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How to find the best video streaming service

What you need to know about plans, data, internet speeds and how to access Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and more.

man watching TV on laptop
Last updated: 22 November 2021

Australian viewers long faced paying a hefty price for a pay TV subscription or waiting for shows to be broadcast on free-to-air TV. These days, the line-up of on-demand movie and TV services in Australia is extensive.

Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video, Foxtel Now, Disney+, YouTube, AppleTV+ and more 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?

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What's the best video streaming service?

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.

How to stream videos 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 types: monthly subscription and buy/rent.

Subscription services

Users pay a monthly fee to access a library of movies, TV shows and documentaries. 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, typically called "originals".

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.

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's 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.

Most have also added a streaming section similar to what you'd find on Netflix, Stan or Amazon Prime. These sometimes include originals, though they offer far fewer than the bigger platforms. Note that these services are ad supported.

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.

Subscription streaming services in Australia

Subscription streaming services require an internet-connected device such as a computer, tablet, smartphone or smart TV to watch content. 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.

Cost

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+, Paramount+ and Amazon Prime Video, let you access everything for a single monthly fee. 

How to download streaming video

Most subscription services let you download movies and shows for offline viewing with no additional fees. Though it does take a bit of forward planning, this feature gives you the freedom to watch content without an internet connection such as when you're travelling. Just tap the download icon (pictured below) and you're all set.

There are a few conditions however. Offline viewing is only available on portable devices, specifically smartphones, tablets and laptops. It only works within the app/software which doesn't include the browser version of Netflix and you need to make sure that there's enough storage space on your device for the content.

Lastly, there's a time limit before the content expires, at which point you'll need to download it again or stream as normal. This varies between services and also depends on who owns the movies or shows but downloads typically last two to seven days. You can watch your movies and shows as many times as you want during this period but they'll be automatically deleted once the time limit is up.

Download Netflix

Most services let you download content for offline viewing.

Renting or buying videos 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.

Cost

Rental and purchase prices vary based on a few factors.

  • Release date – new films typically cost more.
  • Popularity – while mega blockbusters may cost more at launch, they're often on sale too.
  • Resolution – whether it's streamed in SD, HD or 4K.
  • Sales and bundles – it can be cheaper to buy an entire season of a TV show rather than individual episodes.

Early access explained

When cinemas across the world had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some studios released their new films on streaming platforms for a premium price. Although theatres are opening up again in some locations, this practice is continuing with some films getting a simultaneous release in cinemas and online and others coming to streaming much sooner than they would have in the past. Amazon Prime and Disney+ offer this service, calling it Early Access and Premier Access respectively.

Prices are similar to a movie ticket, ranging from $20–35 to rent or buy depending on the film. These also vary depending on whether you're watching a simultaneous cinema release, or a fast-tracked film with the latter usually costing a bit less.

If these prices seem a bit steep then hold out for a bit. Early/Premier Access films always make their way to the service's streaming library that's covered by your monthly subscription or into a cheaper rent/buy category, it just usually takes a few weeks.

Renting The Hobbit on Google Play

Some subscription and rent/buy services offer different prices depending on the video resolution.

Free video streaming

Though there are plenty of websites that let you legally stream videos for free, most don't have movies and TV shows for copyright reasons. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are driven by user generated content, or promotional material such as trailers, interviews, music videos and so on.

Some services, such as PLEX, can provide a large content library thanks to ad support but even then, you're unlikely to find the kind of blockbusters and even smaller indie titles that you would on major streaming services. Most TV catch-up services have also launched free, ad supported content libraries which are covered below.

Streaming broadcast TV (catch-up services)

Each free-to-air TV broadcaster has a free online catch-up service, which lets you view programs on your smartphone, PC, game console or smart TV for a limited period. Most are online for two to three weeks after airing, though some can be longer. The services are:

They often include additional content similar to DVD bonus features, such as exclusive interviews and behind the scenes features. Some also re-upload previous episodes of a popular show when a new season is due to air so you can refresh your memory.

Most have also added ad-supported streaming in addition to catch-up content. It's usually movies or shows that the network had previously broadcast and has since acquired the rights to stream, although they also carry online exclusive content and even a handful of originals. SBS On Demand is a good example. As well as the catch-up service, it also has a vast film library available for free, including a bunch of classic Jackie Chan movies from Hong Kong.

Live video streaming

Live video streaming is widely available though content varies depending on the service. All of the catchup services, for example, simultaneously steam live broadcasts from all the channels on their networks includinbg sports depending on who holds the rights. Not only does this mean you can watch TV over a mobile connection on the go, it's a handy backup if your aerial is broken or out of reach in a rental property.

A few paid subscription services offer live sports in addition to on-demand streaming. Kayo and Foxte has a huge range of options, what with it being a dedicated sport service, and a number are also available on Foxtel Now too. Stan offers soccer, rugby, tennis and more and Paramount+ has also added soccer with plans to include more sports down the line.

YouTube live streaming is pretty well whatever the account holder wants to put online but copyright holders keep a very close eye on things. There are also a tonne of services dedicated to streaming specific sports leagues, such as NBA League Pass, but we don't include these in our tests as they're not directly comparable to entertainment oriented ones like Netflix.

Which devices can stream video?

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.

Dongles

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.

Apple TV

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.

Chromecast

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.

Game consoles

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.

What is video streaming data?

Streaming data broadly refers to the amount of megabytes and gigabytes that are used when you stream audio and video online. While the files don't download to your computer, they still consume data in the same way. You need to keep an eye on that if your internet plan has a monthly data limit.

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. Here's what you'll use on average.

  • 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

So if your monthly data limit is 25GB, for example, and you want to watch content in high definition, then you won't make it to the end of The Lord of The Rings trilogy (extended editions of course) as all three films will use about 34GB. 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're 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.

Internet speed

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. You can run a speedtest here to find out whether your internet connection is up to the task. Just bear in mind that performance can vary between devices.

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    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're 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 start paying 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.