Dan Howdle | May 23rd, 2023
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.
It's the battle of the TV channels from the top TV heavyweights.
Sky’s entry-level Signature pack is an impressive offering, with a decent selection of channels, but it’s the free Netflix subscription and free access to Sky Box Sets that wins the day. Virgin Media offers plenty of channels, but crucially, not Sky Atlantic.
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 providers 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 Signature pack – which we've written about in detail if you follow the link. With that, you get around a hundred channels, a Netflix subscription, and Sky Box Sets and then bolt on whatever else you need at varying additional expense, including movies, sport or kids TV.
Virgin Media, 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 channels you get: the Big Bundle (145+ channels), the Bigger Bundle (190+ channels), the Bigger Bundle + Sports and Movies (210+ channels) and the Ultimate Bundle (all the channels – 230+).
Well, we say 'all the channels', but if you were to get literally everything that Sky 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 (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.
This is 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.
That's easy, you might say. Just look at the numbers: Virgin Media, with its own network, offers all its customers a top speed of 1130Mbps with its Gig1 service (and they've tested a service twice as fast as that), while Sky's FTTP packages (running on the Openreach network used by most other providers) only offers an average of 900Mbps. And don’t forget that, for now, Virgin Media’s network is much more widely available than the Openreach FTTP network Sky relies on for is full fibre packages. So Virgin Media clearly wins.
|M50 Fibre Broadband + Calls
|£28 per month
|M125 Fibre Broadband
|£29 per month
|M250 Fibre Broadband
|£33 per month
|M350 Fibre Broadband
|£37 per month
|M500 Fibre Broadband
|£41 per month
|Gig1 Fibre Broadband
|£48 per month
|Gig2 (coming soon)
|Up to symmetrical
|£84 per month
Having said that, it's arguable how much of Virgin Media's 1130Mbps most people actually need. Certainly, 50Mbps is enough for most households of four or five people, so what sort of household is 1130Mbps for exactly? One with 100 people? Truth is, 1130Mbps is only going to benefit a very narrow sliver of the public: those who download videogames.
For that purpose, 1130Mbps means you'll be playing within a few 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 available-almost-everywhere FTTC fibre averages speeds of around 61Mbps, but even that's enough for anything short of a large, busy household. For perspective, with 61Mbps 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 their entry-level packages, at 125Mbps, there's really not that much in it. And like we say, very few folk will actually benefit from Virgin Media's outrageous top speeds.
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Virgin Media wins here, on account of offering you the option to have no landline at all, and, for those who do want a landline, inclusive weekend calls at no extra cost.
There really isn't much difference when it comes to these call packages put side-by side. Both Virgin Media and Sky offer pay-as-you-go (PAYG) calls as standard. Virgin includes free weekend calls to UK landlines, free calls to Virgin Mobile numbers and free calls to 0870 numbers. From there, you can choose to bolt on anytime calls or international calls. Sky offers evening and weekend calls, anytime calls, or international calls as optional bolt-ons.
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.
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 and TV deals. It enables fast, reliable connectivity for a large number of devices. It has two Ethernet ports for wired connections and is dual band, enabling excellent coverage around your home.
For customers just wanting Sky broadband or fibre however, Sky supplies its Sky Broadband Hub. This is slightly superior to the Sky Q Hub with eight antennas, compared to five in the Sky Q Hub, and four Ethernet ports for wired connections, rather than two.
Virgin Media offers the Hub 3 with all its packages, except for its Gig1 package, which comes with a Hub 4. The Hub 3 is a highly capable router, again enabled with dual-band technology. It also has four Ethernet ports and five antennas for sending the wifi signal around your home.
Sky wins here, but only just, with its superior Sky Broadband Hub which it supplies with its broadband packages. The Sky Q Hub is not quite as impressive however, and were we to judge purely on the routers supplied with TV bundles, Virgin’s Hub 3 would win.
Don't be confused by the names. Sky Q and Virgin 360 are just branding for two quite similar boxes with similar capabilities. The Virgin 360 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. Both providers offer the option of additional mini boxes for watching TV in different rooms and both come with voice control technology.
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 360 box is a highly 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 360 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?
Now that Virgin has introduced its 360 Box and accompanying mini boxes, it competes on an equal footing with the Sky Q box and its accompanying Sky Q mini boxes. Both providers offer UHD and voice control technology. You could argue that Virgin has the edge fractionally in that you can watch UHD on a 360 mini box, whereas you cannot watch UHD on a Sky Q mini box, but for the vast majority of households, there is nothing to choose between the two.
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.
Both Virgin Mobile and Sky Mobile offer 5G where available. Virgin Mobile runs on the EE network and Sky Mobile runs on O2. As a result, on balance, Virgin Mobile offers faster download speeds and has wider 5G coverage than Sky Mobile. Both providers also include unlimited texts and calls with all their data plans.
So it has to come down to features. If 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.
Although Sky doesn’t offer a Family SIM as such, it does enable you to save any unused data each month and put it in your Sky Piggybank, where it can sit for up to three years. This data can then be shared with another phone on the same account.
It's Virgin Media (Virgin Mobile) again. Virgin beats Sky purely by dint of running on the EE network, which offers faster downloads and greater 5G coverage than O2 – used by 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 it’s 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. Sky charges a flat rate of £12 per month for its multiscreen service which includes one free Sky Q mini box. After that, it cost £99 per extra mini box. Take out a Virgin Media package however, and you’ll only be charged £10 per month for your first 360 mini box and £5 per month for every extra box you want after that.
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, whereas Sky is already hitting technological limitations due to its reliance on the Openreach network.