Update: The crashing of the PlayStation apps has become even worse.
It seems like an age since the TV through the internet craze took Australia by storm. While ABC iView and SBS On Demand are practically everywhere these days and the free-to-air networks are struggling to decide exactly what the internet is to them, Foxtel has been plugging along quietly with online video.
Initially, it was simply Foxtel on Xbox, which then made its way to Telstra’s T-Box and Samsung TVs. Foxtel Go arrived later, letting Foxtel subscribers get their entertainment on phones and tablets on the go.
But Foxtel Play is all of those services wrapped up in one. It’s the first comprehensive Pay TV offering delivered through the internet in Australia.
Available as an app for PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, Windows PCs, Macs, Samsung, Sony, and LG Smart TVs – Play is the sum of all Foxtel’s previous IPTV parts, offering comprehensive channel selection through a wide variety of devices.
Packages and pricing
Foxtel Play follows the company’s more traditional payment and packaging options. You pay a base rate for the most basic package, with the option to add additional channel packages for a fee.
But unlike the standard Foxtel subscription, Foxtel Play doesn’t have a lock in subscription fee or installation costs. Because all the content is delivered via your internet connection, there’s no need for a technician to connect cable from the street or a satellite dish to your roof.
Foxtel Play is also cheaper than the cable or satellite based subscription, although not by as much as you might expect given there’s no set top box or PVR like the Foxtel iQ included in the price.
The basic pricing starts at $25 a month, and is offered in four different package configurations. There’s Entertainment, which includes Fox8, Lifestyle, Arena, Lifestyle You, MTV, Comedy, TV Hits, Lifestyle Home, Lifestyle Food, Style, and E!; Drama, which includes BBC UKTV, FX (Why hello there, Fear the Walking Dead), SoHo, Universal Channel, SyFy, and BBC First; Documentaries, which includes National Geographic Channel, A&E, History, Foxtel Arts, Crime Investigation Australia, Discovery Channel, BBC Knowledge, Discovery Turbo, and Nat Geo People; and Kids, which includes Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Cartoon Network, CBeebies, Boomerang, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Discovery Kids, and BabyTV.
You can throw multiple packages together as well, with Foxtel charging $35 for two packages, $45 for three and $50 for all four every month.
In addition, there are two premium packages on offer. Sports, which includes Fox Sports 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (Catch the 2015 US Open this September), ESPN1, ESPN2, EuroSport and Footy Play; and Premium Movies and Drama, which includes the Premiere, Action, Thriller, Comedy, Family, Disney, Masterpiece, Romance and World movie channels.
Premium Movies and Drama pack also comes with the Boxsets channel, which means you can binge watch every episode of shows like The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, Ray Donovan, Entourage, The Wire, Deadwood and Australian piracy’s poster show, Game of Thrones.
Each of the premium packages will set you back $20 a month for Premium Movies and Drama, or $25 a month for Sports, meaning a complete Play subscription will cost $100 a month.
No matter which package you sign up for, you also get access to Foxtel Go, allowing you watch on your tablet or phone, as well as access to the Sky News Live, Sky News Weather, Sky News Business, Channel V, Fox Sports News, CMC, Max, V Hits, EuroSport News, and TVSN channels.
The full Foxtel service’s pricing starts with the base plan costing $25, but scaling up to $120 a month for a complete channel line up. So Foxtel Play is slightly cheaper, and you’ll need a satellite and a 12 month contract to get the full service. On the upside, a full service subscription also gets you a Foxtel iQ3 set top box.
Still, the advantage of not having to sign up for 24 months, as well as the benefit of being able to watch on multiple devices is alluring.
Installing and entertaining
Getting Foxtel Play up and running in your home is a straightforward affair. Simply head to Foxtel’s Play website, select the packages you want, fill in your credit card details, download the app and you’ll be ready to go.
Setting up a second computer is slightly trickier, as Foxtel doesn’t have links to the software conveniently located on the Play website. It’s there – you just have to search around for it.
Meanwhile, connecting to the Xbox One or PS4 app is as simple as downloading it from the Marketplace or PlayStation Store and then logging in once your account has been created.
The first time you open the app on your PC or Mac, you’ll be able to browse the EPG while Sky News plays in the background. When you actually try to select a program, the app will prompt you to login with your account details.
From there, you’ll be given access to all the channels you’ve paid for.
If you’re a parent and want to make sure your kids can only access appropriate material, the parental controls option is pleasantly simple.
First, you need to create a four-digit pin, confirm it, and from there set what rating level you want to be available.
If a user tries to access content above the pre-set rating, they’ll be required to enter the pin.
There are three tabs on the PC/Mac app, including a home button and the two main components to Foxtel Play: Live TV streaming and Anytime video on demand.
The apps for Sony’s PlayStation consoles are more or less the same, but feature an additional two tabs, bringing their selection to five buttons in total: Home, Live TV, Anytime, Search and Settings.
Unfortunately there’s lack of stability when the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 apps use the Anytime option. Both apps crash constantly during movies and TV shows, making any enjoyment of the viewing experience absolutely impossible. During a standard two-hour movie we counted four crashes, which is completely unacceptable, especially given that every crash takes you back to that title’s menu without giving you a resume option. This means you either have to start from the beginning all over again, or clumsily fast forward to get back to the point at which you were so rudely interrupted.
The PlayStation apps’ Home tab offers a patchwork of live TV programs and popular catch-up programs, which kind of looks a bit like the Live Tiles from Windows 8. It’s a two column grid, with rectangular boxes of various sizes.
Weirdly, no matter the size of the window, you need to scroll down a little bit to see everything, but it’s not like there’s a lot of content below the screen to actually view.
Live streaming is exactly what it says on the box. The same content that’s broadcast via Foxtel on its selection of channels is streamed online via the Play service.
The default view shows a list of channels and current programs running down the right hand of the window, while the left shows the currently selected program, and the programs description below it.
There are two alternate views as well – one with the current channel shown as a thumbnail size next to a larger EPG, and a full-screen view that only shows the video playing.
You can limit the number of channels shown in the list by genre. As we were testing the service with the full channel offering, we’re not sure if it will only display the channels you’ve paid for, but there’s no menu option for "My channels" or something similar, so we’re doubtful.
The final viewing option with Foxtel Play is Anytime, which offers a selection of programs on demand, to watch at leisure from start to finish, often without the ad-breaks of the Live TV option.
Sadly, for anyone hoping for a serious Netflix competitor in this service, you’re destined for disappointment. While the range of programs on offer is pretty decent, with hundreds of TV shows, movies and documentaries available, the depth of each offering is quite shallow, although improving.
TV shows, in many cases, only have a handful of episodes on offer at any given time. The arrival of the Boxsets channel means you can binge on some of your favourite shows, but there’s still a lot of programming only available on a catch-up basis.
While that’s slightly frustrating it does make sense. This is a Pay TV company, after all, which has a business plan built around the broadcast model of entertainment.
To counter this, Foxtel also has its Presto service, offering a movie and TV streaming selection for an affordable monthly fee.
It’s a rapidly expanding market, and with the recent launch of Netflix and Stan in Australia, competition is only getting worse. But in the time since the Foxtel Play’s launch, it has improved dramatically, with more content and easier pricing models.
DRM and Video Quality
What, you didn’t expect Rupert Murdoch’s beloved Australian Pay TV company to dive into a DRM-free online portal, did you?
The good news is that the restrictions on Foxtel Play aren’t too draconian. You can register three devices to the service, although that does include Foxtel Go as well. Generally, that’s probably going to be a computer, a tablet and an Xbox, PlayStation or Samsung, Sony or LG smart TV.
While you can opt for a range of permutations and combinations in terms of what devices you connect, you can only connect a single Xbox. We’re not sure why – probably because multiple Xbox consoles really would eat into Foxtel’s multi-room charging strategy.
And while three devices can be connected to a Play account, only two of them can stream video at a time. So forget about having four family members watching four different things on four different devices. You’ll need to pony up the cash for two accounts for that to happen.
In terms of video quality, there are only two settings – Best and Low. Best is actually very decent – we’d go as far as describing it as almost up to DVD quality, although it does depend on your broadband connection. That said, our fairly slow ADSL2+ connection managed the stream effortlessly, and it only took between five and ten seconds to buffer a new video.
The Low quality is still very palatable, at least on a computer. While pictures lack definition, they’re still watchable on a smaller screen. The lower setting on the Xbox 360 is harder to view, but is certainly no worse than watching most YouTube clips on the big screen.
The video quality setting is one thing many users will need to pay attention to, given the bandwidth restrictions on home (and mobile) broadband plans.
According to the service’s FAQs, the highest quality setting will chew through 1310MB of data every hour, while the low setting will only use about 470MB.
In other words, if you left the lowest quality streaming 24 hours a day for a month, you’d likely use up more than 300GB of data. At the highest setting, you’ll probably crack 900GB.
While those usage cases are unlikely, you may still want to upgrade your broadband plan before signing up.
It’s clear that Foxtel has put a lot of thought into creating a proper Pay TV service for the internet with Play. It’s sleek, easy enough for anyone to use, and comprehensive in its offering.
But, it is still Foxtel. If you’ve given up paying big bucks for television because of the hours and hours of rubbish programming between one or two decent shows, this isn’t for you. It’s still the same old content Foxtel churns out day in and day out on its broadcast channel, only delivered through the internet.
But it’s impossible to doubt the benefit of moving to an IP based system. No longer is your television locked to your home. You can take your Foxtel subscription with you on holiday, or hospital, or anywhere else you may need to go.
Of course, whether that convenience is worth the price of entry is up for debate. But if you’re likely to pay for Foxtel in the first place, you probably won’t balk at the asking price.
It”s so convenient and quick. Even on a fairly poor ADSL2+ connection and a two year old Mac, it still took less than 10 seconds to buffer. Once it started, we never experienced a bump in playback.
The ability to stream to multiple devices also won us over. While it’s probably a little bit stricter with the DRM than we’d like – only having two simultaneous connections when you can only have three connected devices seems a bit weak to us – the convenience is still something you don’t really get with a full Foxtel subscription.
We’ll be honest, we were hoping for more from the Anytime service. It’s not that there’s nothing to watch via Anytime, it’s just that it’s not really a viable way to discover a new show. We’d like to be able to try pilot episodes of programs, and then follow through if we like them, like you can with Netflix.
The harder pill to swallow though is the price. Sure, a single package seems like pretty good value. But this was an opportunity for Foxtel to bring a la carte channel subscriptions to the table.
The biggest problem with Foxtel in general is that you need to pay for half a dozen channels you don’t care about to get the one channel you do.
In broadcast that may make sense, but this is the internet, and there’s simply no reason why users shouldn’t be able to create their own package with only the channels they want to pay for.
But more than that is the fact that a complete Play subscription gets you 48 channels, some of which won’t play on certain devices. A Platinum broadcast subscription gets you 86 channels, plus an iQ box and HD channels, for an extra $20 a month.
When you factor in you have to pay for broadband usage as well, it simply doesn’t stack up as an affordable alternative.
It’s a decent offering, but Foxtel has played it just a little bit too safe to really disrupt the market.
There’s a good chance that in 15 years, pretty much all television will be consumed via the internet. With that in mind, Foxtel Play is a good, solid first step for the Pay TV company, after its previous crawling attempts.
We’d love to see more versatility in packaging and pricing, as well as more of a push to on demand streaming. But given the way Foxtel makes its money, there’s a good chance we’ll be waiting a while for that.