Two of the biggest players on the British TV landscape, BT TV and Virgin Media, have improved their offerings in recent years. While BT has sought to streamline its offerings – cutting back the fat to deliver customers just what they want at an agreeable cost – Virgin Media has somewhat gone in the other direction, building a network of channels that rivals Sky.
The similarities between the two are that they’ve established themselves as market leaders in UK telecommunications, with both investing funds to ensure they stay up to date with all the new trends. There are, however, significant differences – particularly between their TV plans. Read on to find out which one is the right provider for you!
Who are Virgin Media and BT TV?
Backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate, Virgin Media has enhanced their presence in the telecommunications industry in recent times. In particular, they’ve sought to broaden their television horizons, matching up with their broadband and mobile departments. This means that while their TV offerings are great, the true value is in bundling. On the other hand, BT is part of the BT Group, which was formerly British Telecom. Originally the state telecommunications company, BT was privatised in the 1980s. BT provides telephone, television and broadband services across the country, with more than 18 million customers in total.
One notable difference relates to how the two companies transmit their signals. BT TV comes through their broadband connection, which means that it’s not available as a stand-alone TV deal – instead it will need to be accompanied by a bundle which includes broadband. All BT TV deals come with an 18-month contract.
Virgin Media uses their own fibre optic network. This means that it’s super fast, although availability is somewhat limited when compared with BT TV. Most of their deals will require you to take Virgin broadband, other than the Full House package – which is also available either month to month or on a 12-month contract. All other Virgin deals are on a 12-month contract.
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Loads of channels? Great. But is there anything to watch? Unfortunately, that’s a common refrain. While some providers might try and blow you out of the water with numbers of channels, it’s best to examine just what they have on offer and whether it appeals to you.
BT TV – through BT Sport – has quickly established themselves as a market leader in the UK in recent years. Any BT TV package comes with BT Sports. They’ve got all of your favourites, including the Premier League and Champions League, FA and League Cups. For lovers of other sports, BT have cricket, rugby union, rugby league, tennis and plenty more.
Virgin Media doesn’t have their own branded sports network – instead, they’ve teamed up with the champions of broadcasting to give you the best on offer. 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 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 home movie library. BT TV comes with an on-demand movie option and lets you bolt on Netflix. 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.
On the whole, Virgin’s offerings have a greater number of channels available than BT TV. BT TV’s basic package starts at 85, but can rise to 115 and 130. Conversely, Virgin Media’s entry-level plan starts with 150 channels, rising up to 230. Remember, however, that having more channels doesn’t mean too much if you don’t watch them; check out our detailed Virgin Media and BT TV guides to see which provider has the channels – and the programming – that fit you best.
Ways to watch away from home
Aside from loads of new players entering the market, the other major factor which has changed the TV landscape in the UK recently has been its availability on different devices including smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Indeed, no longer is being able to watch our favourite TV on the go a luxury – many of us now expect it. So what do these providers have on offer?
BT TV App
The BT TV app gets you access to all of your favourite programming while you’re on the move. The app – which is free for BT TV subscribers – lets you watch all of the content that you’d be able to watch from your TV from your smartphone, tablet or other device. Halfway through a show when on your way to work? The app links with your BT TV box, letting you pick up exactly where you left off. You can also program your BT box to record a show from the app, for instance if you’re coming home later than you expected.
Virgin TV Go and Virgin TV Control
Much like the BT TV app, Virgin Media has two different apps which give you great additional functionality – and the ability to watch your faves from the road. 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 and 3G/4G/5G. The app is free and will let you watch pretty much every channel you subscribe to. Virgin TV control turns your phone into a global remote control, letting you set and manage your recordings from anywhere in the world.
What’s in the box?
As any fan of UK TV knows, it’s not only which program you have access to – but the device which enables you to get there. The humble set top box has seen some significant development in recent years, with evolved functionality and improved capacity. As we mentioned above, these boxes now link with your phone, tablet or other device – plus you’ll be able to set and record.
BT TV gives you three boxes to choose from: YouView, YouView Plus and YouView Ultra HD. The box you get will depend on which of their packages you choose. YouView lets you rewind and pause live TV, while the YouView Plus box gives you 300 hours of standard-definition recording. If you go for the maximum, you’ll not only be able to store 500 hours but you can also watch in brilliant 4K Ultra HD.
The Virgin V6 Box comes with all Virgin plans. This small black box has 500 hours of standard definition storage capacity, or 100 hours of HD TV storage. You can record up to six channels while watching a seventh. This 4K-enabled box also supports other apps like Amazon Prime and Netflix, putting everything you need in the one place. The box can also link with your smartphone or tablet while you’re at home, letting you watch live TV, on demand programs and other recordings. Better yet, it’s actually free – making it really stand out from its competitors.
So how much will a deal from either provider set you back? Comparing each providers costs isn’t exactly an apples for apples comparison – they have different offerings and for some, the bundles are really where the savings are at. For a comprehensive look at everything each provider offers, be sure to check out our separate reviews.
BT TV offers a streamlined approach, which seeks to bring you your favourites – but cut out the fat and unnecessary extras. In particular, their deals are great for sports fans as every package comes with BT Sport. Remember, too, that this amount is in addition to what you’ll be paying for broadband. BT TV Classic which includes Freeview TV is the most affordable among the bunch, followed by BT TV Entertainment and lastly, BT TV Max 4K.
Virgin Media’s offerings are a bit more expensive – although their bundles are really where the savings are at. The Full House plan is the only one which is available without broadband, and gets you 230 channels – including BT Sport and a bunch of excellent Sky channels in HD. The Player bundle has 110 channels and broadband. You can choose to go contract free, but taking a longer deal allows you to save some cash on the first 12 months.
The Full House Sports bundle gets you more than 240 channels, including both Sky Sport and BT Sport. This bundle also includes weekend calls to select numbers. Lastly, the V.VIP bundle being the most expensive among the offerings, has more than 280 channels plus super-fast broadband, free landline calls and a 4G Truly Unlimited SIM.
Can I dip my toe in?
A great way to get an idea if a subscription is right for you is to dip your toe in the water with a free trial. BT TV does not offer a free trial, although occasionally they’ll have special offers like three free months of BT Sports. Similarly, while Virgin love a good deal, there’s no free trial on offer at present.
The Verdict: Which one is right for me?
With all of our guides, while we’ve gone to a considerable amount of effort in comparing every aspect of each provider, the ultimate correct decision will be based on you and what you need from your provider. One further factor may be availability. While 90 percent of British houses can access BT TV (through their broadband connection), Virgin is available only in around half of UK homes (on their fibre optic connection). Therefore, the first step will be to work out if both or even one is actually available for you.
From there, assess the needs – and of course, the wants – of your household. While some of the larger bundled packages on offer from Virgin Media seem expensive, they often represent a good deal. If your household is smaller and your TV habits are focused on sport, then BT TV is going to be a good deal for you. Conversely if you find yourself fighting over the remote with your friends and family at night, Virgin TV is likely to be the appropriate choice.