UPDATE: Foxtel Now has experienced its biggest test to date with the arrival of the seventh season of Game of Thrones – arguably the most important test the service will ever have. Unfortunately, the Game of Thrones premiere proved to much for Foxtel's new streaming service.
Updated review below.
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 currently 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 on the Telstra TV box or via the new PlayStation 4 app.
Foxtel has promised to expand device compatibility to support more 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 and PS4 versions 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.