Virgin on ludicrous speed..

On Saturday Virgin Media came and installed their new kit.

This included the Superhub 3 (powered by Intel’s Puma 6 SoC which also contains an Atom x86 CPU), a chunky beast with considerably more ports than the Sky Q Hub.  They (for there were three of them) also installed the Tivo V6, a box that’s considerably smaller than the Sky Q Silver box and old Tivo combined.

It’s titchy! But yes, it does have an external PSU..

Superhub 3.0 and HomeWorks (up to 300Mbs broadband)

There are many reports of performance issues with the Superhub 3, all thanks to the Intel chipset.  It mainly affects gamers, so I haven’t had a chance to properly reproduce it – all I know is that I downloaded a 52Gb game file on the Xbox One in super quick time – I was up and running within 10-15 minutes.  More testing is needed when playing multi-player games.  I’ll report back soon.

A speed test after installation resulted in 330Mbs download, 21Mbs upload.  A speed test during the day when things are bit busier yielded a result around 278-286Mbs down, 19Mbs up, which is very reasonable.  A 5am speed test shows great results again.  I’m very happy.  With Sky Broadband Fibre Pro, downloads maxed out at 71Mbs (uploads 19Mbs).

HomeWorks offers a number of benefits to the user – the up to 300Mbs download being one.  The other is non-traffic managed uploads.  I’m currently uploading 275Gb worth of data from my MacBook Pro to Crashplan and it averages around 15Mbs – which is very reasonable given the distances involved (to my knowledge, Crashplan has no European datacentres).  The other benefits of HomeWorks includes next business day engineer visits if things go wrong, access to a general IT support desk, and F-Secure’s internet security suite.

The Superhub 3’s admin interface leaves a lot to be desired, however.  Passwords are shown in the clear when entered, and the whole UI is exceptionally sluggish. Changing the client password was a bit of a pain – the unit enforces a specific password policy which cannot be overridden.  It meant that even though I changed the SSID to match that of my old broadband Wi-Fi, the password had to be changed.  So I had to reset all my gadgets Wi-Fi settings.

Oh, 802.11ac wireless coverage is good in my little place.  Upstairs is covered adequately and there is no need for any extenders.

Tivo V6

Xbox One S (and through the pass-through HDMI port, a Google Chromecast), an Apple TV, a Tivo V6, and an LG smart TV – all you need to stream anything from anywhere. If not, it’s not worth knowing about.

Back when I originally had a Tivo from Virgin Media many moons ago (we’re talking about 3 years ago, just when I was going through the divorce), I found it to be the most sluggish thing ever.  And that’s why I moved to Sky.  Four years later and I’m back with Virgin, and the Tivo V6 fixes all the sluggishness.  It’s now super, super fast.  Navigating anywhere is a pleasure.  With Sky Q, it was the biggest pain in the arse imaginable.  Nothing has changed in 12 months – shame on Sky.  Even Sky’s internet based NOW TV (which I use to pick up Sky Atlantic stuff now) has a better UI than it’s premium satellite sister.  Madness.

The Tivo V6’s UI is the same UI as seen on the older Tivo.  Coming from Sky Q, it’s all a bit strange and new, but as I say, it’s about 65,000 times better than Sky’s offering.  With the Tivo, it’s not a case of downloading on-demand content – it’s streamed in real time via the Superhub 3 (live TV comes in via the co-ax cable).  Older Tivos had a dedicated 10Mbs cable modem connection for on-demand stuff – this one doesn’t need it other than for live TV.  10Mbs these days means nothing in the 4K / UHD world, so it makes sense to get on-demand and internet related stuff from the Superhub.  I am interested to see where Virgin takes 4K TV, however.  Will it be live via co-ax?  Will it be live streamed over the internet?

The Tivo V6 does come with a few problems, however.  I’ve come across a couple of super scrambly, artefact-laden picture quality issues which tend to go away if you pause/unpause playback.  It seems to affect on-demand – I haven’t come across it on live TV yet.  It’s not happened often, but I’ve definitely experienced it. A few others have noticed it on the Virgin community forums, so we’ll see what Virgin has to say about it.  Not a big issue for me as yet – but I’m keeping an eye on it.

The second problem is video output.  By default the unit will attempt figure out what modes your TV supports.  In my case, it knows its a 4K TV and sets it to 2160 resolution.  However, some content (notably standard definition (SD)) appears blockier than usual, and some 4K content (under Tivo’s Netflix app) looks to add weird motion oddness that’s not present on the TV’s own Netflix app.

Tivo V6 offers a number of pass through modes that forces the TV to do any upscaling and other fancy video doodads, but I’ve found that occasionally – especially when using YouTube which can offer 4K, HD or SD content depending on the uploader – the TV loses the signal and I have to turn the TV off and on to get the picture back.  Again, I mentioned this on the forums – it seems that it is a bug, and the Tivo is due a 4K firmware update at some point.  I’ve left the unit in 2160 mode, no pass through and will just use the TV Netflix and YouTube apps which work perfectly.

The Tivo V6 is still new, and there are gremlins.  Just as there were (and still are) gremlins in the Sky Q system.  They aren’t bad gremlins, as it so happens, and doesn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the device.  My favourite thing about the Tivo is the remote.  It makes the Sky Q remote look like a simpleton’s plaything.  I had to stop using the Sky Q touch remote because I found my thumb was aching a lot, and it was too responsive, resulting in too many mistakes.  So I gave up and went for the more sensible remote.  But even the Sky Q sensible remote wasn’t that sensible.  The Tivo remote has a proper home button like the Sky Q, but more importantly, has a Guide button that takes you to the TV guide.  And it’s so easy to filter the guide from the remote.

In short: the Tivo V6 is everything Sky Q should be, but isn’t.  Better UI, better remote, super quick access to everything, and super fast.  It lends itself better to discovering content more than Sky Q does.  With Sky Q the Top Picks were just not relevant to my tastes.  I can find and discover stuff much faster with Tivo.

Phone Line

I’ve gone for a Virgin phone line.  So far, my experience is better than my previous Virgin phone line in that whoever had the number last was the target of phone spammers galore.  Fingers crossed his new number (which I love, BTW – they did a good job in picking it) will be spam free.

Virgin Mobile

As my contract with EE is at an end in April, I thought about consolidating everything with Virgin.  But the ordering process for Virgin Mobile when signed in as a Virgin Media customer is the biggest pain in the arse in the universe.  It told me that I had no Virgin Media kit installed (I do) and refused to give me the offer of 20Gb for £15/month (better than my £19 for 16Gb with EE, which runs out in April and goes up to £34.99).  So I try to call, but end up running around in circles with the operator.  This clip from the cartoon, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, sums up my experience:

Just as well I didn’t go through with my Virgin Mobile order, however.  It turns out that they don’t allow mobile tethering – something vital for my job.  So I’ve found a great deal with Three (30Gb tethering – unlimited data on phone) and will be moving to them soon – I’ll be porting my number from EE, so that number will not change.  For my iPad SIM, I’m considering pay as you go.  I don’t use anywhere near the data I’m currently paying monthly for, so it seems a bit of a waste.

Downloading ALL the things! Switching from Sky to Virgin.. part one

For the past year, I’ve been pretty happy with Sky Fibre Broadband Pro with its static IP and IPv6 address.  But with anything that works well, I get restless. Actually, what I’m not so happy about is Sky Q, and Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox wanting to buy Sky.  But I can’t do anything about Sky Q until the end of August/early September.

So I’m intending to move to Virgin Media in small increments, starting with broadband and finishing with their TV service – albeit with a few changes.

The first is that I’m not going to have the Sky Cinema channels.  I find it’s better to rent (or in most cases, buy) movies on iTunes.  I’m also not as keen on the numerous TV channels out there – I barely watch more than 1% of them, so I don’t need the full TV package anymore.  My viewing mainly consists of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube (there are some surprisingly good vloggers out there).  So I’ll probably take out the basic Tivo 6 package come September.  For watching Sky Atlantic shows, I’ll probably just buy them on iTunes (Westworld, Game of Thrones) – cheaper than a subscription in most cases.

So I’ve ordered the Virgin Media HomeWorks package that delivers up to 300Mbs download and 20Mbs upload, with no traffic management.  The additional feature is that if things go wrong with the broadband connection, there’s next day engineer on-site call out available.  Plus a 24/7 helpline. Designed to cater for home workers, it seems the perfect package for my needs (I usually work from home at least once a month – plus there are all the times I’m on-call).

I’m switching my landline back to Virgin too (since Sky have increase line rental). While the vast majority of calls are made and received on my mobile phone, I find it’s still handy to have a landline.

So we’ll see how things go.  In particularly, I’ll be interested to see how well the Sky Q kit works with Virgin Media broadband.  I’ll write up my experiences, as always.

iTunes & iTunes Extras: A viable alternative to physical media – at last!

One thing I love about buying movies and TV shows on physical media: the extras.  You usually get audio commentaries from the filmmakers along with little featurettes (and occasionally feature-length documentaries) about the making of the film.

But the problem with physical media is having to store it somewhere.  All those cases all add up.  And if higher definition versions come out later, you’ll have to replace the disk, packaging, etc.

Until recently, I had been put off of iTunes movies because I’ve a reasonable fear that the movie studios may pull the movie off the service at any time and remove my access to the movie.  After all, this DOES happen with iTunes music – if you buy a track or album and it’s no longer sold on iTunes, you won’t be able to download it again if you’ve removed the files to make room on your computer or device.

However, I think Apple (and the movie studios) treat movies & TV shows differently.  Given the size of HD movies, they can take up an enormous amount of space on a device.  And the Apple TV has limited storage (we’re talking about the 4th generation here).  So it makes sense that purchases remain in the cloud.   Thus I’m pretty certain that movies & TV shows bought on iTunes will remain a permanent fixture – and even if they don’t, I’m sure Apple would refund accordingly (although I shall bring this up again in another blog post about iTunes in-app subscriptions – what a mess THAT is!).

Anyway, one thing I have come to love with iTunes movies is iTunes Extras.  When movies first started being released with Extras, the offerings were not brilliant.  But more and more movies are being released with DVD/Blu-Ray quality features – and with audio commentaries.  The audio commentary thing is a HUGE deal.  Something that’s traditionally been limited to physical media is now being made available online (or offline if you download the movie to your computer or device).

Even Amazon Prime Video has jumped on the audio commentary bandwagon – offering a few of their TV shows with audio commentary.  It’s essentially a different title because the Amazon Prime Video platform doesn’t appear to offer multiple audio streams.  But it’s a start.  Netflix doesn’t offer ANY audio commentaries for any of their shows yet – so they’ve got some catching up to to.

But there is a downside to iTunes Extras.  They’re not available on iTunes TV shows.  If you buy a series or individual episodes, there are absolutely no extras whatsoever.  None.  Nada.  Kaput.  I hope Apple and the respective studios will put that right.  It’s essential, I think, to do this if Apple has any ambitions to make Apple TV a viable platform.

As for making backups of all the iTunes things – I use one of these, a Drobo.  Lovely device (on loan from work) – it offers full redundancy – up to two disks can fail at once and the data is okay.  But it’s a seriously noisy thing – and one of the disks (the second one from the bottom) is humming like mad.  So it’s on to take backups of my systems, then shut off.

Coming up next on my blog: iTunes subscriptions – is Apple passing the buck? and What movies to watch on iTunes, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video in 2017.

Sky’s Pie in the Eye

After nearly a full year of Sky Q, I’m almost ready to give up.  Except I can’t – not until August (blasted 18-month contracts).

The biggest problem with Sky Q for me is the user interface – requiring far too many actions to get to where you want to go.  I’ve barely used the Sky Q minibox. I’ve had to power cycle the minibox a couple of times as there are a few Wi-Fi devices upstairs that rely on it and stopped working after the box went a bit wonky (technical term).

I detest Sky’s series record.  It doesn’t work very well at all.  I often find it records new episodes and repeats of the same episodes, completely stops after a series ends and never picks up the next series, and all manner of silly things.  I use Sky’s web-based Never Miss to fill in the blanks, but honestly, this just isn’t good enough.

I gave up using the fancy pants Sky touch remote a while back.  Scrubbing through adverts is too sensitive – often going way beyond where I want to end up. The IR remote also supplied works well enough.

UHD 4K content is still sadly lacking too.

I also find that adding/removing packages is horribly inconsistent too.  Sometimes you can use the web interface to manage this, other times you need to speak to somebody by phone.   Why can’t we manage our account entirely online?

The only good thing about the whole package has been Sky Broadband Fibre Pro. Rock solid, with static IP and IPv6 address and everything.

But I think that come August I’ll be switching to Virgin Media.  Now they offer upload speeds up to 20Mbs and download speeds up to 200Mbs, with IPv6 coming later this year (apparently) – and a new, faster (and tiny) Tivo box that offers even more simultaneous live channel recording than Sky Q, albeit with a smaller capacity hard drive (doesn’t bother me – I’ve barely filled the Sky Q box HD).  I’d be happy to get rid of the Movie channels.  I don’t watch them as often as I used to – I find these days Netflix & Amazon take up most of my viewing time.