There’s a new breed of TV boxes coming at us from the big UK pay-TV companies like Virgin Media and Sky: the streaming-based, no contract, pay-TV box.
Stream from Virgin Media belongs to that group: you get most of the Freeview channels without needing an aerial, you get apps for most of the major streaming services, the ability to add premium channels by paying extra, and all that – without having to sign a long-term contract (for the TV part, at least).
So if it streams like a streaming stick, works like a streaming stick, and costs like a streaming stick – is the Virgin Media Stream a… streaming stick?
Not quite (and not just because it’s actually a square box!). In some ways, it’s better. In others – it’s not as good. And how does it compare to the traditional pay-TV boxes, like Virgin Media’s own TV 360 or Sky Q? For one, it can’t record – which is a significant shift for some customers.
So in this review, I’ll take an in-depth look at the new Stream box, its user interface, the value for money, and whether it’s the right solution for you.
Quick Look – Stream From Virgin Media
What is it: A tiny 4K streaming TV box with apps, premium channels and Freeview for Virgin Media broadband customers.
Interface / Usage
Value for Money
- Freeview and catch-up without an aerial
- Most of the major UK streaming apps/services
- Slick interface
- Personalised watch recommendations (with profiles)
- No long-term contracts (for the TV part)
- The interface is very inconsistent, slow at times and still buggy
- No recording capabilities
- Some Freeview channels missing
- No Multi-Room
- Only for Virgin Media broadband customers
Features and Specs
- Cost: £35 “activation fee”
- Size: 80mm x 80mm x 16 mm
- Video Quality: 4K/60 fps, HDR10 & HLG (No Dolby Vision)
- Audio: Dolby Digital (Dolby Atmos passthrough)
- Storage: None (only for system use)
- Apps: Netflix, Prime Video, Disney+, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, My5, BritBox, YouTube and more
- Connectivity: Dual Band WiFi 802.11ac, HDMI Port, Micro-USB (For power and Ethernet adapter)
- Extra Features: Voice remote with basic voice commands and search / Get 10% credit back on subscriptions / Get access to Virgin Go and watch live TV on your smartphone
It’s a streaming stick in all but the name, with one significant difference: the ability to stream most Freeview channels without an aerial. Other than that, you get streaming apps, a personalised (but still a bit confusing and inconsistent) interface, and the ability to add premium channels like Sky and BT Sport without long-term contracts. But without any recording capabilities, customers switching from TV 360 (or Sky Q) might find it hard to keep up with some of their favourite programmes.
Table of Contents
Who Is Virgin Media Stream For?
Let’s start with the obvious: Virgin Media’s new Stream box is only available for Virgin Media broadband customers, which makes it almost a “bonus” that those customers can get.
If this device was available to everyone in the UK, it could have been a real gamechanger – finally, a Freeview watching device that doesn’t require an aerial (or a satellite dish) – just fast broadband.
But alas, Virgin Media O2 wants this device to push people towards their broadband contracts (or be a simple TV addon to those already with them). But meanwhile, Sky has said their Streaming puck will be sold as a standalone device later this year – so we’ll see if Virgin Media changes its tune by then.
So now that’s out of the way, should you get the Virgin Media Stream box if you’re already a broadband customer with them?
It depends on your needs. This box is a very capable streaming device, with all the major services like Netflix and Disney+, but it’s not as good as a Fire TV 4K Stick or a Roku 4K Stick, and has fewer apps.
It’s also a very capable Freeview streaming box that lets you watch live channels as well as catch-up programmes – but doesn’t let you directly record anything, and is missing a few Freeview channels.
It lets you pick and choose premium pay-TV channels like Sky Cinema, Sky Sports, BT Sport and more, on a rolling 30-day contract – but it’s missing some channels and services like Sky Atlantic or Apple TV+.
And it gives you back a 10% credit on your direct streaming subscriptions every month – but some of those still cost more than what you could potentially get elsewhere (Sky via their own streaming service, NOW, for example).
So clearly, the Virgin Media Stream box can do a lot – but it’s not perfect on any front. It shows a lot of promise and is an excellent first step for those who want to gradually switch from traditional pay-TV to cheaper, no-contracts streaming-based TV.
Like Sky Glass, the streaming TV from Sky, the Stream is a stepping stone. You get Freeview, you can get premium channels, you get a personalised watchlist, and everything sits inside an all-encompassing easy-to-use interface. But some people will find that once they get used to streaming TV, they can “upgrade” to the superior solutions out there.
Virgin Media Stream Pricing
The Stream box is available to both new and existing Virgin Media O2 broadband customers (whether you have broadband-only or broadband and phone).
Sadly, the Stream box is currently NOT available to existing Virgin TV customers who are still under contract, so you can’t switch from the TV 360 box to this one, for example (at least until your contract is done).
Whether you’re a new or existing broadband customer, when you order the Stream box you will have to pay a one-time £35 “activation fee”.
Whatever it’s called, you’re basically paying for the hardware. Full-featured 4K streaming devices like the Fire TV 4K Stick and the Roku Express 4K typically cost more – between £35-£50, depending on special offers – but they also give your more powerful hardware.
As always, you can try to haggle – when scouring various forums, I’ve seen customers who managed to snag the Stream box without paying the £35, so that’s always worth a try.
Freeview And Premium TV Add-Ons
The Stream box comes with a long list of Freeview channels that you can stream for free. So, if those are enough for you – you won’t have to pay any monthly fees (other than the TV licence, of course).
If you do decide to add paid channels and services, you only have to sign up for 30 days at a time, and can cancel – or switch to other services – at any point.
That’s of course a significant shift from Virgin Media’s traditional TV packages, which usually come with an 18-months contract (just don’t forget you still have to sign a contract for the broadband part).
If you’re already subscribed to Netflix, Disney+ and the other 3rd party streaming services, you can either log in with your existing credentials or switch your subscription to Virgin Media and pay via your VM bill.
Since Virgin Media does want you to sign up to the other streaming services through them, they’re willing to incentivise you by offering a monthly “Stream Credit” – you can get a 10% “cashback” credit back into your bill, every month.
So, for example, if you sign up to Netflix and Disney+ via the Stream Box, you’ll pay £18.98/month, but then also get back £1.89 every month.
The major streaming services offer their regular pricing here (so £7.99/m for Disney+, £6.99/m and up for Netflix, etc.), but there are also a few content packs you can sign up to (again, with a 30-day rolling contract) –
- Sky Sports HD pack (£38.75 a month) – All 8 Sky Sports channels in HD
- Sky Cinema HD pack (£14.99 a month) – All 11 Sky Cinema channels in HD
- Sky Sports HD + Cinema HD pack (£46.25 a month) – All 8 Sky Sports and all 11 Sky Cinema channels in HD
- BT Sport pack (£18 a month) – All 4 BT Sport channels in HD, plus BT Sport Ultimate in Ultra HD
- Essential Entertainment (£12 a month) – 25 channels in HD including Sky Showcase, Sky Max, Sky Sports Mix, Sky Witness,
Sky Documentaries, Sky Comedy, MTV, Gold, Comedy Central, Discovery, Eurosport & Nat Geo
- Kids pack (£4 a month) – Nick HD, Nick Jnr, Nick Jnr Too, NickToons, Cartoon Network HD, Cartoonito, Boomerang
- Starzplay (£4.99 a month) – Top US drama series and blockbuster movies with original STARZ content
Surprisingly, these prices are pretty similar to both traditional pay-TV offers (but without a long-term contract), AND to some of the streaming options, specifically Sky’s NOW streaming service.
The NOW Cinema and NOW Entertainment memberships, for example, along with NOW Boost (that adds Full HD), cost £24/month.
On Stream, Sky Cinema HD and Essential Entertainment cost £27/month together. But when you factor in the 10% monthly credit, you’re down to – almost – the same price (but you’re not getting Sky Atlantic).
It’s even better with sports: BT Sport Monthly Pass, the standalone streaming service from BT, is £25/month. On the Stream, it’s £18/month.
Sky Sports on NOW, along with NOW Boost, is £38.99/month – almost identical to Sky Sports HD on Stream (though occasionally you can find better deals on NOW) – but you also get the 10% cashback credit every month.
The bottom line? Content pricing is pretty competitive on Stream, and – let me stress this again – it doesn’t come with long-term contracts, for the TV part.
For now, every household can only order ONE Stream box – so, unfortunately, there are no multi-room capabilities.
Instead, Virgin Media is saying the box is so small, that you can simply take it around the house with you – which is of course not a very helpful solution if you have multiple people watching in different rooms.
And lastly, if you leave Virgin Media’s broadband at any point – the Stream box will stop working, and you will need to return it.
Setting Up The Virgin Media Stream
When you order the Stream, you can get a Virgin Media O2 engineer to install it for you – but self-installation is relatively easy, even though – curiously – the box doesn’t arrive with an instruction manual (at least mine didn’t).
In the box, you get the Stream device itself, the remote, an HDMI cable, a power cable and a power adapter that can also be used as an Ethernet port.
The only thing you need to do is connect the box to your TV via HDMI, then to the power, and that’s it. If your WiFi connection is strong enough near your TV, then that’s your easiest bet.
The Stream box supports 4K and HDR, assuming your TV supports it, and Dolby Digital (with Dolby Atmos passthrough), depending again on what your TV / Soundbar supports.
There’s no optical port on the Stream, so both the video and audio all pass through the HDMI cable.
If you wish to use an Ethernet cable (from your Virgin Media hub to the Stream box), you can use the power adapter’s Ethernet port – that’s a very useful addition, as other devices (like the Fire TV Stick) usually make you buy an extra adapter for that functionality.
The initial setup took a few minutes due to software updates, and then I was… almost ready to go – when one of several bugs first appeared. This time – the remote refused to pair with the device. Why? Who knows. But a restart, along with removing and reinstalling the batteries, did the trick.
The remote is the exact same remote from Virgin Media’s TV 360 boxes. I guess they’re saving money this way, plus customers who switch will be familiar with it – but it’s a bit silly, since it has some useless buttons – mainly the Record button, which does precisely nothing (other than tell you to add programmes to the watchlist instead).
A button on the remote also lets you use your voice for search, or simple voice commands. It’s far from a voice assistant like Alexa, but you can use it to run apps (“Open Netflix), or easily search for specific TV shows, films that star a particular actor, etc.
Using The Virgin Media Stream Box
Virgin Media Stream’s Interface
The main Virgin Media Stream page – its home screen – is the Apps tab, and it looks a lot like a modern streaming device, with rows of titles, recommendations and apps.
You see a personalised list of “Top Picks” (presumably recommended to you according to other things you’ve watched), content from streaming apps, your personal watchlist and more.
In what is one of many inconsistencies across the Stream’s interface, some of these content rows manage to sync with their connected app – and some don’t. So you might see the next episodes of shows you already started watching, or you might see recommendations that have nothing to do with you – it all feels a bit random at the moment.
In terms of speed, the native interface – that is, the Stream’s built-in menus and screens – feel pretty swift, and you can jump between the various tabs and options quickly.
It’s only when you load one of the 3rd party apps – such as Netflix or Disney+ (which is notoriously slow and heavy), that it feels like the Stream’s CPU is somewhat underpowered, and things really slow down. It won’t affect your content watching – but it’s not as enjoyable as using apps on a powerful device like the Fire TV 4K Max stick, for example.
The next main tab is the Live TV section, which shows you a TV guide with all the available channels – including Freeview, and the optional premium channels.
Flipping between channels is swift and easy – it’s not as fast as on Freeview devices that are based on aerial reception, for example, because we’re still talking about streaming – so there’s a one or two seconds lag when you flip a channel – but you get used to it.
You’ll also notice the buffering – when you switch to a new channel (or start watching an on-demand programme), the picture quality will be quite bad for 10-20 seconds, until enough of the video feed is downloaded to your device – at which point you’ll get better quality.
The EPG (Electronic Programmes Guide) shows you details about upcoming programmes on each channel, and you can jump forward in time to see what’s coming up.
See something you want to watch in the future? No problem, just… oh, wait.
Virgin Media Stream’s Watchlist And Recordings Explained
This is probably the most significant aspect new users of the Stream will have to come to terms with – you can’t record anything.
Unlike the set-top boxes pay-TV customers have grown accustomed to (like the old Tivo, Virgin Media’s TV 360 and Sky Q), the Stream doesn’t have a hard drive. And there are also no “cloud recording” capabilities, as a few channels on Sky’s Glass TV have.
Instead, you can only watch content that’s available for streaming. That’s a given for people who are used to streaming sticks – you can only watch things that are on the company/streaming service’s servers – but it’s a new concept for those used to traditional TV boxes.
So, see a future programme or film on the TV guide you’re interested in? You can “Add it to your Watchlist”, which means one of two things:
1. If it’s available for streaming right now, either on one of the 3rd party streaming apps (like BBC iPlayer) or on Virgin Media’s own Catch-Up service – you can simply jump ahead and watch it.
2. If the show becomes available to watch in the future, it will wait for you on your Watchlist, and you’ll be able to stream it if and when it’s available.
So the Watchlist is basically a glorified bookmarks manager – it helps you remember things you want to watch, and it gives you a shortcut for the actual watching.
But you’re always dependent on what the streaming apps have in store for you. So if Channel 4 airs a live programme but DOESN’T upload it to All 4 (which does happen, for various reasons) – you won’t be able to watch it once the live broadcast is done.
And the same goes for all the other channels. Plus, if there’s a programme you plan on watching, and it gets removed after two months from BBC iPlayer or any of the other catch-up services – you won’t be able to watch it, because it’s nowhere to be found anymore.
And going back to the Stream’s many inconsistencies – some programmes you see on the TV Guide can be added to your watchlist, while for others you can only “Set A Reminder”, which will show you an onscreen notification when the show airs.
Why the inconsistency? I have no idea – it’s that random dice rolling again.
The watchlist itself also behaves in different ways, depending on the channel the content is coming from. For most, you don’t see the Last/Next episode you’re meant to be watching – the shortcut simply brings up a list of ALL the episodes that are available to watch for the programme you marked, and it’s on you to remember which episode you’re supposed to watch.
With BBC iPlayer, the watchlist did manage to sync up my history, so the title’s shortcut managed to open up the next episode (in a series on my watchlist) that I was supposed to watch – but this wasn’t the case for most other services, especially the Freeview ones.
Virgin Media Stream’s Catch-Up
The third tab on the Stream’s main interface is Catch-Up. As the name implies, it’s a collection of shows from all the major channels, from the past several days, that you can re-watch (by streaming, of course).
Interestingly, most of the content on the Catch-Up section seems to be streaming directly from Virgin Media’s servers, and not from the major broadcasters’ apps (I’m still waiting for confirmation on this from Virgin Media).
BBC iPlayer is the one exception – when you choose a BBC programme on the Catch-Up section, it simply loads up BBC iPlayer and you stream it from there.
But for the other channels – when you stream a catch-up title, you’re staying in the Stream’s native interface – and you also sometimes get a higher-quality stream than what the broadcaster’s own apps sometimes offer. (ITV Hub, for example, is notorious for offering streams with very low picture quality – but you get Full HD when you stream through the native catch-up section, assuming your broadband is fast enough).
Again, you’re limited to what Virgin Media (or the broadcaster) chooses to load to the Catch-Up section. You won’t find ALL the content from the supported channels there, so it’s still not the same as actually recording something while it airs, on the other boxes.
Virgin Media Stream’s Apps And Channels
A streaming device is only as good as the streaming apps it supports, and the Stream does have most of the major UK streaming apps – though there are a few glaring shortcomings.
The same goes for Freeview – you get most of the Freeview channels that would otherwise be available through an aerial (though, remember – you get them via streaming, and there’s no need for an aerial) – but some Freeview channels are missing.
As of this writing, the list of streaming apps on the Stream includes:
- Prime Video
- YouTube Kids
- BBC iPlayer
- All 4
- STV Player
- BBC Sounds
- Dance TV
- Al Jazeera
Note that the CNN app only provides video clips and bulletins, and doesn’t include a live feed of CNN International.
There’s also a VOD store, that lets you buy or rent premium films or TV shows.
Some of the major apps that are still missing are Apple TV+, Pluto TV (the free streaming channels service), Twitch and more.
You also won’t find an app for Sky’s streaming service, NOW. It makes sense, since Virgin Media wants you to sign up to Sky through them, but it also means you can’t get in on some of NOW’s deals, AND there’s no way to watch Sky Atlantic.
As for Freeview channels, many of them are here (you can see the complete list here), and most of them are available in HD – even some of those that aren’t in HD on the over-the-air version of Freeview.
All in all, the selection of apps and Freeview channels will satisfy most casual TV watchers. Dedicated streaming devices like the Fire TV and Roku do have a much more comprehensive selection of apps and streaming services, including some very niche-focused ones, so heavy users will undoubtedly find more with them.
Then again, the Stream also gives you access to the premium channels – and it’s a super-easy way to sign up to the likes of Sky Sports or various premium entertainment channels. Most of those channels are also available on other streaming devices/apps (via NOW, BT Sport monthly, etc.) but it’s nice to have them all on one device.
Subscribing to those premium channels, however, is still a confusing endeavour – some tell you to go to a 3rd party website and signup there (BritBox, for example), while others let you sign up via Virgin Media’s customer app, or the website. Again, it’s all quite inconsistent – it’s a shame you can’t simply sign up on the Stream box itself, similar to how it is on Roku boxes, for example.
And lastly, there are even some simple games on the Stream – like Tetris and Hangman. You control the “action” with the remote, and while these won’t ever replace a gaming console, they can be a nice distraction.
Profiles And Parental Controls
If you have several family members watching, you’d be glad to know the Stream offers user profiles – something Sky is still ignoring on all their devices (and NOW) to this day.
By setting up different profiles, each family member gets their own personalised watchlist and recommendations.
And, by setting up a profile for kids, you can control what it is they’re allowed to watch.
You can also use a pin for parental controls on all the profiles – though, annoyingly, I found no way to disable those controls completely. Therefore, EVERY TIME I tried to watch a show for grown-ups, I had to re-enter my pin. Who are they protecting, exactly? Our cat?
Bottom Line: Is Virgin Media Stream Worth It?
How tech-savvy are you, What do you like watching, and Who’s your broadband provider?
Those are the three questions I would probably ask anyone who’s contemplating getting the Stream box from Virgin Media.
For some, this is the perfect little box. If you’re already with Virgin Media for your broadband, you don’t currently have a streaming stick, and you want to occasionally watch Freeview channels without an aerial – you’re the perfect candidate for Stream.
The one thing to think about is the lack of a recording option. It’s the way of the future, and you’ll need to get used to it at some point – but if you’re used to recording – and keeping “forever” – anything and everything you want to watch, then the streaming option might disappoint you, and TV 360 – or even a standalone Freeview recording box – is potentially a better option.
And if you’re not with Virgin Media, the Stream is probably not a sole reason to switch – you can get most of what it offers with a stick like the Amazon Fire TV – except for some of the Freeview channels that don’t have a streaming version.
All in all, the Stream is a great – and crucially, cheap – all-rounder option for TV watching. If you’re with VM, and at just £35, it’s a real competitor, positioned just a few levels behind the big-name streaming sticks – especially once they settle some of the bugs and inconsistencies.