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 types: 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.
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.
There's more info on pricing below in Video streaming services in Australia.
Rent or buy
Users create a free account to rent or buy content as a one-time purchase, and the show or movie 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.
Rental and purchase prices vary based on a few factors including:
- recency (e.g. old vs new films)
- quality (SD, HD or 4K)
- source – big Hollywood productions often cost more than independent or arthouse films, for example
- sales and bundles – it can be cheaper to buy an entire season of a TV show rather than individual episodes.
See more on pricing below in Renting or buying video online.
Catch-up (aka free-to-air)
Each Australian free-to-air network runs its own catch-up service. They stream broadcast content for free after it has aired so you can watch it at a time that suits you. Movies and TV shows are generally available for a limited time after going to air, such as for one month, but you can watch them as often as you'd like.
Some catch-up services also offer a small amount of online only/exclusive content. They often put previous seasons of popular shows on their service for a short time in the lead-up to the latest episodes going to air, for example.
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.
Some subscription and rent/buy services offer different prices depending on the video resolution.
Each free-to-air TV broadcaster has a free 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. The services are:
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.
Commercial network apps tend to stick to broadcast content with the occasional original program or unaired syndicated series. ABC iView and SBS On Demand have much larger online-only libraries.
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This is a wildly subjective question that comes down to your entertainment preferences. The only way to determine which service is best is to sign up for free accounts and browse the libraries to see if they host your favourite films and shows. This, however, is very time consuming, which is where JustWatch comes in handy.
JustWatch is a huge searchable database that gathers the library from almost every streaming and rental service around, so you can figure out where to watch your favourite shows. It lists all the services that host the content you're after as well as available quality (SD, HD, 4K) and lets you click straight through via the browser or app which is nice and convenient. Just remember to set the region to Australia before you start searching.
Why do movies and shows disappear?
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.
JustWatch can help you track down your favourite movies and TV shows.
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.
The devices described below are a handy substitute if you don't have a smart TV or if your smart TV is 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 smart TV version can't) and casting.
Media streamers or hubs
These 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.
These 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.
With its own app store, Apple TV is a 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.
Like the Apple TV, this is also a hardware streaming device that plugs into a TV, and it's 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
This 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.
Sony PlayStation and Xbox consoles can connect to most streaming and catch-up services via downloadable apps.
Desktop or laptop PC (Windows and macOS)
You laptop or computer 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.
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
You may use even more data 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. 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.
Note that most streaming services are metered by your ISP, meaning streaming counts towards your download usage. But some ISPs offer "unmetered" streaming for particular services as an incentive to sign up.
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.