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Okay, so let's talk about today's Virgin TV V6 box announcement

Wednesday, November 30th 2016 by Dan Howdle
Virgin Media has just announced its new set-top box, the V6, the formal replacement to the Virgin TV TiVo box and obvious competitor to Sky Q.

The name conjures a powerful hatchback – simultaneously enough grunt to impress your mates with the odd wheel-spin down the Tesco car park, enough functionality to pop in afterwards and pick up the monthly shop. Perhaps this was what Virgin Media was going for, perhaps not.

So what about that functionality? Well, the box aims its sights squarely at Sky Q, the hub-style digital TV box released as Sky's flagship model at the end of last year and rolled out as standard across Sky's whole range on 4 October 2016. But there were two rather obvious errors in Sky's strategy for the Q, which Virgin looks to have fairly well targeted.

First, it offered two very different boxes – one with the ability to output 4K and with an adequately-sized hard drive (originally called Sky Q Sliver, now called Sky Q 2TB), alongside a more bog-standard box (now called Sky Q 1TB) that, while featuring some of Sky Q's hub/satellite recording and home network functionality, isn't all that much of an upgrade over the Sky+ HD boxes of yesteryear.

Second, Sky arguably failed to explain why Sky Q is important: If you want the upgrade to Sky Q to feel substantial, you really need blisteringly fast broadband, a (preferably vast) 4K TV and a number of rooms you wish to view it in. It is not apparent why Sky Q is preferable to anyone without this sort of set-up.

Sometimes the best way to avoid mistakes is to let someone else go first. And credit to Virgin Media, it seems to have understood these flaws: All Virgin TV V6 boxes are capable of outputting 4K; all are substantially slicker and quicker than the creaking old TiVo boxes currently dished out to by Virgin HQ; all have built-in apps like iPlayer, Netflix and Vevo (in a stroke of Trumpian egotism, Netflix cannot be watched on Sky); all can record up to six programmes at once.

V6 can even find your remote for you if you lose it, a feature we aim to test by burying it in Addis Ababa.

Virgin Media's single-box offering is a clever move – splintering your customer base is rarely wise. And yet, the V6's standard storage space of 1TB – which tends to amount to somewhat less once the operating system and other foundational content have their share, are taken into account. Virgin says this'll give you 100 hours of HD content.

It sounds like a lot if, say, you think of that amount of time as something you might sit down and watch across a number of sittings. But of course, we don't always get the time to watch all the things we record, and when you factor in that there may be four or five members of the household all recording the things they want to watch for later consumption, those 100 hours start to seem rather measly.

You'll only get about a quarter of that if you're recording something in 4K (though Virgin has not let on whether this is even possible) and that means it won't be long before agonising your way through your recordings, trying to decide what to leave on the cutting room floor.

A 2TB hard drive (HDD) would have been the more sensible option, though looking through the specs of the V6, the sense of Virgin Media trying its best to balance cost with functionality is palpable. The difference between the cost of making a 1TB and a 2TB box is significant. But it's made the wrong call here, compounding its problems by failing even to offer a 2TB or even 3TB upgrade option ready for launch.

Virgin Media has also striven to differentiate itself from Sky Q with its so-called 'TellyTablet'.

The TellyTablet is a 14" tablet computer (In tablet-land, that's absolutely giant – the standard iPad comes in at just 9.7") with additional speakers on front and back. It stands upright (we assume), is light and portable (as tablets are), and connected specifically to your V6 box allowing you total access to its functionality.

It may just be me, but I often take a tablet round the house with me, usually while cleaning or doing some DIY (running Netflix, BBC iPlayer or something on the radio) and rue the fact that as soon as you take a few steps away from it the screen is too small and the sound too slight. The TellyTablet could also mean not having to put a small – usually ugly – little TV in the rooms you like to work, have the kids or otherwise occupy. It's a great idea – one engineered from need rather than 'just to be different'.

It will be interesting to see how consumers in the UK take to the V6. Those receiving an upgrade are going to notice some serious performance and functionality gains, and the TellyTablet is a genuinely useful feature innovation.

But while Virgin Media's focus on offering a single SKU (model) is clever in respect to offering identical functionality to all, its choice of what is by today's standards a very small HDD does make appearance of the term 'future-proof TV' in its release materials look rather facile.

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