Review: Virgin Media (previously Telewest Broadband) digital television

A service review by Bobulous.

About Virgin Media

Virgin Media is the name for a new company that has just replaced [February 2007] Telewest Broadband, NTL, and Virgin Mobile. The new merged company offers digital television, broadband, home phone, and mobile phone packages. This review will discuss their digital television service.

The price of digital television from Virgin Media varies depending on which package you want, which premium channels you choose, whether you want HD channels, and how many set-top boxes you want. It also depends on whether you take a home phone service from Virgin Media, but the site currently does not say how much extra you pay for television packages if you don't want a cable phone line from them.

Watching TV with Virgin Media

It's only a few days after the launch of Virgin Media, and the television service doesn't seem to have changed at all from its Telewest Broadband incarnation. Telewest Broadband branding is still visible in the set-top box screens. If non-cosmetic changes occur, I'll update this page.

While watching TV, picture quality is generally very good, though very rapidly-changing scenes tend to show blocky artefacts where the digital compression has trouble keeping up. This is rarely a problem, though. More offensive is the stuttering, pausing or disappearance of the picture, caused by a bad signal. This used to be common on my set, but has become far less frequent in recent months.

The software in the Pace Micro set-top box isn't great. There is no digital text service. Subtitles can be enabled, but the odd sentence goes missing. The EPG only shows listings for the current day, and occasionally shows the wrong programmes. Plus the programme guide has a habit of closing when you're still trying to browse listings. The set-top box also used to crash or reset itself quite often, though these problems seem to have been fixed recently by automatic software updates.

Pressing the red button will slowly bring up the current channel's interactive service. For instance, the BBC offers multi-feed coverage of big sports events. But the BBC seems to be one of the few channels to offer solid interactive content to cable television users. This does at least mean that you aren't asked to press the red button during advert breaks, as seems to be the case when watching television with Sky.

The set-top box also offers built-in email. Using the remote control to type out an email is a painful process, so a Telewest Broadband keyboard used to be available to make typing a lot easier. The email works, but it's not ideal as you can't print or copy emails off of the set-top box. However, for someone just after a casual way to communicate via email, it might be a good fit. Whether Virgin Media will continue to offer set-top box email, I don't know.

A feature of the digital TV service that I really like is the ability to watch content on demand. Telewest Replay (which I imagine Virgin Media will rebrand soon) allows you to watch television programmes up to a week after they were first aired. Currently it's only available for selected programmes from selected channels, such as those from the BBC and Channel 4. Hopefully the selection will continue to grow. The on-demand content seems to play with the same level of visual and sound quality as the original showing, making it much better than trying to remember to record the shows on a VCR or PVR. There's also Telewest TV (also likely to be rebranded soon) which offers a library of popular TV shows to choose from. These shows are free to view for customers with the biggest package of channels, but other customers may have to pay to view these programmes. Movies are also available on demand, but a one-off fee has to be paid for each movie viewing.

Evaluating Virgin Media digital television

Currently the Virgin Media television service is exactly as it was under Telewest Broadband, but if any noticeable changes occur, I'll update this page.

As it stands right now, Virgin Media's digital television service offers a good range of channels, very good picture quality, and interactive features. The programme guide is not great, and the set-top box has had problems in the past, though these seem to have cleared up in recent months. The library of on-demand content is a great idea, and the ability to watch programmes that you missed on BBC or Channel 4 up to seven days later is a very welcome feature.

Overall, there are areas in which Virgin Media can improve their television service, but the benefits of having digital television outweigh the problems for anyone who loves TV.


18th August 2010

After eight years, our Telewest/Pace set-top boxes were on their last legs, so we arranged for a Virgin Media engineer to swap them for newer devices. These new set-top boxes boast HD support, but you can't watch the HD channels until you have subscribed. Customers who have the "XL" package of channels do not have to pay a monthly fee for HD, but there may be a £49 activation fee. However, we spoke to four different staff on Virgin Media's telephone support, and each time they gave a different answer as to whether the fee had to be paid or not. In the end, HD channels suddenly started working even after we made it clear we did not think HD was worth a fifty pound fee. Virgin Media really need to decide what the policy is, and train their staff to deliver the correct information.

But, now that the HD channels are enabled, I have to say that high definition programmes can look quite impressive, even on my 26-inch Sony Bravia. The stand-out channels are BBC HD, Discovery HD and National Geographic HD, which only show programmes which were filmed in high definition. Film4 HD is also good, as the vast majority of movies are broadcast in high definition. But channels like ITV1 HD and Five HD are a bit odd, because they are synchronised channels (showing exactly the same as the standard ITV and Five channels) and the vast majority of programmes I've checked so far have not been broadcast in high definition.

High definition content is a definite improvement in televisual quality. But in my opinion it's not worth paying a monthly fee, and I don't agree that there should be an activation fee either. On top of those costs, you also have to remember that you need an HD Ready television, and an HDMI cable to connect your Virgin Media set-top box to your HD Ready television (because a SCART cable cannot carry an HD signal). I'm hoping that Virgin Media (and others) drop these fees in the near future, especially seeing as Freeview HD and Freesat HD now provide a fee-free alternative.