Introduction and design
Update: With Presto testing High Def streams and confirmed for launch on the Telstra TV device, we’ve updated the review to reflect this developments.
The launch of Foxtel’s Presto platform last year was widely regarded as a pre-emptive strike against an inevitable Netflix launch in Australia.
Now, months later, we now know for a fact that the US streaming giant is launching in Australia. But it will also be competing with rival local service Stan for Australian streaming eyeballs.
While services like ABC iview and SBS On Demand have offered Australia a solid way to catch up on free to air TV, complete video-on-demand services have historically been somewhat lacking.
This means the market has very quickly exploded from next to nothing to a positive smorgasbord of platforms to stream from. But how does Presto compare?
Working to compliment Foxtel Go and Foxtel Play, Presto initially offered users access to Foxtel’s massive movie library, with streams available from all of the service’s movie channels.
However, the live movie channel streams have since disappeared, and the service has since refocused on video on demand content.
Perhaps more exciting was the addition of television programming to the lineup. Requiring an additional monthly fee, Foxtel has leveraged its partnerships with HBO and Showtime to offer a wide selection of TV shows, from individual episodes to entire seasons, through the Presto Entertainment portal.
Since launch, this rollout has continued to expand, with partnerships with NBC and BBC worldwide, among others.
The catch is that this TV content isn’t automatically included in the price. While Foxtel halved the monthly subscription for Presto movies last year from $20 a month to $10 a month, users who want to watch TV and movies will need to pay $15 a month for a bundled offering, Or $10 a month for just TV.
This price premium is a definite disadvantage against newcomer Stan, which charges just $10 a month for arguably a better lineup of content, with the added advantage of offering HD streams.
Netflix has a local pricing structure that offers an equivalent product for $8.99 , making the $15 Presto price tag slightly harder to swallow.
Foxtel is a company built on getting people to subscribe through a relatively painless process, so it’s a surprise to find that the act of getting started on Presto is somewhat drawn out.
In order to begin watching movies via the internet on Presto, you have to first create an account via your browser – just your standard first name, last name, email and phone number form, with some T&C agreements and date of birth confirmations thrown in for good measure.
But instead of handing over your credit card number at the same time, in order to start watching straight away, you have to wait for the activation email, activate your account, and then hand over the 16 digits before you can start streaming.
It seems to be an unnecessary two-step process. You do get the ability to add shows to your watch list in that hazy purgatory between being a member and a subscriber, but that does seem like small consolation.
Of course, it’s also only a minor annoyance, so we’ll stop complaining and move on to the good stuff.
Make no mistake, Presto is an intuitive and simple-to-use service.
Initially available via a web browser on a PC or Mac, or via an iPad app, Presto has added support for a selection of Android tablets since launch.
Officially, the app supports 7-inch Android tablet devices and above running Android Versions 4.0.3 – 4.4, but we found it didn’t work with some Android devices like the Xperia Z2 tablet.
That list of supported Android tablets is even shorter when it comes to TV show playback. For that, you’ll need either a Nexus 7, or one of a handful of Samsung Galaxy tablets.
Given the massive range of Android tablets on the market, this limitation could be a severe frustration for users, especially given the list doesn’t even include some of the most recent tablets on the market, like the Nexus 9.
Presto has launched mobile offerings for the platform, and is also available on the soon-to-be-obsolete T-Box, with an app on the upcoming Telstra TV service too.
Earlier this year, Presto made a reselling deal deal with Quickflix, which would have seen the number of compatible devices dramatically improve, but the deal was squandered by Quickflix shortly afterwards. In the meantime you’re locked to a browser or tablet screen to watch the service, or a TV via Chromecast, but more on that later.
From the web browser side of things, once you’ve signed into your account, you can access the entire suite of on demand movies and TV shows within a few mouse clicks.
The top of the page is made up of your navigation and search bar, allowing you to begin browsing by movies, TV shows or using the search function.
There’s also a quick link to the Community forums for advice and help using the service (something we had to check a few times during our review, which was a little disheartening.
Just below the bar is a massive carousel filling up the bulk of your screen and pointing you to the most recent featured content.
If you scroll down, you’ll see a series of collections, which seems to change every so often. Expect to see things like "New to Presto", "Star packed Adren-a-thon", "Animation fixation for kids on vacation" and other themes along those lines.
For a combined subscription, the list of featured content seems to be split between both movies and TV fairly evenly, with between four and six titles on display.
Hover over any film or TV cover, and you’ll see a more detailed synopsis pop up, along with a classification and general film information like runtime and release year, plus a rating from Presto users.
From this window you can select to watch a movie straight away or add it to your watch list for later viewing.
The iPad app has a similar user experience. Down the left hand panel is a nav bar that offers shortcuts to search, discover and watch list, plus settings and community options.
There are more options on the screen in the iPad versions, making browsing a bit easier. In lieu of a pop up, the movie information slides out on the right hand side of the screen, offering the same synopsis, review and classification rankings.
You also get more detailed Rotten Tomatoes ratings, and suggested titles to extend your browsing adventures.
Content, Performance and Verdict
There’s no shortage of movies available to stream through the Presto service. An early count saw 879 films on offer from Foxtel’s lineup of movie channels, and an impressive collection of 254 TV shows as well, although that number has expanded greatly since then.
That said, the number of complete TV seasons – as in every episode of every season – is surprisingly limited, given Foxtel recently launched its Box Sets Channel on its Pay TV service.
There are a few HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire (but no Game of Thrones anywhere). In May the ACCC approved the 7-Foxtel partnership meaning that more local-Channel-Seven programs like Packed to the Rafters and Always Greener will be available on the service soon.
Local Foxtel shows like Wentworth are also present, and pose the only real exclusive advantage the service has over its competitors at the moment.
Since the official union Channel 7 has promised to "Dramatically increase its content libraries". Seeing as Presto already has a collection of over 1000 movie and TV titles (not far off Netflix’s 1120) were hoping this dramatic increase will be qualitative rather than quantitative. Leading with the announcement that presto will host the premiere of Aquarius, a new crime drama starring David Duchovny, on the 29th of May, the signs look promising so far.
While Netflix is pushing forward with 4K streams at the same price as the Presto TV and Movies package — Australians will be disappointed to hear that Presto doesn’t officially push beyond standard definition.
In 2015, you would think high definition would at least be an option.
This is especially galling in light of the fact that Stan, which has barely emerged from StreamCo’s womb, is offering a Full HD service at launch for no extra cost. Presto – 10 months after initially hitting the market – still only delivers an SD experience.
Presto is testing HD streams, depending on devices, and will soon roll out HD officially, but it’s still a step back from the competition.
Certainly, there are advantages to restricting quality to standard definition. We managed to watch a movie via 3G and LTE on the train with only a single dropout in a known deadzone.
Each film runs between 1GB and 1.5GB at standard def, so it means you probably don’t want to be using this while commuting without a mega download pack tacked on.
Given the quality of broadband in Australia, streaming at a lower resolution means fewer chance of drop outs, as well as lower data consumption.
And it’s not like the quality is overly bad when watching on a computer screen or on an iPad Air. Films like Sin City look perfectly watchable on the tablet.
The SD streams are especially notable when using the embedded Chromecast support to beam streams to the big screen.
Watching Presto on a 4K display beamed over Chromecast is frankly a disappointing experience. To be honest, even just bumped up to a 55-inch 1080p screen left us rubbing our eyes and longing for mercy.
To be fair, setting up the Chromecast function is incredibly easy – like all Chromecasting. But the end result left a lot to be desired.
Also disappointing and somewhat surprising is the fact that there’s no support for Airplay in the app.
Admittedly the Chromecast is especially affordable, but given Stan beams to an Apple TV using Airplay from launch, it’s something we’d expect to see.
One of the most common excuses used by torrenters in Australia for their decision to download movies and TV shows is the lack of legal local services like Netflix.
Presto is a service to fill this void. For a set fee of $15 a month, you get access to unlimited streams of hundreds of movies and TV shows, with new films added regularly.
But the market is getting crowded fast. Presto – which launched last year without much competition – is facing a much tougher sell with the arrival of Stan and Netflix this year.
And frankly, its lack of mobile apps and limited SD streaming, coupled with its higher price, means it’s going to struggle.
The service is slick, and the iOS app is nice to look at and simple to use. Navigating through the massive selection of films is fairly easy.
The selection is large, in terms of both movies and TV shows. While we always want larger, the fact is there’s plenty to watch on Presto, and it’s easy to watch it, provided you have the right hardware.
Many of the issues we have with Presto aren’t necessarily long term issues, but we hope they are fixed in the short term.
Things like not offering HD as standard is almost unforgivable in 2015. Especially given Netflix will be launching not just with HD, but with 4K. While there are benefits of SD streaming on mobile connections, at the very least offer the option of HD, so watching shows on the big screen doesn’t look so terrible.
There’s also no default app for watching the service on a TV – at least not until the Telstra TV device launches in September.
What may not change is Airplay support, which is disappointingly absent. It could be switched on fairly easily, but you have to wonder whether there are movie studio hands in play at its absence.
Though to be fair, the deal with Quickflix should bring significantly more connectivity options when it is finalised.
Finally, the sign up process could definitely use an overhaul. The two-stage process is unnecessarily complicated, and it doesn’t need to be. A single sign up plus payment solution would be much more efficient.
This market is getting very exciting, and Presto needs to lift its game significantly if it wants to lead the way. There has been movement from the company recently but the benefits are still yet to be seen by consumers.
Not only is it the most expensive service on offer at the moment, but it also offers the least in terms of stream quality and hardware support.
The addition of TV shows is welcome, indeed, but the fact you can’t watch them on the vast majority of Android tablets is a ridiculous hurdle.
Should you sign up? At the moment, Presto is hard to recommend, especially when we look at the launch of Stan and Netflix. But a few key developments could turn everything around for Foxtel’s VOD play. Watch this space.