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:
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: the V HD box or the Sky+ box? 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.
All three of these deals are offered on 12 month contracts; Sky's line rental is £17.40 and Virgin's is £17.99.
Sky's line rental no longer comes with any inclusive calls, and the cheapest call plan is their Evenings And Weekends Extra package, which costs £4 a month.
Virgin throw in weekend calls, and also offer an upfront line rental deal costing £184 for the year, which brings the price down to the equivalent of £15.34 a month.
All the same, Sky are cheaper than Virgin by around £2 to £5 a month - but with much slower broadband.
Virgin Media win this race with their Big Easy deal, offering a downsized version of their M+ TV package - just 60 channels - bundled with up to 50Mb broadband and weekend calls.
Frustratingly, new customers can't take advantage of the 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.
All in all, we think Virgin Media are the best budget bundle bet.
|Package||Price||Line rental||Total monthly|
|TV Original + Broadband 12GB + Talk||£10
for 6 mths,
for 6 mths,
|Big Easy Bundle||£10
for 9 mths,
for 9 mths,
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 - 170 for Virgin Media and around 320 for Sky, of which about 50 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.
|Package||Price||Line rental||Total Monthly|
|TV Variety + Broadband Unlimited + Talk||£21
for 6 mths,
for 6 mths,
|Big Fun Bundle||£25
for 9 mths,
for 9 mths,
We used to have to build our own Virgin Media bundle to create similarly priced packages - and ours included their 50Mb broadband. The Big Fun bundle is better, and cheaper - which shows how seriously Virgin take the value of their Big Bundle deals.
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 £17.99 a month compared to £17.40. However, Virgin are better value for those looking for weekend calls; people wanting anytime calls will find prices much closer than they once were.
|Line rental only||Inclusive
Evening and Weekend Calls
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: M||VM: M+||VM: L||VM: XL||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 TV programming guide
From the table above, Virgin Media seem like a good choice for those looking for a budget TV deal: TV M offers a little less than people with the best Freeview reception can expect to get.
Do note the following though:
Virgin's TV M package is only available as part of the Big Easy bundle, with unlimited 50Mb broadband and weekend calls. It costs £24 a month, plus £17.99 line rental.
Sky's basic Original bundle costs £20 a month. Add in their Broadband 12GB and phone package, and we've a package that's not even £1 more expensive 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 for those with TV M+ or above.
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 what used to be called the Family Bundle, now renamed the Box Sets Bundle to reflect that exclusive content.
There are also around 1,200 movies available to watch on demand via Sky Cinema (no doubt still known to many by its old name, Sky Movies) - but access to them relies on taking the full Sky Cinema pack of 11 live channels, for £18 a month.
Sky don't offer Netflix. Instead 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.
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.
But despite gradually adding more HD channels to their XL TV line-up, Virgin are still short of the 50 Sky offer with their Box Sets bundle:
|Freeview||VM: M+||VM: L||VM: XL||Sky: Box Sets Bundle|
While the numbers are getting closer, 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 XL 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 - but those wanting Sky Sports in HD 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 do at least offer Sky Cinema in HD as standard now, because their premium HD pack costs slightly less, and because of the higher number of channels available both with and without it, Sky are the clear HD winners.
As might be obvious from the above, competition between Sky and Virgin for the Sky Sports channels is fierce.
All Virgin Media TV customers, bar those with TV M, get Sky Sports News HQ in their standard channel line-up. To get the full Sky Sports channel pack costs £29.25 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 will offer 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.
Additionally, 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 also unlimited, though 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 now retired Broadband Lite, offering a usage allowance of 12GB. For new customers taking both Sky TV and Sky Talk, it's free for the first 12 months, then £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.
Check our broadband usage guide to see how realistic the option of "free" broadband is, depending on household usage.
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 couple of 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.
Here's more on Sky Connect:
|Package||Price||Line Rental||Total Monthly|
+ Connect (unlimited)
for 6 mths,
for 6 mths,
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 free HD-ready set top boxes with their deals, as well as better quality hardware for an additional cost.
Sky's + HD box
Standard set top boxes
Both set top boxes offer the following standard features:
- Pause and rewind live TV
- Record at least two channels at once; stored on the box
- Access extra on demand content
The main difference between the two is storage. Sky's box has 250GB, enough for about 185 hours of standard definition (SD) recording. Virgin's Tivo box has 500GB, enough for about 250 hours of SD recordings.
Virgin Media's Tivo box
Better set top boxes
In addition to the free options, 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 up to 1180 hours of SD programming.
Sky+ HD box
|£49.95 if taken as the first box or free with the VIP bundle
£5/month for Tivo service except with Big bundle
|From £49 to £249 depending on existing services, services being added, and upgrades
Note that a Tivo box is now standard for all new Virgin Media customers, but those who don't take one of the "Big Bundles" (Big Easy, Big Bang etc) must pay an extra £5 a month for the actual Tivo service.
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
There's more on Tivo in our guide here.
New customers can save £5 a month by choosing the V HD box instead, but this is the very basic box, which can't record TV.
Even better set top boxes
Sky Q 2TB box
Earlier this year, Sky shook things up a little with the launch of their next generation Sky Q set top boxes.
In the meantime, here's a quick outline of the bundles being offered to new customers:
The setup costs above apply to customers who are brand new to Sky; those upgrading can only get the multiscreen option but can expect to pay up to £99.
The Sky Q 1TB box has eight tuners, four of which are reserved for recording and viewing on the main TV, and two of which allow for streaming to a tablet and/or Sky Q Mini box.
The Sky Q 2TB box has 12 tuners. Five of these are used for recording and live viewing on the main box while four are assigned to streaming via the Sky Q app or on Sky Q Mini boxes.
Virgin Media's Tivo was revolutionary when it launched, and while it's still up there for intelligent viewing and the amount of content it can deal with at any one time, it could start to look increasingly shabby alongside Sky Q.
So, who did you choose? Sky or Virgin?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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