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As we kick off our longterm reviews of the UK's television services, Sky and Virgin Media battle it out. We'll be extending this to cover additional services such as Freeview and internet options such as BT Vision in the near future.

SkySky satellite television

Available features: A mixture of satellite television, broadband internet and telephone calls.

Our option: Highest package for TV (Sky Sports, Sky Movies and all six entertainment channel bundles) with associated Personal Video Recorder (PVR), plus the Medium package for broadband.


PVR (SKY+)
Sky’s PVR should be on a par with Virgin Media’s V+ box, swallowing up 80 hours of normal-quality television. However, you only get to fill it with 40 hours of programming, as Sky saves some of the space for its own material (more on that later). If you want a bigger hard drive and have a shiny HD telly, it’s best to opt for a SkyHD box – effectively the next step up from our account – which allows you to store up to 30 hours of HD programmes or up to 80 hours of standard-def content.
The other area Sky+ fails compared to the V+ box is in how many channels it can handle at once. When you think about past recording techniques it seems churlish to complain that Sky+ can only record two programmes simultaneously, but V+ allows you to do that while watching a third channel. At least you can watch something else off the Sky+ hard drive while it’s busy filling up with new programmes.
The Sky+ box has really tested things a service point of view, but then we have been using it a lot longer than Virgin’s cable service. This being consumer technology (and essentially nothing more than a personal computer) a number of Sky+ boxes have died in our arms. However, as long as they were under warranty Sky has replaced them promptly.

On-demand
Sky offers a weekly catch-up service for TV programmes that have been on its channels, but it’s not properly on-demand as such. The programmes on its Sky Anytime service are automatically downloaded to your Sky+ box. On the plus side, you don’t choose a programme and wait for the internet connection to kick in before it hits your TV screen as you do with the V+ service. However, you can end up with a large amount of programming stored on your box that you didn’t ask for. Sky plucks the week’s catch-up telly from its range of channels, including Sky One, Sky News, its range of film channels, History and ESPN Classics, as well as kids’ stations like Boomerang, Nick Toons and Disney.
Sky’s other on-demand (but not really on-demand) feature is its Box Office film service. This offers more up-to-date films for a £3.95 fee. Rather than requesting a film and getting it delivered there and then, Sky has set aside a huge bunch of channels so you can duck into the start of a Box Office movie every 15 minutes.
Where the Sky service strikes back against Virgin is in its downloadable internet content. Subscribers are allowed to download content using Sky’s software that can then be taken with them on their laptop and played anywhere. This is especially useful if you subscribe to a premium service such as the movies channels. Sky also offers some content on your mobile phone, although due to problems setting up this service we have yet to test it.
A particularly handy on-demand service is the ability to record something on your Sky+ box while you’re not standing next to it. Setting up your details online means you can do this over the internet or using the browser on your mobile phone.

Broadband internet
Sky provides its own wireless router as standard to handle your Sky Broadband service. On the upside, you don’t need to add any extra kit to surf anywhere in your house (as you do with Virgin). It also takes all the hassle out of setting up your internet service. Security is built in because the only way you can see the password is if you have access to the router itself. That stops novice users setting it up without any security and having their Wi-Fi connection abused by the neighbours.
On the downside, being tied to Sky’s own box leaves you high and dry if you have a problem with it. We’ve been using the service for almost a year and two Wi-Fi boxes have already conked out. Not a problem, you’d think, as Sky could just replace it and you’re back up and running. But the replacement generally takes a week, leaving you without a home internet connection during that time.

Cost
Varied packages. £16 a month will buy you a standard television box (without PVR features), plus free regular evening and weekend calls (to numbers starting 01 and 02) and up to 2Mbps broadband. That reaches up to £50 a month for the maximum amount of television packages, unlimited UK evening and weekend calls and up to 8Mbps broadband.
A Sky+ PVR box costs an additional £149, although this may be discounted based on the amount of services you sign up for.
You will also need a BT line to keep your Sky services updated and to run broadband, which comes with its own line rental of £11 per month.
[Prices correct on 8 October 2007]

Overall
Sky has been a powerhouse broadcaster for some time, bolstering its subscribers by capturing top-quality content from the States and offering premium services such as Premiership Football. The company was in danger of falling behind technically because of its slow introduction of on-demand TV and internet services, but is now starting to fight back. Sky is cheaper to use if you already count a BT landline among your home comforts, otherwise it will set film and sport fans back a decent wedge.

Verdict: 8/10
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Virgin MediaVirgin Media cable television

Available features: A mixture of cable television, broadband internet, landline telephone and mobile phone.

Our option: Highest (XL) package for TV with associated Personal Video Recorder (PVR), Medium package for broadband.

PVR (V+)
The obvious advantage with Virgin’s V+ box is the ability to record two channels, while still watching a third programme. That trumps Sky+, which can record two at once but leaves you with no other live TV.
Services are accessed through a Home key, which opens up easy-to-follow menus (although at first it is possible to confuse this week’s catch-up TV with the overall TV on Demand service).
V+ also offers all the usual features of a PVR, including the ability to pause live TV, with space to record 80 hours of normal telly. A Fave Channels setting lets you access the stuff you watch most regularly without scrolling through all the rubbish.
The biggest downside is the attached price. A one-off installation cost of £150 is backed up by a £5 monthly fee.

On-Demand
Virgin’s on-demand offering beats the pants off Sky’s early efforts (although if you have a PC and use Sky’s Anytime internet service to download films and sport you’re catching up nicely). Virgin splits its on-demand service into different parts. The premium service will see Virgin charging you £3.50 for current movies. If you’re a V+ subscriber then access to the mammoth list of TV programmes is free. On first viewing we were like a kid in a candy store – looking at the list of full series we could catch up on. Peaking our interest were Band Of Brothers; Black Books Series I and II; Brass Eye; The Catherine Tate Show Series I and II; The Comic Strip Presents; The Deal; Doctor Who Series II – and that’s just a fraction of what’s available in the first four letters of the alphabet! Shows are replaced as Virgin’s license to show them expires, but you can see how long you have left to view a series or individual programme and there’s a What’s New section and categories so you don’t have to trawl through the full list.
As well as television programmes, there’s also a selection of on-demand music for XL customers. On-demand content does take a while to connect and suffers from a few other minor issues (fast forward isn’t brilliant; pause will cut out after a long period and end the programme; and you can’t record any of this stuff to the V+ hard drive “due to licensing restrictions”), but it’s still a superb resource. Better yet, there are no ads and even though the controls can be a bit slow, at least you have the option to pause, rewind and stop.

Broadband internet
The biggest disappointment is that there’s no wireless as standard. Almost every regular broadband service comes with a wireless router these days (including Sky’s offering), so that’s a big blow. And in order to use wireless, you have to buy a special router for cable accounts. Since this uses the connection from the existing cable modem to create its wireless signal, that’s two boxes which need to be switched on – using twice the ‘leccy to do so. Still, the connection worked fine with no major worries.

Cost
Varied packages: The most basic (Virgin calls it ‘medium’) television comes free with an £11 per month phone package that includes unlimited free weekend calls to regular local and national UK numbers (not mobiles, international, 0845, 0870, premium rate, etc). Bundles of two packages can be taken for £20 a month (eg, mobile phone and medium broadband; large TV and medium landline; or medium broadband and medium phone, which comes with free medium TV). Bundles of three packages start at £30 a month and bundles of all four services (television, internet, phone and mobile) start at £40.
[Prices correct on 8 October 2007]

Overall
Virgin definitely suffered a blow when it lost its access to Sky One and other popular channels. But it has fought back nicely with a selection of on-demand content that means those nights of flicking through the channels and thinking there’s nothing on are behind you. Tales of customer service woes are stretched across the internet, but our initial test of the service has been stress free.

Verdict: 8.5/10