Virgin Media TiVo vs Sky+ HD

So we’ve had TiVo for a while now. After about six or so years with Sky my parents decided that they’d given enough money to Rupert Murdoch and wanted to give money to Richard Branson John Malone instead (Branson just fronts the brand these days).

It made sense to move, our broadband and home phone has always been with Virgin Media (formerly ntl:home) and actually the savings of moving everything to one company rather than having three services with separate companies makes it economical.

So what are the fundamental differences? Well, the box looks different and has a completely different way of operating to Sky. There’s more room taken up by the suggestion bar at the top of the screen which shows you things you might like to watch. I’ve noticed that if you fill the box to 99% (I’m away at uni a lot, only come home about once a month), then all these suggestions eventually change to things in “My Shows” as the box pleads you to watch things to clear memory. The guide itself is fundamentally the same, just red, and with a lot of Virgin Media swirls in the background.

There are, however, certain annoyances. I’d say my biggest complaint is that the box is slower, much slower than Sky’s ever was. Even with a 90-odd percent full Sky box was it more reactive to button presses. There’s nothing wrong with the speed, I’m a massive nerd who loves technology and also happens to be impatient, and I rarely find it’s annoying me a lot, just try to keep recorded shows at less than 90%, above that and the thing starts to run like a mid-2000s computer.

You’ll also find you restart the box more. With Sky, you rarely restart a box unless a programme recording has corrupted or for some reason you’re just getting a blue screen. With TiVo, restarts are much more commonly needed, and take an age. You’ll realise it needs restarting because the box just gets gradually slower over, say, the course of a month. Now you’re in need of a restart. TiVo have at least made it easy to restart, there’s an option from the settings menu. Only do this when you’re going to bed after an evening’s viewing, however, the process takes over five minutes but under ten (it varies). The box will turn itself off again after inactivity for a certain amount of time.

Virgin boasts a huge selection of On Demand, as does Sky. So the two services are relatively comparable. If you go with a large TV pack then all this stuff is available free and you can watch at your convenience, it’s great, and roughly the same selection as Sky. A lot of it is HD, also like Sky.

This brings me to another thing I’ve noticed. The picture quality in HD is better on TiVo than on Sky, yet the picture quality of SD programming is worse. Don’t ask me why, it just is. I’ve viewed the television with and without my glasses, and consistently I have thought this is the case. It’s also the same on the second box we have, both are plugged in to high-end Panasonic VIERA sets. This also brings me to another point.

Remember I mentioned the 99% full box earlier? Well, that will happen a lot more than on Sky. It must be due to the higher picture quality, but if you record a lot of HD shows you will find that bar fills. As an example, an hour and a half of HD from More4 with the excellent TV series Mammon takes 8GB, on Sky+ HD, about 5-6 GB. Yet the differences in picture quality are there. This is probably why Virgin Media rushed to the table with the 1TB box, if you’re an HD fascist and you’re out a lot, you will need the 1TB box, no two ways about it. Deleting five or so episodes of the SD Daily Show with Jon Stewart (half an hour each) will barely register as a thing you’ve removed, the bar will probably only go down around 1% for the three hours or so you’ve just removed of SD programming.

Perhaps my biggest annoyance with Virgin is their use of obscure channel numbers. While Sky clearly push their own programmes and channels to the top of the list (and it is nice to see BBC Three and BBC Four get more prominence on the first page of a TV guide), BBC Two, Three and Four all in HD are all listed as 162, 163 and 164 respectively. Surely, then, BBC One HD must be 161? No, it’s 108.

Virgin Media need a major reshuffle of their channel numbers. I found that I remembered Sky’s channel numbers after just a few weeks with the box, this has not been the same. Why is Sky Living (109) a lower number than Sky 1 (121)? Why when you choose an SD channel does it not offer the HD channel version, or why haven’t Virgin Media done the whole Sky approach and just replace the SD channel numbers for the HD ones when you subscribe to HD? It’s annoying.

Seriously though, the ability to run 3 recordings at once and also watch stuff from the internet (YouTube, Netflix and iPlayer) at the same time is a real plus, plus it doesn’t seem to slow down the main Virgin Hub too much when you do it (within reason, don’t upload large files to YouTube using the Hub while watching two programmes from iPlayer on different boxes, this still affects the upload speed, even though it shouldn’t as all the connections are separate).

Overall though, despite the poor thinking of channel numbers and the need to restart the box monthly, I can honestly recommend the service. The internet services (the main one you’ll use is iPlayer, no-one uses YouTube) are a good addition, rarely used. Virgin Media have clearly cottoned on to the fact that there is still work to be done, you’ll still find major updates being performed to the box overnight sometimes, but it’s good to see they’re so committed to the platform and want to continue to improve it.

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