TV On Demand – what you want to watch and when you want to watch it. It’s already big business and the major TV providers are starting to catch up with the specialist services, and that’s causing those in turn to up their game to remain competitive and keep innovating in the digital content delivery arena. You can now get your favourite films and TV programmes streamed directly to pretty much any device you own, and the last and current console generations are keen to get you to watch on their systems. But what do you really get, and which is the best?
We’ve looked at 4 services – 3 paid and 1 free to provide a benchmark: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, NowTV and the BBC iPlayer. As we’re predominantly UK based we’re going with the ones here (see, we can do consumer advice!), though we’d love to hear your comments on the US based ones. Oh, and these were all tested on the PlayStation 4 over a couple of months to get a decent comparison in. Here’s a quick summary of the 4 services to get the basics out of the way:
|Service Comparison||Amazon Instant Video||Netflix||NowTV||BBC iPlayer|
|Available on PlayStation||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Available on Xbox||Yes||Yes||Yes||No****|
|Price per month||£6.58||£5.99||£13.98*||Free|
|Free trial available?||Yes||Yes||Yes||N/A|
|Super HD Streaming||No||Yes||No||No|
|Audio Output||2-ch/5.1/DD+||2-ch/ 5.1/DD+/7.1||5.1 stereo**||2-ch/5.1|
|Approx. Total Content||15,000 titles||10,000 titles||800+ movies, 14 channels||Catch up TV – 9 channels|
|Sports Available?||No||No||Yes at £9.99 per day||Yes|
|Minimum Network Speed||0.5 Mbps||0.5 Mbps||2.5 Mbps||2 Mbps|
*For both Movies and TV – £8.99 and £4.99 respectively
**The actual wording on the site!
****Due end of 2014
*****UK only for consoles
So pretty clear, but what are they like to actually use?
Amazon Instant Video
Amazon does what you expect, it’s pretty straight forward to sign up and get started with. The interface is clean and easy to navigate on console TV app, and playback is pretty quick to start and get up to full HD quality (if your connection supports it). Logging into Amazon lets you browse the catalogues easily and queue programmes and films up for playback via your Watchlist next time you boot your console app up. It might not sound like a feature that sells a service, but when there’s that much content there’s definitely a need to offer multiple ways of getting to it. There’s a good selection of recent films and TV series, as well as classic stuff too, with rotation rates being good so there’s new things to watch regularly. Amazon have started creating their own content now so exclusive series are being broadcast like Extant that draws on the talents of Halle Berry. Throw in exclusive movies too and you’ve got a decent option of a streaming service that also gives you all the benefits of Amazon Prime.
Probably the most well known streaming service, Netflix has been with us as a console TV app for a few years now and it shows in how slick it is. They’ve also notably been winning awards for exclusive content like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (both very good series if you’ve not watched them yet). The amount of content is lower than Amazon, but it’s arguably of higher quality on the TV side. There are some good movies on there, and the deal with Disney recently has expanded that considerably, but it does lack a little on the higher profile titles. However, if you’re a low budget horror fan then you’re definitely going to want to give it a chance. In terms of website integration, it’s much the same as Amazon in that you can add stuff to your lists, and it also gets you to rate what you think so that it can tailor more content towards what you want to see. Streaming is solid and about as high quality as you can get as long as your network can support it, and it offers beyond HD too if you’ve got the right kit. Audio is excellent too with Dolby Digital+ being available on a lot of titles (and 7.1 is there too for select films). Don’t overlook the profile settings as well that lets you separate your viewing from other people who use the same machine, and the fact that you can focus solely on kids content too if you’ve got little ones to entertain.
A relative newcomer to the scene is the service from British broadcaster BSkyB, and its console TV app has recently appeared on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. There’s real potential here because aside from on demand streaming content there’s the option to have live TV delivered to your console from some of the Sky channels – and you don’t need a contract and satellite dish. There’s also an option to have live sport as well so you can watch events you want on and off instead of committing for months on end. There’s a catch though, it costs. A lot. Now TV is the most expensive for film and TV (and extortionate for sport), and it’s got the lowest selection count. It’s true it’s got newer films and TV programmes as they’re shown, but you can’t watch everything. Seriously, Sky cannot show certain content due to licensing issues so there’s regular updated list of things you can’t watch (not good).
Unfortunately the streaming isn’t up to the same standard as Netflix or Amazon either with fuzzy images somewhere between SD and HD quality, and audio has really let us down on the PS4. Now TV’s audio output seems resolutely stuck in stereo regardless of what option you pick – DTS, Dolby Digital, Mono, Pro Logic; I tried everything and could only get 2 channels of sound. Not the best way to watch anything when you’re used to a home cinema setup. Website-wise it’s lacking features as well with there being no option to queue or send content to other devices, and it’s pretty bad to navigate through the help sections too despite actually looking quite nice. Plus, and this would probably help their console uptake, if you’re an existing Sky satellite customer you can’t access any of the channels even if you’ve got the full packages. Though they let you log in using your Sky ID…
This isn’t really a good comparison because it’s not a paid content service, but if you’re in the UK you can access pretty much everything that’s shown on the BBC TV channels at no cost and with a lot of it in HD and 5.1 audio as well. It’s not the best interface, the website is like Now TV’s in terms of confusing help and messages because it’s trying to be too simple, and you can’t line up a show to watch later. Plus, as a rule there’s only 7 days of content available before it rotates. But… it does a very decent job, the app works well, and it’s free.
First up we’ll take the iPlayer out of this because it’s free anyway, even though it provides a solid service for limited TV on demand. You might ask why we’ve not covered Sony’s own on demand movie and TV service seeing as this was done on the PS4, and aside from it being more a rental service than “watch as much as you can”, there are two reasons really:
- It’s very expensive! 4 episodes of The Walking Dead cost more than a month of Netflix.
- The streaming quality is not consistent, with frequent sub-HD drops even on stable fibre optic connections. I used to rate the Sony service as the place to go for renting a movie, downloading to the PS3 and watching from there, the streaming switch on the PS4 is currently a disappointment.
So which console TV service should you go for? For the moment, forget Now TV unless you don’t mind burning cash. There are good things to watch, but the service quality just isn’t there. Yet. That leaves you deciding between Amazon and Netflix, and I honestly don’t think there’s much in it. Your best bet is checking the content and going with the one that has more of what you’re interested in, then you can always stop and switch to the other whenever you want. Just remember that Amazon makes you pay for a year, whilst Netflix can be activated/deactivated monthly. Both work very well, and you can access through multiple devices and on the go, which is a plus if you’re just aiming for something to watch through your console. My choice? I’ve gone for Netflix because I think the service just edges out Amazon, especially with the switchable profiles.