other handling problems and the overall quality will impress seasoned cable users.

Sky still holds some programming aces - especially with available hi-def material. But the V box is a real contender whose time will surely come if it delivers on its promises.

Virgin MediaTVStorageSkyNetworkingHome cinemaHigh definitionHDTVBroadband
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