Virgin Media TiVo review

It’s been a long time coming, but Virgin Media’s TiVo project has finally been realised. And, if you think that plain old catch up TV and video-on-demand services are good, wait ‘til you get a load of this.

Virgin Media has always been at the forefront of on-demand content delivery; iPlayer may now appear on TVs, other set-top-boxes, iPads and the like – in fact, anything with an Internet connection – but it made its living room debut on the V+HD box. And that was just the start. The service provider soon followed it with wave upon wave of ever more expansive catch-up and VOD libraries, and faster than you can say “whatever happened to Top Up TV?”

However, its technology was never really designed to supply such massive amounts of video. Even the third generation of the cable box, made by Samsung, merely corrected some minor issues. It ran more smoothly and faster, but still clunked and chugged its way through menus when searching for an elusive missed episode of such and such TV show.

So that’s why the catchily titled Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo set-top-box is not just a revelation for the provider, we are confident that it will be as important to the future of television as the Sky+ HD box was five years ago.

Efforts have certainly been made on the aesthetics of the device. Looking like the offspring of a PlayStation 3 and a 1950s gas heater, it’s a far cry from the bog standard bricks the company has been associated with in the past. It’s sleek and sexy and, mercifully, matt. Most AV products these days sport more fingerprints than the average episode of CSI: New York, thanks to their piano black (read “shiny plastic”) exteriors. Not so here.

It’s also quite foreboding, swapping the LCD read-outs of its stablemates for buttons and a couple of tiny LED lights (to show it is working). It’s also made by Cisco, who loves a good curve or two.

But it’s not what’s on the outside that’s important, as we’re continually told, and never has there been a truer word said. In the bowels of the Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo box (do you mind if we just call it the “TiVo box” from now on? It’ll save our typing fingers and your reading eyes – everyone’s a winner), there’s a gargantuan 1TB hard drive for recordings and downloadable media (such as apps). In addition, it’s fitted with its own broadband modem and three TV tuners with their own unique features.

The modem connects to the Internet independently to your subscribed broadband line. For example, if you have 20-meg broadband from Virgin Media, you will still get up to 20-meg broadband, with the TiVo box taking nothing away. Additionally, it does not impact on any bandwidth limits. Rather, it uses its own closed part of the network, working away with nary a squeak.

This is absolutely vital, as one of the service’s biggest assets is that it is inextricably intertwined with the Internet, sucking down metadata (such as cover art and detailed programme descriptions) like it was milkshake. It also has access to YouTube and a growing base of third-party applications, such as Twitter, eBay and games.

It is this that allows the box to work its unique magic, and is the reason why TiVo has a massive fanbase worldwide. Comparing the amount of information available while browsing for content on this particular iteration of the technology to any other British television service is like comparing the Phone Book to a leaflet promoting the town square’s annual jumble sale.

Its beauty is not in the copious amounts of content on offer - standard, high definition or 3D - but in the way it is presented. Every piece of video comes with a detailed summary, with most also featuring a cast list, cover art, and a whole host of recommended programmes that you might also like. And each of these lead you to further information, new shows, more cast lists and the like. It is like the Internet itself, but much more focused and refined, and it is utterly utterly brilliant.

A lot of the initial fun with the TiVo box will come in surfing its infotainment. It’s unlikely that you’ll even watch a TV show within the first hour or two of its installation. A swift click on the description for the movie Taken, for example, will offer up a cast list including Liam Neeson. Click on Liam Neeson, and a plethora of other films that he has appeared in will then appear. Click on one of them, and so on and so forth.

At any time you can actually say enough is enough and actually watch something, but where’s the fun in that?

It is also neat that this suggested and surfed for content can come from several sources. It could be a show coming up in the 7-day EPG, or a paid-for movie on-demand. It can even be a YouTube clip, if you select “Bonus Features” in the show’s own mini-menu system. Staggering.

For those who are less likely to skit around the system, the other most-famed and traditional feature of a TiVo experience is present; it will recommend shows, movies and media you might like by cunningly keeping track of your viewing habits, based on the types of shows you record, and a couple of additions to an otherwise typical remote control.

Nesting in the middle of the remote are thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons, allowing you to lord over your TV viewing like a Roman Emperor. Like The Walking Dead? Give it one, two or three thumbs-up. Dislike Bargain Hunt? Press the alternate. Doing so will tell the system to either recommend similar shows, or steer clear altogether.

Particularly recommended shows or films will then appear in the top bar on your home menu screen, and are immediately accessible without wading through the back-end. Sometimes, this bar may also be used by Virgin Media to promote new content or services, but most of the time it’s entirely based on your own preferences.

Another new feature well worth highlighting lays in the way the EPG works. Instead of being a linear 7-day show guide, you can now navigate backwards as well (up to a similar 7-day period). Programmes which have a “C” icon next to them are available to watch as catch-up TV, and can be clicked on. All video-on-demand content can be accessed through main menus and via the extensive search capabilities of the software, but this is a great way to flick back to a show you’ve only just missed (or you want to casually browse for).

And then there’s the Wishlist, which can be set to watch out for an actor, director, programme or series, and will flag anything that your tag appears in for the next six months. Or the Search & Browse menu which offers up swathes of cover art-wearing content in easy to navigate generalised menus.

Let’s not forget the tiny icons which immediately let you know whether something is on-demand, on TV, HD or otherwise. Or the message system in the help menu that allows Virgin Media to inform you of firmware upgrades and similar.

And, of course, it’d be criminal to miss out the fact that the app support runs on a Flash-based operating system, opening up the possibility of third party developers creating games and utilities in their thousands

Indeed, there’s plenty more, but we could go on and on and on. Instead, we’ll leave some surprises for you, after all, half the fun in this particular TiVo box is in playing with it. Needless to say that it’s more jam-packed than a Robertson’s factory.

We haven’t even touched on recording much, as it’s probably the most standard feature on the box, and works similarly to many other PVRs on the market, Virgin Media’s usual fare included.

That said, it does utilise the aforementioned three tuners. And not only can the box record two channels while you watch another – a neat enough trick – but can also buffer two separate stations at once, allowing you to enact chasing playback on a side you aren’t watching.

When you switch channels, the machine will start to buffer the one you’re now watching, while continuing to store content from the one you’ve just left… For up to an hour. For example, if you’re watching the final matches of the Premier League season, and one team scores after you’ve just flicked over to the other game, you can switch back and rewind to the goal. Genius.

Oh, and because there’s a 1TB HDD on board, you can store up to around 100 hours of HD video or 500 hours of standard-def. That’s a lot of episodes of In the Night Garden.

The rear of the cable box reveals the usual socketry suspects; Scart, optical audio out, two USBs, and an Ethernet port, but if you’re willing to invest in TV version 2.0, it’s likely you’ll have a TV or home cinema system to suit, and will probably only need the obligatory HDMI. It’s also worth pointing out that the set-up of the TiVo box (specifically on the audio side) is much less confusing than with its V+HD equivalent.

Verdict

So there you have it the Virgin Media TV powered by TiVo box – not just an upgrade for the company, but perhaps television per se. At £199, the “activation fee” may seem steep to some, especially when combined with the £40 installation cost and £3 per month extra on the bill, but not only is it cheaper than Sky’s initial HD device was when it was launched, it’s also a small price to pay for a remarkably powerful slice of technology.

It does suffer from the occasional gltch, after all these are early days and teething troubles are to be expected, but it is undoubtedly the future of TV. And it’s here. Now.

Once you’ve spent some time navigating around the gloriously designed menu structure and search functionality, you may never want to rely on plain old linear TV again. It’s all well and good having a billion HD channels, but if you can’t choose what to watch when you want to watch it, and in such style to boot, then what’s the point. There’s never anything good on.

There is on Virgin Media’s TiVo box.