Hailing from a country a good day's flight away, I've become pretty familiar with the various "entertainment systems" (if you can call some of them that) airlines offer their passengers. You're probably familiar with that sinking feeling when you discover a plane doesn't have on-demand movies, resulting in another 108 minutes to start watching your chosen time-waster from the opening scenes?
From now on, I'm going to have that similar sinking feeling if I'm swaddled on anything other than the 12 Virgin Atlantic planes which don't have its new Vera system installed.
Vera is Virgin Atlantic's new touchscreen entertainment system, which has a completely overhauled UI for the 9-inch economy; 10-inch premium and 12-inch screens for upper passengers. The closest I've seen to it is Emirates' ICE system, with Emirates only surpassing Virgin Atlantic's in one area, by adding cameras to the belly and nose of its planes -- meaning you can get a bird's eye view from take-off to landing.
Why, those who cough up and pay to fly with Virgin Atlantic, of course. Vera is currently installed on A330 planes flying from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester, and several 747s from Gatwick and Manchester, but by the end of the year, there'll be 16 air-beasts loaded with the tech, and by 2014, Virgin plans to have phased out its old entertainment system completely.
For premium economy and upper class passengers on the three remaining A340-300 planes, they'll be using the same VERA UI, only on 10.1-inch Samsung Galaxy Tabs.
I managed to test Vera out in both economy and premium economy, with the only discernable differences being the size of the displays, plus the addition of a handheld controller for the wealthier flyers.
The display is actually a touchscreen tablet that's been bolted onto the chair in front of you, and I'm told by Virgin Atlantic that it's a Panasonic EX2, which while not available commercially, runs Panny's proprietary Engine 4.
In premium economy, I was able to use the handheld-controller to change between movies, and play games. Given the ample leg-room, it was a relief not to have to lean forward to stab at the display. While I wasn't so keen on playing games, I found the controller most useful when watching films, with the controller displaying the flight map simultaneously.
While Virgin could've been more generous and supplied a power outlet for plugging laptops in, the addition of an RCA port so you can hook up your camera and view photos on the big screen was kindly received. Likewise, if you wanted to do the same with an iOS device, you can buy a cable on-board for £25 (but why you would, unless you're a frequent Virgin flyer, was beyond me). For the rest of us, the two USB ports was more than enough, meaning I had a fully-charged Android on touch-down.
Switching the system on (once you've buckled up and taken off), you're presented with the homescreen, and the all-important choices: Should you hit up the movies, TV, music, games, or the mysterious "more" first?
On the bottom of the homescreen, you can choose to switch the system off, or seek help; read the latest news (powered by Sky); view your saved ("bookmarked" would be a better description) content, and time remaining for your journey, via a cute visual plane tracker.
All entertainment choices are presented almost like Apple's Cover Flow, so you can scroll through the array of entertainment options in a thumbnail mode, or in closer detail (if you require information such as synopsis; cast; duration; and other passengers' ratings).
Within a movie, various touch-options to adjust the colour, brightness and sound worked as you'd expect, however I found with the options closest to the edge of the display, it sometimes took a few extra pokes to adjust the volume, for example. Otherwise, the touch-responsiveness was impressive, and the speed flicking between menu options and booting was far faster than anything I'd experienced on a plane before (but understandably loading time isn't on par with your tablet or phone).
One of my favourite features was one I initially scoffed at -- saving content for later. Surely your memory should be up to scratch enough that you can remember what your second choice of film is? But in practise, it saved time flicking back to the movie options to search for my second or third film to view, and was rather satisfying seeing "7" appear on my saved content list, as a visual reminder that yes -- I can endure this nine-hour flight without resorting to reading the free magazine in the seat pocket.
Movie choices were up to date and plentiful -- Prometheus; The Amazing Spider-Man, and countless other flicks and TV shows. The ability to rate media with a thumbs up or down meant you could also browse by users' reviews -- but if you err towards a "critics' choice" rather than your peers', you can also see a list of Virgin Atlantic-curated media, too.
The Seat Chat, as it's called, is ingenious. If you're travelling with an array of people (or just want to bug the person next to you), you can send them messages in a (slightly-clunky) IM interface. This helped eke out the hours when travelling with a larger group, and also saves valuable movie-time if you happen to IM a friend seated closer to the loos to ask what the queue sitch looks like.
While you can adjust the brightness of the screen, I still felt it erred towards being too dark. Even with all windows closed during a night flight, I strained to make out detail, though it has to be said the pictures were sharp at least.
Audio was overwhelmingly loud. Even though I'd shunned Virgin's on-ear foam headphones (you know the ones) in favour of my in-ear Sennheisers, I had to scurry to lower the volume to about 1/5th the loudness. When playing the games (battleship; backgammon; Bejewelled 2; golf 3D; Who Wants to be a Millionaire, just some of the titles), the audio settings would always re-set, annoyingly.
- No matter how far the passenger in front of you reclines, viewing angle is uncompromised and visible, though as aforementioned, it tends to be darker than desired. Adjusting brightness doesn't do much for picking out extra detail, unfortunately. Picture quality however is sharp and clear, and while Virgin was hazy with me on full specs, pixel density was pretty decent.
- I chose to use my in-ear earbuds rather than Virgin's supplied headphones (gross), and found the audio to be exceedingly loud. Start low, and work your way up.
- News is supplied by Sky News, letting you boil down to headline stuff, sport, business, entertainment, weather, and Virgin News. I'd suggest turning the headline alerts off, unless you want to get pestered by pop-up notifications.
Apologies the photos aren't the best; I think I must've been suffering from sunstroke or something when I took them...