Saturday, November 08, 2008

Virgin V+

Virgin V+ I finally decided to subscribe to the Virgin V+ HDTV service, and when I Twittered about my experience and first impressions, I got a number of questions, hence this post.

I won't go into detail about why I chose V+ over BSkyB or Freesat, but my motivation was primarily to get access to HDTV rather than the additional PVR service that comes with it on Sky+ or V+ (which is just as well, as it turns out).

In theory, the installation should have been a straightforward box-swap from my previous Virgin setup, but of course, nothing is ever that simple. However, after some discussion, head scratching and a few phone calls, the new box was installed and the line activated. I played with it for a few minutes before getting back to what I was doing before, and everything seemed OK. A hour later when my wife came home, I began to proudly demonstrate my mastery of HDTV technology. Except that in the interim, everything had stopped working - I couldn't even change channels. The first of many (thankfully free) phone calls to Virgin customer services eventually told me that Virgin was claiming that there was a technical fault with the V+ service in my postcode.

Six hours later, service was partially restored, in the sense that I could change channels, although nothing else worked. At least that allowed me to settle down to a few hours TV on Friday evening in order to address the question:

HDTV - is it worth it?

As it turns out, the answer is: errm...

The quality of HD pictures is variable. Showcase, recent, shot for HD stuff (like the Beijing Olympics closing ceremony) is fairly close to stunning. Sports events less so - good, but the signal falls down a bit on motion and verticals. As for everything else, after half an hour of flicking backwards and forwards between Gardener's World on BBC2 and BBC HD, we reached the conclusion that ... we really want to believe the HD version is marginally better, but in a blind test, we wouldn't be confident that we could tell the difference. The reason for this is that the standard pictures are so much better than on the standard Virgin service, making the difference between standard and HD programs marginal. There are a number of reasons for this.
  • A faster line, capable of carrying HD signals (increased data rate?)
  • A better box (more processing power?)
  • Box connected to TV via HDMI rather than SCART (I suspect this is the single most important single factor)
But none of this means anything unless there's something worth watching, and since I'm not a Sky subscriber (mostly because there's nothing worth watching unless you're into sport), that means BBC HD. Which is a huge disappointment. It's clear that the BBC isn't really trying with BBC HD, which is an embarrassment. Not only is the programming abysmal (does the BBC really think people will sign up for HD to watch repeats of Last of the Summer Wine?), the whole channel has a put-together-in-a-shed feel to it. Program announcements are clunky, timings frequently wrong - it sucks. If the BBC had really wanted to punish Jonathon Ross, they would have put his shows on BBC HD.

So I've phoned Virgin to cancel the service, right? Well, no. I'm waiting for yet another engineer visit to try to get the V+ services working (sigh) - now we've got your money the earliest we will visit you is in a week. But since I can't tell the difference between all the real TV channels and BBC HD on V+, perversely, I'm reasonably satisfied, and it's a definite improvement on the service I had before. So to answer the question, HDTV, is it worth it? Right now, the answer is maybe. YMMV?