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Virgin V+ june 2007

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n www.virginmedia.co.uk n 0845 840 7777 n £15 a month (£10 with XL package)

Virgin V+ Virgin Media has given TVDrive a facelift and subscribers a revamped on-demand service. But is it still a real contender?

Features

Product: Virgin V+ Price: £15 a month (£10 with XL package) Hard disc size: 160GB EPG support: 7 day Software upgrade: Via cable AV outputs: HDMI output, component outputs, optical digital audio output Data ports: Ethernet, USB HD output modes: 720p/1080i Dolby Digital: Yes Tel: 0845 840 7777 Website: www.virginmedia.co.uk

Not to be confused with BT Vision’s V Box, the V+ is fundamentally a re-branding of the old Telewest TVDrive PVR coinciding with NTL/Telewest’s recent absorption under the Virgin Media banner. The box itself is free to subscribers and carries a £15 monthly use fee (£10 if you take the top XL TV package). We prefer the mostly black new look to the original’s silver trimmings – perhaps because it goes nicely with our all-black TV. Other than that it’s essentially the same Scientific Atlantic manufactured effort as its predecessor. The same flexible triple-tuner arrangement remains unchanged, as does the 160GB hard disc. Unlike Sky Anytime on TV or Top Up TV Anytime – which rely on overnight downloads – on-demand TV is accessed via the cable network just like live broadcasts. Consequently, there’s been no need to partition the hard drive to store programming – meaning that you have the full 160GB hard disc at your disposal with the ability to store up to 80 hours of standard-def TV or 20 hours of HD (all broadcasts are MPEG-2-only). It also runs noticeably quieter and cooler than our Pace Sky+ 3100. The connections list remains unchanged too,

You can schedule recordings from the EPG and there’s a Sky+-style ‘record series’ option

2  What Satellite & Digital TV

Recordings can be ordered by date, series and A-Z (useful if you have a lot to browse)

comprising an HDMI output, component video outs, twin Scarts connectors (with RGB support on the TV Scart) an optical digital audio output with Dolby passthrough, stereo phonos and an aerial loopthrough. Added to these is an Ethernet port and a powered USB port which is suitable for charging portable devices but whose future intended use remains a mystery. The remote control is also largely the same as that bundled with TV Drive. But it’s not so intuitive that you often find yourself pressing buttons without needing to look at it. It is relatively blessed with tactile, well-positioned buttons arranged around a central navigation pad. Gone are the exceedingly blue(yonder) menus of old, however, replaced with a distinctive black colour scheme with red and yellow highlights.

Setup You can choose between 4:3, 4:3 letterbox or 16:9 aspect ratios and for HD viewing choose either component or HDMI and between 720p (with optional widescreen) or 1080i resolution settings. You can also PIN-lock programmes and select a favourites list.

The seven-day catch-up service is the most welcome on-demand offering. HD content is sadly limited


‘There’s been no partitioning of the hard drive to store programming... the full 160GB hard disc is at your disposal’

Navigation The EPG may have been ‘re-skinned’ but the format remains the same. The EPG includes a grid of what’s on of six channels at a time and includes seven days’ worth of information browse-able on a daily basis. You can view a complete EPG for channels or view bespoke EPGs according to channel type such as High Definition. You can schedule recordings directly from the EPG or use the series link-style ‘record series’ to record all future episodes or just those showing that week. There’s also a manual recording option. Recordings are stored in a list showing the programme’s name, the channel it was on and its length, and can be viewed by series, date or A-Z.

Features The triple-tuner arrangement allows the V+ box to record two channels at once (including HD channels) while you watch a third live channel, although Virgin Media has yet to implement radio recording. Timeshifting is possible and the V+box keeps a running cache of what you’re watching. You can fast-forward and rewind recordings and on-demand programmes at 2x, 6x, 12x and 32x speeds and set ‘start’ and ‘end’ buffers for recordings. You can resume watching a recording from where you left off, and also archive them to DVD or VHS. The other much-trumpeted feature available on all Virgin Media boxes is on-demand which builds on the previous Teleport effort. This includes a free seven-day catch-up TV service featuring popular programmes from a selection of channels including Channel 4, the BBC, Bravo and Living (but not ITV or Five). In addition, there’s the free TV Choice on Demand/Virgin Central service that features

whole series of programmes from the past 10 years or so, including Father Ted. In both cases, programmes are listed by a synopsis and by how long you have left to view them. The on-demand Filmflex movie service, meanwhile, offers standard and HD movies ranging up to £4 for new releases viewable as much as you like within a 24-hour period. Channel 4’s 4on-demand service offers programmes such as Desperate Houswives and Ugly Betty for 99p, again viewable for 24 hours. There’s also a large library of old and new music videos available for 40p a time, on-demand adult programming from TVX, Spice and others. Unfortunately, the current absence of Sky’s basic channels (Sky Sports/Movies remain) contributes to a lack of truly desirable programming particularly in terms of HD. This is disappointing considering that the service only has one HD channel present (BBC HD). HD music clips are available free of charge, but there’s little in the way of new and exciting content elsewhere. There’s a small selection of BBC HD shows such as Bleak House but nothing from 4oD during our test period (whither Desperate Housewives?). Browsing through Filmflex, meanwhile, we found plenty of HD offerings but precious few recent blockbusters (presumably Sky has bagged the rights to those).

Performance When ramped up to 1080i on our 50in Sony Bravia screen, BBC HD transmissions look exceptional and Virgin Media also seems to have ironed out much of the jerkiness that once accompanied playback and fast-forward and rewinding of HD content. Standard-definition pictures, meanwhile, show little evidence of compression artefacts from live broadcasts or recordings – and audio quality is sharp enough.

Verdict The V+box is undoubtedly a user-friendly and versatile PVR. The problem lies with the content. Until the Sky situation (as reflected in our final score) is resolved, Virgin Media is somewhat hobbled. Even with Sky’s basic channels it would still lack Sky’s HD channels or on-demand HD versions of popular shows such as 24 – enjoyed by users of Sky Anytime on TV. If it’s hi-def you want, Sky is clearly still the better option if you can get it n Grant Rennell

The Opposition Sky+ HD n Two tuners and a greater selection of SD and HD channels. Sky Anytime on TV offers less but more desirable HD and SD content. Still the package to beat.

Top Up TV Anytime n Digital terrestrial pay-TV service based around 160GB PVR offers push on-demand TV but programme choices are limited. No HD content either.

Homechoice/Tiscali TV n Recently rebranded broadband TV service also has an extensive ondemand offering but no digital recording capability or HD programming. See also: BT Vision.

Rating PLUS

n Well-integrated satellite and

Aerial loopthrough

TV Scart provides composite video and RGB

VCR Scart (composite only)

Optical digital audio output

three tuners n Good A/V performance n On-demand TV

Powered USB 2.0 port

Minus

n Currently lacking ‘killer’

channels and VoD shows

BUILD hhhhhhhhhh SETUP hhhhhhhhhh SEARCHING hhhhhhhhhh PERFORMANCE hhhhhhhhhh FEATURES hhhhhhhhhh VALUE hhhhhhhhhh

Verdict

Cable input

Stereo phonos

Component video outputs

HDMI output

Ethernet port for broadband connection

SATA port could be used for external hard disc

77%

What Satellite & Digital TV  3


Virgin V+