Selecting a streaming service on TV

Streaming video services

We’ve pored through and graded every video service in New Zealand, looking at what they have to offer and, just as importantly, what they don’t. Plus, we looked at how on-demand video works.

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So much to watch, so little time.

We live in a world where we have almost all the TV shows and movies we could ever want at our fingertips. You can access vast libraries of content, more than you could watch in your lifetime, but each one costs. So which services are worth it?

A lot of the decision comes down to what you like watching and how you like watching it. Do you like to sit with your laptop in bed and enjoy cooking shows? Maybe you like curling up on the couch with your tablet to binge the latest season of your favourite historical drama? Or do you prefer seeing movies on the big screen of your TV?

Types of services

There are 3 main types of video-on-demand services: subscription (SVOD), transactional (TVOD) – also known as pay-per-view (PPV) – and free TV-on-demand.

SVOD is the service most people know about. It’s how Netflix, Lightbox and Neon operate: you pay a monthly fee to access a library of content that’s regularly updated. These services usually offer a mix of movies and television shows.

PPV is more like an online video store. There’s no monthly fee and you rent, and in some cases buy, movies to watch on demand. The main PPV services are iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video. Newcomer Stuff Pix is the only local option.

Free TV-on-demand services are available from TVNZ, Three, and Māori Television. The content is usually only available for a limited time (a few weeks in most cases) and depends on the deal the broadcaster has with the content distributer. These services play advertisements (though fewer than terrestrial broadcasts).

How we grade

We graded services on a six-point scale (A-F). Grades are relative, not absolute, so “F” doesn’t mean “fail”, just that it isn’t as good as a “C” in the same category.

Grades were calculated using a points system, where points were awarded for:

  • The range of devices the services were available on, including smart TVs, mobile devices and game consoles

  • Range of content and accessible content (closed captions, descriptive audio)

  • Whether content was available in HD or UHD/4K

  • The number of devices allowed (your account and watching)

  • Whether the service offered downloadable content for offline viewing (SVOD-only).

We didn’t rate services based on how much content they have. This is because the number of titles available changes from month to month. It’s impossible to say what the “average” user likes to watch, so we only checked to see there was a good range. Documentaries, for example, are almost non-existent on Lightbox and Neon, and you won’t find much locally created content on Netflix.

It’s not possible to offer some features on certain content, so we rated the services with “None”, “Some”, “Where possible” or “All”. For example, if a service has older content that wasn’t shot in HD, then it “offers HD content where possible”.

For SVOD services, we compared the price of the service to the average. PPV prices are the average for the different types of content. We used this value comparison to scale the overall scores.

For a further comparison of what each service offers, see Services compared.

Free trials

All SVOD services offer free trials. We recommend trying them before signing up. Also remember you’re not locked in to a long-term deal. If you don’t want the service after a couple of months, you can cancel and sign up to another one.

Subscription services

Amazon Prime Video

  • Overall: A
  • Content: A
  • Devices: A

Pricing: $9/month (converted to NZD from USD)
primevideo.com

Launched here last year, Amazon is a relatively new player in the game for New Zealanders. Despite this, it has a massive content library. This includes its Amazon Originals content such as The Grand Tour and The Man in the High Castle.

Signing up for Amazon Prime Video is confusing as Amazon offers two similar services. Amazon Prime Video is the basic SVOD service, but there’s also Amazon Prime which costs twice as much but includes Prime Video. To complicate matters, Prime Video has a section where you can rent or buy films and TV shows (we’ve covered this separately in the PPV section).

Prime Video is available on more devices than any service except Netflix. The biggest omission is Chromecast. You can download titles to a device for offline viewing.

The price is what pushes Prime Video to the top over similar services. It’s the cheapest service by $4 per month. However, you pay in US$ so it varies with currency fluctuations. Prime Video offers the first six months at a lower rate.

Netflix

  • Overall: B
  • Content: A
  • Devices: A

Pricing: $15/month (standard plan)
netflix.com

Netflix is so popular it’s become a cultural touchstone.

It’s available on almost every device and was one of the first to offer ultra-high definition (UHD/4K) and high dynamic range (HDR) content. Netflix offers “over 1700 hours” of UHD content and “over 300 hours” in HDR. In part this is due to the large amount of exclusive content Netflix releases in New Zealand under its Originals banner. This includes films such as The Cloverfield Paradox and Annihilation.

Some shows released as Netflix Originals in New Zealand are rebranded programmes from the US. This includes Star Trek: Discovery and The Good Place. These shows are released weekly, rather than all at once like other Netflix shows.

Netflix offers various plans. Its premium package is $18.50 per month and allows for UHD/HDR streaming where possible, and 4 screens at the same time. Its basic package costs $11.50 per month and only offers SD content.

Lightbox

  • Overall: D
  • Content: D
  • Devices: C

Pricing: $13/month (standard plan)
lightbox.co.nz

Lightbox is a TV-only streaming service owned by Spark. It’s free on all of Spark’s pay-monthly mobile plans and home broadband plans, which means it has one of the largest subscriber bases in the country.

Lightbox has included PPV movies in their content offering. Movie rentals start at $8 for new releases in HD ($7 in SD). For an extra $3 per month, you can temporarily download content (both movies and TV) to view on four concurrent screens.

Despite being “only” a New Zealand provider without connections to big US studios, the content on Lightbox is competitive with Netflix as it has a lot of exclusive titles, such as Better Call Saul and The Handmaid’s Tale, though some areas are lacking – there are only 13 titles under the documentary (“factual”) section. It has a dedicated, if small, New Zealand section.

Lightbox is available on lots of devices, including the new Apple TV and most post-2014 smart TVs. However, you must register any device you use it with, with a maximum of 5 devices.

Neon

  • Overall: F
  • Content: D
  • Devices: D

Pricing: $20/month
neontv.co.nz

Neon is Sky TV’s separate streaming service. You don’t need a Sky subscription to get Neon and it has a lot of the same content.

Neon offers its HBO content, such as Game of Thrones. It also has a good selection of recent films. However, it has some weak content areas – the documentary section has seven titles. While some TV sections seem extensive, they can be filled with multiple seasons of a single show.

Neon is available on the least number of devices, including being only available on post-2013 Samsung smart TVs. Like Lightbox, you can have no more than 5 devices registered at the same time.

Neon is also the priciest service in our trial. It’s $5 more each month than Netflix (the next most expensive SVOD service). Most Neon content is in SD. Neon has been slow to convert content from SD to HD, saying it’s “prioritising the titles we feel are most important to our audience”.

PPV services

Google Play

Overall: A
Content: A
Devices: A

Pricing: New release rental $7, New release purchase $20, TV single season N/A
play.google.com

Google’s Play store offers movies, music, books, apps and even devices. It’s available natively on every Android device and most new Smart TVs, it works with Chromecast, and is linked to your Google account.

Google Play works with Apple’s mobile devices and tablets. It also operates over Airplay. There’s no Apple TV app, but there’s a trick for getting your movie purchases directly on your Apple TV: open the YouTube app, log in, and your Google Play purchases will be there.

The app and the website are simple to navigate and, because it’s a Google product, its search function is good. In some ways it’s too good, as we found it would display films not available to rent or buy.

Google Play plays content in the best resolution possible. This depends on what original format the content was recorded in, what your device is capable of and your internet connection speed.

Amazon Prime Video

  • Overall: C
  • Content: A
  • Devices: D

Pricing: New release rental $8.50, New release purchase $28, TV single season $35 (converted to NZD from USD)
primevideo.com

This is the PPV companion to the Amazon SVOD service, so you can buy and rent videos without a subscription. This service is confusing to use and even getting to the rental section can be difficult. It’s not clear which titles are just available to rent and which are purchase-only.

The search function isn’t very good. For example, we found some films listed twice, one with extra features, such as out-takes and “making of” featurettes, and one without. Prime Video is the only service in New Zealand that lets you buy TV series.

We found you need to buy the movie on Amazon (through the website or shopping app) before it shows up in the Prime Video app.

Amazon charges in US$, so make sure you do your calculations before buying.

iTunes

  • Overall: C
  • Content: A
  • Devices: D

Pricing: New release rental $8, New release purchase $25, TV single season N/A
App store

Apple TV and Airplay are the easiest ways to watch iTunes content on your TV. On iPads, iPhones and Apple TV, iTunes is simple to use and looks slick, but on PCs and Macs, iTunes is a difficult program to use. It has a deep catalogue and offers 4K, HDR and special features when possible.

On your computer, you access iTunes via a stand-alone program or through the app built into iPhones, iPads and Apple TVs. But unlike the other services, iTunes is not available through a browser or any Android devices, making it limited. It’s linked to your Apple ID.

Stuff Pix

  • Overall: D
  • Content: F
  • Devices: A

Pricing: New release rental $8, New release purchase N/A, TV single season N/A
stuffpix.co.nz

Stuff Pix is the video rental arm of Stuff Fibre (owned by the Stuff media group). If you sign up to Stuff Fibre you get a free movie rental each month. This might be the only reason to sign up for Stuff Pix.

While it’s available on phones, tablets and some recently released smart TVs, it’s still lacking as a service.

If you need closed captions or descriptive audio, you’re out of luck. Similarly, there are no special features with the titles. It has content in HD, but none in UHD.

While there is nothing wrong with Stuff Pix, there are simply better options.

TV on-demand

TVNZ On-Demand

  • Overall: C
  • Content: C
  • Devices: B

tvnz.co.nz

The national broadcaster’s on-demand service isn’t too bad, unless you need closed captions or descriptive audio. It still serves up ads. On the plus side, it’s available on almost every platform, including game consoles and Apple TV. You can stream live to your TV, though that does seem redundant. You’ll need to create an account and log in before you can watch anything.

Three Now

  • Overall: D
  • Content: C
  • Devices: C

threenow.co.nz

Three’s rebrand from TV3 came with an update of its on-demand offering. The service is available on more devices than before. However it’s still limited – only on Samsung smart TVs. Like TVNZ, the service offers no accessibility features, such as closed captions, but does have advertisements. Three Now is the only on-demand TV service that doesn’t allow you to search specifically for local programming.

Māori Television

  • Overall: E
  • Content: D
  • Devices: F

maoritelevision.com

Māori Television has a collection of local shows mixed with international movies and documentaries. It also has a dedicated te reo Māori learning stream. All content has a te reo rating, so you know how much of the show will be in Māori. However, there is no simple way of getting this service on to your TV. The app doesn’t support Chromecast or Airplay, and there are no native apps for smart TVs. Its website lacks a help section.

Other services

There are streaming video services that don’t fall neatly into the categories we looked at, like streaming sports services.

Sky’s Fan Pass lets you stream the main Sky Sports channels without signing up for a Sky subscription. It lacks an on-demand function and is expensive – a month of Fan Pass costs $100 and a 6-month subscription costs $336 ($56 per month). A basic Sky TV subscription including sports and HD (an extra $10 per month) costs $390 for 6 months.

Some streaming sports services are run by the leagues themselves, such as the NBA (basketball), MLB (baseball), and NFL (American football). These are available to New Zealanders with no restrictions and can cost up to $200 for a full season.

For non-sports fans there are services like YouTube Premium. This removes all the ads from YouTube and has original shows and movies. Its original content is poor, with mostly reality-style offerings and movies that are vehicles for YouTube celebrities.

What’s not available here

There are plenty of streaming services that offer much more content, but copyright restrictions mean they aren’t available here. This is what happens when you see a “this content is not available in your area” message. It’s called geoblocking.

New Zealand copyright law is vague about the legality of accessing this content. The law was written with DVDs in mind, not online content libraries. “The use of devices allowing the circumvention of devices that merely control the access, such as regional zone access protection, [does] not infringe [the Copyright Act].”

In other words, if something blocks you because you’re from New Zealand, then you can get around it – as long as what you’re accessing is a legitimate copy.

What’s unclear is what counts as a legitimate copy.

Lowndes Jordan internet law partner Rick Shera says our copyright law allows parallel imports of physical goods, so should also apply to importing legitimately purchased digital goods such as films and music.

“We use the government-owned NZ Post’s YouShop facility to get around physical shipping restrictions, so this is no different,” Shera says.

“Geo-unblocking is one of those grey areas, sure. But it makes complete sense and I’d say it is covered by the parallel import exception in the Copyright Act for someone to be able to pay a US subscription and then use technology to import into New Zealand the content covered by that subscription.”

Streaming platforms, such as Netflix, have country-by-country deals with copyright owners so it makes accessing certain content from the “wrong country” a breach of its terms and conditions. This means it can, in theory, cancel your account if you break its rules.

“There are risks, but I’m not aware of Netflix, for example, taking action against users,” Shera says.

Geo-unblocking will be debated in the government’s review of the Copyright Act this year.

How to get legal overseas content

Accessing overseas services, such as Hulu, HBO Now, and BBC iPlayer is simple:

  • Subscribe to a VPN or Smart DNS service such as NordVPN, Express VPN or Tunnel Bear.

  • Follow the instructions to use the VPN on your devices.

  • Many international services require an international credit card or address. If this is the case, check if you can pay via a third party, such as Apple or Roku, and use a personalised address from an international package-forwarding company.

Note: This is how to access legal streaming services, not pirate services. Websites or set-top boxes that offer free access to paid content are illegal and Consumer NZ does not condone their use.

What happens when you click play?

In a data centre in Auckland, sitting in a server rack, is a red box. Inside this box are thousands of movies and TV shows ready to stream to your home. This is Netflix.

And it’s not the only box. Google is here too, and so is Facebook. The boxes themselves are actually servers, part of a wider system known as a CDN (content delivery network). CDNs are how most large streaming services distribute their content around the country.

But why does a company like Netflix need a distributed network of servers all carrying the same content? The answer is traffic and distance.

An estimated 60 to 80% of internet traffic is video. Netflix is the largest contributor, with roughly 40% of the video traffic, followed closely by YouTube. Facebook is a big player in video as well and has launched Facebook Watch (currently US-only), an on-demand video service with original content and live shows.

The amount of content and rising demand are increasing data usage on the network – according to Chorus, internet traffic is doubling every year. Adding to that is the increasing quality, and hence larger size, of that content (4K, HDR, high frame rate).

“When Netflix launched in New Zealand in 2015, we saw a big surge of traffic,” Kurt Rodgers, Chorus network strategy manager, says. “Now imagine how big a surge it’ll be with all the current [terrestrial] channels going online.” It’s his job to predict what’s needed to keep the network congestion-free.

“We benchmark to the busiest 5-minute period of the day, which is roughly 9pm, when everyone is watching TV.”

By “TV”, Rodgers means streaming video from various sources. “The network needs to handle a household running 5 different streams, with at least one in 4K, without a hitch.”

Local caching

A high-speed “fat” pipe from Christchurch to Auckland helps, but no matter the speed, the further you are physically from a piece of content, the longer it takes to load. There’s no getting around that. The term for this delay is latency and it’s the bane of streaming media, especially live video.

Back when Netflix didn’t operate in New Zealand, those accessing the overseas version would find streams often dropping to a lower-quality bitstream. There was also a long lag between pressing play and content starting. The reason was content being pulled all the way across the Pacific.

Those problems are long gone thanks to Netflix’s Open Connect program.

The streaming video company gives internet service providers (ISPs) free CDN caches (also known as edge servers) to go into their network. Google and Facebook run similar systems. These caches connect to their nearest hub (or origin server) – which for most services in New Zealand, including Netflix, is in Sydney – to get all the content they need and then serve it to the customers.

So when Netflix releases its latest show, it’s sent from the US to the origin in Sydney and then, when the first person in New Zealand presses play, the video gets sent across the Tasman to CDN boxes here. From then on, any user in New Zealand will access the cached version in this country. This means the content is physically closer, which lowers latency and increases delivery speed – no more lag and almost no drop in quality.

The bigger the ISP, the more boxes it gets. The ISPs get to say that Netflix works quickly on their networks and Netflix gets its content to users faster. It’s a quick way for ISPs to scale up. Everybody wins.

Smaller players

Not every streaming video company is the size of Google or Netflix and can afford their own CDN. But why build your own network when you can rent distribution and capacity on someone else’s?

Akamai runs a CDN system that other businesses use (for example, TVNZ On-Demand). Akamai rents out virtual real estate on its CDN network, which gives smaller players in the streaming market the same technological advantages as the giants.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is another international CDN and it’s the choice of New Zealand’s newest service, Stuff Pix. Unlike Netflix, AWS doesn’t have boxes in every local ISP, so Stuff Pix users will have their traffic crossing between Australia (where the origin server is) and New Zealand.

However, Stuff Pix general manager Paddy Buckley doesn’t think this will be an issue. “Other services in New Zealand use the same server and have had very few issues,” he says.

In control

How does a live stream work in a network setting? What happens when you pause it?

“When you watch content, we don’t send you the whole file. Instead, you are assigned a unique pointer,” Tony Baird, Vodafone technology director, says.

“The pointer knows exactly where you are in that piece of content. This means sending fewer files, which means it’s more efficient.

“We have a scheduler and an origin in Auckland; this sends content out to our CDNs in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch,” Baird says.

“We’ve also got a big fibre-optic link directly to Sky for the live TV and video-on-demand. The scheduler is responsible for triggering the playout and the origin stores a single unique copy of the content for all customers to access. This is the ‘user plane’. For the control plane we use Amazon Web Services.”

The user plane is how they get the content to you and is similar to the other services. The control plane is how you interact with content, controlling every part whenever you press a button on your remote.

A large content library means working with various content owners. Some owners impose rules for their content as they come to grips with this relatively new form of distribution.

“Some content owners don’t want you to be able to rewind, others may not want you to skip. With the control plane we can add and remove these controls as necessary for each piece of content. And with over-the-air updates we can quickly implement new features when they become available,” Baird says.

This is good for consumers as you’ll get greater control over the content you watch.

David Malpas, TVNZ GM of product, has to deal with live TV and advertising. With live TV, TVNZ streams directly to the origin server. All other content is sourced from master files at TVNZ. The files then get converted with slots for ads before heading to the origin.

The future of TV

One thing is certain, the amount of high-quality video we watch is going to increase. This means we’re going to see more CDN boxes in local exchanges. That’ll go a long way to help speeds, but so will fibre.

Right now Chorus is experimenting with broadcasting over its fibre network. In this scenario, instead of plugging an aerial into your TV to get a signal, you’d plug in your router.

It’s faster, more reliable (no weather issues), and can transmit higher-quality images than regular broadcasting. And, even though it comes over fibre, it’s as separate from the internet as your aerial cable. It’s still in proof-of-concept stage but this could be the future of television.

Services compared

Pay-per-view services

 iTunes[width=small]Stuff Pix[width=small]Google Play[width=medium]Amazon Prime Video
Grade (A-F)
OverallCDAC
ContentAFAA
DevicesDAAD
$
Price (rent)$8.00$8.00$7.00$8.50
Price (own)$25.00n/a$20.00$28.00
Price (TV season)n/an/an/a$35.00
Content
Movies
TV
Special featuresWNSS
AccessibleANAA
HDWWWW
UHD/4K/HDRWNWS
Devices
Chromecast
Apple TV app
Apple Airplay
Browser
Smart TVS
Game consoles
Android
Apple

GUIDE TO THE TABLE Price taken at May 2018. Prices are for new releases. Price for TV series is for a full 24 episode season. Converted to NZ$ where required. CONTENT: N = none. S = some, a selection of titles but not all. W = where possible (for example, old TV shows can't be offered in 4K). A = all. Special features: offers extras with purchases, such as behind-the-scenes documentaries, or directors' commentary. Accessible: offers closed-captions and/or descriptive audio. HD: offers content in 1080p resolution. UHD/4K/HDR: offers content in ultra-high definition quality and/or high dynamic range. n/a = not applicable, nf = not found.

On-demand TV

 TVNZ On-Demand[width=medium]ThreeNow[width=medium]Maori TV
Grade (A-F)
OverallCDE
ContentCCD
DevicesBCE
Content
Live TV
News
Documentaries
Movies
Sport
Account needed
AccessibleNNS
HDNNN
UHD/4K/HDRNNN
Devices
Chromecast
Apple TV app
Apple Airplay
Browser
Smart TV2013+Samsung only*
Game consolesPS3/PS4/Xbox One
Android
Apple

GUIDE TO THE TABLE CONTENT: N = none. S = some, a selection of titles but not all. W = where possible (for example, old TV shows can't be offered in 4K). A = all. Account needed: are you required to sign up for a free account to access the content. Accessible: offers closed-captions and/or descriptive audio. HD: offers content in 1080p resolution. UHD/4K/HDR: offers content in ultra-high definition quality and/or high dynamic range. n/a = not applicable, nf = not found.

Streaming video on demand

 Lightbox[width=small]Neon[width=small]Netflix[width=small]Amazon
Grade (A-F)
OverallDFBA
ContentDDAA
DevicesCDAA
$
Price/month$13.00$20.00$15.00$9.00
Free trial30 days14 days1 month7 days
Content
Movies
TV
Documentaries
AccessibleNNAA
HDWSWW
UHD/4K/HDRNNSS
Devices
Chromecast
Apple TV app
Apple Airplay
Browser
Android App
Apple App
Smart TV2014+Samsung only
Game consolesPS3/PS4PS4/Xbox 360PS3/PS4/Xbox 360/Xbox One/WiiPS3/PS4/Xbox One
Registered devices55n/anf
Simultaneous screens222nf

GUIDE TO THE TABLE Price taken at May 2018 (where there are multiple plans, price is for the "standard"), converted to NZ$ where required. Free Trial is the free access given when first signing up. CONTENT: N = none. S = some, a selection of titles but not all. W = where possible (for example, old TV shows can't be offered in 4K). A = all. Accessible: offers closed-captions and/or descriptive audio. HD: offers content in 1080p resolution. UHD/4K/HDR: offers content in ultra-high definition quality and/or high dynamic range. Registered devices is the number of devices allowed to access a single account. Simultaneous screens is the number of devices you can watch at the same time from a single account. n/a = not applicable, nf = not found.


By Hadyn Green
Technology Writer




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