Virgin Media’s new IPTV box will compete with the latest hardware from Sky
Virgin Media has a dramatic upgrade up its sleeve for 2022. The broadband company plans to launch an all-new box to compete head-to-head with the likes of Sky Q and Sky Glass in the coming weeks, with redesigned hardware and software. The company, which merged with mobile network O2 last year – bringing O2 Priority bookings for gigs and free lunch deals to Virgin Media full-fibre broadband customers for the first time – has teased its new set-top box since September.
Virgin Media aren’t planning to launch their own television, like Sky Glass, which brings together the internals to stream the complete catalogue of terrestrial channels from Sky as well as on-demand boxsets and third-party streaming services like Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ alongside a sound system, hands-free microphone array, and QLED display. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Virgin Media O2 CEO Lutz Schüler said the company was taking a different approach.
Rather than building the streaming experience into its own television, Virgin Media will offer customers a dedicated streaming device, dubbed Virgin TV Stream, that will connect via the HDMI port, like Amazon’s Fire TV lineup or an Apple TV. This will bring Virgin Media’s television offering to any TV in the home – something only possible at the moment with Sky if you purchase Sky Glass and add multi-room support to your contract, which is handled by a similarly diddy device that plugs into an HDMI socket and brings the same user interface, streaming channels, and catalogue of apps and on-demand boxsets and movies as Sky Glass itself.
Would Virgin Media pivot to another approach if people showed more interest in Sky Glass over its solution?
“I’m telling you, if the market in the UK turns into Sky Glass, we have our answer all ready. Don’t underestimate us,” CEO Schüler told The Sunday Times.
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But in the meantime, Virgin TV Stream looks to blend traditional linear television with popular US streaming services, like Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ into a single, manageable interface. Speaking at the Royal Television Society in Cambridge last summer, Schüler said he viewed Virgin Media as an aggregator – providing the best connectivity (more than 15 million Virgin Media customers can now access next-generation download speeds of over 1,000Mbps – compared to the UK average home broadband speed, which sits at a little over 70Mbps) and interface to bring together shows, films and documentaries from a number of providers.
Virgin TV Stream will launch “in early 2022” and offer “a seamless app and streaming-based experience powered by the company’s leading ultrafast and gigabit connectivity”, Virgin Media O2 has already confirmed in a press release issued back in November. However, it hasn’t revealed the final hardware design or the new “streaming-based experience” that viewers will be presented with when they switch on their new kit for the first time.
However, there are some clues about the purpose of this all-new box.
It’s unclear whether Virgin Media’s new kit will replace the existing TV 360 box
Virgin Media O2 boss Schüler has previously confirmed that its next-generation product is designed to target “the younger segment”. However, we’re still a little unclear exactly what shape this new hardware will take. With the announcement of Sky Glass in October 2021, the company finally untethered its popular paid-for television service from the satellite dish. Sky Glass is able to stream live terrestrial channels alongside on-demand films and boxsets from Sky’s catalogue. The new system, which is built into a custom-designed 4K TV with an integrated sound system, also includes support for a number of streaming platforms, including Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, and coming soon, Apple TV+. Adding shows from terrestrial channels to the Playlist will prompt the software to scour through your streaming services to find old syndicated episodes – bringing everything together in a single interface.
Since recordings aren’t stored on a local hard-drive inside the QLED TV, but instead streamed from the cloud, these are synced across your devices, such as iPhone and iPad apps, as well as small set-top boxes called Stream Pucks designed to enable multi-room viewing at home.
Of course, Virgin Media doesn’t require a satellite to be drilled into the side of your home, so in that regard, Sky Glass is only just catching-up to its telly rival, rather than leapfrogging it. However, Virgin Media is a little old-fashioned compared to Sky Glass in a number of other ways, including the fact that its boxes still rely on physical hard-drives to store recordings. These spinning disks can fail – losing all of the episodes, films and sport fixtures you were hoping to rewatch in the future. And since these drives have a limited amount of space, you also need to delete older recordings to make room for a new series …something you don’t have to worry about when streaming from on-demand services like BBC iPlayer or ITV Hub.
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Virgin Media’s TV 360 system doesn’t let customers download recordings to other devices, like an iPhone or iPad, to take with them for a long journey. This is something that Sky viewers have been able to do since the launch of Sky Q and continues with Sky Glass.
It remains unclear whether Virgin Media’s upcoming TV Stream box will replace TV 360, or be sold alongside it. Based on some of the things we’ve heard from Schüler, it’s not hard to imagine Virgin TV Stream as a NOW-style competitor. Sky-owned NOW, formerly NOW TV, offers access to the complete suite of paid-for Sky TV channels, Sky Cinema and Sky Sports with monthly memberships. Viewers can pick ‘n mix between these memberships between months, depending on what they want to watch.
With some of the smaller NOW dongles, which are about the same size as a USB thumb drive and connect to the HDMI port, viewers can take their favourite shows around to their friends’ homes or travelling with them to watch in a hotel, for example. Customers can also pause their membership and return at a later date (when the new season of their favourite exclusive show returns, for example) something that isn’t possible when signing up to an 18-month contract with Sky Q or Sky Glass, for example. Virgin Media’s TV 360 already enables a number of clever features that are comparable to Sky Q and Sky Glass, including Prime Video and Netflix streaming apps built into the hardware.
However, it doesn’t have an answer to those who don’t want to sign-up for a lengthy contract for their television but want to watch some of the biggest exclusive boxsets from HBO, AMC, ShowTime, and some of the other behemoth US networks.
Whatever form the next-generation telly hardware from Virgin Media takes, we know for sure that ITV will be present and correct. Late last year, Virgin Media O2 issued a press release that confirmed that the two firms had “signed a new long term multi-year agreement that delivers deeper integration of ITV programming, support for IPTV, enhanced advertising capabilities and continued access to ITV’s vast range of channels and on-demand services for Virgin TV customers”.
Speaking about the closer partnership, Schüler told Express.co.uk: “We have been a longstanding partner of ITV for many years and this new agreement further cements our relationship. It paves the way for future product innovation and delivers more for our customers and our business, as well as enhancing the toolkit available to advertisers. Our focus in TV is all about providing incredible entertainment to our customers in a seamless way underpinned by the very best connectivity. As we continue to invest and innovate, having ITV’s vast selection of must-watch programming fully integrated and easily accessible plays a huge part in giving our customers a fantastic experience both now and in the future.”