Netflix, Amazon, Sky and Wuaki jostle for position
Traditional broadcast TV is still the nation’s favourite way to consume programming but the rise of streaming services goes on unabated.
In fact, the choices of how, where and what we can watch seem to grow daily so we’ve put together this guide in an attempt to untangle the confusing world of online video streaming.
We couldn’t possibly cover all the available services in the UK but we should have almost all the major players covered and we’ll be concentrating our findings on five key areas - content, picture quality, availability, pricing and usability.
So where to start? Let’s go to the Daddy of Internet TV…
Since Netflix began online streaming in 2007, it has grown its membership base to 44 million subscribers worldwide. That’s a number that should speak volumes and we think the flat-fee £5.99/month, it currently costs UK residents, provides outstanding value.
It’s not so much for the movie catalogue, which generally lags behind most of the competition in terms of up-to-date blockbuster titles, despite having some quality content - it’s more about the vast array of TV box-sets available on the platform.
Netflix truly has something for everyone and, what’s more, boasts some excellent original series exclusive to its members. The emmy-award winning House of Cards is no better example of that and with all thirteen episodes of the superb second season now available – even in 4K, for those that have capable hardware* - anyone that enjoys high-brow, top quality political drama should take a month’s free trial just to check both seasons out. That’s less than 1 episode per day – a trivial task for Netflix’s army of binge-watching devotees.
*Netflix is partnering with Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG & others to bring a 4K streaming app to their HEVC decoder equipped Ultra HD TV line-ups in 2014.
"Tell them Russo, you can only see House of Cards on Netflix. And in 4K, if you're rich like me."
There are also some other top-notch, made-for-Netflix programmes on offer, including Orange is the New Black, Hemlock Grove and Lilyhammer to add to the catalogue of bought-in content such as the unmissable Breaking Bad and there’s also an excellent array of kids programming and movies too.
The picture quality is also excellent by streaming service standards, and if you have an internet connection that can cope, the Super HD streams are a match for almost all broadcast HD TV. Netflix will soon start moving all their content to the next-gen HEVC compression format which will be good news, in terms of picture quality, regardless of resolution.
As for being able to access Netflix – if you don’t have a capable device, you must have somehow travelled back through time, as it’s available on PC, iOS, Android, Apple TV, Linux, Roku boxes and just about every Smart TV platform in existence including Samsung, LG, Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba… the list goes on.
Usability is also excellent, particularly with the New User Experience, and there are legal (at least not illegal) means by which you can access the Netflix catalogues from other countries. This is particularly useful for the more extensive range of US TV show boxsets available through American Netflix, although we have to say that most people will be more than satisfied with what’s on offer from our ‘native’ Netflix service.
Picture quality wise, Super HD on Netflix takes some beating.Amazon Instant Video
What used to be known as LOVEFiLM in the UK, has now been rebranded as Amazon Prime Instant Video. The online retail giant amalgamated its video streaming business with its subscription based, next-day-shipping retail scheme. For existing Prime members this is good news as it means, until renewal date, they get unlimited access to the Prime video content but for new subscribers it has increased the entry-fee.
An annual Amazon Prime membership now costs £79, or about £6.58 monthly, but you aren’t able to split the fee into instalments, which perhaps might be significant. Five or six pounds, here and there, isn’t going to be missed by most on a monthly basis but asking the customers to stump up the best part of eighty quid, up front, is a gamble on Amazon’s behalf.
To entice folks in to parting with such a sum Amazon is going to need to at least rival Netflix’s wealth of content and they are certainly upping their game, of late. Prime’s first original series, Alpha House, is a serviceable and clever political comedy with a likeable cast and it is soon to be followed by six more made-for-Prime exclusives, all shot in 4K.
Amazon is beefing up its own exclusive and original content too with some focus on vicious folks in boats. Pirates and Vikings is a compelling mixture!
Amazon has also bagged a deal to make all episodes of ‘24’ exclusively available for streaming on Prime and it’s the only place where all series of The Shield can currently be watched as part of a subscription. Other shows you won’t see elsewhere outside of a traditional TV package are Black Sails and the superb Vikings, which has just been commissioned for Season 3.
We still don’t think Prime has quite the same depth of quality content as Netflix and their streaming technology is also less refined. That said, since the merger with Prime, there is more up-to-date content available to rent or buy. For instance, right now you can rent the HD versions of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Frozen at £4.49 for a 48hr period or ‘own’ them in HD for £13.99 We’re trying to keep this guide to all-you-can-eat services but at least you know the option is there.
You can watch Prime Video in nominal 1080p quality, through some devices, but in our experience it doesn’t rival Netflix Super HD and is also far more prone to annoying pauses for buffering, especially since the merger with Prime. Hopefully Amazon will bolster their servers sooner rather than later but, for now, it can be a slightly frustrating user experience.
It’s also irksome that Amazon refuses to provide an Android app for the service in an attempt to steer folks toward their Kindle Fire tablets – where it is available – and, more recently, their Apple TV/Roku/Chromecast rivalling FireTV box, which should be released in the UK sometime in 2014.
Amazon Instant Video is currently available through some, but not all, Sony, Samsung and LG Smart TV products as well as the current and last gen PlayStation, Xbox and Wii consoles. There is an iOS app as well and, of course, you can get it through the majority of Kindle (HD) tablets and your browser but it’s certainly not as ubiquitous as Netflix and the interface, regardless of device, isn’t so refined or intuitive.
Amazon needs to spend money on their servers to stop buffering niggles.Wuaki TV
A relatively new entrant to the UK market is Wuaki TV and they are certainly making a good start in terms of ensuring their app is widely supported. At present the service is available through some LG, Panasonic and Samsung Smart TVs and boxes as well as through browsers, Android & iOS apps and Xbox 360 and One consoles.
Like Netflix, Wuaki TV is priced at £5.99 a month but also, like Amazon, offers rental and ‘ownership’ deals. The big problem we have with Wuaki is the interface which doesn’t always make it abundantly clear what you can watch as part of your subscription or is going to cost you extra. In theory, going to your ‘Selection’ content should display what is part of the monthly deal but you will find that it’s all mixed up once you drill down in to ‘TV Series’ and ‘Movies’. So, for instance, we selected Breaking Bad but were told it would cost £14.99 a month to buy and there is no HD version on offer.
Wuaki needs work on the interface.
In fact there is nowhere near the range of what we would consider unmissable TV series, when compared to the rest, included in the monthly cost although there are a few gems such as Twin Peaks hidden away but our recommendation would be to let Wuaki mature a little more before taking out a subscription.
In terms of picture quality, Wuaki also doesn’t reach the highs of Netflix Super HD and looks effectively 720p on the HD streams, at best, but our recent experiences have found it to be less prone to the buffering issues affecting Amazon Instant. Wuaki certainly has a massive challenge on its hands to establish marketshare in the UK and really needs more high profile series’ to be part of the monthly subs if it’s going to flourish.
Game. Of. Thrones. There’s three words to set your average TV addict in to a state of frenzy but the fact it has always been a Sky Atlantic exclusive has meant the only means of watching it, outside of a Sky package subscription, have been relatively expensive. Of course, GoT isn’t the only hugely desirable series that forms part of HBO’s exclusivity deal with Sky and there are plenty of others including True Detective, Banshee and Boardwalk Empire to name a few more.
This is where NOW TV comes in. For a flat fee of £4.99 a month, NOW TV offers access both live and on-demand, to Sky’s entertainment package with programming from Sky 1, Sky Atlantic, Sky Living, Discovery, Sky Arts, MTV and more. NOW TV also gives you access to certain TV boxsets as part of the package so, at the time of writing, you can currently view all 3 seasons of Game of Thrones, in addition to the 30 day catch-up period for the new Season 4 instalments. For less than a fiver, we think it’s quite compelling value but mileages will vary depending on what is available through catch-up at a particular point in time.“I wish I had Sky Atlantic!”
Cheer up Daenerys, NOW TV is here!
Speaking of which, from a picture quality standpoint, it’s always best to view from on-demand than through the live IPTV simulcasts as you get a native 720p, rather than the SD resolution offered through the live service. For TV series, 720p isn’t so bad, although the bigger screen you have, the more you are likely to notice its quite heavily compressed and therefore subject to some blocking and banding artefacts.
Additionally, NOW TV has a movies catalogue which can be accessed in unlimited supply for £8.99 per month. We have to say we don’t find that to be quite such rip-snorting value and for the must-see titles 720p@30 frames per second just doesn’t cut it in comparison to the 1080p24 Blu-ray equivalents. We find it provides greatest value during the school holidays as NOW TV does have an excellent selection of kids movies, including dozens of Disney’s finest and the user interface is also so easy that a child wont struggle.
We also like the fact that you are able to set parental guards against your little ones getting at unsuitable content – and the same goes for Amazon – and we hope Netflix soon adds the same facility over locking profiles and more adult material. As it stands, there’s nothing to stop your little angel getting in to your profile and firing up some Breaking Bad or Borgia.
Sky offers some generous bundle deals from time to time and one can currently go and pick up a NOW TV box with 5 months movies subscription for £34.99 month, or pay the same price and get 6 months on the Entertainment package, also with the box bundled.
NOW TV has some great bundle offersThe NOW TV box isn’t the only way to access NOW TV, however, and it can be used on all the Roku boxes, new LG Smart TVs (3 months free intro offer), PS3, Xbox 360, iOS, Android, Apple TV and YouView but, confusingly, not all NOW TV services are available on all devices. For example, you can only get the £9.99/day Sport pass on the Apple TV – and not the Entertainment or Movies – whilst YouView is restricted to Sports and Movies but no Entertainment.
That actually raises a question about which devices offer the most complete selection of on-demand services which we’ll address in another article but the short answer is the last-gen (PS3/Xbox 360) consoles, at present, at least if you ignore the fact you need a Xbox Live Gold subscription for the 360 and both are noisier than dedicated streaming devices such as the Roku 3.
Hopefully we’ve helped you unravel what the UK’s most popular unlimited streaming services have to offer and brought you closer to a decision as to where to spend your money. Of course, the only real answer to get at the widest possible selection is to have them all but if you tied our arms behind our backs and forced us to choose one, it would be Netflix but both Amazon and Sky could certainly have a case made for them, depending on what you want to watch, and on what you will be watching it on.
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