Virgin's proper stab at a TiVo box was years ago, so it's time for a massive update. That's where the Virgin V6 comes in. It's Virgin's latest TV player and recorder, which promises 10 times more power than the previous generation. New tricks include 4K and HDR compatibility, plus the ability to record six programmes simultaneously, as well as streaming and downloading to mobile devices.
With Sky already offering something similar in Sky Q, the battle to take charge of your home’s entertainment is about to heat up. I got a brief look at the Virgin V6 at its launch event, and then again a little later for an in-depth hands-on session. Here are my initial impressions.
When Virgin first released an image of the V6 on Twitter, the online consensus was that it’s a big, ugly thing. Having seen it in the flesh, I can confirm the V6 isn’t that big. At only 23cm wide, it’s half the size of Virgin’s older TiVo box, and only looks a little chunky when compared to the Sky Q’s lower profile.
That being said, it’s not very pretty. There’s a lot of dull black plastic. The buttons – channel up, channel down, standby – are off-centre, as is the display. You could easily confuse the V6 for a modem from the '90s.
Thankfully, you can hide it away if you want to – the new remote communicates with it through RF signals, rather than infrared. You can stick it in a cabinet and close the door and the remote will work just fine. Don’t tuck it away too well, though – there’s a new feature that helps you find your remote, which will come in very handy. Hold the channel-up button on the main box for 10 seconds and the remote will beep loudly, letting you know which cushion it's hiding under. Tap any key on the remote to switch off this alarm.
All the connections are at the back: coaxial in, 3.5mm audio out, HDMI 2.0 (with HDCP 2.2), USB 2.0 (for future use), optical out and gigabit Ethernet (as well as dual-band Wi-Fi). Virgin tells me you’ll need internet speeds of over 100mbps to make the most of the device. Curiously, I’m told there is support for Dolby Atmos – consider this box future-proofed. Recently BT announced it will be broadcasting certain sport events in 4K with Dolby Atmos – if that sort of thing takes off, the V6 will be ready.
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The headline feature of the Virgin V6 is its compatibility with 4K UHD video. The only content to make use of this will come from Netflix and YouTube. Unlike Sky and BT, Virgin doesn’t currently offer its own 4K content.
All the latest 4K TVs already have Netflix and YouTube built in, but Virgin is keen to point up the box was designed around apps, and they’re adamant the V6 will load more quickly. We’ll see about that – I’ll be playing with the interface next week. There is currently no sign of Amazon Video or Now TV, but you do get BBC iPlayer.
The box is also compatible with HDR, although not right away. Virgin says there will be a downloadable update when more HDR content is available. I can confirm this: as I arrived for my hands-on session, Virgin was just playing with the BBC's 4K and HDR trial on iPlayer. Planet Earth II looks stunning anyway, but this was the first time I've seen it in 4K and HDR, and it's gorgeous. It's early days yet, but consider the Virgin V6 future-proofed.
Another key development is the ability to record six programmes at the same time. Nobody else is offering this level of flexibility – even the mighty Sky Q only lets you record four programmes simultaneously. Do you need this many? Virgin says it doesn't expect everyone to be making full use of this ability, but it's there for peace of mind. Buy another V6 box and you can bump that up to 12 simultaneous recordings. Each V6 box offers 1TB of storage, which is 500 hours of standard-definition footage, or 100 hours of HD.
Each Virgin V6 is designed to work with other V6 units, as well as existing TiVo boxes. That means you can upgrade without losing your old recordings. The boxes don’t work as a mesh network – they all have to connect to the Virgin Media Hub – but you’ll be able to set up a multi-room system and share recordings all over your home.
And not just your home, either. The V6 lets you stream recordings to iOS and Android devices through the TV Anywhere app. You can pause a programme in the living room and resume it in the bedroom. In my demo, it worked without a hitch. The interface also has a section dedicated to half-watched programmes, so you can see all the things you've yet to finish. Best of all, the app also lets you download programmes to your phone or tablet. For contents rights reasons, you can only store programmes on your portable device for up to 30 days – and that goes down to 48 hours once you've started watching something. It's a little annoying, but not uncommon – the newly announced offline Netflix downloads work in a similar way.
Related: What is HDR?
The software has had an overhaul too, and it’s not exclusive to V6 owners either. Owners of the existing TiVo box will get an update too.
Anyone familiar with the original TiVo box will know how the screen used to be dominated by walls of text. The latest TiVo interface is tile-based, with big images for every programme.
The search function is now a lot more intelligent, and will work across TV and catch-up services as well as Netflix. There’s also the new Series Link + feature, a clever way to catch TV episodes. Bookmark a series and the box will automatically pull in other episodes – including those on another platform. If you’re missing one particular episode on catch-up, but it’s available on Netflix, the interface will still find it and put it all in the same menu for easy access.
Most importantly, it's faster. The old TiVo interface struggled even with basic menus and scrolling, but now you can click away and the cursor will keep up.
In February 2017, you’ll get the Virgin Media Store. This is where you can buy, download and keep films – and get a DVD in the post. That’s very useful for the days when the internet just won’t cooperate.
I’ve already mentioned the Virgin TV Anywhere app and its ability to stream and download recordings from the V6. But it’s capable of more.
The app also doubles as a remote control. You can use it to change channels, or bring up a full QWERTY keyboard – easier than tapping at the number keys on the traditional remote. You can also use it to find programmes and then ‘flick’ it over to the V6 box with a swipe.
Alongside the TV Anywhere app, Virgin has launched a dedicated kids' app, aimed at pre-school children. It has over 1,500 hours of cartoons and TV shows for download, along with interactive games and picture books.
It’s safe, too: it’s all age-appropriate with no adverts or in-app purchases. There’s even a lock feature where kids have to answer a security question before they can exit the app, which means you can keep the little ones away from inappropriate content. Unlike the TV Anywhere app, this will work on 3G/4G networks.
The Virgin TV V6 doesn’t look like much, but it's a massive leap from the existing software and hardware that the company has been rocking for years. I’ll need a thorough play through the interface to see if it really is as fast and smooth an experience as Virgin claims, but for now it looks like Virgin has managed to evolve its home entertainment offering into a modern and genuinely useful service. Watch out, Sky Q…