First rumored in early 2016, Virgin Media’s new TiVo-based set-top box has been a long-time coming.
When we first heard the rumors about the box we were initially most excited about its 4K output, but after having spent an hour flicking through the box itself we came away much more impressed with the interface improvements, its search functionality, and the speed with which it’s able to access its wealth of content.
From our time spent with the box, it felt as though Virgin gained some significant ground against its rivals, but whether or not it ends up beating them entirely will depend on your priorities when it comes to content.
The new V6 box is significantly smaller than its predecessor, the set-top box, and has a much squarer shape.
Round the front is a small glossy panel with the Virgin Media logo embossed on it, while round the back are a pretty standard series of ports, Coax In, Audio out, SCART out, HDMI, USB, Ethernet, and optical audio.
Users on Twitter were quick to criticise its simple design, but we liked the fact that it focusses more on height than width, limiting its footprint and making it easier to tuck away in your television cabinet.
It’s also not a box that you’re going to have to spend much time looking at, thanks to the fact that the new RF (radio frequency) remote, which doesn’t require line of sight, unlike the old box’s infrared remote.
This means that you’ll be able to tuck the box away without having to worry about whether your remote can reach it.
Be careful about trapping it in an unventilated TV cabinet however, since like any piece of electronics it’ll generate heat that needs to go somewhere if you don’t want your box to overheat.
The remote itself is slightly smaller this time around, but appears to have included all of the same buttons – so you’re not missing out on any functionality in Virgin’s quest to make the remote sit better in the nation’s hands.
Performance: 4K HDR
The initial headline feature about the new box was its 4K HDR functionality, but currently it’s only available in certain elements of Virgin’s ecosystem.
Currently these new technologies are available in just two apps, Netflix and YouTube. The other 4K heavyweight at the moment, Amazon Prime Video, is currently not available through Virgin’s set-top box at all, and the company was unable to give us any indication of when it might come in the future.
We were also able to view the BBC’s Ultra HD taster footage through iPlayer.
It was also disappointing to not see any live 4K footage coming through the Virgin box, after Sky began broadcasting select football matches in Ultra HD earlier this year.
Nevertheless, when we tried viewing 4K content from both Netflix and the BBC the image quality was truly stunning, and every bit as good as we’d expect of the new standards.
Naturally this will depend a great deal on the quality of your television, but you certainly shouldn’t worry about the V6 box being the limiting factor.
Performance: Search and Series Link
Where things god interesting was when our demonstration turned to the box’s search functionality.
Searching for a show from the box’s main menu reveals every source of that show, ranging from streaming services, to Virgin’s own cable-provided (meaning there’s no buffering) on-demand service, to Netflix, and even broadcast television.
This takes the guesswork out of knowing where certain shows are hosted, and even has the potential to save you money if you see that a show is currently being broadcast on a channel you currently subscribe to, meaning you can watch it without having to pay for a subscription service.
Virgin was very keen to emphasise that it does not prioritise any source over another, meaning that you’re as likely to see a show available to watch through Sky Cinema, as you are to see it through Virgin’s on demand cinema-service Virgin Movies.
The search is also clever enough to know which services you’re currently subscribed to, and will not show any services that you’re currently not subscribed to.
The one exception is Netflix, which is a problem that occurs because Virgin apparently has no means of knowing whether you’re subscribed to the service or not.
Regardless of this minor niggle, we were very impressed by how seamless the whole process was, especially when you select a show and the box very speedily loads up the appropriate app and delivers you right to the start of the selected content.
If a piece of content you want to watch isn’t available through an on-demand service, but is going to be on TV soon, then you’ll be able to set up what Virgin is calling ‘Series Link+’ to set it to record.
You’re able to record six channels at once, but the really impressive piece of the puzzle is the Series Link+’s user interface, which means that its functionality is a great deal more versatile than we initially expected.
On a basic level, you can pick a show (such as Planet Earth II on BBC2) and set it to record every week.
But more impressive was how it handles a show that’s been out for so long that it sees frequent repeat showings across multiple channels.
In these instances you have a multitude of options. You can choose exactly which series you want to see recorded (no being bothered by Top Gear re-runs if you just want to record the new series for example), and you can even specify whether you want the box to ignore showings on SD channels if you want to keep your recorded list filled exclusively with HD content.
All this means is that through a combination of Virgin’s Series Link+ and access to on-demand services, you could quickly end up with an obscenely full-featured list of content to watch if you’re prepared to spend some time setting up recordings.
Performance: In-home streaming
As well as playing content locally on the box, the Virgin V6 set-top box can also stream to and from select devices around the home.
You can stream to another device by using Virgin’s ‘TV Anywhere’ app, which works so long as you’re on the same Wi-Fi network as your set-top box.
If you want to leave your home with your content, then a selection of it is available to download to your device. This isn’t the fastest of processes due to the fact that the footage must be transcoded into a format that can be played by the app, but with a bit of planning you should be able to take your content with you wherever you please.
The TV Anywhere app can also be used as a remote control if you’re a fan of using a mobile keyboard rather than navigating an on-screen keyboard using the remote. Simply select the option to watch the content on your TV and you’re away.
If you don’t currently have a phone or tablet you want to watch television on, then the TV Anywhere app also comes pre-installed on a Virgin TV-branded tablet called the TellyTablet which is equipped for a 14″ screen to create more of a television feel.
Streaming to, rather than from, the box can be done from any other Virgin set-top boxes around your home.
This means that although Virgin is only able to backup your series link recordings from a cloud backup of your previous box, you can stream your old box’s recordings to your new V6 box so long as you leave your old equipment hooked up to your home network, perhaps in a spare room.
We went into the Virgin TV demonstration expecting to be impressed by its 4K/HDR capabilities, but we came away much more excited about its intelligent search and series link capabilities.
Grouping all your available content together in the way that Virgin has managed is impressive, and switching between all its various sources feels almost completely seamless.
The omission of Amazon Prime Video is unfortunate, especially when Netflix has been so well integrated, and we would have liked to have seen some live 4K broadcasts, but we’re nevertheless happy with the amount of content available.
We’ll have more information on how well the box’s streaming capabilities work in a real world setting in our full review coming soon.