It’s more than 10 years since Sky introduced the digital TV recorder to British homes, and since then Sky+ has become synonymous with recording TV for millions of people.

Virgin’s V+ recorder was a decent rival to Sky+, but it wasn’t until January 2011 that the arrival of TiVo saw a challenger that threatened to put Sky+HD in the shade.

Where Sky aims for a childproof simplicity that anyone can use, TiVo trades some of that comfort to become a kind of co-pilot that will help you to discover more of the TV you like.

If you’re choosing a digital TV service, there's a good chance you’re wondering which of these products will be sitting under your TV.

 

 

Sky+HD is now the standard box for new Sky customers - even if you don’t get HD it’s an HD-ready box (and you can watch the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 HD channels). An extra £149 (or less if there’s an offer on) gets you the 2TB recorder.

TiVo’s pitched as the standard Virgin box, but you can get the cheaper V HD to save £24/year.

Sky+HD vs TiVo

What can they do?

  Tuners Hard disc SD storage HD storage HD 3D HDMI Digital audio out Broadband
Sky+ HD 2

320GB/ 2,000GB

185/740 hours 65/350 hours Yes Yes Yes Yes Ethernet
Virgin Media Tivo 3 500GB/ 1,000GB 250/500 hours 50/100 hours Yes Yes Yes Yes 10Mbps cable modem

It’s worth remembering that Sky and Virgin use different compression technologies for their HD TV, so Sky+HD can store at least a third more HD than TiVo.

Both the Sky+HD boxes have larger hard discs than advertised, but the extra space is used for the Sky On Demand service (180GB for the standard box and 500GB for the 2TB box). This downloads a selection of films and programmes overnight, based on your subscription channels, that you can watch instantly. It’s a kind of ‘on-demand lite’ for those who can’t get Sky On Demand over broadband.

Design & hardware

Sky+HD 320GBThe latest Sky+HD boxes are both striking and very different, united by the iconic ring of lights which spin when you’re watching a recording. The standard Sky+HD’s mix of matt black and silver looks very smart, but it’s trumped by the glossy black of the Sky+HD 1TB. The 1TB is notably smaller than the standard Sky+HD box, as well.

One worry about the standard Sky+HD box is how far Sky can push this six-year-old platform. Sky’s naturally bullish about the flexibility of its hardware and software, but we have to wonder if it could run the sort of smart functions seen on TiVo.

Back-panel connections include the two satellite inputs, an old-school Scart connector for analogue TVs, an HDMI digital video and audio output, an optical digital audio output, Ethernet, a telephone modem (this regularly phones Sky to make sure it’s in the correct location), USB ports (also one on the front) and a service port. If you want Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, you have to use the optical digital audio out, because Sky’s HDMI can only carry stereo. This is one quirk that Sky should have definitely fixed by now, especially on the 1TB model.

Virgin Media powered by TiVoTiVo is a smart-looking box, with a low profile but a hefty behind that takes up shelf-space. There are no fancy spinning lights, just power LEDs and three lights that tell you how many of the three tuners are being used to record. The matt black finish is subtle, but it looks a bit plasticky next to Sky+HD.

TiVo’s connections are similar, with a cable input replacing Sky’s satellite inputs, a viewing card slot (Sky’s is under a flap on the front), and an HDMI with full Dolby Digital support. TiVo uses an external DC power brick, which could make it easier to replace a potential failure point, but power bricks are notoriously wasteful and generally not as good as internal power supplies.

In addition to TiVo’s three cable TV tuners is an internal 10Mbps modem, which is used for apps like BBC iPlayer and YouTube. This bandwidth is in addition to your Virgin broadband, because there’s so much extra capacity on Virgin’s broadband network.

User interface

Sky HD GuideIt’s the on-screen experience where the Sky+ and TiVo experiences really break into different camps. Sky+ is functional and a little bit old-school, but it’s very obvious how to get around. TiVo is glossy and multi-functional, but you’ll have to explore it to get the full benefit.

The Sky HD Guide, as it’s known, is the latest version of Sky’s programme guide. It shares a lot in common with the original 1998 Sky Guide, such as the blue/yellow colour scheme and use of the coloured remote control buttons to take shortcuts from one screen to another, such as the TV Guide and the Sky+ Planner - or for actions like ordering Series Links or deleting recordings.

It’s very easy to navigate around the Sky Guide, using the channel up/down buttons to flip through pages of channels, you can jump 24 hours forward and back, and Series Links are now automatically offered when you set up a recording. There’s a thumbnail window so you can keep watching a live channel as you browse, and it will also play back film trailers in the Sky Anytime section.

Recordings can be sorted in alphabetical or chronological order, and series are ‘stacked’ to save space, which is essential when your 1TB box starts to fill up. Films and shows in Sky On Demand are usually replaced after up to a month, but you can save them to your bit of the hard disc (where they can sit for years until you have a quiet day, trust us).

TiVo programme guideThe TiVo interface is a whole lot busier, with a top menu bar designed to push shows and films from the massive Virgin on-demand catalogue, and a wide choice of menus to get you into different bits of the Virgin experience, plus a thumbnail screen that shows live TV or a selection of trailers depending on where you are in the world of Virgin.

The TV guide is a ‘backwards EPG’: you can scroll back up to a week and instantly access catch-up TV from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5. Hopefully more channels will join this. You can also access catch-up directly through the menus, but it’s quite tedious to browse, and the BBC iPlayer has a dedicated app that’s very similar to the internet version (with HD).

As you create recordings, TiVo learns what you like, and you can help this by giving ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘thumbs-down’ to any programme in the TV Guide. You can also create Wish Lists based on TV shows, actors, directors and genres, and TiVo uses all this information to either record things automatically that you might like, just make recommendations you can choose. As you approve or reject these, it learns even more and the selections improve.

Remote and app control

Sky+ Remote Vs Virgin Media Tivo Remote

The Sky+HD remote control is a stone cold classic, building on the great original Sky and Sky+ remotes. For the 1TB box, the silver front is replaced by a glossy blue-grey layer, but both have the same super-grippy back, comfortable shape, responsive rubbery buttons and a layout so neat and simple you can use it in pitch black after just a few days.

The dumbell-shaped TiVo remote is equally distinctive and uses both size and shape to put important buttons where you will want them. It’s a little too slippy, though, and you have to stretch too much to reach some controls. Close, but no cigar (maybe a cigarillo).

Both boxes have remote control apps that let you take a lot of the user guide from the screen to an iPad or iPhone (Android users are being forced to wait for full-featured remote control apps).

The Sky+ app lets you take complete control of your Sky+HD box over your home network, and set up recordings from anywhere with an internet connection. Virgin Media TV Anywhere is a more advanced app that not only lets you explore the TV guide in a format that's even better than the on-screen interface, it lets you stream video from your TiVo to your iPad, and when you're away from home, there's a selection of live streaming TV channels from your subscription.

Interactive: apps & on-demand

Sky On Demand catch-upSky has been a pioneer in ‘red button’ interactive TV experiences, although these are mostly restricted to Sky Sports and Sky News, plus the BBC’s red button services. After some experiments, most other broadcasters have abandoned the red button for the more glamorous and dynamic interaction offered by the internet, social media and smartphones.

Alongside multi-screen football and F1, there’s also a selection of casual games and online betting available under the Interactive button on Sky+HD (or any other Sky box). They’re OK, but again the average smartphone has more to offer these days.

The on-demand experience for Sky+HD is going to be a lot richer by the end of 2012. All Sky subcribers can use Sky On Demand, which has dozens of extra TV shows from Sky’s channels, the BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and others like Dave, Watch and National Geographic, as well as more films and sport if you’re a Sky Movies or Sports subscriber. Channel 4 will be be adding their catch-up library in early 2013, and you can use it on any broadband connection, even if you don't take Sky Broadband.

Virgin TiVo guideTiVo didn’t even have the BBC’s red button extras when it launched, but these were added in time for the 2012 Olympics in June. Instead of red button extras for other channels, TiVo has its apps section, which includes the BBC iPlayer, YouTube and Spotify, as well as promotional apps that come and go like the Walking Dead app from FX, which collects a set of webisodes that formed a prequel to the first season.

The iPlayer app is a slick port of the ‘big screen’ web version, with support for HD. Spotify gives you six month trial of the premium service, which lets you stream thousands of music tracks to TiVo, your phone and your PC. YouTube is a simple conversion of the ‘big screen’ player for PCs, and you’ll sometimes be directed to it when you’re exploring TV shows and people through the programme guide.

There’s a similar choice of routes into Virgin’s on-demand library, such as the Discovery bar at the top of the main menu screen, which recommends shows and films, or just by browsing through the categories to find something you like. There are obvious appointment-to-view items, like the music playlists which are refreshed every week with new songs and playlists dedicated to events like the Brits, movie seasons around the Oscars, or box-sets to coincide with the return of a hit series. And don’t forget, TiVo’s always watching what you watch.

Cost

  Initial Cost Installation Monthly cost
Sky+HD (320GB) FREE £60 -
Sky+HD (2TB) £149 £60 -
Virgin Media Tivo (500GB) FREE £40 £5
Virgin Media Tivo (1TB) £49.95 (free with VIP top tier) £40 £5

One major difference with TiVo and Sky+HD is that you own the Sky box after your first 12 months, but Virgin’s receivers are always on loan. That’s not such a bad thing if it goes wrong, but the Sky box is a perfectly good receiver for free channels (including HD) if you decide to stop paying.

These menu prices are rarely what you’ll pay - installation costs are usually dropped for new customers or if you take phone or broadband as well. Sky+HD 2TB has been as little as £49 on offer, and you might be able to get the same deal if you agree to a full-whack subscription.

Conclusion

Sky always has the edge in choice of channels and simplicity, but if you can stand the learning curve and cluttered interface, TiVo is strongly ahead of Sky+HD. It’s smarter and really does give you full control over what you watch, while the Wish Lists and recommendations genuinely help you to find more things you will like.

Improvements to Sky On Demand have really helped Sky+HD will to close the gap on TiVo this year. The question is whether Sky can replicate the ‘smart’ side of the TiVo experience or carry apps like Spotify, YouTube and iPlayer. Our suspicion is that it will need a new generation of Sky boxes to be on a par with TiVo’s technology.