Sky is best known for its unequalled satellite TV service. Virgin, meanwhile, offers by far the fastest widely available broadband in the country. So with most of us getting our broadband and TV from a single company, how do you choose?
You need to get down to the nitty-gritty detail. Both companies do broadband and TV anywhere between 'competently' and 'amazingly well', and neither provider is weak in any particular area. What's more those specialities – 'ludicrously fast broadband' and 'more TV in a month than you could comfortably watch in a lifetime', well, they're perhaps less necessary than the marketing on the part of either of these two companies may lead you to believe. Let's break it down.
This is pretty much the broadband situation in reverse. Again, in terms of volume – number of available channels – one is miles ahead of the other (Sky). And, also much like the situation with broadband, much of that extra value isn't going to be felt.
Both cover the same bases, offering pretty much every type of TV, movies and sport content you could possibly want. Only a short time back, Sky offered a range of bundles. Now, though, the situation is somewhat different. All Sky bundles start with the Sky Entertainment Pack – which we've written about in detail if you follow the link. With that, you get around a hundred channels and then bolt on whatever else you need at varying additional expense: movies, sport, kids TV, Asian channels – whatever you like.
Virgin, meanwhile, is still doing things rather more traditionally. It has a range of bundles containing various quantities of channels. They are, in order of the amount of 'stuff' you get, from least to most: the Player Bundle (basic 70 channels), Mix Bundle (150 channels), Full House Bundle (230 channels) and VIP Bundle (all the channels – 260+).
Well, we say 'all the channels' but if you were to get literally everything thatSky TV has to offer, you can almost double that figure. So if you really think having 450-odd channels – from which you must choose just one thing to watch at any given time – is a good thing, then fill your boots. We don't, so it's probably a good idea to think about what channels you actually care about and focus on the best way to get them.
Speaking of which, the jewel in Sky TV's crown is undoubtedly Sky Atlantic. It's the only place to watch Game Of Thrones live (besides Sky's own NOW TV internet video service), as well as a whole bunch of other five-star series throughout the year, including Westworld, True Detective, Vinyl, Billions and so on. Let us just state that again: you can't watch Sky Atlantic on Virgin Media. That could be a deciding factor for many.
It's Sky. Technically Sky offers the best TV, but whether or not you can justify potentially hundreds of extra channels you'll probably never watch, only you can decide. And remember, for now at least, you'll need a satellite dish to get Sky TV, which some won't want on their house. Virgin Media offers plenty of channels, but crucially, not Sky Atlantic.
That's easy, you might say. Just look at the numbers: Virgin Media, with its own network separate from Openreach (the network used by all other providers), offers a top speed of 350Mbps, while Sky's most capable fibre deals only offer an average of 63Mbps. Virgin Media clearly wins.
Having said that, it's arguable how much of Virgin Media's 350Mbps most people actually need. Certainly, 50Mbps is enough for most households of four or five people, so what sort of household is 350Mbps for exactly? One with 30 people? Truth is, 350Mbps is only going to benefit a very narrow sliver of the public: those that download videogames.
For that purpose, 350Mbps means you'll be playing within ten minutes of buying in most cases (not on PlayStation, though as PSN throttles to 40Mbps at their end), rather than having to wait an hour. Sky's top speed, offered in its Fibre Max broadband deals, averages 63Mbps, but even that is overkill for anything short of a large, busy household. For perspective, with 63Mbps you could watch several high-definition screens showing different movies all at the same time.
So ask yourself again: whose broadband is better? OK, it's still Virgin Media's at the top end, but if we're talking about Virgin's mid-range deals, at 50Mbps and 100Mbps, there's really not much in it. And like we say, very few folk will actually benefit from Virgin Media's outrageous top speeds.
This a bit like those movies where the old master tells a 'chosen one' of some description: I have shown you the path, but only you can walk the path. Virgin Media has faster broadband. It's better – on paper. But how much of that extra speed is going to be useful to you? The answer's only 'all of it' if you download a lot of huge videogames and don't have much patience.
There really isn't much differences when it comes to these call packages put side-by side. Both Virgin Media and Sky offer (in order of what they cover) pay-as-you-go (PAYG), free weekend calls, free evening and weekend calls, or free anytime calls. What you pick will largely depend on your own usage.
When it comes to not having a phone line at all, you can only get broadband-only deals from Virgin. Before you get excited about not having to pay line rental, though, you still have to pay line rental. Or rather, the price doesn't go down for not having a home phone line – it actually goes up. You don't save anything – it actually costs more to be without a phone line. Yes, we know, it's crazy.
Virgin Media wins here, on account of offering you the option to have no landline at all, albeit at extra cost. No other widely available UK provider does that, and at least – besides unplugging the phone – it's a way to keep nuisance calls out of your life.
The router is the bit of kit that plugs into your phone line (or installed cable in the case of Virgin Media) and distributes broadband throughout your house either via LAN cables or, more commonly these days, via wi-fi (wirelessly).
These things are very hard to judge in any way other than subjectively. Sky supplies the Sky Q Hub for all its broadband deals. It enables fast, reliable connectivity for a large number of devices. It has two USB ports for wired connections and is dual band, enabling excellent coverage around your home.
Virgin Media offers the Hub 3.0 with all its packages. This is a highly capable router, again enabled with dual-band technology. It also has two telephone ports, meaning it is enabled for making VoIP calls (Voice over Internet Protocol calls) on your telephone handset, paving the way for an end to landline calls. However it has no USB ports, meaning it relies on all your devices being wireless.
Sky wins here. Although both routers are top spec, and we like the futuristic thinking of Virgin, many customers may still want the option of a wired connection or two. Sky's router offers the best of both worlds, for now.
Don't be confused by the names. Sky Q and Virgin V6 are just branding for two quite similar boxes with similar capabilities. The Virgin V6 box comes with all Virgin TV packages and broadband/TV bundles, while you only get the "basic" Sky Q box no matter which option you take out from Sky, unless you pay an eye-watering £199 upfront to get the Sky Q 2TB with its extra storage space.
The primary difference between the Sky Q and the Sky Q 2TB is the ability to output in 4K – the ludicrously high resolution currently forcing its way into the mainstream. 4K has four times as much detail in the picture as regular high definition (HD), but you'll need a 4K TV to display it, and an absolutely gargantuan one if you want to really see the difference – at regular viewing distances, on screens of 55 inches or less it's really hard to tell unless you press your face right up to the screen, something tech nuts call 'pixel-peeping'.
Nevertheless, future-proofing is valuable in and of itself, and whether you have a 4K TV or not, whether it's the 65"+ that you need to really appreciate 4K or not, there is no denying that Virgin's V6 box is by far the more capable device. Sky may have been first to 4K with the Sky Q 2TB, but Virgin – rather cleverly – held off a while till the technology was cheaper and more mainstream.
The only downside to the Virgin V6 is that it only comes in one size from a storage perspective – 1TB, or about enough to record 500 hours of standard definition content or 100 hours of HD. That's not a lot, but when you think how much there is to watch on demand, maybe you don't need to record that much? However, managing recorded programmes is undeniably a hassle with there being no option to delete an entire series at a time. At least with the Sky Q 2TB you have the option to double your storage capacity, albeit at great personal expense.
It has to be Virgin Media again. We have to compare the V6 with the basic 1TB Q box because those are what come as standard across the range. This isn't even a close contest. The Virgin V6 crushes the standard Sky Q in every measurable way.
Both Sky and Virgin Media – or to correctly use their sub-branding: Sky Mobile and Virgin Mobile – both offer mobile SIMs that are at various times and to various extents cheaper than those offered to non-customers. It's a little pointless us going into the details of how many gigabytes of data you get and how they compare and what the coverage is like because these either change all the time or are subjective. Knowing, as a made-up example, that one offers 98% coverage and the other 99%, doesn't really help anyone.
So it has to come down to features. Assuming your intention is to get a SIM for each member of your family, on Virgin Mobile you'll all be able to call each other – or anyone else on Virgin Mobile – for free. Sky Mobile does not offer this, but before you get too excited, remember that most people never go over their free minutes anyway, so the only way you could really take advantage would be to opt for the lowest minutes packages from Virgin Mobile – thereby saving a few pennies – factoring in what percentage of your calls would be to family members with those other SIMs.
A big downside to Sky Mobile is that unless you are also a Sky TV and broadband customer, you will have to pay an extra £10 per month on top of the standard SIM price in order to get free calls and texts. As Sky's SIMs are not exactly on the cheap side to start with, this makes them ridiculously expensive.
It's Virgin Media (Virgin Mobile) again. Those free network-to-same-network calls can still save you a bit of money if you judge things just right. But more importantly, it beats Sky by offering inclusive calls regardless of which SIM deal you take and regardless of whether you are an existing Virgin Media customer or not. Quite simply, it is better value than Sky Mobile.
As well as the headline acts, there are a number of other things you need to consider when choosing between these two providers. On the TV side of things, remember that its delivered by two very different technologies. Sky will have to put a satellite dish on the side of your house, while Virgin Media will have to drill a hole through your exterior wall. Neither are all that aesthetically pleasing, but depending on the type of house or flat you own or rent, this could be a significant factor.
Also, if you're considering multiscreen – that is, you want your TV services in more than one room, that can get extremely expensive with Sky as it'll charge you a considerable premium for each additional box beyond the first one. Take out Virgin Media's top-end VIP package, though and you get an extra box thrown in for free, and not a minimally featured 'slave' box that hooks up over wifi to use the features of the main box as is the case with the Sky Q mini. No. A whole second Virgin V6.
Virgin Media wins. Back when Virgin Media's speeds were still comparable to the majority of other providers and its set-top boxes were lagging somewhat behind the times, this would have been a far closer contest than this turned out to be.
Almost irrespective of what aspect you choose to measure, Virgin Media's got Sky pegged. Better equipment, faster broadband, easier upgrade path. That's not to say there isn't an argument for Sky. But to make that argument you've either got to be somewhere Virgin Media isn't available, or you've got to be able to make a case for needing the Sky channels Virgin doesn't provide.
Virgin Media's advantage is that its infrastructure (cables and whatnot) is a lot more advanced, based on existing cable TV networks rather than the older, more creaking, copper wires that bring your Openreach phone line into your house. Virgin Media is going to be able to keep increasing its speeds all the way up to about 800Mbps over the next several years, whereas Sky is already hitting technological limitations due to its reliance on the Openreach network.
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