Head2Head: Battle of the streaming services

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Head2Head: Battle of the streaming services

Which (paid) service reigns supreme?

Since Netflix officially entered the Australian market just under two years ago, there has been an enormous upheaval in how Australians watch content. For a country with only 23 million people, we manage to support three major streaming services, several small niche ones (largely for independent film) as well as the traditional Free-To-Air options.

In the past 2 years, all 3 services have undergone large changes, supporting more formats, introducing larger amounts of “original” (exclusive) content and lowering prices in order to compete with the staggering amount of entertainment options available in 2017.

For the sake of brevity, we’ll focus on the top three subscription services that offer Ad-Free, original content: Netflix, Stan and Foxtel Play. Fret not, however, we will cover the Free To Air options and smaller services in a future article. We have decided not to include Amazon in this comparison as their content offerings are extraordinarily basic as they are still in a soft launch mode. We will look at them again once Amazon officially arrives in Australia later this year/across to 2018.

Third Place

Foxtel Play

Prices start at $10/month for a basic 25 channel package)

Foxtel Play has come a hell of a long way in the past two years. Originally considered more of a complementary service than a replacement, Foxtel Play was focused on customers who were not willing or able to sign up to a traditional hardware package. As a result, pricing was more strategic than competitive - $35 bought you nothing but a very basic package of channels, with add-on packages like sport, movies or access to HBO shows ratcheting that price up closer to $70.

But competition has changed all of this, with the price of a basic package now $10, or $15 for the much touted “Game of Thrones” pack that includes HBO and other popular US premium cable shows. Sport is now $29 on top and films $20, allowing customers to tailor what they want in a more of a granular fashion. It’s also helpful to note that Foxtel Play involves both live and catch-up options on its App, if you prefer that channel surfing experience.

For all the traditional complaints about “repeats”, Foxtel still secures a staggering amount of decent content, including a wide range of films with most major studios on its movie channels. It releases several local dramas and lifestyle shows each year, including the popular Wentworth and Selling Houses Australia. It has the largest amount of new US drama on any of the services, namely due to direct agreements with channels like AMC, FX, Showtime and HBO.

Additionally, if Sport is your go-to, Foxtel Play is really the only option. All the Fox Sport channels are available; however, it’s going to cost $39 for the price of admission – and this, most importantly (which I will go into shortly) does not include HD. For many, this is a complete deal breaker, and for a little bit more you can get an IQ2/3 box and a significantly superior viewing experience. If, however, you are watching on a PC, phone or tablet, this may not be as important.

At the refined price points, Foxtel Play has made significant gains and should be considered purely for its “Pop” package, which includes FX, Showcase and Syfy for $15/month. Unfortunately, the price is really where the benefits end, as the last two years have not been kind to Foxtel’s dismal software and resolution issues, which are the same as they were when I first tried the service a number of years ago.

Unlike Netflix or Stan, Foxtel’s apps are legacy apps that have undergone very little development since they were originally unveiled. First up, there is no Apple TV or Chromecast support. There is no support for any Smart TVs made after 2015. The existing applications for TVs made before these dates have had no noticeable improvements since introduction.

It should be noted that I asked Telstra for one of their new “TV” set-top box units that features an significantly improved Foxtel Play app that supports HD – however, while originally promised this did not turn up, so I was forced to use the Playstation 4 app, as this was the only option available for use on a 2016 LG Smart TV.

Using this app was painful in every sense of the word – it was slow and laggy, repeatedly crashed and froze, removing my login information and forcing a re-enter. Every time it started up, I was sandblasted with a very loud Sky News feed in a small window that filled my living room with angry conservative bleating until I quickly found my chosen content or changed a channel. In most cases, content ran at an extraordinary low resolution, or constantly buffered – I have a 100/40 connection and did not have this problem with any other service.

As noted previously, this app did not support HD video. This is unacceptable in 2017, especially at the higher price point requested by Foxtel and is a thinly veiled attempt at pushing customers towards their hardware boxes which do support it (at a premium). Things are a little better on mobile – the iOS and Android (Foxtel Go) apps are much more refined and easier to use, load quicker and do not have as many buffering issues. The PC app is awful, however, as it uses clunky native software rather than a simple website. Many of the issues that permeated the PS4 app are replicated there too.

Foxtel restricts installs to devices, rather than logins or sessions, meaning you need to be careful where you login – only a certain number of deactivations/activations can be done per month.

Second Place

Stan

($10/month)

Stan genuinely surprised me on launch and has continued to as time has gone on. Originally considered DOA as it launched only a few months before Netflix, Stan has beat many of its critics’ expectations and solidified its seat at the table. A partnership between Fairfax and Nine Entertainment, Stan’s significantly smaller budget against the Netflix juggernaut removes its ability to fund original content in the same manner. Instead, the company has moved its focus towards creating partnerships with large content stores, independent producers (such as Amazon) and movie studios.

Unlike Foxtel and Netflix, Stan has a single $10/month fee which allows for three simultaneous screens across any devices. There are no tiers for more screens or resolutions, which makes it a simple, easy and cheap process – Stan is the most affordable service of the three for the amount of content provided. For the price, there's a very wide range of films, TV and childrens’ programming available, much of it Australian, more than any other service.

This is thanks to a partnership with ABC Commercial, which offers HD versions of Bananas in Pyjamas, and Nine’s native stores of shows, including Hamish and Andy’s Gap Year and House Husbands. There are also agreements in place with Showtime, Amazon Video , Comedy Central and AMC to offer exclusive and first-run shows like Transparent, Billions and the magnificent Better Call Saul.

Then there is the software – it’s everywhere – Apple TV, Chromecast, Xbox One, Fetch TV, all Smart TVs, Android, iOS, PS4 – with regular updates, refinements and features. Unlike Foxtel Play, many of the small interface niggles have been sorted out over time and the result is a very refined UI that beats Netflix in some respects. Performance is very smooth, picture quality is perfect and there is no “best” version – they are all great.

First Place

Netflix

(Starts at $8.99 - 1 Screen/SD, $13.99 - 3 Screens/HD, $17.99 – 4 Screens/4K)

Netflix has also come into its own since its Australian launch, which was originally foreshadowed by a dismal content library compared to the American one many had been VPN’ing to access. A colossal budget, combined with enormous reach and an enormous engineering crew means that everything that Netflix offers – from its software, to performance, to content – is unrivalled. A large drop in new film and TV content from third-party providers had originally been a huge problem, however, two years of staggering investment in original content has produced an enormous, unmissable, library.

Netflix sits a comfortable second in pricing, where value is based entirely on what you are looking for. Stan is still a slightly better option if you are looking for popular film and TV, but Netflix’s impressive state of originals – ranging from comedy specials, to dramas to documentaries and more – are unmissable, cultural head turners. Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards have all been enormous pop culture successes on the level of traditional TV shows like Mad Men or Breaking Bad, and the only place you can watch them is on Netflix.

There isn’t much else I can say about Netflix that most people don’t already know – its software on every platform is perfect, content quality is great even on slower connections, it allows unlimited device additions so sharing accounts is easy and almost encouraged. Content is added every single week, and the range is extraordinarily wide, from Disney Movies to Weed documentaries – even the most ardent binger is unlikely to run out of things to see.

Netflix doesn’t always kick goals with content additions; awful Adam Sandler/Kevin James movies are plentiful, but it doesn’t really matter because for every terrible addition there is a Master of None or 13 Reasons or GirlBoss to blow it out of the water. If anything, Netflix is willing to take significantly larger risks than its competitors, producing regional content and spreading it across all territories – allowing customers, not publishers, to decide if something is worth seeing.

If you can only afford a single subscription service, it should be Netflix. 

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