This feature also represents incredibly good value for money -- Virgin offers free catch-up TV from iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD no matter which of its packages you're on. If you're the sort of person that can't face planning in advance to record your favourite show, or you just want huge entertainment libraries available at the touch of a button, then Virgin is the service for you.
We never had cause to question the Virgin service's picture quality during our review period. For the most part, pictures looked detailed, and we certainly preferred the standard-definition images to the Freeview alternative. Hi-def images look just as lovely as they do on Sky's HD service. The clarity of BBC HD episodes of Doctor Who blew our minds.
On-demand video also looks great -- iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD all appear to be broadcast-quality, or near to it. All of these services look better via Virgin than via the Web sites of their respective broadcasters. If only ITV and Channel 4 would add HD content to their on-demand services, as the BBC has.
Expensive HD movies
There are two methods for watching on-demand films via Virgin. The first is to subscribe to the company's PictureBox service. PictureBox is an NBC Universal company, so movies are mainly from Universal, and mostly comprise older material. This service costs an extra £5 a month.
Then you've got pay-per-view movies, which are available in either SD or HD -- depending on the title, HD isn't always available. This is where you might want to prepare for a shock, because we found that the average price for a 24-hour film 'rental' was £3.99. Where available, HD movies were either £4.50 or £4.99. We compared that to Sky, where the same movie, Law Abiding Citizen, was available for £3.99 in both SD and HD.
It's fair to say that Sky's HD pay-per-view service is seriously limited. There are only two 'channels', so you might have to wait to get the movie you want. But this doesn't seem to stop Sky from offering a pretty respectable selection of films. On the flip side, Virgin seems to have unlimited capacity, but not the amount of movies we'd expect.
Hardware and user interface
The Samsung-built V+ HD box is attractive, and will suit any modern TV. We think it looks better than Sky's Amstrad HD box. On the front, there's a simple display. When the box is turned off, the display shows the time. When the box is on, it shows channel information. If something goes wrong, an error code will appear here -- that's handy when you're on the phone with Virgin's customer-service department.
On the back of the box, there's a subscriber-card slot, an HDMI output, a digital audio connector, and an attachment for the coaxial cable carrying the TV signals. As with the Sky+HD box, the HDMI output doesn't carry Dolby Digital audio to an AV receiver. To get proper 5.1-channel surround sound, you must also connect an optical lead to your home-cinema system. We're genuinely outraged by this, and can only hope that the next generation of boxes doesn't suffer the same fate.
Sadly, despite the appealing design of the V+ HD box, the Virgin user interface hasn't improved much since the inception of HD. Whereas Sky has brought in a whole new electronic programme guide to make its HD boxes more usable, Virgin seems to be using a really ugly SD interface. There has, however, been an announcement that Virgin will adopt TiVo's user interface this year. As we understand it, however, this won't happen until the end of 2010.