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Virgin Media readies itself for the future with the V6 box

The provider is finally ready for the streaming age.
Matt Brian, @m4tt
11.30.16 in AV
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After months of teasing, Virgin Media has finally lifted the lid on what it believes will help it move "from cable TV to connected entertainment." At the heart of its new proposition is the Virgin V6, the 4K set-top box we were first introduced to in August, which the company says is specifically "built for apps." It supports a "full deployment" of BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Netflix, Hayu and Vevo, but is also capable of recording six channels at once to its 1TB hard drive (two more than the Sky Q), which can store up to 500 hours of standard-def recordings, or 100 hours of HD content.

Virgin Media insists it wants everything to feel familiar. Underpinning the box is TiVo software, which is either good or bad decision depending on your experience with the company's older hardware. The new box is said to be lightning fast despite being half the size of its predecessor, though, which is good news for anyone that grappled with the painfully slow interface of older hardware.

This is especially important since Virgin Media is pushing apps as a bigger part of the proposition, headlined by Netflix and YouTube, which both make use of the V6's 4K capabilities. The new box supports HDR, too, which'll be enabled in the future via a software update (though you'll need a compatible TV to notice the difference).

The guide and menus look very familiar, and of course you still have features like Series Link+, which bridges linear and catch-up programming. The remote looks exactly like the TiVo remotes of old, but includes a number of buttons for smarts like deeper search across apps and the EPG. You won't need to point it at the V6, as infra-red has been ditched for RF wireless technology. Lose the thing somewhere, and you can press a button on the V6 to make the remote beep, à la Sky Q.

Virgin Media knows that TV viewing habits have changed. Families aren't all gathering around the main TV and want to enjoy their favourite programmes in their own time. TV Anywhere, Virgin Media's existing streaming app, has been updated with thousands of hours of on-demand programming for consumption at home or away, and customers will be able to view the recordings stored on their V6 box over their home network. Some of that content can also be synced with mobile devices for offline viewing.

TV Anywhere can also communicate with the set-top box remotely, allowing users to schedule and even delete recordings while out and about. In the home, the app lets mobile devices double as a remote control, and you can "flick" what you're looking at on your tablet straight to the TV, a feature pioneered by EE TV. Since you'll likely be spending more time in the app, there's also a new "What To Watch Now" feature, which offers a curated list of things you might be interested in.

To compliment the new mobile experience, the provider is also launching its own tablet: the TellyTablet. The company describes it as "the missing link," something that builds on its shift to streaming. The TellyTablet is a 14-inch, HD slate that integrates its new services, but also has full access to the Google Play store, and thus supports third-party apps like Sky Sports, Sky Cinema, BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub. The device -- we suspect manufactured by Alcatel -- has an integrated stand, four speakers, an eight-hour battery life and runs a custom build of Android. It'll be available in December on Virgin Mobile contracts, or for a one-off £299 payment.

Following in the footsteps of the BBC and Sky, Virgin Media has also developed a new app for iOS and Android specifically to appease the little ones. Launching in February next year, it'll allow kids to stream their favourite shows, or download the latest Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol episodes for long car journeys. It'll be free for subscribers who have already signed up to a necessary entertainment bundle and includes a "five times" feature that plays a certain episode up to five times in a row, for kids who just want to watch the same thing over and over again.

The kids app will also include games and e-books, with customisable profiles and some light parental control features. Also launching in February is the new Virgin Media Store, an app for TiVo boxes and iOS and Android -- you won't need to be an existing Virgin customer to use it on mobile devices, by the way.

It's your familiar download-to-own store that'll stock movies and TV series not typically available on Virgin Media's content packages. Shows like Game of Thrones and Billions will be available out of the gate, as will movies in the first out-of-cinema window. Should you buy a movie, Virgin Media will also send you a physical copy of the film, mimicking Sky's Buy & Keep movie store.

The new V6 box will be available before the end of the year to any Virgin Media customer on a "Mix" bundle or better for a one-time, £100 charge. Anyone on a pricier "Full House" or "VIP" package will only pay half as much, but new customers fitting that bill will only be able to order the new box from January next year. You can buy more than one, too, and sort of daisy chain them to share storage space and increase the number of channels you can record by another six.

Today's announcements show Virgin Media is embracing a streaming future, and the company's next-gen service seems to have taken more than a few cues from Sky Q. That said, all TV providers are travelling down more or less the same path, so there's bound to be crossover. Recognising the shift to on-demand culture, placing greater emphasis on mobile, and future-proofing with 4K and HDR support, to name a few commonalities.

With a dedicated kids app, buy-and-keep store and multi-room viewing (courtesy of apps and its new TellyTablet), Virgin Media is making moves to keep up with the demands of its customers, and keep up with its competitors, too.

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