Virgin Media unveils 4K box and large tablet

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Virgin Media

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Virgin Media says the V6 box has 10 times the processing power of its predecessor letting it load apps more quickly

Virgin Media has launched its first 4K TV set-top box, offering four times the resolution of high definition broadcasts.

The firm also unveiled a large tablet and an online store from which its UK customers will be able to purchase HD, but not 4K, content – it had only sold rentals before.

Its pay-TV rivals BT and Sky already offer 4K services of their own.

One expert suggested Virgin’s initial line-up of content might disappoint.

“Virgin Media will hope that this well long overdue move will help boost its declining TV base,” said Paolo Pescatore from the technology consultancy CCS Insight.

“For the first time in a while its total TV subscribers grew in the last quarter, reversing a worrying trend seen over the last couple of years.

“But despite claims that the box is future-proof, it lacks premium 4K content such as live sport and on-demand movies, unlike rivals, which is something that it needs to address.

“However, its hands are tied due to the high fees BT Sport and Sky will most likely command [for their content].”

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Virgin Media

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The V6 box supports 4K content, but the 14in TellyTablet only has a high definition resolution screen

Virgin’s chief digital entertainment officer has played down the issue.

“The box is 4K capable and therefore future-proof,” David Bouchier told the BBC.

“Do we see a significant demand sitting here in 2016 for a large amount of 4K programming by the majority of our subscriber base? No we don’t.

“We would quite happily put the 4K football matches on if we felt that this was something that our customers were saying.

“I’m not saying that it’s like 3D [which failed to catch on], but we need to wait and see exactly what people think.

“It’s not something that is a must have.

“What is a must-have is six-times recording [where the new box records six shows simultaneously], that’s what they really want.”

For now, the V6 box also lacks HDR (high-dynamic-range) playback, a technology that allows images to reveal more detail and display a wider range of colours.

But Mr Bouchier said he hoped to add the facility some time next year when the chip-maker Broadcom released new firmware for the processor inside the device.

Virgin is charging a one-off fee of £99.95 for the box, but it does not require subscribers to take out a new contract or pay more per month than otherwise.

Portable screen

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Virgin Media

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The new tablet offers up to eight hours of use, which Virgin says makes it suitable for “TV box set binges”

Virgin has also introduced the TellyTablet, which runs the old Marshmallow version of Android, and is an optional extra purchase.

It features a 14in (35.6cm) touchscreen, making it larger than both Apple and Amazon’s biggest tablets, but smaller than Samsung’s Galaxy View.

Fitted with four speakers, the new device is being pitched as a way to watch TV around the home.

It contrasts with Sky’s approach, which involves offering a small wi-fi equipped box that extends its service to multiple TVs.

The TellyTablet is limited to 1080p HD playback, which has helped keep down its cost.

“It’s not a service enhancement that we would have guessed before we heard it because tablet sales have already started slowing,” commented Ed Barton from the consultancy Ovum.

“The two things that stood out are that it’s big and it’s relatively cheap.

“But the question is: how much of an overlap is there between Virgin subscribers and those that want a big £300 tablet? I’m not sure it’s going to be huge.”

Movies in the post

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Virgin Media

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The new Kids app includes games and TV shows from Nickelodeon, the BBC, Sesame Street and others

Virgin is also adding new services including a Kids app, which brings together cartoons, TV shows, interactive games and picture books in one place.

It is targeted at children aged three-to-six years old and guarantees no advertisements or in-app fees. However, it is limited to the firm’s premium subscription options.

The company’s new online store will let people buy digital copies of movies shortly after their cinema run, and then be sent a physical disc-based copy when it becomes available.

Mr Bouchier acknowledged that Virgin was adopting a practice pioneered by Sky in April 2015.

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Virgin Media

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The Virgin Media Store will launch in February

“Sky was very successful and within a very short space of time had a bigger market share than iTunes,” he said.

“One of the major reasons for that was that it had the DVD-to-the-home as an integral part of the proposition.

“So, we will be one of only two places where you will get the electronic version in your digital locker… and also a DVD in the post.”

But Mr Barton said Virgin might find it harder to succeed.

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The Sky Store attracted many customers to make their first digital video purchase

“What Sky has is its own TV channels on which it has run adverts very aggressively promoting the release of movies in its Store,” he explained.

“It worked very well for tent-pole releases, such as the recent Star Wars movie.

“So one wonders what Virgin’s marketing and communications will be, as it won’t work just by setting the store up.”