Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012 review: Hands-on

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The new Virgin Atlantic in-flight entertainment system features a touchscreen tablet

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T3 took to the skies to try out the new touchscreen tablet-based Virgin Atlantic in-flight entertainment system, known as Vera Touch

New to Virgin Atlantic for 2012, the Vera Touch in-flight entertainment system is currently available on Virgin's A330s flying out from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, as well as on its 747s flying from Gatwick and Manchester.

We took a flight to St Lucia on the English Rose to give the new setup a full test. A tough assignment, we know, but we just gritted our teeth our got on with it.

As relatively frequent long-haul flyers on Virgin Atlantic we were interested to see what the new system brings to the table, as it can make the difference between an enjoyable journey and an arduous trek and while the old v:port system is decent enough, the controls never quite felt intuitive and the screens weren't great. And we we won't even talk about the older system, where if you miss the start of film you have to wait for two hours until it starts again...

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Features

Along with a substantial selection of films, TV and games, you can also use Seat Chat to send text messages to passengers in other seats, which basically equates to sending amsusing and/or offensive messages to friends and family who are probably sitting just inches away.

There are parental controls on board so that you don't have to worry about the nippers being corrupted by super-violent 18-rated films.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Tablet

The system is centred on a touchscreen tablet that's built-into the chair in front with the hardware taking the shape of the Panasonic EX2 (running on the brand's proprietary Engine 4).

While the Japanese brand has yet to launch a tablet in the UK, despite several products being touted at tech shows such as CES and IFA, it seems that the maker may be taking the commercial route rather than trying to compete with the likes of the Asus Transformer Prime and the Google Nexus 7.

Talking about tablets, passengers on the three remaining A340-300s in Virgin's fleet will have access to Vera Tab - where the content is provided via a 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Screen

The size of the screen varies, depending on what cabin class you're in - it's 12 inches in Upper Class, 10 in Premium Economy and 9 in Economy. Even the smallest screen size is still a huge improvement on what was offered on the old system

The screen quality isn't quite equal to the Retina display of the new iPad, but it's a huge improvement on the old screen, where watching a film with lots of dingy scenes, such as The Dark Knight Rises was almost pointless. We watched the suitably dark, er Dark Shadows (a sadly disappointing mess from Tim Burton), which looked punchy and sharp and didn't strain our eyes.

You can also adjust the brightness on the screen to suit the lighting of the cabin so you won't be left with scalded retinas when cabin lights go out on a night flight.

The vertical viewing angle is also good so that you can still see the screen properly if the person in front of you puts their seat back, and there's also a small degree of tilt adjustment.

A word of warning - if you've been listening to music on your own headphones, rather then ones supplied by the airline, and you're switching to watch a film or TV then we'd advise you to turn the volume down first. We didn't, and it certainly woke us up.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Handset

If you're in Premium Economoy, you'll also get a touchscreen handset which sits neatly under the screen and can be removed when you want to use it. while you can use the handset as an alternative to controlling things just on the screen, you can also use it to keep an eye on your flight's progress on Skymap, while still using the screen to watch a film, or play a game.

You can flip handset from landscape to portrait, so that it feels more like a smartphone, which is a nice touch.

In economy, there was no handset, just the main touchscreen, but apparently there is a hard button-toting handset on selected aircraft.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Interface

Replacing the old v:port system, which was introduced in 2001, the new setup goes by the slightly more friendly name of Vera. And what does Vera mean? Is it an acronym? Abosolutely not. It's just the name that Virgin thought had a nice ring to it. In fact, they told us "we're happy for people to make their own mind up about what it means to them", so the choice is yours.

The touch screen interface is nice and responsive, while the colourful UI is easy and intuitive to use. Films, TV programmes and games are presented in an iTunes Coverflow style, so that you can flip through the content quickly, simply by swiping the screen.

All of the passengers in the cabin around us seemed to be up and running and flipping through films almost immediately, which wasn't always the case with the previous system, mainly thanks to the oddly confusing handset buttons.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Content

The new system has over 50 films and more than 50 hours of TV programmes to choose from, along with over 200 albums to listen to. The selection is varied and we found more than enough to keep us entertained during the eight-hour flight - from Mid Morning Matters with Alan Patridge to ludicrously violent Indonesian action film The Raid.

You can also choose from a variety of games including old-school classics like Pacman and our favourite - Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (for which, there is sadly no actual cash prize).

On the homescreen, you'll find the virgin Loves section which has been populated with a variety of content that's been hand-picked by the Virgin Atlantic team (so the help video tells us).

Another new feature is the ability to rate each film and programme after you've watched it, by giving it a YouTube-style thumbs up or down. This means that you can then choose browse the content alphabetically, or by user rating - to sift out the most popular stuff.

The 'Save for later' feature means that you can create your own playlist of content to watch on the flight while you're browsing. This is very handy when you wake up groggy and disorientated after fitful sleep and can't remember what it was that you planned to watch earlier.

News headlines are supplied by Sky and you can set notifications to pop up on your home screen whenever a new story appears.

The bottom of the homescreen is home to the flight progresss bar, which does exactly what it says. If you'd rather not have a constant reminder of how long you're going to be cooped up in the plane's fuselage, you can turn this off.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Connectivity

Virgin has also added a few connectivity options to the system, so that you can use the screen to watch your own content. An RCA cable port means that you can hook up your camera or camcorder.

You can also attach your iPod, iPad or iPhone to the console, although you'll need a special cable, which you can buy on board for £25

There's also a couple of USB ports which you can use with most USB-toting cables so that you can charge up your gadgets while you fly.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Mobile phones

Along with the Vera Touch system, Virgin also offers the AeroMobile network which means that youcan use youre mobile to call, text and access the web while you're in the air. Prices are similar to what you pay for roaming charges outside of the EU.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012: Verdict

The Virgin Atlantic Vera Touch in-flight system is a colossal improvement on the airline's previous offering. While the amount of content hasn't expanded that much, (there are only so many things you can watch on one flight anyway), the way that it's presented is much better.

It's now easier to browse, and the touchscreen interface is instantly usable - there's no need to get to grips with which button does what on the pesky handset, as there was on the older system.

We also loved the ability to be able to create a playlist which meant that we were able to cobble together a strong lineup of films and TV in just a few minutes.

Virgin Atlantic will also be trialling Wi-Fi connectivity on board three of its aircraft next year.

Virgin Atlantic In-flight Entertertainment 2012 release date: Available now on selected flights

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