Hands On: Foxtel Now Streaming Set-Top Box

Too little, too late, Foxtel's long-awaited streaming media player is outclassed by the Telstra TV 2.

While Foxtel has taken a progressive approach to contract-free streaming services over the last five years, its approach to hardware has been frustratingly haphazard. Whereas Netflix is available on practically any device that plugs into a television, Foxtel Now has been limited to a handful of Smart TVs and game consoles.

The launch of a $99 streaming set-top box is an opportunity to rectify this. If all you care about is getting Foxtel Now onto your television then it's not a bad deal, but if you're looking for a more well-rounded box which combines Foxtel Now and a wide range of other content then the $192 Telstra TV 2 set-top box is far superior.

Get connected

The Foxtel Now box connects to your television via HDMI, offering Ultra HD resolution and HEVC streaming but not High Dynamic Range. Right now Ultra HD support is only useful for watching Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media), as Foxtel's box has launched without Netflix, which is strike one in its battle with the Telstra TV 2.

Foxtel says it's still negotiating with Netflix, which is likely made more difficult by the fact the clunky remote lacks a dedicated Netflix button, something the streaming giant pushes for when striking deals. The lack of Netflix is a big deal considering that two-thirds of Australian pay TV subscribers also pay for a subscription video on demand service, of which Netflix is by far the most popular.

You'll also find a S/PDIF digital audio output on the back of the Foxtel box, which might come in handy when connecting to your home theatre system. Alongside it there's USB3.0 for playing video files from a stick, plus Ethernet for connection to your home network.

Finally there's an RF aerial input to support the single HD free-to-air digital tuner but, like the Telstra TV 2, no RF passthrough for connecting to your television. Unfortunately the Foxtel box doesn't have access to all the free-to-air channels. You might consider that strike two, along with the fact that catch up TV is missing from Nine and SBS.

Connectivity is rounded out with 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.1. During the set-up there's the option to link the remote via Bluetooth, but that could be strike three. I stuck with old fashioned infrared after all the trouble I had with the Foxtel iQ3's unresponsive Bluetooth remote.

Something to watch

The Foxtel Now box is based on Android TV — offering access to the Google Play store — which is certainly a better starting point than Telstra's crippled Roku box. The difference is that Telstra makes the most of its situation, while Foxtel squanders it.

Fire up the Foxtel Now box and you're dropped straight into the iQ3-esque Home screen of the Foxtel Now app. This Home screen only lists Foxtel Now content, along with shortcuts to Android apps. You miss out on the cross-platform content recommendations shown on the Telstra box's Home screen.

From the Foxtel Now Home screen you can scroll across to Live TV, On Demand and Kids, with those last two options also limited to Foxtel Home content. The Live TV option mixes the free-to-air channels with the available streaming channels in your Foxtel Now packages, but there's no easy way to search through them like the category options in the iQ3's onscreen guide.

Free-to-air

The Foxtel remote is basic but not very user-friendly. There's no Live TV or EPG button, nor is there a number pad. On the plus side, it adds the volume and mute buttons missing on the Telstra remote.

The Foxtel box takes around four seconds to launch the live TV interface, making it twice as fast the as the sluggish Telstra box. Once you're watching Live TV on the Foxtel box you can call up the onscreen guide by pressing up or down on the 5-way rocker.

You'll soon discover on the Foxtel box that the free-to-air channels are mixed in among the pay channels, just as they are on the iQ3. This might make sense to existing Foxtel customers but it would be very disorienting for newcomers.

Switch to the Telstra box and it separates the Foxtel Now and free-to-air channels into different apps, which makes the box much easier to navigate. Telstra's free-to-air onscreen guide also includes deep links to catch up and subscription options. Its guide displays the schedule for five channels at once, whereas the Foxtel box only shows the schedule for the channel you're watching.

Like the Telstra box, you can't pause or rewind live free-to-air broadcasts. Work your way around the Foxtel dial and you discover that a few free-to-air channels are missing on the Foxtel box. You miss out on the digital radio and shopping channels, which is no great loss, but you're also denied a few secondary channels such as Channel 78 Racing and NITV.

What's really annoying is that if you're watching a free-to-air channel on the Foxtel box and you exit to the menus, when you return to Live TV you're always thrown back to the last Foxtel channel you were watching.

All of this makes Foxtel's free-to-air features feel tacked on compared to the tightly integrated Telstra box but, to be fair, the single tuner is a novelty in both boxes. If you really care about free-to-air television then you're better off with a Fetch TV Mini or Mighty. The Fetch TV boxes can also stream content one to the other and it's a shame the Foxtel Now box in your bedroom can't see a Foxtel iQ3 PVR in your lounge room.

Foxtel Now

When it comes to watching the live Foxtel Now channels, the user interface is basically the same as the Foxtel Now app on the Telstra TV. On either box, any content streamed from Foxtel is unmetered if Foxtel Broadband is your ISP. They're both missing a few pay TV channels compared to the cable/satellite service, so it's worth reading the fine print.

Both boxes let you pause and rewind Foxtel channels but you can't record. There's no "Look Back" reverse EPG for deep linking into the Foxtel catch up content, as you'd find on the iQ3. Nor can you use "Start Over" to jump back to the beginning of a program if you tune in late.

All this is rather disappointing considering that this is Foxtel's own box. Foxtel hasn't done anything to help it stand out from its rivals, you're still stuck with the same Foxtel Now interface as any other device. It seems Foxtel's goal is to ensure that the little Foxtel Now box isn't too tempting compared to a traditional Foxtel service.

Catch up

Foxtel Now also lets you tap into a streaming library, by scrolling across to On Demand or Kids on the Home screen.

Once again, you can forget about Telstra's slick cross-platform integration. Instead on the Foxtel box you're forced to dive into the individual catch up apps from the Google Play store, but you'll only find ABC iView, Plus7 and Tenplay. Only ABC iView offers access to live streaming.

Thankfully the Foxtel Now box is recognised as a Chromecast streaming point on your home network, letting you stream from the Google Play Movie app and a few others, but not as many as you might prefer.

8player running on iOS, a Swiss Army Knife media player, can happily stream to the box via Chromecast. Meanwhile the Netflix app in iOS and Android recognises the Foxtel Now box but fails to connect, as does Netflix running in the Chrome desktop browser.

Google Play app store

Android fans might be won over by the Android TV interface and Chromecast support, which to me are the Foxtel Now box's only redeeming features. There's talk of Google voice support down the track.

You can go wandering through the Android TV section of the Google Play app store but it doesn't offer access to the full range of Android apps. You won't find Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or the missing free-to-air catch up TV services. Nor will you find the Foxtel app used by cable/satellite subscribers to tap into streaming video.

You will discover a few music apps like Spotify and TuneIn, along with second tier streaming video services like Crackle, Mubi and YuppTV.

There are also apps for flinging multimedia around your home like Plex, VLC and MX Player, but don't get your heart set on Kodi. You'll find it in the app store but Foxtel openly admits that you're blocked from installing it due to its piracy-friendly features.

Finally there's a wide range of games designed to be played on the television, with support for Bluetooth controllers. These might appeal to some people but they're not really what your typical home is looking for in a streaming media player.

Thankfully you can find your way into the Android 7.0 menus to tinker, and the box features 2GB of RAM and 8GB of onboard storage. It's not difficult to sideload apps so you might be able to squeeze more out of this box than Foxtel intended.

So what's the verdict?

Unless you're really keen on Android TV, it's hard to recommend the Foxtel Now box over Telstra's rival which is certainly worth the extra money. With the Foxtel Now box's missing streaming services, mediocre remote, lack of cross-platform search and tacked-on free-to-air tuner, it really feels like it was cobbled together to fend of the Telstra TV 2 and imminent arrival of Amazon's Fire TV.

While the Telstra TV 2 feels like an honest attempt to give viewers access to a wide range of content, the Foxtel Now box begrudgingly lets you wander outside the Foxtel ecosystem while ensuring that the experience is fragmented so you won't be too tempted to abandon your cable/satellite subscription.

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