Virgin Atlantic's new in-flight entertainment system pictures and hands-on
Virgin Atlantic has started to roll out a new in-flight entertainment system on its fleet which promises to change the way you watch films and TV shows, play games, catch up on the latest news headlines and much more at 35,000ft. But is it enough to make you want to book Virgin over the likes of BA? We jumped on a plane from New York to find out.
Aside from a new cabin design and improved décor, Virgin has completely overhauled the entertainment system, and it's lovely. For economy customers gone are the confusing red, green, blue and yellow buttons and complicated to use remote control that sits in your armrest. Gone, too, is the poor resolution seat-back display that meant you couldn't read subtitles or any text on the screen. Instead there's a considerably more stylish designed silver handset and a larger, improved screen.
But it's the Premium Economy and Upper Class passengers who have been given the real treat and upgrade.
They now get not only a large touchscreen display (we are guessing 11-inches), but a touchscreen control pad akin to the Sony PS Vita and the latest smartphones that lets you control everything with a quick swipe.
The console itself comes with a 21:9 aspect ratio capacitive touchscreen (we are guessing 4.5-inches) display, a d-pad, four control buttons, two shoulder buttons and dedicated call and light buttons - not that you'll be using the buttons much, to be honest.
The crux of the system is controlled from the very quick and responsive touchscreen and if you use a touchscreen smartphone you will feel right at home within seconds - whether it is scrolling through the menu options or simply choosing a film to watch.
Fire up the system for the first time and you are asked whether you want grown-up or kids' mode. The latter changes the interface making it more child-friendly and that means more cartoony style graphics and animations as well as restrictions on what content you can watch.
Parents, you now don't have to be worried you'll fall asleep and they'll be watching the latest gruesome action flick. That said it doesn't look like you can lock it - which would have been a nice feature.
If you're not under 12, there is plenty to entertain, with choices divided into sections and then genres: Movies, TV, Music, Games, and More allows you to navigate quickly to what you want to do, and the genre choices are broken down into categories you would understand and expect - Adventure, Action, Biopic, etc, etc.
It's all very speedy to get to where you want to go, and the system is very responsive. At no point did we find ourselves waiting for stuff to happen - not something we could say about the old system.
Once you've chosen your movie, you are given a quick description and, when available, a trailer, so you can see if the film is really for you. There's an option to add it to a playlist if you are stacking up a couple of films or TV shows on a long flight.
Press play and the movie starts. As with YouTube, you can fast forward and rewind through the film by simply sliding your finger through the timeline at the bottom (it appears when you touch the screen). Purists can even change the aspect ratio from full screen to 4:3. Brightness, contrast, and volume are also just a finger press away.
At the end of the movie, embracing the Facebook social metric, you can tell Virgin Atlantic whether you liked the movie or not and that information then feeds back to others looking at the show or movies description. Don't worry it won't say that you in particular liked that romcom. Very "meta".
The selection of movies and shows is very good, with a mix of just-out-of-cinema films to classics you've probably missed and now have time to catch up on. But it is not just about watching the movies and shows that Virgin Atlantic has chosen - the system also allows you to bring your own content too.
Beneath the screen is an array of ports making the set-up in front of you look more like the back of your TV than the back of an aircraft seat.
There is a USB socket so you can play content you've got stored on a USB drive or plug in a camera or camcorder via a phono video in. For £25 you can also buy a special cable that will let you plug in your iPod or iPhone so you can use the seat-back screen rather than your device's much smaller screen.
There is also a USB charging socket for portable devices. Laptop users can also charge their computers via a power socket on your seat.
Of course, you being the savvy business traveller that you are, you might have to work, and Virgin Atlantic now has you covered here too. The system lets you make calls - at a rather hefty $4.95 a minute from the seat, or if you are a Vodafone or O2 customer from your own phone.
Vodafone customers can roam as if they were outside the EU. You can send and receive text messages, make calls, and surf the internet on Edge. O2 customers get to make calls and send texts but sadly - or thankfully, depending on how you look at it - not go online. Yep 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean you no longer have an excuse not to post to Facebook. It's not the fastest of connections, but it will let you get an email out if you really need to.
Whether it's watching a movie, catching up on the headlines from Sky News, doing a spot of work, or even watching where you are on the Sky Map, the new Virgin Atlantic in-flight system is very impressive and we like it, we like it a lot.
Geeky we know, but now we've been spoilt, the thought of travelling on a Virgin Atlantic flight that doesn't have the new system is not an experience we are going to look forward to.
Virgin Atlantic is rolling out the new in-flight entertainment system across its fleet. We were on the JFK to London Heathrow route.