Streaming video on-demand (SVOD) services are the latest way to view content and with the advent of faster fibre networks it’s becoming a household staple. What is streaming though, how easy is it to use and which service(s) should you go with? We’ve compared seven services and the features they offer.
Streaming video on-demand services are online libraries of video content: TV shows, movies and sport.
If you have a subscription, you can watch what you like from the service’s library whenever you like. You can walk away and then pick up where you left off, even if you’ve watched other things in between. Some services allow simultaneous access at the same time on different screens.
The main issue comes with what content each service has available.
Just like TV stations, each service offers different content. Some services only have TV shows, others have TV and movies. Nearly all offer some exclusive programming, while a lot of TV shows, usually older series and BBC content, can be found on multiple services.
There is also content churn as new content is released on the service and old content is removed. So it’s a constantly updating library.
Your internet speed factors into how the content looks. Bit-rates, or quality levels, start at 500kbps through to 1.5Mbps (DVD quality), 6Mbps (HD) and up to 16Mbps (4K/UHD). All of the services offer HD content.
The website Fast.com (owned by Netflix) is a useful tool for those curious about speeds they might get while streaming.
Netflix can deliver 4K/UHD quality (roughly double full-HD) and HDR (High Dynamic Range) content on its Premium plan. However, the hefty bit-rate required means the plan should only be chosen by users who are on a fibre network and own a 4K/UHD TV.
Your actual streaming quality might not reach the maximum possible available from the service. Lower rates result in chunky pixelated images.
The services all use adaptive streaming. This means the bit-rate, and hence the quality, automatically drops to an appropriate rate for the broadband speed available. So if everyone in your home (or neighbourhood) is using the internet at the same time, your streaming quality will suffer.
That said, we experienced low-quality periods on all services for no apparent reason. Time of day seemed to have no bearing on stream quality. However, streaming multiple pieces of content simultaneously (on different devices) did degrade the service.
It is noticeable when the service isn’t streaming in HD, even on medium-sized TVs. Mostly streams will dip into lower bit-rates and then quickly come back up.
Streaming should be a simple way for you to view content, but this isn’t always the case. Getting a service to run on your TV can be complicated and getting them to work in your browser can take time and effort.
Different services use different plug-ins. This is an extra piece of software that runs inside your browser to enable streaming. You may be prompted to install Silverlight or Flash.
Some services are available as apps on Smart TV systems. These apps vary in quality and ease of use, even when compared to the same app running on a mobile device. If this option is not available, you’ll need to have another device or an HDMI cable linking your computer to your TV to get the services running on your TV. The latter is awkward because you need your computer next to your TV; the former is easier but requires a game console or media hub.
Even if you get the image on screen, you may notice glitches, such as audio being out of sync with images. We found this usually happened when using a service in a browser at full screen, or if using Apple Airplay.
Just like broadcast television, streaming services have outages. This can range from actual server outages to load on the network, which means you can’t access content. Lightbox, for example, gave us a few issues while using the PS4 application. Shows wouldn’t play and kept returning us to the main page (a restart of the application fixed it). Neon gave us the biggest issue, logging us out whenever we tried to watch something through the browser and all of the apps crashing. It was resolved after being escalated through the help desk team. (Note: When using Neon’s Live Help Chat service, we were asked to provide our login and password. Never share your passwords with anyone, even help desks. Neon has apologised and promised to ensure help staff are aware not to ask for this information in the future.)
All services offer child-friendly content. In some instances, there’s almost more content for children than for adults. Netflix offers a “Kids” section that looks different to other versions of the service and is easier for children to find their favourite shows.
Generally, shows are short, animated and more suited for younger children. Services that offer movies have children’s sections too.
All of the subscription services offer parental controls. Setting parental controls has to be done via the service’s website and can be applied to a single user profile.
Our recommendation is to try every service. All offer a free trial, usually one month. If you decide the service isn’t for you, remember to cancel before the trial expires or you will be billed.
You might be tempted by one of the deals some internet providers are offering. For example, if you are a Spark home broadband customer or on a particular post-pay mobile plan, you get Lightbox for free. Vodafone is offering deals on Neon (with home broadband) and Netflix (with mobile phone packages).
If you are thinking of subscribing to a service but can’t decide which, you might consider getting two. In our opinion, a combination of services is the best way to access a broader range of content. For contrast, a basic Sky subscription (at time of writing) costs $49.91 per month. A subscription to both standard Netflix and Lightbox would cost you $25. You could add Sky’s Neon service and still be under $48.
There are many non-subscription services, like iTunes, and Xbox Video. These pay-per-view services are the digital version of a video store. Content is available to either “hire” or buy. Like a video store, these services offer new releases as well as older films and TV shows.
Hiring lets you watch the content as often as you want within 48 hours, though this time can vary among services. The time starts when you first press play on the content. Buying gives you total access to the content for as long as the service exists.
Quickflix slightly altered its service to be part-way between a streaming subscription service and a pay-per-view system.
Breaking down content barriers
Despite what we are being offered here, there is a huge amount of content available to overseas users of similar services. When Netflix launched in Australia and New Zealand, it was with a small fraction of the content Netflix offers to US, Canadian and UK users.
This is because of the distribution deals made by various TV stations and American studios. This includes Netflix itself, which launched in New Zealand without its own critically acclaimed show House of Cards.
There are legal ways to view this content, though it requires some technical work. In 2016, Netflix cracked down on VPN users accessing content outside their region. At time of writing, most of the popular VPN or Smart DNS services no longer work to access international versions of Netflix.
We have only reviewed services generally available in New Zealand without using a VPN or similar system.
If you are hearing-impaired and need closed captions while viewing TV or movies, then your options are limited. Only Netflix, regulated by American law that requires closed captioning, offers the service in New Zealand. Even the state broadcaster’s service, TVNZ OnDemand, doesn’t offer subtitles for the hearing impaired.
Lightbox, owned by Spark, has grown its selection of TV content since launching, but doesn't include movies. It has a selection of exclusive titles, including shows airing in the US “expressed” into New Zealand (available the day after they screen). There is a large amount of BBC content on Lightbox alongside shows from various American networks.
Lightbox is available on PC/Mac through most browsers. It requires your browser to have the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in. Lightbox is also available on Apple iPads and iPhones, Android phones and tablets, selected 2012-16 Samsung Smart TVs, 2014-15 Panasonic Smart TVs, 2013-15 LG Smart TVs and 2014-16 Sony Smart TVs.
Lightbox has an app for the PlayStation 3 (PS3) and PlayStation 4 (PS4). You can stream over AirPlay to an Apple TV or if you have the new Apple TV there is a Lightbox app. It also streams through a Chromecast.
The apps on all platforms are similar visually and work in the same way. They all work well and we only had a few minor connection issues on the PS4 application.
Lightbox allows you to curate a Watchlist of shows you want to view and also gives you a Recently Watched list. After you finish an episode you are taken to the show’s main page with the next episode in the series ready to play. Annoyingly, if you only watch part of a show and go back to the main page, the site tees up the next episode to watch, so you need to be wary.
Price: $12 - $19/month
Netflix in New Zealand doesn’t have the breadth of its US catalogue, but it still offers an impressive amount of content. (Many movies offered on New Zealand Netflix are not available in the US.)
Netflix makes many of its own shows (called Netflix Originals) including flagship shows such as Orange is the New Black, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Marvel TV shows including Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. When Netflix releases these shows, it releases an entire series all at once.
Netflix’s non-exclusive content has many recently released TV shows and movies, with a large back catalogue of older content also available.
Netflix offers three tiers of subscription. “Basic” offers no HD content and only one screen at a time; “Standard” offers HD content and two screens simultaneously; and “Premium” offers 4K, HDR content and four screens simultaneously.
Netflix has apps for almost every device, including media hubs. Netflix is available on PC/Mac through most browsers, Apple iPads and iPhones, Android devices, and most new smart TVs (post-2012 models). Netflix uses HTML5 where possible and only requires the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in in older browsers.
Netflix has an app for the PlayStation 3 (PS3), PlayStation 4 (PS4), Xbox 360, and Xbox One. You can stream over AirPlay to an Apple TV and there is an app for the new Apple TV. It will also work over Chromecast.
The apps on all platforms are almost the same visually and functionally. They perform well and we had no connection issues.
Netflix allows you to curate a Watchlist of shows and also gives you a Recently Watched list. After you finish an episode you are taken to a screen showing what the next episode is — this will automatically play if you do nothing. After a certain amount of inactivity, Netflix asks if you are still watching in case you have fallen asleep.
Netflix uses information on what you have previously watched and rated to suggest new shows to you. To see the full list of titles you need to use the menu and view each genre, but the lists aren’t adjustable.
Price: $6 or $13/month
Quickflix was the first streaming service here but has altered its business model considerably.
It has three different payment options: Streaming, Premium and Pay As You Go. Premium is an add-on package with weekly discounts and a complimentary new release movie rental from the Premium collection every month (usually $7). A Streaming subscription costs $13 per month and includes Premium. Or you can buy Premium by itself for $6 per month.
With Premium you can purchase TV shows, either as a whole season or as individual episodes, and rent movies. The premium options can be accessed without a subscription, however, on the pay as you go option.
While the newer Premium titles are on-par with other pay-per-view services, its general streaming library is much smaller. It offers a small selection of TV shows, mainly from the BBC. Quickflix has a good selection of movies, though these are mainly from the 1980s and 90s with a few newer titles.
Quickflix is available on PC/Mac through most browsers, Apple iPads and iPhones, Android tablets and phones, and most newer smart TVs (post-2012 models). Quickflix requires your browser to have the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in.
Quickflix has an app for the PlayStation 3 (PS3), PlayStation 4 (PS4), Xbox 360, and Xbox One.
The apps on all platforms are different in how they work and what you are able to do. For example, only some apps allow you to create a Watchlist or watch content in HD, including if you are watching via your PC or Mac. The apps work well and caused no problems.
Quickflix allows you to curate a Watchlist of shows (on certain apps) and also gives you a Recently Watched list in your “Library”. After you finish an episode (or movie) you are taken back to the last page you were on. Some apps offer a “watch season” option to continue on from the end of an episode.
Neon, owned by Sky, has one of the smaller selections of content. It has some exclusive titles, including flagship show Game of Thrones and Westworld. It will be showing the latest episodes of these shows the day they screen in the US. There is a larger selection of movies than TV shows, with many recent releases, helped in part by a deal with Disney.
Neon is available on PC/Mac through most browsers, Apple iPads and iPhones, and some Android tablets and phones (check Neon site to see if your device is there). You can stream over AirPlay to an Apple TV and it also supports Chromecast. Neon is also available on Xbox 360. Neon doesn’t require your browser to have the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in but does use Adobe Flash.
The phone app works like a scaled-down version of the website. However, we found when watching on a phone and a tablet the audio was very out of sync with the video. This was the same when using AirPlay through the Apple TV. On all platforms the videos took a noticeably long time to load.
If you use a VPN or DNS service, Neon will not work without a lot of tweaking.
Neon allows you to curate a Watchlist of shows and also gives you a Recently Watched list. After you finish an episode you are taken to a page asking if you want to watch the next episode or other shows.
YouTube Red is a paid service that works across all devices that play YouTube videos. This includes mobile devices, Chromecast and Apple TV. It removes ads from videos and enables you to download videos for offline playing.
It also gives access to YouTube Music (see Streaming music services) and YouTube Kids. Kids is a family-friendly version of YouTube with more intuitive controls and a selection of educational and entertaining videos aimed at children. Like YouTube music, Kids can be used as a separate free service, though it will contain ads and not be available offline.
YouTube Kids uses filters powered by algorithms to select videos from YouTube. However, YouTube says its algorithms aren’t flawless so there is the potential for an inappropriate video to show up. If this happens you’ll have to flag it, so the app can learn. It also has parental controls for further refinement.
Once signed up to YouTube Red, you don’t need to download a new application as the current YouTube app will recognise your subscription (which will be linked to your YouTube/Google account).
There is also a YouTube Red Originals channel that features movies, documentaries and TV shows made by well-known YouTube creators. However, not all of that content is available outside the US.
TVNZ OnDemand is the online version of TVNZ. It offers shows from between a week to a few months after they were broadcast (the period depends on the broadcast deal TVNZ has with the content owner). Content is broad and there are a lot of local shows including news. The following news shows are also broadcast live: Breakfast; 1 News at midday; Te Karere; 1 News at 6pm; Seven Sharp; 1 News Tonight; and Q+A.
TVNZ OnDemand is available on PC/Mac through most browsers, Apple iPads and iPhones, Samsung phones and tablets, selected 2011-2014 Samsung Smart TVs and selected models of Samsung Smart Blu-ray players and home entertainment systems (full list here). TVNZ OnDemand uses the Adobe Flash plug-in for your browser. There are also apps for the PS3, PS4 and Xbox One.
The apps work the same as the website. You can curate a list of “favourite” shows and specific episodes. While it is free, you need a login. TVNZ OnDemand shows advertisements during episodes. Each ad break contains one un-skippable ad and sometimes a promo for another TVNZ show.
We encountered two issues with this service. When using the website in full screen mode the audio was slightly out of sync with the video. When using the Samsung TV app, the video would constantly crash after less than a minute and we would need to reset the application.
3Now is the online version of TV3. It offers shows from between a week to a few months after they were broadcast on TV3 or TV4 (the period depends on the broadcast deal TV3 has with the content owner). Content is broad and there are a lot of local shows including news.
3Now is available on PC/Mac through most browsers, Apple iPads and iPhones, some Samsung phones and tablets, and newer Samsung smart TVs (post-2012 models). 3Now does not require your browser to have the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in but does use Adobe Flash. It also supports AirPlay but not Chromecast.
The apps work the same as the website. You are offered a list of shows from which to choose and suggested similar shows when you finish watching an episode. There is no Watchlist option as you don’t need a login. 3Now shows advertisements during episodes. Each ad break contains one un-skippable ad and sometimes a promo for another TV3 show.
On the mobile app we found the audio was very out of sync with the video.