Foxtel Now: A renovation or just a slick coat of paint?

Foxtel Now: A renovation or just a slick coat of paint?

Has Foxtel finally released a forward-looking content-streaming service? Not really...

Foxtel, to put it bluntly, do not have a stellar reputation amongst the greater community. Even mentioning any of their products on most social networks causes a litany of complaints and derogatory terms to describe their service. It’s not totally unfounded either – since the dawn of IPTV, Foxtel has been one of the slowest players to move, leaving Netflix and local contender Stan to eat most of their lunch while their back was turned. Foxtel’s response, largely, was to complain about tax, piracy and hold onto the status quo.

Foxtel has not had a stellar half decade. Their original streaming product, Play, was easily the worst premium content system on the market by far, even before Netflix arrived – easily surpassed by streaming services on Free to Air networks. Their flagship “Netflix Killer” set top box, the IQ3, had such an atrocious, bug-riddled launch that people were returning them for the significantly dated IQ2. It’s attempt at a second standalone streaming service, Presto, languished dead last on subscriptions due to a lack of decent content with most of it SD until Foxtel eventually killed it off.

I have reviewed Foxtel Play on two occasions and found it lacking in almost every aspect – both before its price drops and after – thanks to buggy, dated applications, poor design, a lack of HD, and extraordinarily slow and congested content serving. On three attempts at watching shows like Game of Thrones and Selling Houses Australia across two platforms – PS4 and PC – there was constant buffering and noticeable pixelation. Content selection was good, with plenty of new stuff to watch, and the option of watching live channels, especially sport, was great – when it worked.

I queried Foxtel, both privately via email and publicly via Twitter, about these issues – why pricing and channels were jostling about but the actual product was still lacking. “Just wait and see” they said. A week or so before Foxtel Now was announced I received an invitation to a launch event (in Sydney; I’m based in Brisbane) where I was certain they were relaunching Play. I was right – Play was now... Now, and Foxtel was taking on a softer edge. Telstra sent me one of their new Telstra TVs and Foxtel supplied a fresh login.

Here we go again.

So to avoid confusion – The Telstra TV unit already had an updated version of Foxtel Play BEFORE Now launched, so the only difference was the logo in the bottom left. There were a few very subtle interface changes, but largely it was the same deal. I had used this version before and was impressed – rather than the app defaulting to angry conservatives on Sky News, it loaded up a screen more like the phone and tablet versions of Play – a selection of On Demand content, ala Netflix, tailored to your habits or showing you what you had previously watched.

Everything about the new Now app is better – it’s faster, cleaner, optimised correctly for larger screens and changes the focus away from live TV to On Demand. Before, finding an aired episode of TV was awful – the “Anytime” category was a mess and episodes weren’t clearly defined. Now, clicking on a show clearly displays the Seasons and Episodes with a synopsis. If it’s not there, it’s not been aired. Loading up content is significantly faster, about on par with Netflix, although there’s now a 30-second ad before and after most content.

The PC/Mac versions are now, mercifully, browser based, and are almost completely identical to the apps. It’s nice to see a universal UI as well as, finally, a goodbye to the god-awful client that would kick itself out of full screen and require itself to be a “dedicated” application. The web app is also fast, and in HTML5 (as opposed to flash) and clean. That said, I did notice higher levels of buffering and stuttering, mainly when streaming a Live TV channel – this was almost non-existent on the Telstra TV client.

As touted, content is indeed now, mostly, in HD! 720p, sure, but it’s a dramatic improvement – Foxtel uses less compression with its streams, which leads to a clean picture at the lower resolution, but much higher data use. Interestingly, Now also shows how much data content will use, just in case you have a cap to track. It’s well and truly behind what Netflix, Amazon and Stan offer – up to 4K on some content – but for most users they likely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference on a 1080p panel.

Then there’s content. Most people joke that Foxtel is home to a staggering amount of reality TV content – and this is true, in fact, they even have a spin-off steaming product called hayu which is ONLY reality content and it’s only $6 a month. Some of it is pretty good – I’m a big fan of Selling Houses Australia and Grand Designs Australia, which has good hosts and is well produced. There’s some decent original Drama like Secret City and The Kettering Incident, although much of the local comedy content is poor. Foxtel, unlike Netflix, is mandated to produce Australian content for its quota, so there is a decent amount of it there.

But where Foxtel arguably shines is Sport and Film – in both categories it easily trumps both Stan and Netflix.  There are a staggering amount of films on Now, much more than Netflix or Stan, and this relates to both new and older titles. The same goes for live sport – since Netflix or Stan don’t offer it, Now is basically the only way to watch anything that isn’t on free to air. There are no ads on both the film and sport content either, interestingly, and it’s actually kind of fun to just drop into a film or sport live channel to get that “hungover in a hotel” experience (how often do you do this, James? -Ed).

However, accessing this content can get mightily expensive. Foxtel had given me access to most content; some channels, like Syfy, were locked out – in which case a key image sits on a channel or show that is locked and it pushes you to the Foxtel Now website to upgrade. This is quite jarring – there is no way to sign up within the app and it’s disappointing to see something interesting that you can’t immediately select. Additionally, while the new apps focus on shows rather than channels, that $15 you paid may end up fairly limiting when you want to watch something outside that rough genre.

The Now Packages shop doesn’t even show you the channels you get, just a rough idea of the shows that are available. This lack of transparency is very jarring, especially since Foxtel dropped many channels from existing packs just before Now launched. This focus on shows over channels is fine if all you want is HBO, Sport or Film, since those packages are clearly defined – for News, Drama, Scifi or Comedy, however, it’s not as obvious.

Foxtel’s reworking of its channels before the relaunch, effectively dropping some and moving others around, also reduces that value proposition. Customers would have been willing or looking at sticking with what they had, but instead, Foxtel made the mistake many companies do when they relaunch by using that opportunity to strip features and content, hiding these changes under the fanfare of a new banner.

On top of this, Foxtel’s best content is also its priciest – Movies will set you back at least $30 a month, and Sport $39. This is because those two packs are “premium” and require a $10 or $15 starter pack to be eligible. Game of Thrones and most HBO shows are wedged into either “Pop” or “Drama” at $15 a go, so it’s almost on par with HBO Go in the US – although that service includes films and the wider HBO catalogue.

Pricing still sucks. Even if you drop Sport and compare it roughly to Netflix or Stan – which also include Kids programming, Documentaries, Drama, Film and Reality content – Foxtel is asking for a whopping $75 a month, as opposed to the sub $15 price tag for its competitors. Those other platforms also offer a superior picture quality and network infrastructure, as well as a less restrictive device lock (Now offers five devices, up from three). On top of this, Now is not yet available on Smart TVs, Apple TV, or consoles – on these devices, the old Play app still applies.

Credit where credit is due, however – Foxtel has improved its IPTV offering. But it still finds itself in a pricing bracket that is well and truly in the clouds, as most people are now used to paying for all-you-can-eat single fee plans. It also finds itself still behind the technical 8-ball – while 720p is generally not noticeable to most users on a HDTV, it is on a 4KTV. As these get cheaper and more ubiquitous, Foxtel are going to find themselves losing that important visual battle.

In the end, Game Of Thrones does not win these streaming wars – low prices and wide content ranges do. One day Game of Thrones will end and Foxtel will have lost its golden goose. What happens next?

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