For as long as most of us can remember, Sky TV has been the dominant leader on the British television landscape. From sport to cinema – and everything in between – Sky has not only had the greatest variety and scope, but the company has also shown a serious willingness to grow and innovate.
There is, however, a new challenger for the throne. Virgin Media – backed by a company you might have heard a thing or two about – has set its sights on claiming Sky’s throne in recent years. Virgin has significantly expanded its TV offerings, while also boosting its bundles. So much so that deciding between the providers is not an easy decision. But don’t fear – we’re here to help!
Who are Sky TV and Virgin Media?
Backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate, Virgin Media’s recent expansion has been significant. They’ve laid a comprehensive network of their own fibre optic cable – a network which is continually being brought to more and more homes all across the UK.
Sky TV is part of Sky UK, officially the largest pay TV broadcaster in the country – with more than 10 million subscribers. They’re incredibly experienced, but they’ve also shown a proficiency with new technology in recent times – especially Sky Go, their highly-rated mobile app.
One difference relates to how the two companies transmit their signals. As the name might imply, Sky will require you to install a satellite dish. This will be done by their skilled staff, although it could cause problems or at best be a bit of a nuisance.
Conversely, Virgin Media uses their own fibre optic network to bring you your TV. While it will be incredibly quick, availability is somewhat limited. Around 50 percent of the country currently has access to this network. Although this network is constantly being expanded, it sits well short of Sky’s 98 percent reach.
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Sky TV and Virgin Media both offer a comprehensive and extensive range of channels to choose from. From world-class local and international sport, to your favourite movies, box sets, reality TV and documentaries – if it’s worth watching then there’s a fair chance they have it. The number of channels available differ on the package you choose, with Virgin Media’s peak offering being over 280 channels – and Sky’s being more than 350.
The Sky Sports package – which is an addition to the standard package – shows loads of top channels like Main Event, Sky Sports Football, Sky Sports Formula One, Sky Sports Action, Sky Sports Cricket and Sky Sports Golf. All the best sporting action in the world is available, from Premier League to cricket, golf, motorsport, basketball (NBA) and rugby. Sky also lets you take the BT Sport package, meaning that you’ll have everything under the sun.
Virgin Media has teamed up with Sky and BT to bring you a comprehensive set of sports offerings. The Full House package comes with BT Sport, while the Full House Sports Bundle will get you both Sky Sport and BT Sport. If it’s being hit, kicked, caught, nicked, dunked, bounced, volleyed, spiked, swum or run, there’s a good chance it’ll be on your screen with this package.
Movies and TV Series
Both providers start out with freeview, adding on a range of other channels with great movies and box sets. If you’re looking for more, their on-demand offerings will drastically expand your available movie library. Sky Cinema is an incredibly popular way to watch new release and classic movies, although Sky doesn’t allow you to include Netflix for the moment. Virgin’s V.VIP bundle comes with loads of extras – including Sky Cinema – meaning the best seats in the house will be actually in your house.
Virgin’s offerings have a fewer channels available than Sky. Virgin Media’s entry-level plan starts with 150 channels, rising up to 230. Sky has 355 channels – making them the high-water mark in UK TV. Their additional offerings are not only extensive, but they’re designed to be tailored to your interests – meaning you can craft just the type of TV you want to watch.
Ways to watch away from home
With so much TV on offer, there’s always the risk that you’ll be away from your TV when your favourite show is on. Or, if you’ve got a long commute, nothing passes the time like watching a sporting event or catching up on a box set. Fortunately, both Sky and Virgin Media have great options to take your TV with you wherever you go.
Sky Go is Sky TV’s mobile app, which can be installed on tablets and smartphones. It’s free for all Sky TV subscribers. Sky Go is perfect for travelling and can be used through Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G. For an additional charge, Sky Go Extra lets you download shows to watch later while also letting you stream on more than one device at the same time. Going on holiday? Sky Go can be used throughout Europe at no extra cost.
Virgin TV Go and Virgin TV Control
Much like Sky Go, Virgin Media subscribers can watch their favourites while on the go. Virgin has two different apps. The Virgin TV Go app lets you watch on compatible devices – mobiles, tablets – either at home or on the go, provided there’s sufficient Wi-FI or 3G/4G/5G. Virgin TV control turns your phone into a global remote control, letting you set and manage your recordings from anywhere in the world. Both apps are free.
What’s in the box?
No longer an ancillary component that sat on top of the TV, the set top box will be the gateway through which your television experience will be enjoyed. From controlling and recording things remotely, to linking with your smartphone to watch on the go, the set-top box is now hugely important. So what do Virgin and Sky have to offer?
Virgin Media’s deals all come with the Virgin V6 Box. It has 500 hours of storage capacity, or 100 hours of HD storage. The box is 4K-enabled and it also supports other apps like Amazon Prime and Netflix, putting everything you need in the one place. The box links up with Virgin TV Go and Virgin TV Control to let you have the keys to the ignition no matter where you are.
Sky comes with the Sky Q box, letting you record three shows at once while watching a fourth. It has 500 hours of storage. Not enough recording capacity and storage space? Then upgrade to the 4K HD version, letting you record six channels while watching a seventh (no, really) and record up to 1000 hours.
So how much will a deal from either provider set you back? Sky’s status as the market leader in UK television doesn’t come cheap. Sky is comfortably the most expensive mainstream package available on the market, although when you see what it comes with you will understand why. Virgin is a bit cheaper, although most of their plans will need to be taken with broadband. Virgin does have one month-to-month plan, which is great if you don’t want to be locked in to Sky’s 18-month deals. For more in depth discussion of the different plans, check out our Sky TV and Virgin Media guides.
Virgin Media’s bundles are really where you start to see the savings. The Full House plan is available without broadband – the only such option. This pack gets you 230 channels – including BT Sport and some Sky channels in HD. Don’t want a contract? The Player bundle has 110 channels and broadband for a monthly fee plus set-up fee. Take a contracted deal and save for 12 months (price goes up per month after).
Sky TV is more expensive, but you’ll have a lot more potential to pick and choose what you want – and what you don’t want. Each plan comes with a set-up fee. There are effectively around 15 different combinations you can take, depending on whether you take Sky Sports, Sky Cinema, Sky Kids, etc.
Can I dip my toe in?
Unfortunately, both Sky TV and Virgin Media do not currently offer a free trial of sorts. They occasionally will have some kind of free or bonus deal on offer – for instance a free upgrade or a discount on installation or other hardware.
The Verdict: Which one is right for me?
Which one is right for me? How long is a piece of string? Making a decision between the two is difficult, primarily because the options are so good. The best starting point is to look at the specifics of your household and what it needs before working back from there.
Sky is more expensive – 350 channels don’t come cheap – but the gap is smaller than it used to be. Indeed, some of the deals are quite comparable. Sky’s flexibility is definitely a plus, although if you’re a light to moderate TV watcher – and internet user – then Virgin Media might be the one for you.
Don’t forget that Virgin relies on fibre optic cable connections, which are only available in roughly half of UK homes. Unlike Sky’s 98 percent coverage, Virgin Media is only available for one in two Brits – therefore your first point of call should be checking your address to see what options are available.