How to compare BT, Sky and Virgin TV
CAN'T decide between the big three home media providers?
Our guide to the deals from Sky, Virgin Media and BT can help you choose quickly, so you can get on with enjoying the service.
There are three main differences between the UK's three big pay TV providers:
- Availability: varies across the UK
- Broadband: BT require it; all three offer different services
- Channel choice: every company holds different rights
See? Easy as ABC.
Before we get into the detail of these three aspects, though, it's worth taking a look at the special offers available.
Sky, Virgin and BT are all known for slashing prices for new customers, and offering money off vouchers. Their really big deals change frequently, but we'll highlight them here as and when they appear.
At the moment, Sky are offering the following to new customers signing up to one of their TV deals via Choose:
Sky TV Latest Offers
Then there are the other special offers and deals, which look like this:
Search for more package prices and find out more about Sky TV in our full review here.
Search for more package prices and find out more about Virgin Media in our full review here.
Search for more package prices and find out more about BT TV in our full review here.
The UK's three biggest pay TV providers offer their channels in three different ways: Sky TV comes via satellite, BT use broadband and what is essentially a snazzy Freeview box, and Virgin Media use their fibre optic network.
The first step to comparing them, then, is checking availability.
Sky's satellite covers 98% of the UK. It's previously been tricky to sort out for those who live in flats, though communal or mini dishes are often available and there's now a smoother ordering process in place.
The vast majority should also have access to BT TV, which uses Youview through Freeview: take a look at the Freeview coverage checker to check.
Some BT TV services are only available to customers who also take BT Infinity broadband, such as:
- The Extra Entertainment and HD TV packs: 18 channels including Comedy Central, Gold and British Eurosport plus on demand content.
- BT Sport Ultra HD
- Sky Sports 1 and 2
- The live Sky Movies channels
Infinity is available to more than three quarters of homes in the UK, with about 40,000 more being added every week - check that availability using the postcode tool below.
Virgin TV is more limited: just over 50% of households can access it, mostly in and around the bigger cities. There are some small holes in this network though, so it's worth using the postcode checker below.
It is coming to more homes over the next few years, but anyone outside an urban area is most likely out of luck.
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
Anyone who wants to access any of BT's TV services must take one of their broadband packages.
It's not necessary to take broadband or home phone from Virgin Media or Sky to get their TV services, but both offer discounts to customers who are willing to bundle services - Sky even offer basic, data-limited, broadband free of charge to customers taking both their TV and phone - so it's worth thinking about.
We've also compared the providers head to head on broadband, as well as further comparison on price and packages in our reviews on:
- How to choose between Virgin and Sky
- Who does fibre best? BT Infinity or Virgin Media
Finally, the pay TV providers like to throw around a lot of conflicting channel counts.
In fact, they compare something like this.
* Sky's Family Bundle forms the basis of both Sky Q (£42 per month) and Sky Q Silver (£54 per month), reviewed here.
The number of Freeview channels available will depend on the area we live in, and having a good signal from the nearest transmitter - which a good aerial can help boost - but more than 70 is now standard.
With BT's TV Starter and Virgin Media's More TV, the monthly subscription is really to get access to the hardware and on demand services.
People who aren't interested in either will find paying for a straight Freeview box much better value. There's more on choosing between pay TV and Freeview here.
Note that the basic channel counts above don't include HD or the premium channels such as Sky Sports, team channels, and movie channels.
As mentioned above, to get Sky Sports or the live Sky Movies channels from BT, customers must take Infinity broadband.
Getting the best value for money
So it's not really as easy as ABC. Once we get into the details the providers are tricky to compare like for like.
We think a better strategy is to home in on which services are most important, then aim for the best value for money. Here's how.
Have TV already? It's negotiation time
Few businesses put as much time and effort into retaining their existing customers as the pay TV providers.
For customers with an existing TV deal looking to cut costs, it's definitely negotiation time.
It's worth knowing roughly how much the services we want cost, and a total ideal amount we'd like to pay, as well as which services are non-negotiable, before calling (see the next section), but remember there's a limit to how much the cancellation teams can offer, and that calling isn't committing to anything.
Getting a new price usually means starting a new minimum contract period of at least 12 months, so don't be afraid to say "I'll think about it and call you back".
See our full guide for more on negotiating price cuts and special offers from Virgin Media, Sky and BT.
Pay for what you use
Because of the way the providers package everything into deals and bundles, it's highly unlikely any subscriber will use everything they pay for.
Minimise the extra costs and wasted services by thinking about these factors:
- Unmissable channels: scroll through the TV guide or look online, and note down any must haves.
- On demand: using services like Netflix, Amazon Instant, or Now TV could be more cost effective than paying for a premium movie channel or to access on-demand content.
- Hardware space: set top boxes that can store hundreds of hours of content are great, but they're not necessary for everyone.
Compare using 'extras'
Finally, we think it's worth comparing the providers by the must have "extras".
The three pay TV providers diverge in this respect: only Virgin have the Tivo service, for example, while Sky retain the rights to most HD channels.
From some point later this year, Sky will be offering an ultra HD service to people with their Sky Q boxes. It's not clear what they'll be offering yet, but they say it'll include entertainment, sport and movies.
For now though, BT have the first - and, as yet, only - ultra high definition channel in the form of BT Sport Ultra HD.
It shows a range of fixtures from the Premier League - among those not shown by Sky Sports - FA Cup, and UEFA Champions League, as well as the odd bit of Aviva Premiership Rugby and Moto GP.
The Ultra HD channel comes at a cost, but the standard BT Sport line up is free to all BT TV customers who are within contract, whether they have Infinity or standard broadband - as long as it's available in their part of the country.
We look at who's got the best deals on these and other extras in the last section below.
The best hardware, HD and other options
Hardware for TV
All the big three offer free standard boxes which can record TV and access catch up and on demand services.
|Virgin TiVo 500GB||500GB||250 hours SD||Free with new any contract, then £5/mth for Tivo service (or free with a Big* pack)|
|Virgin Tivo 1TB||1TB||500 hours SD||Free with Big Daddy deal, or £49.95 one off, then £5/mth for Tivo service (or free with a Big* pack)|
|Sky+ box||~300GB||185 hours SD||Free|
|Sky+ HD 2TB||2TB||1180 hours SD||£249, or £149 for new Family Pack or HD subscribers|
|BT Youview box||N/a||N/a||Free with TV|
|BT YouView+ box||500GB||300 hours SD||Free with TV|
|BT YouView+ 1TB box||1TB||Up to 600 SD / up to 60 UHD||Free with TV|
*Big deals are the pre made Virgin Media deals: Big Easy; Big Kahuna etc.
Virgin's £5 a month Tivo subscription includes apps for Facebook, Twitter, eBay and iPlayer. Another great feature is that Tivo will suggest shows to watch or rate, then make better suggestions in the future based on those ratings.
Sky offer on demand 3D content with compatible TVs and have a useful multi-room option - although BT and Virgin also offer extra box services. See our guide here.
At the time of this update, Sky have just started selling Sky Q bundles, including their new set top boxes and broadband hub:
|Capacity||Recordable TV||Setup cost|
|Sky Q||1TB (700GB for customer use)||150 hours HD||From £99 to £249|
|Sky Q Silver||2TB (1.7GB for customer use)||350 hours HD||From £99 to £299|
As well as having a lot more storage, they have many more tuners - the Sky Q box can record up to four different channels at once, and the Sky Q Silver records up to five at once, while also supporting streaming to other devices.
As with Virgin Media's Tivo boxes, we're basically renting them from the broadcaster, and as seen from the table above, the setup costs start at £99 - for those taking Sky Moves, Sky Sports or Sky Broadband as well.
High definition (HD) channels
There's no mistaking HD: it's around four times sharper than average TV and colours are brighter.
However, even people with HD-ready kit - an HD TV or set top box - aren't actually watching high definition unless they're watching a channel labelled "HD", whether free-to-air or included in one of the HD subscription packs from Sky, Virgin Media or BT.
We say this because, according to the British Video Association, in 2012 6.5 million people said they thought they were watching HD TV when, in fact, it was merely standard definition because they were missing vital equipment.
Sky are still the leaders in terms of HD channels, although customers have to take the most expensive package - and then, in the case of Sky Sports or Movies, pay more on top of that - to get them.
|Freeview||VM: More TV+||VM: M+||VM: L||Sky: Or/Var||BT: Starter||BT: Entertainment||VM: XL||Sky: Family|
|12||10||11||11||11||12||Up to 28||47||50|
Sky's Original and Variety packs include just the terrestrial channels in HD: seven BBC channels, ITV1 HD, Channel 4 HD, along with RT HD and NHK World HD.
To get all the non-premium Sky HD channels, customers need to take the Family pack. This gives them access to channels such as Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, and Living in HD, as well as Fox, Syfy, Discovery, E4 HD and Universal.
To get Sky Sports or Sky Movies in HD on Sky+ costs extra - at the time of this update, £5.25 a month. Sky Q customers get the HD versions thrown in when they add either premium pack.
BT also offer the normal Freeview HD channels to Youview customers, as well as films on demand in HD. Anyone who still has the old BT Vision+ box - being aggressively phased out now - will find it doesn't support Freeview HD. Upgrading to a Youview box will cost £35.
BT Infinity customers can get an HD pack for £4 a month, which includes an additional 13 HD entertainment channels, plus the four BT Sport and ESPN channels in HD; people with the Total Entertainment deal get all of those, plus BT Sport Ultra HD included in their subscription.
Virgin Media HD is included free with all packages, but customers need Virgin's TV XL pack - which costs the same as Sky's Family pack - to get more HD channels than come as standard with Freeview.
To find out more about HD TV, see our full guide here.
Freeview HD is available to roughly 70% of the UK. Like standard Freeview it's received through a normal aerial, and although it requires a more expensive set top box (about £100) and HD ready TV, there are no monthly payments to be made after that - so it'll save money over time.
More widely available is Freesat HD. This requires a bigger upfront cost, because of the need to buy a satellite dish as well as a set top box but, again, there will never be a monthly subscription to think about.
There's more on Freeview and Freesat here.
Sports and movie channels
There's no denying that Sky Sports has been a huge driver in getting people to sign up to pay TV - which is why BT Sport have invested so much in trying to wrestle broadcast rights for various events from them.
The rise of streaming services may have dented the popularity of the traditional Sky Movies channels, but it's still a hugely popular addition to all of the pay TV providers' packages. There's more on adding Sky Movies, and how much it'll cost with each provider, here.
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