By Emma Woollacott | Tuesday, April 2nd 2019
Virgin Media is best known for providing the fastest broadband in the land, coupled with high-quality equipment with all the frills. Conversely, TalkTalk is its opposite, aiming to offer the same results for generally much less. But which is better?
Which of the two you prefer will depend on your particular requirements, whether that's broadband speeds, network reliability, or the number of TV channels on offer. But while it's easy to get carried away by the quantity of bells and whistles on offer, it's important to remember that you may end up paying for things you don't really need. So how do TalkTalk and Virgin square up?
TalkTalk touts its standard fixed price broadband package, known as Fast Broadband, as the UK's cheapest. It comes on a 12-month contract and includes both line rental and set-up. You get unlimited usage with download speeds averaging 11Mbps - plenty if you only have a couple of devices online at the same time, and you're using them for things like browsing social media, shopping or streaming music. It's a good-value, basic service, in other words.
As well as a standard broadband service offering an average of 11Mbps, TalkTalk also offers a Faster Fibre package offering an average of 35Mbps; this will let you and your family do a lot more, streaming on multiple screens, downloading music and videos and making video calls at the same time. You can also choose to boost the speed to a further 63Mbps.
Virgin Media, however, offers some stonking broadband speeds that really put TalkTalk's offerings in the shade. Unlike TalkTalk, which (like all other providers) uses the Openreach network, Virgin has its own state-of-the-art network, offering speeds of up to 350Mbps. And with this speed now available to the vast majority of the 14 million homes on its network, it's the fastest widely available broadband service in the UK.
This makes it the speediest broadband network of any in the UK – even faster than Openreach’s 330Mbps G.fast broadband pilot scheme, which is only available to around one million homes in the UK.
You get upload speeds of up to 20Mbps and little perks like inclusive weekend calls to UK landlines and Virgin Mobile numbers, as well as inclusive weekend minutes to 0870 numbers. There are also 50Mbps, 100Mbps and 200Mbps packages available. If you're unsure which speed to choose, our review on Virgin broadband can help.
However, before you get carried away, it's worth asking yourself whether you really need anything like these speeds. Even 100Mbps will allow you to watch a dozen HD movies at the same time; for most average homes, it's undoubtedly overkill.
In practice, it's Virgin's basic 50Mbps package that will be of interest to most, and this costs only a few quid more than the comparable TalkTalk option. But you don't just need your provider to talk the talk - pun intended - it also needs to walk the walk.
Before picking your broadband supplier, you might want to consider what other customers have to say; and here there's a very clear winner. Figures published recently by Ofcom show that TalkTalk was one of the most complained-about broadband suppliers in the last quarter of last year, while Virgin Media is one of the least. TalkTalk customers were particularly cross about faults with the service, along with provision issues.
It's easy to be dazzled by the sheer speed of Virgin's offering, and if you've got a very busy online household, then there's no question that it wins hands down. Let's face it, though, few of us need anything like 350Mbps, or even 100Mbps for that matter.
Similarly, for low-level users, TalkTalk's cheapest offering will save you a few quid, but may not really be the best deal. Many – if not most – people will probably be happy to pay a little more to comfortably get more than a couple of devices online at the same time.
It's the middle ground that's probably most relevant. And, here, there's not a great deal in it between TalkTalk's 35Mbps package and Virgin Media's 50Mbps service, although Virgin appears to provide a more reliable service – and for some, that extra speed may not go amiss.
In terms of the sheer amount of content on offer, there's little competition: once again, Virgin Media wins hands down. It has more than 70 channels in its basic Player TV bundle, rising to more than 150 in the Mix TV package and more than 230 in the Full House TV package.
At the top of the scale, you'll get over 260 to choose from if you plump for the Full House TV + Sports and Movies package. This includes access to all the Sky Sports channels, BT Sport channels and Sky Cinema channels in HD.
Virgin Media's basic Player TV package is modestly priced and comes on a 12-month contract, whereas Virgin's Full House TV + Sports + Movies package costs three times as much.
TalkTalk's TV alone, by contrast, has only around 70 channels, whereas TalkTalk's TV Plus package comes with around 80, including 15 in HD and seven Sky channels, along with BT Sport. You'll get TV Plus included in the company's entry level Faster Fibre package, but you can't buy it as a standalone service.
An essential difference here is that you cannot get TalkTalk TV alone - you have to also take TalkTalk broadband, whereas you can get Virgin TV as a standalone service.
TalkTalk's TV package is probably plenty for most people; after all, there's a limit to how many channels you're ever really likely to watch or record at one time. If you're a big sports fan, though, you might see things a little differently, with the full Sky Sports offering being a real incentive to pick Virgin. Its far better V6 TV box is a big plus too.
You'll get a basic landline service with per-call charges included with TalkTalk broadband, but there are several 'boosts' you can add on. Unlimited UK calls does exactly what it says on the tin. International Saver gives discounted rates to many international destinations, while International Extra provides 1,000 landline minutes to 50 countries, and International Max extends that 1,000 minutes so that you can use it with mobiles too.
Meanwhile, Virgin Media customers get the basic Talk Weekends plan, which includes free weekend calls to UK landlines and Virgin Mobile numbers, plus inclusive weekend minutes to 0870 numbers. You can add 0845 numbers for an extra quid a month, and other add-ons give you these freebies in the evenings too, or, indeed, any time.
It might be worth noting that in Ofcom's survey on service quality, TalkTalk was the most complained-about landline supplier, while Virgin Media had the second-least number of complaints.
Let's face it, few of us use our home phones much these days, and neither set of landline packages is likely to be an important factor when it comes to picking one provider over the other.
Virgin Media includes rather more in its basic package than TalkTalk – but TalkTalk's international options might just tip the balance in its favour if you make a lot of overseas calls.
TalkTalk's latest router, the WiFi Hub, uses smart dual-band technology, reducing wireless interference and dropped connection, and has seven antennas and four gigabit ethernet ports, making it far faster and more reliable than the previous model. It also comes with Supersafe security software and Homesafe parental controls.
Meanwhile, Virgin now offers the Virgin Media Hub 3.0, offering download speeds up to 1Gbps. It has five internal antennas and four ethernet 10/100/1000 BaseT ports, all of which are capable of transferring data up to 1Gb speeds, along with two telephone ports. Wireless encryption technology, Web Safe, F-Secure SAFE and parental controls are included.
Virgin's high-speed broadband needs an appropriately high-powered router, and that's exactly what customers get. It beats the competition from TalkTalk – but not by that much.
TalkTalk offers two different TV boxes: the basic TalkTalk TV Box and the TalkTalk TV Plus Box; you'll need the latter if you want to record anything. You can record, pause and rewind live TV, add and remove channels monthly and rent the latest blockbusters.
With Virgin, you get a whole bunch of features automatically with its TV V6 box. This lets you record six shows at once, while you watch a seventh on catch-up TV or from a recording. There's 1TB of storage - not an enormous amount, perhaps - amounting to 500 hours of shows in SD or 100 in HD. You can also watch live TV, box sets and some recordings on a mobile or tablet at home, using Virgin TV Control.
Virgin's V6 absolutely smashes TalkTalk's box out of the ring and into orbit. No contest.
TalkTalk no longer offers mobile plans - and only ever offered SIM-only mobile deals to its broadband customers. However, TalkTalk has now signed up with O2 to provide SIM-only mobile services to TalkTalk customers instead.
Customers get a special discount off O2's normal prices, and get 4G as standard. There is also access to O2's 15,000 free wi-fi hotspots, as well as the O2 Priority app, which offers discounts and special offers on events, restaurants and more.
Meanwhile, Virgin Media's SIM-only plans cost on average between £5 and £20 a month for non-customers, and allow you to roll over data as well as giving you data-free messaging on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. Existing Virgin TV and Virgin broadband customers can get an all-you-can-eat service for £25 a month, with unlimited minutes, texts and 4G data.
Virgin Mobile uses the highly-regarded EE network. EE claims its 4G network covers 99% coverage of the UK population. Customers can enjoy free wi-fi at more than two million hotspots, as well as being able to roam for free in 43 destinations. In a new report from Rootmetrics, EE is rated best overall network, top in speed, reliability and overall performance when compared with Vodafone, O2 and Three.
In terms of complaints, both TalkTalk and Virgin Mobile performed poorly towards the end of last year, according to Ofcom, coming joint second in terms of the number of complaints. Virgin Mobile also performed badly in a survey by Which? last summer, being rated as one of the worst mobile phone providers for customer satisfaction. Only one in five customers said they'd recommend it to a friend or family member. O2, which TalkTalk mobile customers will be dealing with from now on, performed rather better.
It's pretty obvious which of the two providers is more committed to the mobile phone business, and Virgin Mobile has a really solid set of offerings at competitive prices. It also uses the EE network, consistently rated as the UK's best.
However, there is really no need to have the same provider for your mobile and broadband - we'd advise just shopping around for the best mobile deal on offer from all the providers.
While you could save a few quid by picking TalkTalk over Virgin Media, you really will be getting an awful lot less. It might well suit if you're just looking for a fairly basic package, but for most people Virgin Media will win hands-down.
With Virgin Media, state-of-the-art infrastructure means you're getting superfast broadband, and its speeds are only set to increase over the coming months and years. If you spend a lot of time streaming and gaming, it's a no-brainer. And even if you don't need the high speeds on offer right now, it's always nice to have the option.
Similarly, Virgin Media offers several times as much TV content as TalkTalk, including access to those desirable sports and movie channels from BT and Sky; even its set-top box is in a different league. And with Virgin Media, you're getting a far more integrated offering, particularly now that TalkTalk has handed its mobile customers over to O2.
If you have access to Virgin Media cabling, and many people do, we'd say that you should go for it. Sorry, TalkTalk, but there's no easy way to say this: quite honestly, it's a complete walkover.