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Stream from Virgin Media initial review: Contract-free internet TV in one tiny box

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Virgin Media O2 has gazumped Sky by getting its internet TV platform to market first.

Stream from Virgin Media follows Sky’s similar Stream Puck in terms of announcement timing, but will be available as a standalone product from 27 April 2022. Sky’s alternative, meanwhile, is coming “later this year”.

It effectively offers Virgin TV and streaming platforms side-by-side, all accessible through one tiny box and without a long-term contract. It’s exclusive to Virgin Media broadband customers, but, crucially, doesn’t cost the Earth.

Even still, though, is it actually any good?

We got a demo of the device and service at its launch event. Here are our initial thoughts.

Design

  • Size: 80 x 80 x 16mm

The Stream device is a small set-top-box – far smaller than the remote that accompanies it.

The design is pretty much par for the course with such things – think of a classic Roku or Amazon Fire TV – except there is material on top that looks like a bit of carpet. It isn’t really, of course, but it does soften the typical plasticky nature of this kind of device.

Its remote is more like the sort of thing you get with Virgin TV’s cable service, with the standard button array and shape. Perhaps the most interesting bit is the voice control button, as we’re sure that’ll get a lot of use.

Stream is simple to set up, connecting to your network wirelessly and TV through HDMI 2.0. You can also hook it up via Ethernet with wired network passthrough available through the Micro-USB port that’s also used for power.

However, the demo model we saw was connected via Wi-Fi with just power and HDMI cables sticking out of the rear, running smoothly and quickly in operation (even from a room in a London hotel).

Specifications

  • Connections: 1x HDMI 2.0b, 1x Micro-USB
  • Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), Bluetooth 4.2
  • Wired internet connection available through Micro-USB
  • HDR10, HLG, Dolby Digital, Dolby Atmos (passthrough)

We don’t quite know what chipset or RAM it uses, although Virgin Media has confirmed that it is capable of outputting 4K HDR (HDR10 and HLG) and at up to 60Hz.

Dolby Digital audio decoding is supported, plus passthrough for Dolby Atmos. That’s most relevant for the likes of Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video services, plus the BT Sport Ultimate channel.

The service requires a minimum broadband speed of 50 Mbps, which is one of the reasons it is likely exclusive to Virgin Media broadband customers only. That way, the brand can ensure your internet connection is fast enough for it to operate correctly.

The remote control connects over Bluetooth.

Experience

  • Supported services: Netflix, Disney+, Prime Video, YouTube, Vimeo, Britbox
  • Free services: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, STV Player

We really need to get Stream into our testing labs to get a better idea of how it operates on a day-by-day basis, but, from our demo, it’s pleasing to note that the user experience is uncluttered and simple to navigate.

Stream’s concept is that you never have to sign up for a long-term contract, whether that be with Virgin Media or other supported streaming services. Plus, you can add and remove them on an ad-hoc basis – just paying for 30-day access at a time.

The user experience is geared that way, too, with the home screen pushing apps, live TV, on-demand and catch-up content in their own sections without overcomplicating things. Plus, if you do opt to add Netflix or Disney+, say, their content is added to the home screen in their own rails. They don’t appear on the UI for those who haven’t added them.

That means everything that appears on the screen is available to watch straight away. Apart from box office movies and rentals, you won’t be served content you don’t already pay for. And, if you want to add a partnering service to your experience, you can do so at the touch of a button.

There is voice control, as well, for searching within the main experience and inside apps, plus opening channels and apps. That makes things even simpler.

Virgin Media also offers a cunning 10 per cent credit scheme, whereby you receive a discount each month for every one of the services you pay for on the same bill. You can log into your existing Netflix account on Stream, but, if you take it through Virgin Media, you get 10 per cent off the subscription fee. It’s a very decent incentive, and something we’d like to investigate more.

Other than that, live TV is supported with a full electronic programme guide (EPG).

However, it’s worth noting that there is no tuner inside the Stream box, so you won’t be able to watch broadcast shows if your internet connection goes down.

Original Article