August 30, 2008

Comparison of Virgin and Sky+ HD

Carol S has been a regular both here and on the cable forums for some time. Frustrated with Virgin Media's lack of high definition channels she's recently made the switch to Sky. I asked her to write something on this blog about her first impressions and I'm delighted to say she's been quick to respond. With so many considering turning to the 'dark' side over HD, I hope you find it informative. Over to you, Carol...

I left Virgin a couple of days ago and Nialli asked me to post a guest message on his blog about how I felt about the change.
First of all, I managed to get one of the Sky offers, so I got the Sky HD box for £75 and the installation was £30. The installer rang me around 9 am to say that he would be there around 11:30 to noon - and he arrived at noon. A very pleasant guy who had the whole thing installed in around 1½ hours and then spent the next 30 mins updating the software and showing me all the ropes.
The quality and choice of the Sky HD is absolutely top rate - especially for their two premium mixes (Sports and Movies). Just by chance one of my favourite movies was on one of the HD movie channels last night (The River - starring Meryl Streep) and it just brought the whole thing to life with the vividness, sharpness and 5.1 surround sound. Absolutely stunning scenery in HD. The same with the sport - watching some football in HD was simply awesome - and it appears better than the footie on BBC HD (and I thought that was good).
One of the downsides is that I don't think that the Sky EPG is quite as good as Virgin's - but this is due to be updated September/October time. One of the things I don't like is that if you bring up Sky menu, you lose the program you are watching until you switch back to the program (but apparently this is one of the things being fixed in the forthcoming update).
Another downside is that ITV is not as sharp as with Virgin's rendition of it - so I will miss that with Corrie and The Bill. Other channels (eg Channel 5) appear sharper. However, many of programs that I would have watched in SD on Virgin (Discovery, National Geographic, History) are now available in HD plus there is Sky 1 HD. Come October, most of the rest of the movie channels will be switching to HD too (Action, SciFi etc) so I guess I'll just become an HD junkie.
The final downside is the size of the hard drive inside the Sky+HD box, which is only 160MB - and part of this is reserved for Sky Anytime. As it is my box, I might go down the route of installing one of Samsung's SpinPoint 1TB drives - but there are also rumours of Sky opening up the e-SATA port on their box - which would make attaching an external e-SATA caddy + drive a piece of cake.
By switching my TV to Sky (I decided in the end to stick with Virgin for telephone and BB), it also had the effect of reducing what I was paying for my VIP package (£86 per month). I am now paying £42 per month for the Variety Mix (gives me all the entertainment channels such as Bravo, Living, Virgin 1, etc), Knowledge (for all the SD documentaries) and the 2 Premium mixes (Full Sports Mix and the Premium Movie mixes). Of course I have to add in the £10 per month for the HD mix (all 17 channels at the moment, increasing to around 27 or 28 channels in October) making a total payment of £54 per month (increasing to £56 per month in September).
I reduced my Virgin package to 10meg BB and phone (free weekend calls) and with e-billing this comes down to £22.50 per month making a total outlay of £78.50 (from September) and thus saving me £7.50 per month.
In conclusion, the switch has worked out well for me as I am not only saving money, I am getting a massive increase in the amount of HD programming that I will be able to watch. I guess it depends on the type of programming that you watch if you would benefit from a switch to Sky - if you mainly watch the ITV channels, the BBC channels and are happy with the movies on these channels, then you might not benefit so much - but anybody who is into films, documetaries and sport would be in 7th Heaven by switching.

August 29, 2008

New V+ box still in testing

Word from a Virgin Media insider suggests that the new Samsung V+ box reported earlier this year is still in testing at the company and doesn't look like to be available to customers just yet. As always with VM, the holding of breath is not advised...
(Personally, I find the existing Scientific Atlanta box as stable as any other PVR these days, so I'll happily wait until the inevitable bugs are sorted out before asking for a newer one.)

August 28, 2008

Christina: A Medieval Life

New on BBC HD at 8pm Thursday 28th: Christina, A Medieval Life.
"Historian Michael Wood presents a portrait of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, tracing the story of Christina Cok, a peasant of 14th century Hertfordshire." That's all I know I'm afraid - may be worth an hour of your time, or it may just remind you of the opening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail :o)

Two more series coming to BBC HD

News on two more interesting series appearing on BBC HD this autumn.
First off, the Jonathon Ross show makes its debut in HD on Friday, September 5th. To my knowledge this is the first regular studio-based series from the BBC to appear in high definition; hopefully, more will follow.
Then there's Amazon, a series following The Tribe's Bruce Parry on an "epic voyage" up the Amazon from source to ocean. The current vogue for personality-driven documentaries (eg Lost Land of the Jaguar) can prove a little tiring after a bit but the scenery in HD should more than make up for irritations in the commentaries.
Auntie's on a bit of a roll at the moment, as I'm sure anyone who saw Britain From Above will agree; stunning TV.

August 27, 2008

BBC HD coverage of 2008 Paralympics

Those suffering from Olympic withdrawal symptoms will be delighted to know that from September 6th to 17th BBC HD will be showing extensive coverage of the 2008 Paralympics from Beijing. More detail here. It won't be the full "through-the-night" coverage we saw with the Olympics, but there will be afternoon HD simulcasts over the first weekend and a nightly highlights hour at 7pm through the tournament.

August 26, 2008

Virgin1's blog goes offline

Fellow blogger Virgin1's blog, Not NTL, not Telewest... Just Virgin Media, appears to have gone off-line. I've removed the feed from the blog - hopefully it's just a temporary disappearance as it was a valuable and informative read.

August 25, 2008

Music on demand in HD

There's some additional HD content tucked away in the Music on Demand Genres listing these days. If you select Music HD you'll find five half hour shows from the London Live series, featuring The Killers, David Gray, The Hoosiers, Sugarbabes and Kanye West, all 30 mins long, plus a track by The Editors.

August 23, 2008

HD over the Bank Holiday weekend

Highlights on BBC HD this holiday weekend include
  • Love + Hate, a British independent movie on Saturday night 10.30. (Radio Times warns that it runs five minutes longer than billed, so be sure to add some padding if recording). Something of a rave review on IMDB I see
  • The closing ceremony of the Beijing Olympics is at noon on Sunday. If it's anything like the opening ceremony, it'll be spectacular. Unlike the London 2012 Party that follows it at 3.15pm - can you have lacklustre HD?
  • After an After You've Gone marathon (!) Britain From Above concludes at 9pm Sunday. Bravo, Mr Marr, and bravo BBC - fantastic series, especially in high definition.
  • Unfortunately BBC HD resorts to repeats on Bank Holiday Monday, with just Hairy Bakers as something new. Also, post-Olympics, we're back to a 7pm start on the channel.
Also of note: a couple of new movies appeared on Filmflex's HD listings on Friday: Black Water and the awesome There Will Be Blood.

August 22, 2008

Interesting article on HD in the UK

An interesting piece here from the Broadband TV News site. Couple of observations:
  • The author clearly states that "Channel 4 is known to have an exclusive contract with the DTH [ie Sky] platform". I didn't know that for certain, but it explains the C4HD absence from Freesat and possibly the delay in getting it onto Virgin, too. With C4 HD being proposed for the Freeview HD service next year, maybe that exclusivity with Sky is just for 12 months, which means it will end in the autumn.
  • I love the expression "HD Empty", referring to folk who have HD ready sets but have not subscribed to HD services. Personally, I would describe us V+ owners as "HD Double Empty" - we have HD ready TVs and an HD ready PVR...but no service!

August 21, 2008

Meanwhile, on Sky HD

Another day, another announcement from Sky on more HD channels.
I guess everyone who wants high definition services in the UK already knows that there's just one show in town, but this almost daily growing of Sky's offering is making even this cable veteran look twice. Having had my eyes popped by Armageddon in HD at the weekend, I'm hungry for more, but I won't find it on Virgin Media. FilmFlex HD? It's bloody expensive compared with Sky's £10 a month. If they offerred unlimited HD movies for £10 a month I'd bite, but no sign of that.
If it wasn't for the hassle and cost of changing suppliers (and my family's daily use of VoD) I'd be seriously tempted to switch...

August 20, 2008

BBC HD New Season

Not much going on with Virgin Media HD at the moment, so let's look ahead to the new autumn schedules and see what's coming to BBC HD over the new season.
First up is the comedy drama Mutual Friends starring Marc Warren, Alexander Armstrong and Keeley Hawes. It starts next Tuesday at 10pm (an hour later than its broadcast on BBC1) and it looks pretty good. I'm always a touch sceptical about "comedy drama" as they tend to feature little of either, but this may well be worth investing time in.
I'm still struggling to see why the BBC have bothered to shoot Hairy Bakers in HD, but a series more likely to make your eyeballs sparkle is Oceans. Click the link to find out more about another HD showcase documentary series.
Later in the season there's drama aplenty in high definition, with new adaptations of Dickens' Little Dorrit, Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and, er, Frank's The Diary of Anne Frank. On the documentary front there's Simon Schama's new series on the USA in election year.
Two new series that look great but I'm not sure if they're in HD are Stephen Fry In The USA (he visits every state - in a black cab!) and Kenneth Branagh in the Scandinavian detective drama Walllander. More information as soon as I find it.

August 19, 2008

New to BBC HD

New for Tuesdays on BBC HD at 8pm tonight is The Hairy Bakers, about two bikers searchng for the ultimate bacon buttie (no, I'm not making this up) all in sumptuous high definition.
Then at 9pm we have the second episode of Maestro, sort of a musical Apprentice. Not everyone's cup of Twining but it does give me an excuse to post a picture of the rather fabulous Katie Derham.

August 17, 2008

Even more China on BBC HD

For those still desperate for more China-themed programmes during the Olympics, the BBC has China's Terracotta Army (Sun 17 Aug, 10:00 pm).

August 15, 2008

Regular On Demand content

UPDATE: This programming seems to be currently undergoing revision in some areas, so not all content is available to all customers.

To access, go to Home then 6 - 4 - 1.

  • Ant Attack
  • The Blue Planet: Introduction
  • The Blue Planet: Frozen Seas
  • The Blue Planet: Coasts
  • The Blue Planet: Coral Seas
  • The Blue Planet: Frozen Seas
  • The Blue Planet: Open Oceans
  • The Blue Planet: Seasonal Seas
  • The Blue Planet: The Deep
  • The Blue Planet: Tidal Seas
  • Desert Lions
  • Diana - Last Days of a Princess
  • Great Natural Wonders of the World
  • Hannibal
  • Hotel Babylon Season Two episodes 1 - 8
  • The Innocence Project 1-8
  • Planet Earth: episodes 1-5
  • The Quatermass Experiment
  • Rick Stein and the Japanese Ambassador
  • Superstorm 1-3
  • Supervolcano 1-2

August 14, 2008

Can't get enough of China in HD?

It's feeling at times like every programme on BBC HD is now set in China; after the excellent Wild China and the extensive daily coverage of the Beijing Olympics we now have Secrets of the Forbidden City, a documentary covering the creation of Ming Emperor Yongle's palace, the Forbidden City (9pm, Thursday August 14th).
Earlier this evening is the final episode of Lost Land of the Jaguars. I know that some reviews have been critical of this series saying it focuses more on the naturalists than the nature itself, but for me these guys are heroes and following them makes the exploration and discovery all that bit more personal. And, of course, the pictures are sumptuous in high definition.

August 13, 2008

Beijing Olympics sound not in 5.1

Wondering what's going on with the sound from the Olympics on BBC HD? Check out this post on the Beeb's blog

August 09, 2008

VM's bandwidth

Neil Berkett's presentation to analysts on the last quarter's results is available online here.
Above is a slide from it showing how VM's bandwidth is split. (Sorry if it's too small to read clearly - most browsers will allow you to click it to see it full size.)
I'm not au fait enough with the technology behind cable TV distribution to pass much comment on this, but thought some may find it interesting. By 2012 it suggests on the following slide that "a third of spectrum freed-up for higher broadband speeds, more VOD and HD content following analogue switch-off". There's no other mention of future HD services in the presentation.

August 08, 2008

Virgin Media not selling TV channels

The Sunday Times report last weekend suggesting that Virgin Media was looking to sell its TV channels appears to have been wide of the mark. Here's the full story as reported in Media Week:

Fiona Ramsay Media Week 05-Aug-08, 09:00

LONDON - Virgin Media Television has called in brand consultancy Sparkler to lead a review of its pay-TV port­folio, with the evolution of its online presence key to the broadcaster's plans.

Jonny Webb, managing director of Virgin Media Television, said the company was "picking the business apart and looking at where it should be in 2012".

He said the development of pay- TV channel Living "in other forms off screen" was the main priority this year. "In a world of digital media, it is all about brands. We are a brand-led business so we have got a head start.

"Living is the strongest in multi­channel to be a standout brand. We can bring it to life off screen, so we are looking at in what other forms it could exist off screen."

Virgin Media TV is expected to ramp up its online presence by creating communities around its channels. Earlier this year it merged its female-focused Siren portal with as part of a plan to create one of the country's top five women's websites.

Webb said: "We are getting seven million page impressions a month, so there are opportunities off screen."

He said that Sparkler, which has worked with UKTV, Virgin Media's joint-venture with BBC Worldwide, as well as the likes of BBC News and Ofcom in the past, had been recruited to focus on the "opportunities for growth and where we can take the brands next", but not on rebranding the channels themselves.

He denied that Virgin Media TV was concerned about the performance of its pay-TV channels.
"Commercial impacts for the portfolio are up 10% year on year, for the year to date," he said.
"Living is in good shape, with new shows such as Bands Go Pop. The number one priority for Living is talkability."

Living had a 0.6% share of total viewing for June. Top performing TV programmes in recent weeks have been Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds and Britain's Next Top Model.

Virgin Media TV is also concentrating on improving sister channel Trouble's offering.
Vizeum broadcast director Simon Bevan said: "Trouble is good for reaching the teen audience. Living is definitely its most prominent channel and in the best health."

No fear of them going to Sky then - maybe just wishful thinking on News Corps' part?

August 07, 2008

C4 HD rumour

According to this thread, we could be seeing C4 HD on Virgin Media "soon".

Virgin announces Q2 2008 results

Virgin Media this morning has posted its second quarter's results. Churn is down again, overall TV subs are up by 24,800 (in what is normally the weakest quarter for pay TV) but ARPU (the revenue per customer, not the guy who runs the Kwik-E-Mart) is down. The full press release can be found here, and here's the piece from the press release specific to TV services:
Total TV net additions were 24,800 in the quarter (Q1-08: 36,800; Q2-07: 2,200). Net additions were up compared to the same quarter last year which was negatively affected by BSkyB’s removal of its basic TV channels from our platform.
During the quarter, we launched the BBC’s iPlayer service on our VOD platform offering hundreds of hours of BBC “catch-up” content. Virgin Media is the first TV platform to make BBC iPlayer available in full screen picture quality directly to its 3.4m digital TV subscribers. Developments like this give VOD a new impetus and help establish on-demand as a genuinely mainstream TV service.
Customers are increasingly using our VOD services. On a monthly basis, 1.6m of our TV customers are now using VOD, representing a reach of 48%. Average views per user per month in the quarter were 24 compared to 14 a year ago. Average monthly views were 38m in the quarter, up 5% on the previous quarter and up 92% on the same quarter last year.
During the quarter, we added 60,700 V+ DVR subscribers to reach an installed base of 424,900. This represents a penetration level of just 13% of our digital subscribers and so the growth opportunity remains strong.
The last piece is perhaps the most interesting to readers of this blog; Virgin added almost twice as many customers to the world of HD this month than Sky, and now has an HD-capable 425k homes compared to Sky's 490k . But there ain't a single mention of HD services in the press release which means anyone hopeful of more channels in 2008 is heading for disappointment. What's more, the success of the VOD service will reinforce VM's belief that strategically it's onto a winner investing solely in On Demand services when it comes to TV, especially as the take up of Sky's HD premium package has slowed with just 33k new subscribers this quarter. Whilst I'm not convinced that there's sufficient demand for 50mb connectivity at home unless it's coupled with some fabulous new content stream that needs that speed, Berkett and co are unlikely to change their thinking based on these results or Sky's this quarter.
Go on Virgin, prove me wrong and give us at least C4HD before Christmas...

August 05, 2008

Olympics coverage on BBC HD

It's difficult to see where the BBC's audience for its biggest-ever high definition extravaganza to date is going to come from; the live Beijing 2008 coverage starts around 1am each morning and runs through to mid-afternoon - hardly peak viewing times. The bigger audiences will be for the 7pm highlights show The Games Today, hosted by Gabby Logan and the 6am-9am breakfast coverage, but it's difficult to see these games really engaging the great British public, especially given the time difference. Mind you, the Australia games proved popular and they really were through the night, so I may be wrong. Anyone planning to record the Games in HD should remember that HD recordings take approximately four times more space on your V+ than regular BBC ones; your hard disc will fill completely overnight!
Anyway, starting on Friday, BBC HD goes 24 hours for a fortnight, and that can't be a bad thing :o)

August 04, 2008

No Spooks on Sunday

Apologies for the incorrect info: Spooks proper is NOT showing on BBC HD next Sunday - it was listed incorrectly on (which last week even had the full Spooks cast list). They've now corrected it and we have two episodes of the BBC3 spin off, [Spooks] Code 9 on Sunday from 10pm

August 03, 2008

Two interesting stories and a question

First up - a piece in the Sunday Times of all places on a likely exit from the corporate telecoms market by Virgin Media. Full piece here.
Secondly a post from Danielle Nagler, the new head of BBC HD, over on the Beeb's Internet blog - here. Good to see this (often frank) blog is being maintained.
Finally today, a question from Darren that I can't really answer but hopefully someone else can (not being blessed with a 5.1 system myself nor having seen the programme):
Just wanted to know if anyone has noticed any problems with the sound on Last Choir Standing. My av amp is working fine and I can listen to all other BBC HD programmes but for the second week running the sound output has been zero on this programme only, although interestingly enough the amp shows a 2 channel signal detected.
Personally, I'd see the lack of sound as a bonus on that show, but that's not Darren's point of course. Our fellow blogger Virgin1 has replied that
This issue has been bugging the BBC HD team since the Eurovision live, sound drop outs on live broadcasts. Yes it is an issue nationally and affects Sky HD customers as well
Anyone know any more info? It's live events that are suffering - other programmes are fine.

August 02, 2008

More Sopranos added

Season three of The Sopranos has started to appear in HD TV Choice on Demand - the first three episodes are in my area. Also, season two's been given a stay of execution and looks like it'll be around until the middle of August.

August 01, 2008

Sky HD in the rain

I know I said I'd boycott DS on the blog, but I got bored at lunchtime and this thread made me smile. Worth reading if you are considering satellite over cable. Not to say we don't have service outages on Virgin every now and again, but this would drive me mad...