There are three main choices when it comes to pay-TV providers in the UK: Sky, BT and Virgin Media. They will all give you a nice box to plug into your TV and the run of hundreds of channels of TV and film content, but there are still plenty of differences that are worth weighing up before you decide to buy or switch.
Here's a breakdown of all the major areas of these TV packages, which will help you to figure that out.
Channels and Content
The stuff you can watch once you've paid for one of these services, and of course depends on which one you subscribe to, of course, but know that Virgin Media does not make any TV channels itself, while BT produces a few, and Sky has a huge stable of its own channels. Virgin Media's biggest, priciest Bigger Bundle + Sports package brings 245 channels, including BT Sport and some Sky channels, with the Ultimate Oomph package taking it to over 290 channels. BT's offering is far less impressive, at only 150 channels on its top-of-the-range Max package, though it does include BT Sport.
You can add Sky Sports and Sky Cinema channels for a monthly fee. Sky has by far the most channels, with 350 the maximum. But isn’t that overdoing it?
So which one is best? That entirely depends on what you want to watch. If you want as much Premier League football as possible, Virgin Media wins since a lot of its packages bundle BT Sport, while Sky Sports and Sky Cinema channels can be added.
However, if you want to watch drama (such as Game of Thrones and a lot of first-run premium US drama) on Sky Atlantic – which is exclusive to Sky – it's got to be Sky. Ditto for Formula 1 motor racing fans, because from March 2019 the only place to watch live races will be on Sky (with the only exception being the British GP). If you're happy with the free-to-air channels and fancy some occasional footie on BT Sport, BT wins out, and it's also worth noting that BT Sport already has 42 live Premier League matches and the FA Cup, and from the 2019-20 season it will broadcast matches on Saturday lunchtimes and during the week.
Winner: Sky and Virgin Media
Virgin Media customers with the (now standard) V6 box get the Virgin TV Ultra HD channel, a showcase of 13 dramas and nature documentaries that play on a loop, including StartUp, Shut Eye, House of Cards, The Art of More and Masters of Sex. Its V6 box can also stream in 4K from Netflix (if you have a Premium subscription) and YouTube and its customers can subscribe to BT channels to get BT Sport 4K UHD (though it’s included in its upper-tier packages).
That channel is, of course, a pillar of BT's own 4K offering, though to watch UEFA Champions League and Europa League games alongside 42 live Premier League matches, the FA Cup, European Rugby Champions Cup, Boxing, and MotoGP all in 4K does mean subscribing to BT's top package. It's also worth noting that you have to get the BT YouView+ box to watch in 4K. You can also add Sky Sports HD and Sky Cinema.
But there's only one winner for those with a compatible 4K TV. Sky subscribers armed with a Sky Q 2TB box, a Sky Q Multiscreen subscription, and a subscription to watch 4K Sky Sports, Sky Cinema and Sky Box Sets in 4K get an embarrassment of riches in 4K, from Premier League football to movies and drama. You can watch Netflix in 4K on Sky's Q 2TB box, but it doesn't support YouTube in 4K.
How each platform gets its services into your house differs radically. Virgin Media owns the biggest and fastest fibre-optic network, though it only covers 51% of the UK (enter your postcode here (opens in new tab)). So even if you want Virgin Media, you may not be able to get it. Sky is a satellite TV service available to almost everyone in the UK, but it also uses your phone line, as does BT, which sends TV via your TV aerial, so is essentially a Freeview package with added channels.
Winners: BT & Sky
Want to watch a programme in one room, pause it, and continue watching it in another room? This is where Sky Q comes in with a slick offering, though Virgin Media customers can also have a go at watching content in various rooms around the house.
With Sky Q's 1TB Sky Q box you can connect four 'slave' Mini boxes (though they can be slow) and watch Sky on two TVs continuously, or three with a 2TB box. They also work as WiFi extenders, and music can be streamed to them from a phone. Virgin Media does things a bit differently. Its new V6 box can be linked to any other Virgin Media box, whether it's a V6, or an older model. So you can dig out your old TiVo or V HD box, put it in a bedroom, and watch recordings on it made on your main V6 box.
BT also offers a more rudimentary 'extra box' upgrade that links two of its YouView or YouView+ boxes, though you do need a separate aerial connection for the second box.
Winners: Sky & Virgin Media
BT more than covers the basics, so can't be ruled out completely, though it's most likely going to be a package that will keep your mum happy. If you have the cash to burn and you want to watch movies and drama in HD 4K, and indulge in next-gen multi-room, go for Sky. If Sky is the Apple of the TV world, then Virgin Media is Android; it's not as flashy, but you can get almost all the same features, and in some ways (we’re thinking super-fast fibre-optic broadband) it's the more advanced package. It's also able to get all of the sports channels in the UK, which will matter to football fans from next season (though the opposite is true for F1 fans).
In a very tight two-way matchup, Virgin Media nearly snuck the win by offering more than enough for most TV watchers – and superior broadband – at a slightly lower cost. But Sky's next-gen box and superior picture quality, as well as its recent tie-up with Netflix that has the service baked into the platform, means it is a service that has overall mass appeal.