It’s time once again to take an in-depth look at the television services the UK market has to offer. As ever, satellite broadcaster Sky will be pitting itself against cable operator Virgin Media. But for the first time in our tests both of those services will also be judged on how they match up to the internet-based services offered by BT Vision…
Compared to the established services of Sky and Virgin Media, BT’s internet television package is the new kid on the block. Where its two rivals have convinced the general public on the benefits of pausing live TV and taping programmes to a hard drive, BT hopes to show those same consumers that you don’t need a dish or a cable messing up your house to get your entertainment – just a regular internet connection.
Available features: A mixture of internet television, broadband internet and landline telephone.
Our option: The basic pay-as-you-go television service, 8Mbps BT Total Broadband, landline telephone.
We have had the box for the last three months and have used it every day in preference to our Sony DVD recorder. It is a Philips-made bit of kit running Microsoft software. It also comes with a remote control that is as good looking as the box isn’t. As we’ve had it for a while, we undertook installation before the self-install option became available.
A quick scan found the full complement of Freeview channels within our area (in line of sight from Crystal Palace). The picture was nice and sharp on the set and sound was also good.
Recording TV is very simple. Use the TV guide to find the programme you want to watch, then press the record button once to record that programme or twice to record the whole series. The box contains a 160GB hard disk that should give around 80 hours of content before it starts deleting old material (although this can be earmarked to be saved).
The electronic programme guide is quite slow to navigate through and we feel this is something that needs to be addressed if BT is to make a success of the box and its services. But as least the user interface is pleasing to the eye.
As for everyday use, the box has been temperamental, often crashing at the end of a piece of recorded TV. We were assured that a software update would solve the problem, but are unsure whether this has taken place. A lot of other PVRs will tell you that an update is in progress, but this one hasn’t so far. We admit that it doesn’t crash so much now, but it still happens every now and again.
As part of our use we were looking forward to watching a movie from the on-demand service. Hot Fuzz was available and we settled down to compare the picture quality of the on-demand content with normal Freeview programmes. This is where we hit our first problem. Playback stuttered, with the picture coming to a halt every five seconds. Of course, we don’t take this kind of thing lying down so we set about trying to find the cause. We weren’t supplied with powerline adapters as part of the installation, but luckily we had some on loan from D-Link. Trying to eliminate that as a potential problem we connected the Vision box direct to the BT Home Hub (We used the powerline adapters so we didn’t have cables all over the floor). When that didn’t work, and after much head scratching, we did what any geek would do when faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem, we Googled the problem on the internet.
Basically, if you are reading this and you are wondering why that on-demand movie keeps grinding to a halt, here is what you need to do. Go to the BT Home Hub box, locate the cable in the back of the hub, switch the cable from one Ethernet port to the other, and then settle back to watch your movie again. All we can assume from this is that one Ethernet port on the Home Hub has quality of service and the other doesn’t. Whatever the reason, this solved the problem and ensured that we could sit and watch the movie without wanting to hit the box repeatedly with a cricket bat.
As for content, there are a few good movies on the on-demand service, as well as a lot of catch up telly. Films cost either £2.99 for new releases or £1.99 for oldies. The cost of each film or programme is automatically added to your BT bill. It must be said here that the range of stuff available is a bit thin (well the good stuff, that is) and a lot of movies had that straight-to-video air to them. And the newer releases seem to have been on the guide for a rather long time.
We have also tried the BT service with an HD-ready TV. While Freeview or the BT Vision on-demand service content isn’t high-definition, the box does have an HDMI output at the back. With an HDMI cable (which you will have to buy yourself as it doesn’t come with the box as standard) you can set the device to output in either 720p or 1080i. Either of these options does appear to improve the picture quality of Freeview channels, recorded programmes or the on-demand service.
One drawback of using the on-demand movie service is that it shows up the limitations of limited bandwidth. When watching the latest Harry Potter movie, fast-moving scenes did exhibit a mosaicing effect, or blockiness in other words. There is little that the box can really do about this problem until we get proper terrrestrial high-definition television, which we fear will be a long time in coming.
Two engineers turned up on our doorstep (on time) and proceeded to link up the box to our TV. And yes, they were slightly thrown by our initial television set up – which included a very old plasma without a Scart socket on the back. Luckily we know a bit about the set-up and rather than putting them through the pain of trying to work out how to solve the problem, we asked them to pipe the BT Vision box through our Sony player, which relayed the signal to the component inputs in the TV.
BT’s V-box only costs an installation fee of £30, with no annual contract. However, you do have to sign up for BT Total Broadband, which costs £17.99 per month.
Our TV package was the basic pay-as-you-go option but there is also an all-you-can-eat option where for £6 you can get drama, comedy and documentaries on-demand. Other packs include music or value for £6 each, and a sports pack that charges £4 for matches after the final whistle. Access to the Setanta channel can be achieved with a £9.99 a month subscription.
If you are already a BT Total Broadband customer, the price of the box is too good to pass up to access these extra services. But until problems such as the software crashes and the lack of content are solved, it is hard to recommend this as your main source of entertainment.
Britain’s satellite broadcaster has built a loyal following over the years. A steady diet of Premiership football, The Simpsons and top US TV like 24 and Lost has helped tie in an audience willing to pay for quality television. Its brilliant marketing of its Sky+ PVR even managed to see off the innovative TiVo player in the UK.
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.
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+ falls short compared to the V+ box is in how many channels it can handle at once. When you think about the humble 1980s video recorder 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 two channels worth of new programmes.
The Sky+ box has really tested things from a service point of view, but then we have been using it much 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.
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, again, 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.
Sky’s other, other on-demand service (and, actually, pretty much on-demand) is its multi-start format. Press the red button and pick up from the beginning of a programme every 10 or 15 minutes. It’s usually reserved for Sky’s high-profile telly, such as season premieres or big name films.
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, as you can take the current airing films with you wherever you go. Sky also offers some content on your mobile phone.
Another 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.
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. Extensive use of the service has seen two Wi-Fi boxes 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.
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. The selection can 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 to £99 based on the amount of services you sign up for. A SkyHD box costs £249 plus a £10 subscription fee for the additional channels, although again it can be reduced to £199 with additional services.
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.
Set up costs range from the one-off standard set up cost of £30 for new customers to £120 depending on what services you take.
Sky 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 with innovative products. Being able to set recordings over the net or on your mobile truly brings TV into the 20th Century (at least until someone buys up TiVo’s patents and incorporates it into their PVRs so they do it without you thinking).
And currently Sky is a must if you’re serious about putting that HD TV you just spent so much money on through its paces.
Before the advent of TV delivered over the internet, Virgin was the traditional choice if you didn’t want a satellite dish clamped to the side of your house. That was thanks to a very expensive fibre-optic cable laid under the UK’s streets. Not only is that network good for the delivery of television, it’s enabling Virgin Media to offer up to 10Mbps internet access as standard and deliver on-demand programming.
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.
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. We have found the pause feature annoying on a few occasions, where we realise we’re not going to have time to watch something we were holding. Press the Record button and all you get is a message telling you it’s not possible to save something on pause to the hard drive.
Another downside of the V+ is the attached price. A one-off installation cost of £150 is backed up by a £5 monthly fee if you don’t subscribe to the XL package.
And yet another downside is that a box with a HDMI output and HD capabilities has such a woeful number of channels – especially when compared with Sky’s monster selection.
Virgin’s on-demand offering beats the pants off Sky and BT’s efforts (although if you have a PC and use Sky’s Anytime internet service to download films, sports and other entertainment you’re catching up nicely). Virgin splits its on-demand service into different parts. The premium service will see Virgin charging you between £2 and £3.50 for movies. At least if you’re a V+ subscriber then access to the mammoth list of TV programmes is free. Thankfully there’s so much available here you should find something to your tastes. Shows are replaced as Virgin’s license to broadcast 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 so you don’t have to trawl through the full list to find the latest stuff.
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 the option to pause, rewind and stop is available.
The biggest disappointment is that there’s no wireless as standard. Almost every other broadband service comes with a wireless router these days (including Sky and BT’s offerings). If you want to make the service wireless, you’ll need to buy a special cable router. Since this plugs into the existing cable modem, that’s two boxes running instead of one. Still, our Belkin N1 Wireless Router has performed admirably and the connection has worked fine with no major outages in eight months.
Having started off with superb customer service at our first residence, moving Virgin to a new address brought a few challenges with it. We spent 50 minutes on the phone trying to rebook engineers who turned up without telling us they were coming. And even though one person eventually told us there were relevant notes on our account, it was impossible to find the department who dealt with it as we were continually passed around. In the end we gave up and resorted to waiting for the company to come back to us.
Varied packages: The most basic (Virgin calls it ‘medium’) television includes a V box (not V+ PVR) and 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.
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 great selection of on-demand content and increased broadband speeds. However, customer service could do with a kick up the bum and HD content needs to be vastly increased.
For the first time in our longterm review Sky overtakes Virgin in the TV stakes. The satellite broadcaster might not boast the same selection of on-demand content on its PVR and has a much less impressive broadband internet speed, but as HD becomes more important it is head and shoulders above the competition. Virgin also lost points this quarter for customer service, with a call being passed between eight different departments and having to repeat the details every time – with no resolution! Meanwhile, newcomer BT Vision lags behind the other two thanks to software glitches and a lesser amount of content. It will need to overcome these problems to be a serious contender.