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.
For the most part, customers would need to have an existing Foxtel cable subscription (unless they were on a separate Foxtel Play subscription). That meant 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, that isn't the case with Foxtel Now – a simple streaming service that does not require a traditional pay TV subscription or additional hoop jumping. 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?
Game of Thrones
Now that the final season of Game of Thrones has arrived, attention has come once again to Foxtel's streaming service. As you may know, Foxtel owns the broadcast and streaming rights to Game of Thrones in Australia, making it the only legal way to watch the world's most epic show Down Under.
Thankfully, the arrival of Foxtel Now means you no longer have to go through all the hassle of setting up an installation just for one show – you only have to own a device that's capable of running the Foxtel Now app.
So now that the Foxtel Now app has been around for a while, how does it stack up compared to launch? Well, we're pleased to say that Foxtel Now has improved somewhat since it first arrived on the scene, though it still has some of the same issues.
We watched the season 8 premiere of Game of Thrones shortly after it arrived on the service (around 11am AEST) and the stream was quite smooth. Unfortunately, we did experience around five or six instances of buffering towards the end of the episode, all in quick succession, which hampered the flow of the scene. Given that we were watching on a strong 100Mbps connection, it was a little disappointing.
It's also worth noting that we watched the episode in the middle of the day, and not during prime time (7-9pm) where Foxtel's servers would be under increased pressure – while we didn't experience it personally, there were reports from disgruntled subscribers whose streams crashed shortly after starting, while others tried to sign up and found themselves staring at a 'Service Unavailable' screen.
Now 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.
When it launched, customers were able to get up and running on the Foxtel Now service for as little as $10 per month. However, Foxtel Now's pricing tiers have changed, meaning you'll now need to spend a minimum of $25 per month for the now compulsory Pop and Lifestyle packs.
Remember the Doco and Kids packages? Though they were once the least-expensive options at $10 each per month, the individual packs have now been scrapped entirely. At present, the only way to get Kids and Doco content back is to shell out a whopping $104 per month for the All Packs bundle.
The Drama pack is thankfully still around and continues to be priced at $15 per month, and while the premium Movies ($20 per month) and Sports ($29 per month) packs are still the same price as they were before, the minimum cost to access them is now much more expensive thanks to that initial $25 you have to spend on the Pop and Lifestyle packs — the minimum cost for Movies is now $45 per month, while Sports access will cost you at least $54 per month.
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. You're probably better off going with Foxtel Now and finding a cheap Chromecast deal.
Perhaps the easiest way to get Foxtel Now up and running, is to purchase a Foxtel Now Box. This Android TV-based streaming box will boot directly into the service, allowing you to stream all of your favourite shows within seconds of booting it up.
All you have to do is hook it up to your television via HDMI, connect it to your home network, login, and you're ready to go.
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 were nowhere to be seen at launch, but you can now activate them in Google Chrome and Safari browsers, iOS devices and tablets (they'll work via AirPlay) and on the Foxtel Now Box. At present, we haven't found any subtitle or closed caption options on the Android version of the Foxtel Now app.
We would've also liked for offline viewing to be included, though its omission is a little more understandable, given that the app is relatively new.