Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo unveiled and in-depth hands-on

Virgin Media has finally shown off its brand spanking new TiVo-powered set-top-box, and revealed that pre-registration has opened on its website. It also revealed that boxes will be starting to roll-out later this month (December), although the vast majority of eager customers will see it arrive from January 2011.

In an exclusive demonstration, Pocket-lint has been shown through the new graphical user interface and functionality of the, long-named, Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo premium service, by Alex Green, the company's executive director, Commercial, TV and Online, who told us that "we are positioning this as a premium product to start off with".

"It's our strategic bet in TV. It will become much more standardised over time, but initially, it will be positioned very much as a premium service".

"In terms of our roll-out, we're focusing initially on our staff and existing customers before we really open it out to prospects at large. We think that's important because getting the advocacy, getting the excitement, getting the buzz going within our home territory, if you like, is incredibly important. Particularly with a service that, in the end, really comes alive once you start using it. Word of mouth spreads and so on. It's the right way to get this product into the market".

However, for a premium product, it's surprisingly affordable. Customers who want to upgrade to the "powered by TiVo" service will be charged £199 for the set-top-box itself, £40 for installation (the provider's standard charge) and £3 per month on top of the regular bill. Considering that the Sky HD box was £299 initially and came with a subscription levy, and that Humax's Freeview+ HD box (HDR-Fox T2) currently retails at around £296 for the 500GB version, it's a reasonable ask.

So what do you get for your money? Well, as well as an 1TB hard drive for recordings (essential for Virgin Media customers who consume a large amount of HD content) and an in-built modem - allowing it to operate online without impacting users' broadband speeds or bandwidth limits - it's the TiVo user interface that screams innovation.

It is, quite simply, stunning. Both super quick and intuitive, there's a raft of cunning technologies whizzing about behind the scenes that make for the most pleasant TV experience on the market today.

Take the front page, for example. Ranged along the top is what Virgin Media terms the "discovery bar". It's not just there for show, but suggests and recommends programming you might fancy trying out based on others you've seen or recorded. It will also hint at pay-per-view content you may enjoy, such as on-demand movies, or it could also be used by Virgin Media to let you know about a new channel or service that's popped up:

"Certain pieces of content, either by our partnerships or through our own curated direction, we can slot into the discovery bar. Front and centre, there could be something that says 'New', for example", said Green.

Alternatively, new channel line-ups could be highlighted to the user via the box's unique message service, a feature that will, in-the-future, allow two way communication - even to Virgin Media's own ecare system for customer support.

But these are not the only new features, nor, indeed, the grandstand ones. Perhaps its biggest attraction is the vast search and information functionality. If, for example, you were looking for an episode of House, you only need type "H" and "O" into the browse box and bingo, it will appear before you. Plus, you can then look at the extended information about the show and find specific episodes, set them to record, look at the cast sheet, and even further explore other shows that star a specific cast member broadcast on linear TV or contained within the VOD database. It's truly as powerful an engine as you want it to be.

Perhaps, though, the most powered-up search function on the new system is the "wishlist search". Using it, you can find, store and subsequently record anything you want from one buzzword. For example, if you like the films of Martin Scorsese, you add him to your wishlist and the box will grab or suggest his canon of work whenever it pops onto the EPG, ad infinitum (or, at least, until you tell it to stop). That extends far beyond the normal electronic programme guide. Now you see what the 1TB hard drive is for.

There are plenty of other, less showy but no less important, abilities of the new box, such as the ability to go backwards on the EPG for the very first time in order to find catch-up content for shows you've recently missed, and "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" buttons on the remote to allow you rate shows and movies as you go, so that the box knows more about your tastes and therefore presents more accurate suggestions; however half of the beauty of Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo is in discovering them for yourself.

We were excited by the prospect of one more of the talents demoed, however: a thriving App section with eBay, YouTube, BBC iPlayer and some of the company's own content portals already pre-loaded. It's an area that the provider is keen to see grow, with the help of the third-party development community.

"Obviously, at the moment, we've got half a dozen or so [apps] to start with, but the intention is that, over the next twelve months, that could grow to up to a hundred", Green told us. "We do envisage, at some point, that it will be open to third party developers as well".

"How that process will work is still to be confirmed, but the intention is that it's a platform where stuff can be added. It's got this brilliant broadband connectivity. There's so much that can be done to optimise content for the TV, and this is the perfect way to do it".

And, as it's a Flash platform, that means we could see ports appearing on the box sooner rather than later.

This is only the beginning.

To register your interest in Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo, whether you're an existing customer or otherwise, visit www.virginmedia.com/tivo.

What do you think of the new service? Affordable? Are you a current TiVo user? Let us know in the comments below...