Foxtel, Australia's premier pay TV service, has launched a number of streaming apps in recent years. First, it arrived on Xbox as a way for people to tune in aside from their primary set-top box. Eventually, that same functionality made its way over to the Telstra TV. Next came Foxtel Go, an app for iOS and Android devices that allowed existing customers to catch-up with their favourite shows on the go. Foxtel Play launched soon after, offering Foxtel subscribers their first delivery of the full TV service via the internet.
Those apps are all generally well executed, but they suffer from the same, rather huge drawback: in order to use them, you need to have an existing Foxtel cable subscription. That means getting Foxtel service guys out to your house to install a Foxtel box (installation and hardware fee included), paying a costly monthly subscription fee, and in the case of all but the most expensive Foxtel package (which goes for $99 per month), being on at least a 12-month contract. That's a lot of money and effort on your part if all you want to do is watch Game of Thrones in Australia legally.
Thankfully, the people at Foxtel have finally heard your cries and launched Foxtel Now – the first Foxtel streaming service that does not require a pay TV subscription. The new service provides a Netflix-style, streaming-only Foxtel package that lets you watch all of the service's catch-up content, as well as its live TV streams. All you have to do is sign up online, download the app, login, and away you go. So now that Now is here, is this the Foxtel streaming service we've all been waiting for?
From cheap to quite expensive
Just like on its existing cable TV service, Foxtel wants its customers to tailor their Foxtel Now experience around what they're actually interested in watching, and it offers a variety of packages (split into Starter Packs and Premium Packs) that include content from a number of different channels. These are subscribed to on a month-to-month basis, so you can cancel at any time, and there's also a free two-week trial period on offer.
While the Starter packs sound cheap, kicking off at $10 per month, you're going to have to sign up to at least a couple of them if you want to get a decent selection of shows going.
The Lifestyle, Doco and Kids packages are are the least-expensive options at $10 each per month, followed by the $15 Drama and Pop options, both of which offer Game of Thrones but which otherwise have completely differently lineups.
Next are the Premium packs. The Movies pack will set you back $20 a month, while the Sports package carries an even higher $29 monthly fee. Both of these packs can only be obtained in addition to a Starter package. This means that if all you're after is Sports, the minimum cost per month is still going to be $39.
Having to sign up for specific packages for certain shows (some of which appear in multiple packages) is bound to cause some confusion for Foxtel newbies, especially those accustomed to paying a flat monthly fee for everything that Netflix or Stan have to offer.
However, Foxtel could be onto something with this approach. For instance, the way the packages are set out suggests that there are two types of Game of Thrones fans – those that want to compliment their time in Westeros with hard hitting dramas like The Sopranos and Wentworth, and other that love geeky favourites like Supergirl and Fear the Walking Dead. It actually makes a fair amount of sense, although it does mean customers with more eclectic tastes will be forced to sign up for both the Drama and Pop packages.
With the service having only just launched, the number of devices that can stream Foxtel Now is understandably limited at present. It's actually in a similar position to the streaming service Stan when it first launched, although Foxtel Now does thankfully have a few more devices in its arsenal.
As you'd expect, Foxtel has focused on iOS and Android device compatibility to start with, allowing users to cast shows or movies to their televisions using a Chromecast or Chromecast Ultra. PC and Mac users can also stream Foxtel Now in a Google Chrome browser window, though the only way to get a Netflix-equivalent native Foxtel Now experience on your television, including the ability to browse shows on your TV screen with a TV remote, is by having a Telstra TV box.
Foxtel has promised to expand device compatibility to support game consoles and smart TVs in the near future, but for the time being, your only other option for streaming to your TV is via the Foxtel Play app (which requires a pay TV subscription). You're probably better off going with Foxtel Now and finding a cheap Chromecast deal.
Now that we're all quite accustomed to streaming shows and movies on a daily basis, there are things that we've come to expect from a streaming service's user interface.
The app is spread across four tabs: Home, Live TV, On Demand and Kids. Like Netflix, titled are listed horizontally in themed rows, only here, the rows include things like Best of HBO, Foxtel Originals, Best of Lifestyle and Trending TV. Towards the bottom of the Home page, you'll find an On Now row that's made up of live TV shows that happen to be on at that moment, complete with a progress bar. For a more complete look at the titles offered by Foxtel Now, the On Demand tab splits TV Shows, Movies, Sports and channels into a number of subgenres.
While Foxtel has a done a decent job of approximating the typical streaming experience with the Foxtel Now app, it does lack some really basic things that give Netflix and Stan the edge in terms of usability.
For starters, you can't create a list of favourites like you can on competing services. If you're browsing Foxtel Now's offerings and spot something you might want to watch later, you'd better make a mental note of it (or a physical one with a pen and paper), because there are no queues to add it to here.
There's also so much going on in the app, with its multiple tabs, genres, channels and Live TV sections, that the act of navigating around it can be a little confusing (and perhaps somewhat intimidating for less tech-savvy people).
Which leads us to our next issue: the act of casting from a smart device just isn't ideal for binge-watching. On the iOS and Android app, the show you're watching will not automatically continue onto the next episode once it's finished. Instead, the app will kick you back out to the Foxtel Now 'Home' menu. From here, you'll have to make your way back to the show's page and find the next episode, which is somewhat clumsy, to say the least.
Thankfully, this is not the case with the Telstra TV's version of the app. Here, a countdown to the next episode will appear at the end of the episode you've just watched – just like with Netflix and Stan. We really hope this makes its way to the iOS and Android versions of Foxtel Now.
It's also worth noting that the app does not feature an option to only allow streaming on a Wi-Fi connection. Under 'Data Usage Settings', you're only given the option to select Auto or Low quality settings.
Subtitle options are also nowhere to be seen, so bad luck if you're hearing impaired. We would've also liked for offline viewing to be included, though its omission is a little more understandable, given that the app has only just launched.
In terms of video quality, Foxtel Now is a mixed bag. Streams generally start out fuzzy and clear up as they go along, however, not every show is available at the service's top 720p resolution. Even new shows, like The Comedy Channel's @midnight, stream in what appears to be standard definition, despite being shot in HD. Thankfully, high-profile dramas like Game of Thrones and Westworld do at least stream in high definition.
Resolution is not the only issue with Foxtel Now's video quality, however. There are times where the colours appear incredibly over-saturated, taking on an almost fluorescent appearance.
While viewing a recent Barcelona soccer match, the colours managed to reach eye-scorching levels of vibrancy – the pitch was so bright, this reviewer's entire living room turned green (and this was during daylight hours). Barça's red and blue jerseys also showed significant colour bleeding, losing all sense of colour definition in the process. A viewing of the Jason Statham action flick Mechanic: Resurrection yielded similar results, with one sun-kissed scene looking bright red and completely blown-out.
On top of this, streams also exhibited some choppiness during panning shots, something that was most noticeable while watching sports.
While there are certainly some issues with video quality, we're pleased to say that streams always started very quickly and not a single instance of buffering was ever experienced during our testing period.
Are you content with its content?
If you're willing to pay for all of the packages on offer, then Foxtel Now's library becomes vast and magnificent, with a lineup of shows and movies that wipes the floor with the competition. On top of that, you also have the option of watching live sporting events – something that neither Stan or Netflix has dared to partake in.
Australian HBO fans finally have a service that offers the channel's premium shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, Silicon Valley, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Veep, Girls, The Night Of, Sex and the City, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood and much more.
Undoubtedly one of Foxtel Now's biggest selling points is that current HBO shows will be fast-tracked to the service, allowing Aussie viewers a way to legally stream them shortly after they've aired. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, shows didn't arrive quite fast enough for our liking.
On a Monday evening, we patiently waited for the latest episode of Silicon Valley to arrive on the service. By 11pm that evening, the app was still showing the previous week's episode as the latest, despite the show having already aired on Foxtel a few hours earlier.
While we can only speculate as to how promptly new Game of Thrones episodes will arrive on the service (given that the show is currently in-between seasons), if it's as late as it was for Silicon Valley, we think many subscribers will be up in arms.
When it comes to movies, Foxtel Now's selection is enormous, with a number of big and fairly recent releases available to stream. Films like Suicide Squad, Star Trek Beyond, The Legend of Tarzan, Bridget Jones's Baby and Jason Bourne are only a few taps away, while the service also offers a number of classics and fan favourites, such as Heat, Aladdin, Apocalypse Now, Starship Troopers and much, much more.
Kids also have a dedicated section, with a number of family-friendly movies and TV shows available to stream, including a Disney Movies live-TV channel that plays wall-to-wall Disney and Pixar classics.
Sports fans will be more than happy with the huge selection of shows and matches available to stream… well, so long as they're into NRL, AFL, racing, Union, soccer, boxing and/or wrestling. Of course, the joy of watching sports is not in streaming old games but witnessing them as they happen, and thankfully, Foxtel Now's Live TV section has you amply covered in that regard.
After what felt like an eternity, an online-only version of Foxtel has finally arrived with Foxtel Now. It's undoubtedly the easiest way to get access to Foxtel's enormous library of TV shows, movies and sports channels. While it should satisfy a large chunk of its target audience, there's still a long way to go before Foxtel Now catches up to the likes of Netflix and Stan in terms of polish and functionality.
Foxtel Now's huge library of TV shows and movies puts the other streaming services to shame.
We also love that the app offers live-TV and sports coverage, something that its competitors have yet to even consider in any meaningful way.
Streams were always exceptionally fast to start and never once showed signs of buffering.
Best of all, we love that we no longer have to go through the whole pay TV installation or contract-signing process.
Streams varied in quality during our testing period, with some shows looking low-res and others looking incredibly over-saturated. We also noticed some choppiness during streams.
We also don't understand why content is limited to a maximum resolution of 720p, given that other, cheaper streaming services have been offering 1080p and even 4K streams for quite some time.
The app also feels light on features and options, with a complete lack of subtitles for the hearing impaired, no way to create lists or mark shows and movies as favourites, no individual user profiles and no offline viewing. Also, the app settings themselves are underdeveloped, with no option to restrict playback to Wi-Fi networks only, for example.
Finally, it was disappointing to see that certain fast-tracked shows didn't appear on the service as promptly as we'd have liked. That can be seen as a deal-breaker for some, given how eager many Aussie fans are to immediately pirate and watch their favourite TV shows.
There's plenty that Foxtel Now does very well, and there are some things it definitely needs to work on. As a starting point, the app is quite impressive, given the complexity of what it's trying to achieve. However, there are number of improvements that we'd like to see it implement in order to bring it up to the standard of its competitors. But if you've always wanted Foxtel but felt that signing up would be too much of a hassle, Foxtel Now should alleviate that worry entirely.