Sky or Virgin Media: which is better?
SKY and Virgin Media both claim to be the UK's best broadband, TV and phone bundle provider.
It's an extremely close competition, but in this guide we'll look at some of the differences between the home media giants that we think everyone should be aware of before choosing.
First: the best offers
The competition between Sky and Virgin Media does have one serious upside: money off for new customers.
We've a list of the latest offers from each below, which could be worth keeping in mind as you read on.
Sky have a reputation for running a good deal. Here's their main offer right now:
Sky TV Latest Offers
And here are their other current offers:
Meanwhile, here's what Virgin are offering to try to tempt new customers:
*Big Bundles are Virgin Media's pre-made triple media deals: the Player, Mix, Fun, Full House and VIP Bundles.
Almost before comparing anything else, check each provider's availability. Sky TV coverage is pretty much nationwide, and their broadband is widely available too; Virgin Media fibre is only available to around 50% of homes, although their network is growing, slowly, all the time.
Use the box below to check availability for both.
Note that if Sky is listed as "not available", it may still be possible to get Connect broadband, their "out of area" deal. There's more on that below.
Enter your phone number and / or postcode above to check availability in your area.
Quick compare: So, who's best for...
Can't decide between
Take a quick look at which provider is ahead in the categories important to you by choosing from the selection on the left.
More detail: find out who's best on...
- Price the best bundles and line rental costs.
- TV channel counting, HD choices and Sky Sports.
- Broadband speeds, best unlimited deals and out of area deals.
- Hardware what's best: Virgin's Tivo or Sky Q?
(Seemingly) simple question: who offers what features cheapest?
Broadband only, or broadband and calls
For those wanting to ditch the phone line, Virgin Media is the only option - but it's not as cheap as might be hoped.
For those wanting decent broadband, Sky look to be cheapest.
|Package||Contract term||Upfront price||Monthly price|
|Broadband Unlimited + Talk||12 months||£9.95||£17.40
for 12 mths,
|SuperFibre 50||12 months||£14.99||£32.25|
|SuperFibre 50 + Talk Weekends||12 months||£14.99||£32
for 12 mths,
All of Sky's contracts are 12 months long; Virgin offer 12 month terms for their standalone broadband, but have recently moved back to 18 month contracts for broadband with phone.
Sky's line rental (£17.40) doesn't include any calls, and the cheapest call plan is their Evenings And Weekends Extra package, which costs £4 a month.
Virgin charge £19 for line rental but throw in weekend calls, and they also offer an upfront line rental deal. It costs £196 for the year, which brings the price down to the equivalent of £16.34 a month.
All the same, Sky are cheaper than Virgin by at least £5 a month - but with much slower broadband.
Virgin Media win this race with their new Player Bundle, which is roughly equivalent to their old Big Easy deal - offering 70 or so channels together with their up to 50Mb broadband and weekend calls.
Frustratingly, new customers can't take advantage of the most recent speed boost offered to existing 50Mb customers, which gives them connections of up to 70Mb.
But Virgin's entry level broadband is still hard for Sky to beat, especially now they've retired their free 2GB Lite package in favour of a £5 a month 12GB starter deal.
When balancing TV with broadband, we think Virgin Media are the best budget bundle bet.
Compare the two for budget bundles without sacrificing must have channels, using our comparison table here.
We've picked out two "large" bundles with a good number of TV channels for each provider - 190 for Virgin Media and around 320 for Sky, of which about 70 are Freeview, with no HD - each provider's standard set top box and unlimited broadband.
The main difference here is the broadband speeds - for this example, we've used Sky's up to 17Mb package and Virgin's middleweight fibre, up to 100Mb. Ignoring that issue, it's incredibly close.
We used to have to build our own Virgin Media bundle to create similarly priced packages - and ours included their 50Mb broadband. The Fun Bundle - previously known as the Big Fun deal - is better, which shows how seriously Virgin take the value of their readymade bundles.
For a little more flexibility regarding large bundles, or to see what it'll cost to include any must have channels, it's also worth looking at our family bundle comparison table.
Line rental and calls
Virgin line rental costs more than Sky's, at £19 a month compared to £17.40. That does include weekend calls, but after that Sky start to gain the advantage:
|Line rental only||Inclusive
Evening and Weekend Calls
TV on its own
First things first: how many channels are up for grabs?
We count them up in the table below. Note that where there's an HD version of a channel we count both SD and HD as one - but then give the total number of HD channels available with each deal.
|Freeview||VM: Mix TV||VM: Fun TV||VM: Full House TV||Sky: Original Bundle||Sky: Variety Bundle||Sky: Box Sets Bundle|
|Up to 80
(up to 12 HD)
|40 + 240 free
|80 + 240 free
|80 + 240 free
From these figures it looks as though Sky offer far more channels, but among their free channels are a lot of "+1"s and some oddities like Renault TV.
Budget channel choice
Sky Q user interface
From the table above, Sky seem like a good choice for those looking for a budget TV deal: their Original Bundle offers more channels at a lower price than Virgin Media's cheapest standalone TV deal, the Mix TV package.
Those looking at the budget bundle choices further up, however, may be wondering where the Player TV package is, with its stripped down channel count.
We've left it out of the channel count here because it's only available as part of that triple play bundle, combined with unlimited 50Mb broadband and weekend calls for £45 a month including line rental.
Sky's basic Original bundle costs £20 a month. As seen above, it's possible to add in their Broadband 12GB and phone package, to get a triple-play package that's cheaper than Virgin's, but with far more channels.
It depends what's more important, TV or broadband - but where TV is concerned, customers get more for their money with Sky.
On demand content
Both Sky and Virgin offer TV on demand with catch up from at least the past seven days and limited other TV content as standard.
Virgin Media offer 700 hours of catch up content, plus a minimum of 1,500 hours of on demand viewing in the form of box sets and shows; the exact content varies depending on which TV package we have.
Sky describe their catch up and extra content service as the UK's biggest, though content depends on the subscription.
Only basic catch up services are available with the Original Bundle, while Variety subscribers can also watch the catch up services for their extra channels - mainly kids' shows and documentaries.
Box sets on demand are only available with the aptly named Box Sets Bundle - what used to be called the Family Bundle.
Sky don't offer Netflix or any other kind of rival streaming service to their own customers.
In fact, they have their own streaming TV service, Now TV, for people who don't have and don't want to sign up to Sky, but fancy some of the extra content only available through them.
Customers taking either Sky or Virgin Media can also access up to 1,200 movies on demand via Sky Cinema (formerly Sky Movies) - but that relies on taking the full Sky Cinema pack of 11 live channels.
Sky are cheaper, charging £18 a month, while Virgin charge £21 a month.
We've already made a quick comparison of HD channels available in the main channel count above, but which channels are included, and which come at a premium differs.
Among the cheaper packages, Sky and Virgin are neck and neck - both offer 11 Freeview HD channels.
They now also offer the same number of HD channels in their most expensive base bundles: 50 each for the Full House and Box Sets deals:
|Freeview||VM: Mix TV||VM: Fun TV||VM: Full House||Sky: Box Sets Bundle|
But there's some variation between the channels included. The HD channels we'll only find on Sky include Sky Atlantic HD, the Disney channels, and Star Plus HD.
The HD channels that Virgin Media can boast about including as standard with the Full House Bundle include the BT Sport line up, MTV Live HD and H2 (but oddly, not the normal History Channel).
Virgin Media HD channels
Note that the figures above don't include the premium sports and movies channels in HD.
The good news is that as part of the above-mentioned refresh, Sky Cinema should now be available in HD to both Sky and Virgin Media customers as standard.
Those wanting Sky Sports in HD, however, will still need to pay extra for the privilege.
To get Sky Sports in HD on Sky - whether Sky+ or Sky Q - for example, customers need to take:
- Box Sets Bundle: £38
- Sky Sports: £27.50
- HD pack: £6
- Total: £71.50
Virgin customers can add the HD pack to Sky Sports whatever their basic channel subscription, but it'll cost them another £7 a month.
We think this is pretty shocking overcharging, but as both providers are doing it, it's likely to continue.
But because they include more of the "premium" channels such as those from Disney in HD, and because their HD add-on costs slightly less, Sky win the HD battle.
As might be obvious from the above, competition between Sky and Virgin for the Sky Sports channels is fierce.
All new Virgin Media TV customers should get Sky Sports News HQ and Sky Sports Mix in their standard channel line-up. To get the full Sky Sports channel pack costs £31.75 a month on top of any other TV package costs. Sky charge £27.50 a month for the full line up.
Every now and again, Virgin have offered a Sky Sports "Season Ticket" deal for those willing to pay upfront. It was last available in summer 2014, giving savings of about £120 over the season.
This is an easy one, at least at face value.
Virgin offer the fastest broadband and no longer limit download speeds - but they do throttle uploads for heavy users. As mentioned above, they also offer broadband without a phone line, for those who don't need or want one.
Sky, on the other hand, offer a truly unlimited broadband connection for a good price - and they often run appealing cheap or "free" broadband deals.
Each provider's main broadband deals:
Virgin Media offer one of the fastest broadband services in the UK.
Look at the above table: even Virgin's cheapest deal is based on speeds of up to 50Mb - quicker than Sky's 38Mb fibre deal, and much faster than standard broadband.
As our guide explains, Virgin's cable service is much more efficient than standard broadband.
For example, standard Sky broadband speeds are affected primarily by distance from the exchange - so customers who live a long way from their exchange should expect this to play some part in any lowering of speed.
Because it uses cable, Virgin Media broadband is much less affected by distance.
Here's what that means in terms of real speeds, according to Ofcom tests published in March 2016.
|Advertised Speed||Average over 24 hours||Average at peak times
|Sky ADSL||8.7Mb to 10.4Mb||8.6Mb to 10.3Mb|
|Up to 38Mb||33.3Mb - 35.2Mb||33.1Mb - 35.4Mb|
|Up to 50Mb||49.4Mb - 51.6Mb||44.6Mb - 49.1Mb|
|Up to 76Mb||56.6Mb - 63.5Mb||55.6Mb - 62.4Mb|
|Up to 100Mb||93.3Mb - 98.2Mb||81.6Mb - 90.6Mb|
|Up to 200Mb||168.0Mb - 179.9Mb||148.0Mb - 164.4Mb|
That said, Virgin Media broadband have come in for some stick for their traffic management policy. While Virgin say downloads should be completely unaffected, heavy uploaders - gamers and the like - can expect to find their uploads slowed by half.
In September 2016, however, they brought in a range of new broadband packages designed for gamers, based on the up to 200Mb tier. These, Virgin say, have both superfast downloads and uploads, and no traffic management upstream.
Bear in mind however, that contention (the number of users signed up to the provider in the local area) particularly at peak times (during the evening and at weekends) can affect both providers - although Ofcom say Sky's 38Mb fibre suffers the least degradation as a result of contention.
Among Sky's broadband deals there are three truly unlimited packages with no download limits or traffic management.
Those looking for cheaper broadband, or who don't live within Sky's network area, will find they're subject to data caps or traffic management. There's more on the full Sky broadband range in our detailed review here.
Virgin's deals are all unlimited as far as downloading goes, but unless they opt for one of the Gamer deals with their unlimited uploads, the very heaviest broadband users may face some restrictions. For more information check out our guide on fair use policies.
At the other end of the scale, Sky win for those who want a basic broadband connection for browsing and email.
Broadband 12GB has taken over from the old Broadband Lite package, offering a usage allowance of 12GB. Customers who have both Sky TV and Sky Talk can get it for £5 a month.
Then again, Sky are also known for frequently offering their standard Unlimited broadband at a discount, or even free of charge, so it's possible to get more for rather less.
Out of area broadband
Once upon a time those who weren't in a Virgin Media cable area could still get Virgin Media Broadband, albeit only via ADSL - but Virgin Media National hasn't been on sale for a good few years now.
Sky Broadband is much more widely available. In addition, where they can't supply the main deals, customers with TV packages can opt for a basic 8Mb "out of area" service called Sky Connect.
Assuming we're taking Sky's Original Bundle, here's what Sky Connect costs per month:
|Package||Contract term||Upfront price||Monthly price|
|Sky Broadband Connect
(unlimited) + Talk
Connect used to come with a 40GB download allowance, but that was removed at the end of 2014, giving users unlimited downloads.
Those downloads, however, are at considerably slower speeds - in fact, at up to just 8Mb, it's slower than the minimum Ofcom say is needed for the average home - and the service is subject to constant traffic management.
Anyone who's not sure whether they're in the main pricing area for Sky or Virgin should check with our postcode search.
Sky and Virgin both offer HD-ready set top boxes with their deals, with a choice of hardware.
At the time of this update, Sky have not long retired their well regarded Sky+ HD boxes in favour of offering all new TV customers their Sky Q 1TB box as standard. We've a guide to what Sky Q offers over and above Sky+ here.
Standard set top boxes
Virgin Media's Tivo box
Otherwise both providers' set top boxes offer the following standard features:
- Pause and rewind live TV
- Record at least three channels at once; stored on the box
- Access extra on demand content
It may not be the main difference between the two, but storage is the easiest place to start. The "basic" Sky Q box has 1TB - although only around 700GB of that is available for customer use.
That's enough for about 500 hours of SD content, or 150 hours of HD recordings. Virgin's Tivo box has 500GB, enough for about 250 hours of SD recordings.
Sky Q 2TB box
Better set top boxes
Both Virgin Media and Sky offer better set top boxes for an additional cost.
The basic advantage with both is more space to store recorded TV shows: one Terabyte (TB) of storage is enough to store about 500 hours of content in standard definition, although Sky claim their 2TB box can store around 1,000 hours of SD programming.
Sky Q box
|VM: TV V6*
|"Smart feature activation" costs £60 with a Multiscreen subscription, or £199 for just the one box
|£49.95 if taken as the first box or free with the VIP bundle
|£99.95 if taken as the first box or £49.95 with the Full House or VIP bundles
*V6 box available to existing Bundle customers as an upgrade. Available to new customers from early 2017.
Tivo's main selling point is a clear and intuitive user interface, as well as the following:
- Record three channels at once
- Advanced search by title, actor etc
- Streaming doesn't share the broadband connection so won't slow down other internet use
The current Tivo boxes have been around for a while now, and while they're still up there for intelligent viewing and the amount of content they can deal with at any one time, they were starting to look a little shabby compared with Sky Q.
Enter the new Tivo box, the Virgin TV V6, which is around 10 times faster than the old box, Ultra HD Compatible - and contains six tuners. As before, multiple boxes work together, making multiscreen subscriptions highly flexible.
There's more on Tivo in our guide here.
As mentioned above, however, Sky are now offering their Sky Q boxes as standard with all their TV deals. We got a sneak peek of what they'd be capable of late last year - and here's a quick rundown of their main features:
- Sky Q 1TB box has eight tuners: four for recording and viewing on main TV, two for streaming to tablet and/or Sky Q Mini box.
- Sky Q 2TB box has 12 tuners: five for recording and live viewing on main box, four for streaming via Sky Q app or Sky Q Mini boxes.
The 2TB box is Ultra HD compatible - but viewers will need a Sky Q Multiscreen subscription to access the Ultra HD content available.
There's more on multiscreen services from both providers in our guide here.
So, who did you choose? Sky or Virgin?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.