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. Smart TVs and devices such as the Chromecast and Apple TV are bringing streaming services Netflix, Stan and Amazone Prime Video into the loungerooms of many households.
But if you're new to streaming, our guide should help explain what you need to know about internet speeds, resolution, hardware and software to stream TV and movies at home.
How do I stream video online?
There are a variety of ways to watch online movies and TV shows, though most services let you stream and download content.
Streaming means watching in real time, whereas downloading stores the file on your computer for watching at a later time. Streaming services are also called 'subscription video on demand' (SVOD) services. Some platforms such as iTunes, Stan and Netflix allow you to 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.
Online streaming services
Pure streaming services require an internet-connected device such as a computer, tablet, smartphone or smart TV to watch shows. They charge a monthly subscription fee that increases based on the streaming resolution (SD, HD and 4K), and the number of devices that can simultaneously access the account. Most also let you download content for offline viewing, which expires after a brief period (e.g. 48 hours).
This list covers the key services available in Australia. Each has its own pros, cons and (most importantly) exclusive programs and films. For a full breakdown of available content (original, syndicated and Australian), quality and ease of use, check out our TV streaming services test.
- Netflix: One of the most popular services around. 1000s of hours of TV, film, documentaries, standup comedy, live music etc available. This includes lots of original film and television content, which has become a strong focus of theirs in recent months. Also has a large 4K UHD library.
- Stan: Australian owned, similar to Netflix and slightly less expensive. Library isn't quite as extensive as Netflix, though it tends to have more Australian content. The 4K UHD selection is smaller as well.
- Foxtel Now: Like pay TV, Foxtel has a multi-tiered sub 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, Veep and Silicon Valley.
- Amazon Prime Video: Despite being around for a couple of years, Amazon Prime still feels like the new kid on the block that wants to play with the popular clique. To do this, Prime Video is throwing its weight (and billions of dollars), behind big budget original content such as The Grand Tour, American Gods and a new adaptation of Lord of the Rings (release date TBC). 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.
- DocPlay: A documentary focused streaming service (as the same suggests), covering broad topics to niche interests.
- HayU: Lost-cost streaming service backed by NBCUniversal with lots of reality TV content. In fact, that's pretty well HayU's entire repertoire, save for a few scripted series. The majority of US shows will stream on the same day as the US.
- YouTube Red: This began life as an alternative for people that were happy to pay a monthly subscription fee to remove ads, 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. Free Google Play Music and Google Play Music subscribers get free access to YouTube Red when signed into the same account on YouTube and Google Play.
Each free-to-air TV broadcaster has an online catch-up service, which lets you view programs on your smartphone, PC, games console 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 rare across commercial networks. ABC iView and SBS On Demandhowever, 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 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 video-on-demand. Most offer different rates for SD, HD and 4K content, and TV shows are generally available on a per-episode, or whole season basis. Purchasing an entire season will generally save you a bit of cash.
If you rent content, it will expire after a single viewing, or a preset period of time such as 48 hours. Purchased content is added to your account for permanent streaming or downloading for offline viewing depending on the service.
- 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 $3 per episode, while films range from $7 to $18 (rent/buy). It has a broad selection of big budget flicks, popular shows and smaller titles.
- Google: 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.
- Quickflix: this hybrid service offers video-on-demand and DVD/Blu-ray rentals via post, with a library of over 40000 titles. You can sign up for streaming at $14 per month, though this limits you to older content as a subscription only gives you four new release films each cycle. Otherwise you can rent on demand for $6 per film, or subscribe to DVD/Blu-ray rentals for $20.
- BigPond Movies: around 10000 titles that cost $7 (film) or $2 (TV) each.
- YouTube Movies & Shows: another online rent or buy service with a broad selection of shows and films.
Which devices can stream video?
- A smart TV or PVR (personal video recorder) can access free-to-air TV catch-up services and some streaming services such as Netflix. They will 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 new 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 (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.
- 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. It can be used to cast streaming content.
- 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.
- Games consoles such as the Sony PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo WiiU have their own streaming services and can link to platforms such as Netflix, Quickflix and Foxtel Play.
- 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 some also have high definition (HD) shows. This is the 'native' resolution which is the original resolution of the video stream.
- Standard definition in streaming is typically 576p resolution.
- High definition is usually 720p or 1080p resolution.
- Ultra high definition resolution is also called 4K and is typically 3840 pixel resolution.
However, your actual viewing resolution may not exactly match this because many platforms use 'adaptive bitrate' streaming which downscales the video quality for lower speed connections to limit drop-outs.
In most cases, SD movies and TV shows are cheaper to stream and download than HD content. Content producers justify this because of the extra cost to produce and store HD shows.
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.
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, but there are some exceptions so check the table in our streaming comparison story or ask your ISP if you're not sure.
What speed internet connection do you need to enjoy streamed movies and TV shows without any hiccups?
- Streaming platforms recommend at least two megabits per second (Mbps) or a broadband connection to watch 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 use 'adaptive streaming' to scale the quality for buffer-free, uninterrupted viewing. This will reduce the sound and picture quality but is designed to minimise delays and give you the best possible consistent video.
Is Australian internet suitable for streaming?
The multi-technology mix national broadband network (NBN) that uses copper, pay TV cables and fibre should ease some capacity issues, although there are limitations. This is particularly the case if you live in suburban or rural areas.
An NBN connection of 100Mbps is needed for streaming ultra high-definition content such as 4K TV and movies.
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.