When Sky announced a new flagship box and service a year ago it instantly became the best TV device and platform on the market. Sky Q was groundbreaking, fresh and took paid TV in an all-new direction.
It made Sky’s own existing systems look outdated and outmoded, let alone Virgin Media’s 2012 TiVo box.
So it comes as no surprise that Virgin Media has been busy beavering away on its own rival to Sky Q - a box and equivalent service that can take on Sky’s best head-to-head. The only real surprise is that it took 12 months to do so.
As they say though, good things come to those that wait. And there’s also something to be said about hindsight.
- What is Virgin TV? Everything you need to know about Virgin Media's Virgin TV V6 TV box, TellyTablet and more
Virgin TV V6 box preview: Superpowered TiVo
The Virgin TV V6 box is most certainly a product of hindsight. It does many of the things that Sky Q does, with a few tweaks here and there. There are differences, but customers no longer need to get green eyed when they visit a Sky customer’s home. And if they are into recording shows, well, they can play a spot of one-upmanship themselves now.
We got to play with the new system for a while ahead of a full review, seeing the added features and the whole, new Virgin TV ecosystem. It’s something that wasn’t possible during the announcement event, but having one-to-one time was preferable anyway. And as Virgin Media and Sky Q customers, we feel we’re well placed to give you our in-depth first impressions.
Virgin TV V6 box preview: It's what's on the inside that counts
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way first. Since its unveiling, the Twittersphere has not been kind to the V6 box, proclaiming it uglier than a bulldog in a blender. However, in the flesh it is much better looking than in press images.
For a start, it is smaller than many believe - about half the size of the existing TiVo box and with similar dimensions to a Sky Q Mini box. It is fatter for sure, but some seem to forget that it is packed with tech. And we’ve always been of the belief that a telly box should be hidden in a cabinet rather than exposed - after all, if you’re spending time looking at the box, you’re missing the point. And your programmes.
Yes, we love great looking kit, but surely it’s about what it can do that’s important? And the fact that the V6 box is smaller than the current TiVo tank is a better trade-off than a spot of lipstick and eye shadow.
Virgin TV V6 preview: RF remote
The remote has shrunk a tad too, with a similar design aesthetic to before but nicer feel. It is also RF this time around, so doesn’t need to be pointed at the V6 box. That’s further proof that you should tuck the box in a cabinet than proudly display it on a silver platter. It doesn’t need line of sight at all.
In terms of functionality, the remote is nigh-on identical in all other aspects to the current version. The same thumbs up/thumbs down buttons are there - it is still powered by TiVo after all - although we’ve never met anyone who has used the suggestions modes for more than the first few days after installation.
The fast forward, play, pause, rewind set-up is better placed and spaced, and there is a new search button for the advanced search features now available. In all other respects it is a remote that will feel familiar to Virgin Media customers. We’d have liked to see some touch controls, like the Sky Q clicker, but they’re not essential. The V6 remote does have a similar find function though, where an eight-second press on the "+" button on the box will make the remote beep so you can locate it easily.
Virgin TV V6 box preview: TV tuners and 4K HDR playback
Inside the V6 box itself are eight TV tuners, with six available for recordings and the like. You can record up to six shows at a time, while playing back a previous recording or streaming something over Netflix, YouTube or one of the terrestrial catch-up services that are available.
We asked about the spare tuners and, like with Sky Q, they are there for future developments. Virgin Media has taken great care to ensure this box is as future proof as possible, and that includes its video output.
Unlike its main rival, the Virgin TV V6 box is 4K HDR ready. That means, when there comes a time that high dynamic range picture tech becomes available, either through its Netflix and YouTube apps or even further down the line with broadcast, the V6 box will be capable of outputting the signal to your 4K HDR TV. Sky Q is limited to a 4K Ultra HD resolution without HDR. There’s that hindsight for you.
Where Sky does have the upper hand at present is in broadcast 4K content, it offers movies, TV shows and live football in Ultra HD while Virgin Media does not. However, the V6 box does have access to 4K content on Netflix, which is beyond the reach of Sky. So if you have an £8.99 Premium Netflix subscription, you can watch shows like The Crown, Breaking Bad, Stranger Things and Narcos in 4K.
Of course, you’ll need a compatible TV and many of them also offer 4K Netflix as part of their smart TV app support, but the way content is integrated into the Virgin TV user interface is clever and intuitive, so you’ll probably end up using the V6 box rather than your smart TV app.
For example, if you search for a show using the smart search functionality, you’ll be presented with all the results no matter where that show is being hosted. It could be part of UKTV Play’s channels, a catch-up service, or Netflix. If it’s the latter and you start the show, it automatically circumnavigates the Netflix app start-up process and starts the programme directly - in the best format possible, including 4K.
This integration of content is something Sky Q also does well and is the holy grail for broadcasters, but Sky doesn’t have Netflix support, so that’s something Virgin Media has up its sleeve.
Virgin TV V6 box preview: Multiroom
It also offers multiroom in a different way. Sky Q has separate streaming boxes - in the form of its Sky Q Mini devices - while the Virgin TV system works across the latest V6 box and the older TiVo boxes.
If you have more than one of either device in your home and they are linked to your home network through Ethernet they will communicate with each other and effectively combine resources to expand either box's potential. An existing TiVo box, for example, can become a bedroom machine and access all of the recordings on your V6 box's hard drive. It also works the other way, with the technology being backwards compatible.
That means, no matter whether you have recorded a show on your TiVo box or V6 box, it is available to view on either. And that effectively increases your storage capacity.
The Virgin TV V6 box comes with 1TB of storage as standard, less than the top-end Sky Q box (which has 2TB). However, add a second V6 box or 1TB TiVo box to the mix and you have 2TB to play with too. Add a third and you have 3TB.
What's more, each box has its own TV tuners, so increases the number of programmes you can record at the same time. In our previous example, with a V6 box and TiVo box in the same set-up, you can record up to nine shows simultaneously - three on the TiVo box and six on the V6.
Another neat trick is that separate boxes can access and playback the same recording at the same time, yet view it from different points.
Virgin TV V6 box preview: Tablets, smartphones and offline
Whether you have a second or third box or not, you can also access your recordings - plus live TV and on demand content - through the Virgin TV Anywhere app for iOS or Android.
The app has been around for years but a recent update not only makes it look prettier, it has gained additional features, with the main one being the ability to view recordings stored on any of your home boxes, as long as you are connected to the same home network. You can also download recordings to your mobile device for offline viewing.
This is something that Sky Q offers and has been one of the things we've most used since having that particular platform installed. We love the option and for Virgin Media to also implement it will similarly be a godsend to its customers. There's nothing like having the ability to watch Homes Under the Hammer when on the Tube. Well, perhaps not Homes Under the Hammer, but you get the picture. Literally in this case.
We'll be exploring the Virgin TV V6 box and overall system in even greater depth when we've had it properly installed and lived with it for a while. But even from a 30 minute or so play it's clear that the company has made every effort to take what is good about its existing TiVo platform and improve on it in every way.
It has clearly been inspired by Sky Q for several new features, but has also added a few of its own - such as the multiroom tech utilising existing hardware rather than different devices.
The future proofing also offers great potential, with Virgin Media telling us that the box could even be made compatible with cloud recording services somewhere down the line. And, for us, the speed of use over the existing TiVo box is almost enough on its own. It is lightning quick, easy to use and we're looking forward to giving it a proper, real world work out soon.
Perhaps then we can judge whether it is able to topple Sky Q off its lofty perch. Or at the very least offer a credible alternative.