Review

Review: Virgin Media TiVo

It has taken some time for TiVo to land properly in the UK. Some users managed to import boxes that have worked with basic cable and aerial years ago, but now Virgin Media have stepped in to the fray with a full-on TiVo powered box to go with their fibre optic based TV and broadband service.

Virgin TiVo box installation:

The engineer phoned in the morning to say that he was running ahead of schedule and wondered if we were available for an earlier installation, which we said was fine. This showed good service right from the beginning and is always a nice sign.

Once the engineer arrived, he checked to make sure the install he was doing was the correct one. The setup we are covering is the new Virgin TiVo 500GB box with XL TV service. He checked out what connections we already had and then went to the van to get the correct cables and the box itself. Once inside our house he drilled a hole in the wall and connected up the fibre optic cable from outside and fixed the connection to the wall. Finally he ran the cable to the TiVo box and began the setup with the TV. This took him no more than 10 minutes from start to finish.

Once this was complete, he explained the setup and downloading that was going on behind the scenes and then went to the Virgin cabinet at the end of our street. This is where he made sure everything was connected up for us to receive TV and that the signal levels were what you would expect them to be.

Once he returned, the TiVo box was doing its final setup which took an additional 10 minutes or so. In the end it took around 30 minutes from the time the installer arrived until the TiVo service was up and running. Remember our setup was at a house which already had broadband cable installed, so it was a very simple job without any wiring needed.

The TiVo box itself:

The TiVo box is a lot smaller than the regular 500 GB Sky HD box you get in the UK, but it is around the same size as the 1TB Sky HD box that was released late last year. Although box size may not matter to that many people, it can make quite a bit of difference with some users' setups, especially based on cabinet or TV stand size. We were pleased with the TiVo box’s form factor although it isn’t the best looking design. Then again, we can’t remember a set top box that does look great.

The back of the TiVo box has a Cable coax input, SCART socket, one HDMI 1.2 out port, Optical Audio Out, 2x USB ports which are not yet enabled, an Ethernet network port (not yet working) and the main power connection.

Good news for audio fans is that unlike the Sky HD boxes that are currently available, the Virgin TiVo box allows HDMI audio so you can receive Dolby 5.1 surround sound from your favourite HD channels without the need to use the Optical Audio connection if you have a suitable AV unit available to you.

The TiVo service also comes with its very own 10MB broadband connection which means no additional slow down on your own broadband network if you decide to use some of the TiVo boxes features such as YouTube, eBay or BBC iPlayer. This may seem like a small thing, but it does make a difference and allows streaming applications to work very well on your TV screen.

The box is future proofed thanks to the 2 USB ports which could be used for additional storage in the future, which would be great news and a real plus to the service if Virgin enables them. The Ethernet option could also allow networked photos and music to be played through the box in the future too, though once again this is something that may never happen.

The Virgin remote control has all of the options you would expect, with a guide button that will take you straight to the TiVo guide and a home button that takes you to the main TiVo hub and lets you get access to features such as catch-up TV. Despite the lack of a TiVo logo anywhere on the remove, you do see the thumbs up and thumbs down buttons in the middle of the remote which allows you to rate shows and recordings before or after a viewing. The other main option is the “My Shows” button which takes you straight to your recordings and suggestions.

Virgin’s TV Service:

The service that we are covering on Virgin TiVo is the company’s XL package which contains 160 channels at a price of £24.50 per month assuming you have their Virgin Phone line included in your setup already; if not, it will set you back £30.50.

With their XL package you get 19 HD channels that include some of Sky’s main channels such as Sky 1, along with National Geographic, BBC HD, Comedy Central, and others. If you want, you can add Sky’s Sport and Movie packages too.

Virgin TiVo also supports 3D TV through 3D on Demand services such as renting 3D films like  Yogi Bear; they cost £5.99 for a 48-hour rental period. If you subscribe to the XL service you will also have access to a number of free 3D documentaries including 3D Sun and more. Just like Sky 3D though, this is side-by-side 3D which you are required to enable on your TV via your remote control. It doesn’t just switch to 3D on the fly unlike what you see with a Blu-Ray 3D movie.

As we mentioned earlier, Virgin also comes with TV on demand services. This gives you access to TV programmes, music, and movies on demand, all without any specific start time or schedule so you can choose when you want to begin watching. Some of the “On-Demand” services, such as movies, charge additional fees though the XL package does let you access the latest music videos as part of your package. “On Demand” also means that you have access to catch-up which comes at no additional cost and includes BBC iPlayer, 4oD, Demand Five and ITV Player. BBC iPlayer runs as an application via the TiVo service rather than in the On-Demand section of your TiVo menu.

TiVo Specific Performance and Features:

First, the good news. The TiVo box is a far better performer than any of the old Virgin boxes; scrolling through menus is a smooth experience as is browsing the guide. Gone are the days of having to wait as the operating system chugged into action. The menu system is easy to get used to after a couple of hours playing around with it, as everything is placed in a easy to understand section each time.

The first thing that we noticed when watching a channel was that the SD upscaling quality seems far better than we have seen for some time, especially when compared to Sky HD. Virgin have also said that they are looking to improve this even further which is great news. Thanks to the box supporting HDMI audio, everything sounded a lot clearer and of higher quality, though the optical audio is also very good so every option is there for good sound quality.

At the top of the main home menu is the “Discovery Bar” which recommends new programmes for you. Scrolling though the recommendations shows the programme info, genre, cast, and why it has been recommended. Selecting one brings up additional information about a programme which you can read below.

Accessing the TV guide brings up an attractive menu that allows you to filter programmes by genre such as documentaries or films, and there is even a specific HD section which is useful. The guide itself is full screen and contains 8 channels and 2 hours worth of programmes on the screen at one time. It is very clear and easy to read, displayed in a nice shade of “Virgin Media” red. Moving around the guide is quick and easy, with various shortcuts to skip to past, present and future days worth of content as well as a page up and page down option to scroll through channels quickly.

When you choose the show you want to watch, you get an info guide at the bottom of the screen that shows what you are watching and what is coming up next. It's smart and unobtrusive enough and only lasts a couple of seconds. A press of OK on the remote brings up a mini-guide that lets you see three channels worth of programmes. This lets you scroll through and pick another programme or choose something new to record.

Finally pressing INFO on your TiVo remote brings up information on the programme that you are watching. This includes options to record or setup a series link, subtitle info, audio tracks, audio descriptions, and finally current shows, future shows and catch-up information.

If you press OK when on the “record” option, you can also explore the current TV show; this brings up another excellent unique TiVo feature. It gives additional information about the programme or film that you are watching, it allows series links, upcoming episodes, a full episode guide right from episode one, cast information that lets you find out what other current programmes a star may be appearing in currently, bonus features which link-in with YouTube videos and finally an “if you like this…” option that displays other programmes similar to what you are watching and appears to be very accurate.

The Catch-up and On-Demand section does exactly what you would expect, allowing you to catch up on some on-demand TV programmes. There are loads of programmes and movies to choose from and it works perfectly; the only disappointment is that the HD catch-up TV programme selection is currently a little light on content with only two shows, Neighbours and Home and Away. The quality of the picture can be a little hit and miss sometimes, especially with some of the ITV Player content which seems to be streamed directly from the internet, though it isn’t really an issue when you have such a large selection on offer. Most of the content lasts around a week or so with these Internet based streaming channels.

Movies on demand can be rented at various pricing levels and contain SD, HD, and 3D based content. The picture quality is very good in general and some of the free 3D content on the XL service is great, although it isn’t without issues. Some of the 3D content has a tendency to do some slight skipping and although its only for a second at a time, it's noticeable, especially on the mummy programme. Aside from that, everything looks great.

Music videos on demand are exactly what you would expect and are streamed quickly and smoothly, although they are all in SD rather than HD which is a bit of a shame.

In our view the best On demand service on Virgin TiVo is “TV Choice on Demand.” From here you can get full access to loads of programmes and full seasons of your favourites such as South Park, Dexter and more. The good news is that there is a lot of HD content here and the picture quality is excellent. Content varies based on what package you have, but with the XL service there is plenty on offer that can be watched at any time.

The next section on the home menu is the “Search and Browse” area. From here you can search all TV, browse all TV, create the excellent “My WishList Searches” or search YouTube. It is the WishList option that is likely to get the most use as it lets you create searches based on actors, directors, and more, then setup TiVo to record any programmes or movies that feature them in the future. It is an excellent feature especially for those of you who are film and TV geeks.

Pressing on “My Shows” on your remote or on the home menu brings up programmes that you have recorded alongside some of the suggestions that TiVo has been choosing for you based on what you have watched and rated. Once again the suggestions for us have been very accurate, showing plenty of comedy programmes we enjoy along with documentaries and more. Deleting a recording is easy, but TiVo also allows you to quickly retrieve an accidently deleted programme thanks to a “recently deleted” folder. It makes it very easy to retrieve and fix a deleted mistake!

Next up we have the “Apps and Games” section where you can get access to applications such as BBC iPlayer, YouTube, eBay, Twitter, Weather, Celebrity News, Photo Gallery, and more. The applications are generally pretty good, especially BBC iPlayer, though Weather struggled to find out post code some of the time.

The eBay application allows you to browse but is currently next to useless as you can’t bid on anything or check sales or bids that you have previously made online. Twitter works surprisingly well even if it very basic right now. At the moment you can scroll through your twitter feed and post updates, but options for replies or direct replies are not yet available. These extra features are expected to be available in the future.

The only game on the menu so far is “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” It's not a bad little game and is quick and easy to load when you just feel like a simple question and answer session.

Last but not least is the Help and Settings section. From here you can go through help and suggestions which shows you how to make the best use of your new TiVo box. You can also adjust settings such as audio output, favourite channels, display, recordings and video output if you ever need to, though we were setup perfectly from the get go with 1080i and Dolby Digital via HDMI.

You also have access to both Parental Controls and Purchase Controls if you want to block out adult channels or PIN block Pay-Per-View on On-Demand content from anyone else in your family. There is also a “Messages” section which allows Virgin to send you helpful suggestions on how to make use of your TiVo box. We have received a couple messages since we setup the box. There are also sections for “System Info” and a “Clear or Reset the Set Top Box” option if you ever feel the need to wipe clean and start from fresh without suggested content or your thumbs up/down content.

Issues:

We have come across a few lip sync issues during our review, though these seemed to show up mostly on ITV HD content and less so on other channels. We expect to see Virgin fix this in a future update for the TiVo box. The only other thing we find a bit strange is that you could be paying out up to £200 for a box that Virgin Media still owns at the end of the day. This seems like a large amount of money to pay out for something that won't ever be yours, unlike Sky's HD boxes. The up side is that because you never own the box, if you ever have the hardware go wrong, it has to be fixed for free by Virgin so there is never a service charge to repair anything.

3D is also lacking on the service and really misses out on the 3D content that Sky has such as Sky Sports and Sky 3D, something we hope Virgin can get ahold of in the future. Next we see a lack of Pay Per View content - something that V+ boxes have had since the start and something that Virgin previously advertised would be a part of TiVo from the beginning. Sadly this isn't currently the case, though we are told that PPV options will come before the end of the year.

Interactive features on channels such as the BBC are not yet working either. Pressing the red button on a BBC channel will only load up BBC iPlayer and not the BBC’s interactive services. Again though, this is something that will be coming to TiVo in the future.

The EPG doesn’t support dynamic changes such as broadcast schedule changes or sport overruns. This is something that is unlikely to change as it has always been the case with TiVo software. It is something that can really grate on users especially if anyone switches over from Sky services that support it to Virgin who doesn't. It was something we noticed a lot during the Wimbledon tournament because channel changes were made but not updated. Some of the menus around the operating system are also in SD rather than HD, which can be a little bit jarring at times and is a strange design decision.

Overall:

We have been very pleased with both the TiVo box and the Virgin Media service in general. The box works perfectly and the menus and content are easy to access as well as fast to use. Picture quality has been very good throughout; especially pleasing is the SD upscaling, which feels like a step up from Sky’s HD service. Sound is another area in which the TiVo box outclasses Sky; the HDMI Dolby Digital 5.1 is far better quality to our ears than the optical only Sky HD box and even improves basic 2.1/2.0 content too.

Virgin TiVo is a great step up for the company and we really hope that they keep improving the service with new channels as well as fixing some of the small niggling issues that are within the TiVo software. If they do, they could be doing some great things for the future of TV in the UK.

Image Sources: Virgin Media Press Office

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