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How to find the best TV and movie streaming service

What you need to know about plans, data, internet speeds and how to access platforms like Netflix and Stan.

man watching TV on laptop

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, YouTube Red, Google Play Movies & TV and iTunes 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?

How do I stream video online?

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. Some platforms such as iTunes, Stan and Netflix allow you to both stream and download content, meaning 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.

Online streaming services

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.

  • Netflix: One of the most popular services around with thousands of hours of TV, film, documentaries, stand-up comedy, live music etc. available. This includes lots of original film and television content. There are three subscription tiers: basic, which is SD quality and allows only one stream to run at any one time; standard, which allows for two simultaneous streams and HD quality; and premium, which lets you run four simultaneous streams and gives you access to 4K streaming for titles that support it.
  • Stan: Australian owned, similar to Netflix and slightly less expensive. Stan's library isn't quite as extensive as Netflix, though it tends to have more Australian content. It also comes in three subscription tiers: basic, which is SD quality and allows only one stream to run at any one time; standard, which allows for three simultaneous streams and HD quality; and premium, which lets you run four simultaneous streams and gives you access to 4K streaming for titles that support it.
  • Foxtel Now: Like pay TV, Foxtel has a multi-tiered subscription model that limits content to certain packages (sport, movies etc.). While it doesn't deliver the best value, it's the only service with extensive access to sport and popular HBO content in Australia, such as Game of Thrones and new episodes of Westworld.
  • Amazon Prime Video: Amazon is throwing its weight (and billions of dollars) behind big budget original content such as The Grand Tour and a new adaptation of Lord of the Rings (yet to be released). Syndicated content is fairly standard, with plenty of popular TV and Hollywood films, though the library is smaller than Netflix and Stan. Also, Prime Video costs a little less than its competitors and offers a discounted price for the first six months. However, that price is in $US, so make sure you factor in the conversion to Australian dollars when planning your budget.
  • YouTube Red: This began life as an alternative for people that were happy to pay a monthly subscription fee to remove ads from YouTube, with a few other features such as offline viewing and music streaming. Since then, the video giant has backed a bunch of original content only accessible with a Red subscription. Google Play Music premium subscribers get free access to YouTube Red when signed into the same account on YouTube and Google Play. Recently it was announced that YouTube Red will be replaced by YouTube Premium, which is an almost identical service but comes with a higher price tag.

Catch-up services

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. They occasionally follow the streaming service model by uploading an entire series at a time, though this is rare across commercial networks.

ABC iView and SBS On Demand are a little different. In addition to providing a catch-up service, they also:

  • stream original content and syndicated series that don't go to air
  • provide large film libraries (particularly SBS) for free
  • re-upload previous episodes of popular shows when a new season is due to air.

How do I rent or buy video online?

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.

  • iTunes: Has movies and TV shows that can be watched on a PC or Mac through the iTunes software, on an iOS device such as an iPad or iPhone, or on a TV with an Apple TV. New release TV shows cost around $2–$3 per episode, while newer films range from $6 to $20 (rent/buy). It has a broad selection of big-budget flicks, popular shows and smaller titles. You can rent or buy movies, or buy TV shows, in SD or HD, with HD usually costing about $1 more.
  • Google Play Movies & TV: Aimed at people using Android mobile devices and the Chromecast media streamer, although Google Play content can also be watched through a browser on a Mac or PC and the Chromecast iOS app. You can rent or buy movies, or buy TV series and episodes; HD videos are usually $1 more than SD. When renting you have 30 days to begin watching your movie, and 48 hours to watch it after you click play.

Which devices can stream video?

  • Most smart TVs and some PVRs (personal video recorders) can access free-to-air TV catch-up services and some streaming services such as Netflix. They'll need to be connected to the internet through your home network.
  • 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 Telstra TV 2 is a hardware streaming device that connects to the internet and is plugged into a TV; it has apps for many streaming services, including Foxtel Now, Netflix, SBS On Demand and Stan.
  • Dongles: 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 link to platforms such as Netflix and Stan.
  • Desktop or laptop PC: you can access popular services such as Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime Video on your computer, 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.

What are the different streaming resolutions?

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.

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.

In most cases, SD movies and TV shows are cheaper to stream and download than HD or 4K content.

What kind of internet plan do you need?

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 1GB (gigabyte) per hour for standard definition streaming.
  • This could climb to 3GB per hour when streaming high-definition content and 7GB per hour for 4K.

Keep a close eye on your usage for the first month or two after you go to a streaming platform.

  • To do this, 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.
  • Most streaming services are metered by your ISP, meaning streaming counts towards your download usage.

What speed internet connection do you need to enjoy streamed movies and TV shows without any hiccups?

  • Streaming platforms often recommend at least two megabits per second (Mbps) to watch SD without major disruptions.
  • You may need something faster for high-definition content and remember that members of your household may also be online as well.
  • 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. It is unlikely you'll be able to stream 4K on an ADSL plan, no matter how good your connection is.

If you want to know more, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has a guide to subscription video on demand (SVOD) that explains your rights and how to compare platforms.

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