14th Mar 2014 | 05:30
A solid start, but not quite magic
Introduction and design
For years now, Australians have looked longingly across the waters of the Pacific, green with envy at services like Netflix and Hulu, longing for a decent local competitor.
While services like ABC iview and SBS On Demand have offered Australia a solid way to catch up on free to air TV, complete video-on-demand services have been somewhat lacking.
Although it offers services specifically for subscribers, Pay TV operator Foxtel has tried to fill the gap with the launch of its latest video-on-demand service, Presto.
It also offers a rather large on demand movie database, with titles broken up by genre for easy discoverability, as well as trending lists and curated collections for simpler browsing.
But for streaming enthusiasts hoping for this country's answer to Netflix, prepare to be disappointed. While Presto has many, many things working in its favour, it also has many shortcomings that make it hard to justify its $20 a month asking price.
Foxtel is a company built on getting people to subscribe through a relatively painless process, so it's a surprise to find that the act of getting started on Presto is somewhat drawn out.
In order to begin watching movies via the internet on Presto, you have to first create an account - just your standard first name, last name, email and phone number form, with some T&C agreements and date of birth confirmations thrown in for good measure.
But instead of handing over your credit card number at the same time, in order to start watching straight away, you have to wait for the activation email, activate your account, and then hand over the 16 digits before you can start streaming.
It seems to be an unnecessary two-step process. You do get the ability to add shows to your watch list in that hazy purgatory between being a member and a subscriber, but that does seem like small consolation.
Of course, it's also only a minor annoyance, so we'll stop complaining and move on to the good stuff.
Make no mistake, Presto is an intuitive, simple service to use.
Available via a web browser on a PC or Mac, or via an iPad app, there's a real limit to where you can actually watch streaming content through the service, but given it's only just launched, we expect an expanded lineup of compatible devices over the coming months.
From the web browser side of things, once you've signed into your account, you can access the entire suite of movie channels and on demand movies within a few mouse clicks.
The top of the page is made up of your navigation and search bar, allowing you to begin browsing by channel, genre or search for a particular title.
It also houses a shortcut to your watchlist, allowing you to quickly navigate to the films you've already indicated you wanted to see.
Just below the bar is a massive carousel filling up the bulk of your screen and pointing you to the most recent featured content.
If you scroll down, you'll see a series of collections, which seems to change every so often. Expect to see things like "New to Presto", "Star packed Adren-a-thon", "Animation fixation for kids on vacation" and others along those lines.
Each category has four films on display, with a Rotten Tomatoes rating adjacent to one of them. Hover over any film cover, and you'll see a more detailed synopsis pop up, along with a classification and general film information like runtime and release year.
From this window you can select to watch a movie straight away or add it to your watch list for later viewing.
The iPad app has a similar user experience. Down the left hand panel is a nav bar that offers shortcuts to search, discover, watch list and the live-streaming movie channels, plus settings and community options.
There are more options on the screen in the iPad versions, making browsing a bit easier. In lieu of a pop up, the movie information slides out on the right hand side of the screen, offering the same synopsis, review and classification rankings.
Content, Performance and Verdict
There's no shortage of movies available to stream through the Presto service. At a quick count, there's over 700 films from the seven Foxtel movie channels: Premiere movies, Family Movies, Action Movies, Comedy Movies: Romance Movies, Thriller Movies, and Masterpiece Movies.
Foxtel has also announced that Movies Disney will launch in April as well, so it wasn't available while we were testing.
At launch, the content selection is exclusively of the film variety, with no television shows on offer.
The Foxtel team has confirmed that they are looking to bring TV shows to the service in the future, but there's no timeline at this stage.
It's disappointing that the ability to binge watch your favourite programs isn't available at launch, especially when the service is compared to Netflix, but the promise of its arrival will definitely help improve the service.
While Netflix is pushing forward with 4K streams in the US, Australians will be disappointed to hear that Presto doesn't push beyond standard definition.
In 2014, you would think high definition would at least be an option.
Certainly, there are advantages to restricting quality to standard definition. We managed to watch a movie via 3G and LTE on the train with only a single dropout in a known deadzone.
Each film runs between 1GB and 1.5GB at standard def, so it means you probably don't want to be using this while commuting without a mega download pack tacked on.
Given the quality of broadband in Australia, streaming at a lower resolution means fewer chance of drop outs, as well as lower data consumption.
And it's not like the quality is overly bad when watching on a computer screen or on an iPad Air. Films like Sin City look perfectly watchable on the tablet.
But we seriously hope that Foxtel has a roadmap for HD streams.
Also disappointing and somewhat surprising is the fact that there's no support for Airplay in the app.
With only support for web browser and iOS playback, it means that watching your movies on the big screen is a more complicated setup.
While we may eventually see apps for smart TVs and other hardware, at the moment, the inability to easily stream it to a big screen puts it at a big disadvantage to other streaming services like iview or Quickflix.
One of the most common excuses used by torrenters in Australia for their decision to download movies and TV shows is the lack of legal local services like Netflix.
Presto is a service to fill this void. For a set fee of $20 a month, you get access to unlimited streams of hundreds of movies, with new films added regularly.
Compared to the cost of Netflix – which works out at around $15 a month when you add in a VPN service, Presto may seem like an expensive option. And it is.
But the catch is that should Netflix ever launch in Australia, it would probably cost the same as Presto. It's only the US economies of scale that allow it to be so affordable, something Australia's small population will always struggle to replicate.
The service is slick, and the iOS app is both gorgeous to look at and simple to use. Navigating through the massive selection of films is easy.
The selection is large. And despite the fact there are no TV shows, there's still plenty to watch. Whether or not you want to watch those films is another issue entirely, but the sheer quantity is great.
Many of the issues we have with Presto aren't necessarily long term issues. Things like only offering SD streams don't have to be permanent.
Similarly, the lack of TV shows as part of the programming is something we know will change in the future, as is more hardware support for Android and other platforms.
What may not change is Airplay support, which is disappointingly absent. It could be switched on fairly easily, but you have to wonder whether there are movie studio hands in play at its absence.
Finally, the sign up process could definitely use an overhaul. The two-stage process is unnecessarily complicated, and it doesn't need to be. A single sign up plus payment solution would be much more efficient.
We're going to keep a close eye on Presto. There is a very solid groundwork for a very good streaming app, and a legitimate rival to Netflix.
The asking price does seem a little steep for what you get at the moment. SD quality streams and limited hardware support just don't seem good enough for that asking price.
But in the next few months, with TV shows added to the lineup, better quality video streams and support for Android and potentially smart TVs, Presto could very easily turn into our favourite streaming service.
Should you sign up? Well that depends on how you like to consume your movies. If you like watching movies at home on your tablet, sure. But if you like a big-screen experience, it might be worth holding off for a few months to see what happens.