CS and the City Sean Lynch

Review: Virgin America

When I started writing this review, I was half way through my fifth flight on Virgin America in three weeks time.  I felt knowledgeable enough to write an informed review on the entire VA experience.  But as I started to flesh out my mental notes into something more concrete, I realized why I enjoyed my flights so much:  The Virgin America plane is one big gadget.

Red is the name of Virgin’s in-flight entertainment system, and the most featureful I’ve used in my travels. It has radio and an impressively complete Music library, Music Videos, Satellite TV, TV on Demand ($1.99 per), Movies on Demand ($7.99 per) , and Video Games.  The Virgin Airbus is the first plane to pass the “Can you play Doom on it?” test (and all the cheat codes work!).  One of the other really hyped feature of Red is the seat-to-seat chat and plane chat room, but I did not see a single person in the chatroom during any of my flights.  I think this might be more “wow” than actually useful.  On the other hand, a feature that is very useful is the ability to order drinks and food directly from Red at (almost) any time during the flight.

Despite the plentiful entertainment options, Red is very much still in beta.  There were several points where the system was slow and unresponsive, once requiring a reboot.  This must be a somewhat common occurance as flight attendants occasionally warn about the need to reboot during the take-off speech likening it to their passengers’ Windows PCs.

Some of the features aren’t built yet: Read, Shop, and Email keep telling me to try again on my next flight. Red allows you to create to create musical playlists, but there’s no payoff if your list disappears as soon as you get off the flight.  It screams to be tied into a personal account (so much so that a login button is present in the home menu, with no functionality behind it).

I’m also convinced that several of the Satellite TV channels are pre-captured streams.  For example, on all of my flights, the Sci-Fi channel seemed to be playing the same two episodes of Battlestar Galactica over and over, and the video feed didn’t seem to break down in turbulence like CNN would.  Speaking of which, the satellite’s reception seemed to relatively poor compared to the similar system on WestJet flights.  This wouldn’t be as big of a problem if they offered a fresher selection of on demand video at a cheaper price point (read: free).  Geek style points for offering Diggnation and Boing Boing video for free though.

On the technical side, I have a supicion that Red is built on Linux.  After rebooting, my screen faithfully displayed the familiar X Windows Server backdrop before moving into Red.  Another sign? One of the games in the system is called Linux Circus.

Overall I’m very impressed with the system, but they’re going to have to iterate quickly on both the features and the content lest Red becomes a novelty rather than a necessity.