If you wanted a high-definition Virgin box in the past, you'd have to take the company's PVR, which attracts an additional fee on some packages. Now though, there's another option, in the form of the V HD box. For a one-off cost of £49 for the box, an installation fee of £35 and a monthly subscription, you can access all of the HD content on Virgin's broadcast and on-demand channels with a new, compact receiver.
We had our V HD box installed in a bedroom, to complement our V+ HD box in the lounge. If you're going for multiple boxes, then it's worth remembering that extra boxes cost £9.95 a month on Virgin, although the company will often offer a discount to long-standing customers, especially if they threaten to leave. If the V HD is your only Virgin box, then we think it's a really great way to access Virgin's HD and on-demand content. Let's take a more detailed look at this hardware, and see what it has to offer.
The V HD box is made by Cisco, and badged as such. Although Cisco might not sound like a familiar name when it comes to cable TV, it owns Scientific Atlanta, a company that has been making cable boxes for a very long time.
Normally, cable set-top boxes are ghastly-looking devices that appear to have travelled forward in time from the early '80s. That's not so with the V HD, which has curved lines that Norman Foster would be proud of.
The box is quite small too, which makes it ideal if you're short of space, or don't want a big, ugly box dominating your room. The only problem with its design is that you can't stack things on top of it all that easily. It will, however, rest on another device quite happily.
The remote control is pretty good too. It's long and thin, and very comfortable to hold. Its buttons have a pleasingly positive feel, and it's easy for even chubby-fingered men to operate.
The V HD box can save you money on your electricity bill, as well as help save the planet. When you press the standby button, you can choose whether to put the box in standby mode or switch it off entirely. We like that feature because it lets you turn the box off overnight, but have the machine ready to go at a moment's notice the rest of the time.
Virgin has lagged slightly behind the competition in terms of offering HD channels, but some regulatory changes and a desperate desire to beat Sky at its own game have led the company to increase its hi-def fare. Five HD has recently launched on Virgin, and the company has an exclusive deal to show Film4 HD before Sky gets the channel.
Additionally, Ofcom has recently decreed that all UK distributors should be allowed to sell Sky's HD sport, movie and entertainment channels. Keep your eyes peeled for Sky Sports HD and Sky One HD on Virgin in the near future.
There's also a selection of HD content available via Virgin's on-demand service, most notably the BBC's HD iPlayer programmes. Virgin is still the only external company that can boast access to the BBC's HD on-demand content.
IPTV is the future
Virgin has a unique position in UK broadcast terms, as it delivers everything to your door via a cable. It's a fibre-optic cable to your street, and then coaxial to your door. This gives the company plenty of bandwidth to play with, and the technology is constantly evolving to provide more and more capacity. It's also the reason why the company can offer true on-demand movies, TV shows and catch-up services from the likes of Demand Five and BBC iPlayer.
Currently, TV is still broadcast by sending each channel out on the cable. But, within a few years, it's entirely likely that Virgin won't broadcast channels as it does now. Instead, your set-top box will stream them from an on-demand server. That technology will render the PVR unnecessary -- you'll simply stream any TV programme you like at a time that suits you. This system will work in a similar fashion to Virgin's existing catch-up TV services, but there will almost certainly be a new way of browsing content.
Fast as you like
The main thing we hate about the V+ HD box is its speed. It may well have a recorder built in, but that's no excuse for it dawdling around every time you try and navigate through a menu. You might think it's only the on-demand content that requires a wait, but believe us when we say it isn't. Happily, the V HD box is much speedier, and it really makes a huge difference.
Even tricky on-demand content seemed to be more keen to start than on our Samsung V+ HD box. The main difference, though, is felt when navigating through the electronic programme guide and other menus. We're pleased to see that Virgin now has equipment that's nearly as responsive as Sky's.
Super picture quality
The picture quality of this little machine impressed us a great deal. The detailed and bright image pays testament to both the receiver, and the service that Virgin pipes down its fibre-optic lines.
The sound quality was also excellent, and, if you want to hook this machine up to a surround-sound system, you can do so via the optical digital output. That's a terrific idea if you're looking to get the best out of your HD movie experience.
One very obvious omission
In homes like ours, with a V+ HD box downstairs and a V HD box upstairs, there's one glaring omission in Virgin's service: the option to access recordings from the PVR on the V HD box. It makes perfect sense to be able to get at your recordings via your home network, or even Virgin's coaxial cabling.
Indeed, both boxes have an Ethernet port built-in, tantalising us with their potential for supporting this idea. But, alas, they deliver nothing of any interest. As we understand it, these Ethernet sockets are disabled and were mostly used for low-speed Internet access, before speeds jumped up to their current levels. Even so, we'd love to see this networking feature from Virgin, and we hope that it's introduced at some point.
We love the stylish Virgin Media V HD box. It's fast, its picture quality is outstanding, and it's easy to use. We'd be happy to use it as our main Virgin receiver -- after all, on-demand capability makes PVRs seem rather pointless. If you've got a V+ HD box already, then the V HD box will make a superb second receiver for a study or bedroom. Our only real quibble is the price, so we recommend that you try and negotiate the best deal possible.
Edited by Charles Kloet