Australian viewers have long faced paying a hefty price for a pay TV subscription or waiting for shows to be broadcast on free-to-air TV. Not any longer. These days, the line-up of on-demand movie and TV services in Australia is extensive.
Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video, Foxtel Now, Disney Plus, Google Play Movies & TV and AppleTV+ are all competing for our eyeballs and credit cards. But with this many options, how do you pick the best service to suit your viewing needs and your budget?
Streaming means watching as you download, whereas "downloading" a video usually refers to permanently storing the file on your device for watching at a later time. Streaming services are also called "video on demand" (VOD) services, and generally come in two models: monthly subscription and buy/rent.
Users pay a monthly fee to access a library of movies, TV shows, documentaries etc. You can stream content as many times as you'd like or download it for offline viewing within a set period. Most services offer a combination of third-party content and exclusives produced or purchased by the company. These are typically called "originals."
Offline viewing is similar to rentals. You can download select TV shows and movies to watch at a later date without using up your data each time you view them, depending on what type of device you're downloading to at no additional fee. These downloads usually expire after 48-hours or so, but you can download them again or stream the content online.
Users create a free account to rent or buy content as a one-time purchase. It is added to your account library for streaming. Rentals can be viewed once within a set period (usually 48 hours), whereas purchases are in your library indefinitely. Most services also let you download rentals/purchases for offline viewing.
Some subscription services, such as Netflix and Stan, offer tiered pricing that increases based on the picture quality (SD, HD and 4K) and number of users. Others, like Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video, let you access everything for a single monthly fee.
Rental and purchase prices vary based on a few factors including:
- The content's age (e.g. old and new films).
- The content's popularity
- Quality (SD, HD and 4K)
- The source. Big Hollywood productions often cost more than independent or arthouse films, for example.
- Sales and bundles. It can be cheaper to purchase an entire season of a TV show rather than individual episodes.
Subscription streaming services require an internet-connected device such as a computer, tablet, smartphone or smart TV to watch shows. They charge a monthly fee that can increase based on the streaming resolution (SD, HD and 4K), and the number of devices that can simultaneously access the account.
This list covers the key subscription streaming services available in Australia. Each has its own pros, cons and (most importantly) exclusive programs and films.
These options are a little different from subscription streaming services. Instead of paying a monthly fee to access as much content as the company has to offer, you create a free account and pay for videos-on-demand. Most offer different rates for SD and HD content, and TV shows are generally available for purchase, but not rental, on a per-episode, or whole season basis.
If you rent content, you get access to a movie for 30 days, but after you click play you only have 48 hours to watch it. Purchased content is added to your account for permanent streaming or downloading for offline viewing, depending on the service and the device you're using.
Each free-to-air TV broadcaster has an online catch-up service, which lets you view programs on your smartphone, PC, game console, smart TV etc., for a limited period. Most are online for two to three weeks after airing, though some can be longer.
Some are starting to follow the streaming service model in a few ways. They:
- Occasionally upload an entire series at a time.
- Stream original content and syndicated series that don't go to air.
- Stream "additional content" similar to DVD bonus features (exclusive interviews, behind the scenes etc).
- Provide large film libraries (particularly SBS) for free.
- Re-upload previous episodes of popular shows when a new season is due to air.
Most smart TVs and some PVRs (personal video recorders) can access free-to-air TV catch-up apps and streaming services if they're connected to the internet through your home network. But they're not the only option. These devices are a handy substitute if you don't have a smart TV or if it's a bit long in the tooth and lags or can't process content consistently.
These devices can also add additional features such as surround sound support, higher-resolution options (e.g the desktop version of an app may support 4K when the smartTV version can't) and casting. However, it could also go the other way so it may be worth installing the app/software on a few devices to compare features and functionality.
- Media streamers or hubs are hardware devices that connect to your home network to stream movies and shows stored on your network or from the internet to your TV. The Fetch Mighty and Mini are good examples.
- Dongles are more or less the same as media streamers but in a much smaller package (generally the size of a couple of thumb drives). Though great space savers, they can compromise on some of the higher-end features in media streamers such as high-end audio outputs and 4K video.
- Apple TV has its own app store. It's a hardware streaming device that plugs into a TV to play iTunes content and shows through streaming apps, and can also "cast" content from an iPhone, iPad or Mac wirelessly to the TV via Apple's Airplay feature.
- Chromecast is also a hardware streaming device that plugs into a TV and is used to stream content from Android phones and tablets as well as iPhones, iPads and Windows and Mac computers to the TV.
- Foxtel Now box can cast Foxtel Now content in HD from mobile devices (Android or iOS), or computers to the TV. It can also cast content from streaming platform Stan as well as free-to-air catch up TV services such as the ABC's iView.
- Game consoles such as the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox One can connect to most streaming and catch-up services via downloadable apps.
- Desktop or laptop PC (Windows and macOS) can access popular services either via a web browser or as downloadable software. Most computers also include an HDMI out port, which you can plug into your TV, projector, monitor and so on.
Third-party content that isn't produced or owned by the service is distributed under license. Once this license expires, the copyright holders can choose to license it again, give it to another service or take it offline completely.
This means content libraries are constantly changing, and so are the value propositions of each service. There's no guarantee that the movie you signed up for will still be around in a month's time, unless it's an original.
When it comes to picture quality, these services all stream in standard definition (SD) and most also have high definition (HD) shows. Some stream in 4K, though content with this resolution is often limited.
- Standard definition (SD)in streaming is typically 480p or 576p resolution.
- High definition (HD)is usually 720p or 1080p resolution.
- Ultra high definition (UHD or 4K)resolution is typically 3840p resolution.
Some HD and UHD content is also available in high-dynamic range (HDR) or Dolby Vision. These basically expand contrast ratio (the difference between darkest blacks and brightest whites) and colour accuracy to give you a much more dynamic picture.
However, your actual viewing resolution may not exactly match this because many platforms downscale the video quality for lower speed connections to limit drop-outs. Just because you rent or buy content in HD or 4K, or sign up to a subscription plan that allows HD and 4K streaming, does not mean your internet connection is necessarily fast enough to stream it at these ratios.
Licensing also affects picture and audio quality. For example, almost all third-party content on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video is available in high-definition with 5.1 surround sound at best, even if a 4K UHD Dolby Atmos version is available elsewhere. While a service may advertise UHD content, it only applies to the originals most of the time.
Some subscription and rent/buy services offer different prices depending on the video resolution.
It can be hard to gauge what internet data allowance you'll need for streaming. As you watch more content, you may need to increase your data allowance. On average, you'll use:
- Below standard definition: 300MB per hour
- Standard definition (SD): 700MB per hour
- High definition (HD): 3GB per hour
- 4K Ultra-high definition (UHD): 7GB per hour
This can increase even more if your TV or receiver supports HDR, Dolby Vision and surround sound such as 5.1 or Dolby Atmos.
Keep a close eye on your usage for the first month or two after you go to a streaming platform.
- Most streaming services are metered by your ISP, meaning streaming counts towards your download usage.
- Some ISPs offer "unmetered" streaming for particular services as an incentive to sign up.
- Use your ISP usage meter via a web browser or app and check if it can send usage alerts when you are approaching the limit.
What speed internet connection do you need to enjoy streamed movies and TV shows without any hiccups? This is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and varies depending on the service.
- SD: 1 - 3Mbps
- HD: 3.5 - 8Mbps
- 4K UHD: 5 - 25Mbps
Some streaming services such as Netflix scale the quality for buffer-free, uninterrupted viewing. This will reduce or improve the sound and picture quality based on your internet speed at any point in time to minimise delays and give you the best possible consistent video.
Is Australian internet suitable for streaming?
You can get a good idea of how well your broadband connection will handle video streaming by using a free streaming service such as YouTube and manually selecting resolution quality on a video. If you have no issues at 720p or 1080p, you should be fine to stream HD video on a paid service.
The NBN should ease some capacity issues that can occur during peak hours when more people are online, although there are limitations. This is particularly the case if you live in suburban or rural areas. If you are still on an ADSL connection, you may want to use an online speed test to gauge your connection speed or use the YouTube test mentioned above before you pay for anything.
An NBN connection of 100Mbps (labelled a "Premium" internet plan by an increasing number of providers) is advisable for streaming 4K TV and movies, especially if you have other people in your house who are online at the same time. You may be able to stream 4K on an ADSL plan, but this is dependent on the time of day, the number of users on your network and the streaming service's data requirements. Even then, you're unlikely to hold a stable 4K stream.