The Frustrated State: How terrible tech policy is deterring digital Australia
Written by Delimiter's Renai LeMay, The Frustrated State will be the first in-depth book examining of how Australia’s political sector is systematically mismanaging technological change. Click here to help fund it on Kickstarter.
No Brother: Science fiction, martial arts & Australia's darkest city
Set in Australia's darkest city, No Brother is a vision of a future where martial arts discipline intersects with power, youth and radical technological change. It is the first novel by Delimiter's Renai LeMay. Click here to help fund it on Kickstarter.
Featured, Reviews - Written by Renai LeMay on Wednesday, April 3, 2013 11:55 - 111 Comments
New FetchTV box + service: Review:
It’s a game changer
review Reviewing the FetchTV PVR/IPTV/video on demand service offered by ISPs such as iiNet and Optus is becoming a yearly tradition for Delimiter. The first two times we reviewed the service, we found it lacking. But in our opinion, the company’s new set-top box and associated service launched this year puts it in a whole new ball-park and makes it the premiere such offering in Australia. Read on to find out why.
If you’ve been a long-time Delimiter reader, you’ll know that we haven’t always been complimentary towards the FetchTV PVR/IPTV/video on demand combination set-top box and service which was initially offered by Internet service providers like iiNet and Internode (and now Optus and Adam Internet).
When the service was first launched back in mid-2010, frankly, it wasn’t up to scratch in terms of our requirements for an IPTV service in Australia. Although we gave the service a fairly decent review at the time, it was apparent that this was FetchTV’s first effort. Its set-top box, while quite functional, looked and felt something like an aging VCR machine (with the same huge vents all over it), and its user interface was quite slow and clunky. In addition, it cost more than we were willing to pay for such a service at that point.
A year and a half later, FetchTV had improved in leaps and bounds. It still featured the same hardware set-top box, but its user interface had been revamped and no longer looked like a warmed-over version of X-Windows (the Unix user interface which Linux, which the FetchTV set-top box uses, is based on). FetchTV had added a great deal of content and functionality to its service and it was starting to feel like the front-runner in Australia’s historically troubled legal Internet video market. But it still felt clunky to use, it still lacked key content such as the latest new releases, and ISPs were still having headaches integrating it with their customers’ network connections.
It’s this background which we bring to this third review of the FetchTV set-top box and service. Over the past year, the company has launched a new set-top box and added a sledload of content and functionality to its service. It’s time to review FetchTV again. Read on to find out what the new FetchTV is like.
The new box
The first thing you ned to know about the new FetchTV in 2013 is that the company has quietly launched a completely new set-top box to anchor its service in your loungeroom. And boy, is it different from the old box. Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
To say that FetchTV’s new set-top box is an improvement on its old box is a colossal understatement.
There are fundamentally two things you need to understand here. The first is that the actual physical nature of the FetchTV set-top box has undergone a mammoth re-design for its new iteration. Gone is the large, clunky, VCR-like design ethos of the previous box, which, to put it bluntly, stunk.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the new FetchTV box looks precisely like something which Apple would design. The review model we tested came in purest white (you can also get it in black) and its high-quality plastic exterior reminded us very strongly of Apple’s design aesthetic. Gone are the ugly vents which plagued the old FetchTV box, and in are open ridges along the corners of the box which subtly allow ventilation in.
The box is also quite a bit physically smaller than its predecessor; about the size of a Nintendo Wii. It’s the sort of size that makes it easily able to sit inside your TV cabinet alongside the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 — at 50mm tall, 260mm wide and 252mm deep, it won’t take up anywhere near the space of the old FetchTV box, which was substantially larger.
On the back of the box you get mostly the same ports, and again here things have that Apple-like simplicity which we love. You get RF-in and RF-out ports to connect your TV antenna and another peripheral to the box (when you have a FetchTV box, all normal free to air TV goes through the box’s own tuners, rather than directly into the TV itself) and an Ethernet port for the mandatory Internet connection to your broadband modem.
There are old-style yellow/red/blue RCA connectors on the box to hook up your TV, but we think most people will prefer the box’s in-built HDMI output, and there’s also an optical out port for sound if you want it. THe box also comes with a couple of USB inputs, although we think most people won’t need them, and unlike the old model, it comes with a small power brick (which has helped cut down its physical footprint).
Overall the new FetchTV box represents a level of design and build quality which we haven’t seen in Australian consumer electronics for some time. This box easily has the build quality of an Xbox or PlayStation 3 — it’s that high end — and again, it reminds us very strongly of something Apple would make. This is pretty much what the Apple TV should look like.
This brings us to the second new aspect which you need to know about the new FetchTV set-top box — its internals.
The old box wasn’t precisely slow, but it wasn’t fast either. Changing channels, especially streaming channels, worked fine on the old box, but you never got that snappy feeling which you tend to get from decent consumer electronics gear. Once its set up right, and if you have a decent broadband connection, there’s a sense with the new FetchTV box that it’s actually quite hard to slow it down. In my briefing with FetchTV before I got my hands on the actual review unit, the team emphasised the processing power of the new box, and I certainly found in the wild that the unit performed above expectations for the FetchTV brand.
When it comes to the basics of changing, recording, pausing or playing free to air TV channels in Australia, I don’t think FetchTV has a rival in Australia at the moment. Certainly the box is much, much faster at changing channels than our existing Samsung LCD TV (it’s about five years old), and it can do everything instantly while also recording two other channels, downloading videos on demand and so on. You’re just not going to get any lag with the user interface or basic PVR functions from the new FetchTV box — it’s great.
When it comes to the box’s other functions — streaming IPTV through FetchTV’s many online channels, or downloading movies on demand, you will see some delay, largely dependent on the quality and speed of your broadband connection.
Usually it’s only a second or two when changing to a streaming IPTV channel such as the BBC, but it’s noticeable compared to the instant channel changing from the free to air channels. However, we think it’s more than acceptable for a channel streaming on the Internet — think of the slight delay before a TV show plays through the ABC’s iView web platform and you’ll get a feel for it.
The only area where the box falls down slightly, user-interface-wise, is in its streaming of video on demand — movies. We have a 14Mbps ADSL2+ broadband connection, and we found that normal movies took at least one to two minutes of buffering before they would play. HD movies (we tested with the new release Argo) will take longer — we found between five to ten minutes. However, again, we considered this quite acceptable for the quality which FetchTV was delivering. In addition, once the movie has buffered for a few minutes, you can watch the film you’ve downloaded fine while it pulls down the rest on the fly.
In terms of its other specifications, the new FetchTV box features most of the same specifications as the last model. It comes with three digital TV tuners — meaning you can record on up to two channels while watching a third, and it comes with a 1TB hard disk. The remote which ships with the box is comfortable, if a little generic, and quick and easy to use. One new feature the box comes with is the ability to support a resolution of 1080p, which we know many people will really welcome.
User interface and features
Let’s start this user interface and feature section by pointing out that it’s a fallacy to think of the FetchTV service as it stands in 2013 as a stereotypical set-top box similar to the ones sold by Foxtel or Topfield. It’s more accurate to think of FetchTV as an evolving ecosystem or platform for content to be served on, and as the set-top box as merely the central element in that ecosystem.
To understand this statement, let’s take a look at how precisely you use the new FetchTV set-top box.
The most obvious way to use it is to merely hook the box up to your TV and broadband connection and use it like any other set-top box, with its own customised remote control. On this stand-alone basis, the new FetchTV box is actually already great to use; it’s got way more functionality than any other similar device on the market, because it integrates not only PVR functionality (the ability to record and play back shows as well as pause, rewind and fast-forward live TV) but also IPTV and video-on-demand functionality, including a swathe of free movies each week as part of the so-called ‘Movie Box’ package.
The FetchTV service is pretty much like a high-end Topfield set-top box, bundled with the movies-on-demand functionality of an IPTV service like Quickflix and the live streaming functionality (including many of the same or similar channels) as cable TV service Foxtel. And it can all be controlled from the one FetchTV remote control, just like any other set-top box.
However, you don’t have to use the FetchTV service this way, and in fact we think you’ll prefer not to. The far better, quicker and easier way to use the FetchTV service is to connect your iOS or Android device to the unit via your household Wi-Fi connection and then control it that way: Ditch the remote control altogether.
FetchTV’s apps for iOS and Android, are, to put it simply, brilliant. For starters, most of the functionality of the physical remote control is emulated directly in the apps. Just hit the remote button and start controlling the FetchTV unit as you would with a physical remote control — but faster, in our experience, because the touchscreen buttons are much nicer.
You also get a swathe of other functionality. Want to watch a TV show you’ve previously recorded? Fine. Hit up the ‘My Stuff’ button on your mobile app. It’s already synched your list of recorded shows on the FetchTV box, and you can just select the one you want and have it start playing on your TV. You can do the same with movies — even purchasing them on your mobile app and setting them to download. You get a full Electronic Program Guide on your mobile apps as well, and even control over the on-demand TV shows that FetchTV and its ISP partners offer.
To say we loved this functionality is an understatement. No more laboriously flipping through smartphone apps and then changing the channel manually with a physical remote control. See a show you want to watch on your mobile EPG? Touch it to watch it on your TV. Done. Once you’ve started using this approach, you really will not want to go back to using physical remotes to control your TV. It’s so archaic.
Plus, of course you can use the mobile app to set shows to record even when you’re away from home on a 3G or 4G mobile connection — great if you’re on the bus on the way home and want to check out the TV guide and set something to record.
You can use the FetchTV’s standard remote control to control the box, but to do so is to miss where much of the future of television is heading. So-called ‘second screen’ debate is increasingly sweeping the television and film industry at the moment as the industry works out how to best integrate the incredible powerful mobile devices we all have now with the television experience.
You can easily imagine a future in which the FetchTV smartphone apps actually do a lot more than they do now. They already have a level of Facebook integration, but there’s no doubt that this can be deepened, and other social networks such as Twitter added into the mix. And there’s also another revolutionary aspect to the concept.
Currently the FetchTV apps allow you to play content from the FetchTV set-top box on your television. But what if the box could also stream that content straight to your smartphone or tablet — even while someone was watching something else on the TV at the same time? This concept isn’t that revolutionary, after all — it’s precisely what Nintendo does with its powerful Wii U controllers.
As we’ll explore in a follow-up article shortly, this is precisely the kind of functionality which FetchTV is currently developing across a range of areas, and this demonstrates how much of a game changer the FetchTV platform, as an interface to commercial content, has the potential to be. It has the potential to unchain the set-top box from your TV, and allow it to be a broader media centre for a number of other devices in the house.
The other comment we’d make about FetchTV’s user interface is that it has been refined in a whole lot of small ways over the past year or so. Many of the user interface elements are the same or similar, but they’ve all received that polishing effect that it takes years to get right on a certain device. The FetchTV interface has gotten to the level now where it really does fade into the background, letting the content itself come to the fore.
There’s quite a few ways to change channels and browse around the content, and you’ll speedily discover the quickest way to do so. But in general it’s all great — in terms of software development, it screams ‘build quality’, if you know what I mean.
One little example is the way that FetchTV lets you set ‘series’ tags for certain TV shows to automatically record — no matter what time they’re on. FetchTV will automatically search its dynamically updated Electronic Program Guide and record these shows at the correct time (if you want, with a small buffer each side of the show), without you even having to think about it.
In another example, FetchTV now integrates descriptions and ratings on content from master ratings site RottenTomatoes, bringing a level of information to the available content which just fits perfectly. It’s these kinds of small touches which make the experience great.
When we last reviewed the FetchTV box last year, one of our main complaints was that there wasn’t enough content of the kind which we wanted through the service. Whoah, has that changed in a year.
Let’s start with the core content. First and foremost, FetchTV is a PVR box. So of course you get instant access to all of your normal free to air channels — all of the multiple channels allocated by broadcasters such as the ABC, SBS, Nine, Seven, Ten and so on.
However, it’s when you scroll down past those channels in the channel selector that you realise just how many more TV channels FetchTV has added in. The subscription option ($20 a month through iiNet, for example), gets you several dozen additional live IPTV channels. Names like BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, CNBC, France 24, MTV (Classic, Hits and the normal channel), National Geographic, Style, Weatherzone, ESPN, Euronews and more. You can find the whole list below:
And FetchTV is constantly adding to this content. For example, just last month the group signed a deal with US sports network ESPN to stream two channels in Australia, delivering a whole new swathe of international sports content locally.
Part of the reason that FetchTV’s content offering is constantly growing is last year’s merger between Australian pay TV giants Foxtel and Austar, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. As part of the terms of the deal, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission forced the pair to open up rivals such as FetchTV to licensing much of the same content which the pay TV giants had access to. As contracts change, over the next several years this will mean that FetchTV will get access to much of the content which was previously locked up by the pay TV giants.
I’ve been evaluating FetchTV over the past fortnight in our household, and it’s safe to say that the wealth of IPTV channels the service is currently offering is pretty amazing. The service reminded me pretty directly of a pay TV service such as Foxtel, such is the breadth of content on offer.
Now on to video on demand content.
Again, last year when we last reviewed FetchTV, we were pretty disappointed with the free and paid video on demand content which was available. FetchTV makes a ‘Video Box’ of free movies (which change at regular intervals) available through its service, but we found it hard to find movies we wanted to watch through this service.
How times have changed. When we opened up Video Box this year, we found a cluster of great movies which we love — such as The Dead Pool (Dirty Harry), Pretty Woman and The Name of the Rose. The week before it was Batman Returns, which we happily watched. Movie Box appears to always be set to contain a mix of films appropriate for kids and adults, in a range of genres from comedy to action. We always found something we wanted to watch there.
It’s a similar situation with the paid video on demand service, where you can download new release or older films for fees ranging up to $6.95. When we switched on the service we got a cluster of the hottest new releases right up front — from the new Bond film, Skyfall, to Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Argo, Dredd and so on. FetchTV has recently signed a deal to bring the older James Bond films to the service, and from what we can see, they’re all there already.
Again, here it appears that FetchTV has signed content deals with virtually every film studio in existence. Its own site advertises partnerships with Universal, Disney, Paramount, Warner Bros, Roadshow, Icon, 20th Century Fox, Madman, W Studios, Sony Pictures, Hopscotch and so on. The service has so many films available, it actually becomes a chore to browse them all — there’s just so much great content in there, and the odds are that if you’re looking for a film, they have it, which wasn’t the case only a year ago.
There’s also a bunch of ‘other’ types of content available via TV on demand — kids shows from ABC for Kids, selected science fiction TV shows such as Stargate, edgy videos from Red Bull TV, documentary profiles on celebrities such as Sacha Baron Cohen, recordings of concerts and so on. All of this appears to be freely downloadable, and iiNet itself has a number of separate channels available solely via its version of FetchTV — primarily dealing with the European soccer leagues. And FetchTV is currently working on integrating the IPTV platforms offered by the ABC (iView) and SBS (SBS on Demand) into its service as well as other third-party platforms. Stay tuned for more on this.
What all of this adds up to is an incredible package. If you just count the TV channels available through FetchTV, the service instantly feels more like a US-style cable TV package (or like Foxtel itself) than just the bare bones IPTV/PVR package which it used to be. And then FetchTV has added in a huge video on demand library (including free movies, regularly refreshed) and a broad swathe of other TV content.
So what’s not here?
There are two big categories of content which FetchTV doesn’t appear to have right now. The first is the big US TV shows — you know the ones I mean. Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and so on. Even the comedy shows such as the Colbert Report and so on. These shows just can’t be found through FetchTV, and it’s a big lack in the service’s content offering. You can get most of these shows through Foxtel, and it’s a little disappointing that so much of today’s great TV content is absent from FetchTV.
Rival IPTV service Quickflix has publicly stated that it is working with the US studios and cable TV companies to bring these kinds of shows to Australia promptly, so it’s perhaps not out of the question eventually with FetchTV as well. We’d really like to see a greatly expanded paid TV on demand service from FetchTV, alongside its stellar movies on demand tab. Some of this may be a little complex due to the set-top box nature of FetchTV — it also has to integrate with a lot of what the existing free to air TV channels do. Some of it may have to do with licensing deals currently tied up with Foxtel. Only time will tell.
Secondly, there’s sports. It’s obvious that many, perhaps most, of the attraction of a service such as Foxtel is the availability of live or delayed sports coverage, and you just can’t get this content on FetchTV yet. Again, this is a complex situation involving huge licensing deals and financial resources, so we’re not surprised not to see it on FetchTV, but let’s be honest — nobody is going to sign up for both FetchTV and Foxtel, so you have to consider it an issue for the service.
However, to be honest, personally we don’t see these gaps as huge issues for FetchTV. It’s not reasonable right now to expect a tiny company such as FetchTV to go after the huge sports rights deals, and the TV rights situation is also a little complex. The US hasn’t broadly worked out what it’s doing with streaming IPTV online, with services such as Hulu and Netflix blocked in Australia for now. We’re sure this situation will be resolved over the next five years.
In general, what you need to know is that the content offering through FetchTV is incredible right now — and it’s going to get regularly better over the next few years.
Bugs and technical issues
Although its improved dramatically, there are still some bugs and minor issues with FetchTV, largely associated with its broadband connection. On one occasion, the video on demand service simply failed to download properly, dissolving into static and causing weird hiccups on the screen. Likewise, the first time we tried to use the FetchTV iOS apps, they would connect with the set-top box but didn’t actually work. On all subsequent occasions we used them, they were absolutely fine however.
Similarly, if your broadband connection goes down for any reason, expect some functionality on the FetchTV box to simply stop working — certainly the IPTV channels and other pieces here and there. This is a service which is very much designed to be connected to the Internet at all times, and if it is cut off from that pipeline, expect trouble with some of its basic functions.
There is also an associated issue, in that with our iiNet broadband service, iiNet still requires that you use its own BoB-branded hardware to use the FetchTV service. FetchTV wouldn’t work on iiNet at all with our Fritz!Box router; a ridiculous situation when you consider that the Fritz!Box is one of the highest-end ADSL routers on the market, and that Internode’s FetchTV service supports the Fritz!Box. Instead, we had to install an inferior Bob Lite modem to use FetchTV through iiNet.
There’s also the fact that iiNet requires that the FetchTV box authenticate your ADSL connection — once you’re on its ‘FetchTV profile’ ADSL setting, you can’t actually connect to the Internet through your modem unless the FetchTV is plugged in to authenticate things. Technically, this situation is a mess, and we sorely hope that iiNet sorts this out soon. An IPTV/PVR box should not be the authentication method for your broadband connection — that should be done at the router level. The fact that iiNet has set things up this way just seems ridiculously counter-intuitive. Prepare for some hiccups in getting FetchTV set up on your broadband connection — including downtime.
However, it has to be said that once FetchTV is set up, things ran quite smoothly — IPTV channels, movies on demand and all. If you follow the instructions provided by iiNet and don’t ask them troubling technical questions (as we like to), everything should be fine — and we didn’t notice any slowdown on our normal broadband connection due to FetchTV, although it is likely that the streaming TV component has some impact.
Australia has been waiting for a great IPTV/video on demand option for many years. Given that we don’t have much in the way of cable/pay TV competition, and we don’t have services such as Netflix and Hulu to stream TV shows online, many people have been very frustrated over that time in trying to (legally) get access to the great content they want.
FetchTV isn’t perfect — it lacks the great TV shows on demand that US residents enjoy, and it doesn’t provide the great sports packages which Foxtel does. However, with its new set-top box and the wealth of content deals it has signed over the past year or so, FetchTV has emerged as the clear front-runner video entertainment package in Australia, and is now a clear and dangerous rival to established market monopolist Foxtel.
FetchTV isn’t amazingly cheap. For example, iiNet charges you $10 per month just to access the basic service, plus another $5 a month for rental of the set-top box itself, which you can also buy for $299 outright. You’ll need to pay a total of $25 per month to rent the set-top box and get access to the full functionality of FetchTV, which we recommend. Optus does deliver the service a little more cheaply, and both companies also ofer it in bundles — for example, you can get broadband, a home phone, modem rental and a FetchTV starter pack from iiNet for $99 a month, which is not too terrible.
However, at this price, we think many couples without children, or those living alone or in share houses, would probably pass on FetchTV. Many young people get all they need from the Internet these days and don’t want to get tied into a subscription TV package.
Where FetchTV really becomes valuable is for those who have children — the standard family unit of several adults and several children. In this scenario FetchTV offer all sides all the cheap and easy entertainment they want, in one centralised package. You get free movies (or affordably prices movies on demand) for the parents on Friday and Saturday nights. You get global news for those who care about such things, and a wealth of entertainment options for the kids. You get the ability for several different people in the house to record and watch TV shows simultaneously — no conflicts.
But perhaps more importantly than this, what FetchTV represents for the Australian video entertainment scene is a game-changing concept: A single central platform which delivers most of everything that everyone wants, with content deals with everyone and great TV PVR functionality integrated. If the service could cut its prices a little and get some more sports and US TV shows on demand into its offering, it would be perfect. As it stands, the new FetchTV set-top box and service is pretty close.
Perhaps the most direct comparison which we could make with respect to FetchTV is Telstra’s rival T-Box platform, which offers much of the same functionality and has the additional benefit of being more closely bundled with Foxtel. We haven’t trialled the T-Box in a while, but there’s no doubt that the service is doing well for Telstra — and certainly it has sold much better in the market than FetchTV has so far. Based on our estimation, FetchTV and the T-Box are probably close to being on par right now — with the obvious caveat that the T-Box is only available through Telstra, a significant limiting factor for the platform. Plus, Telstra has not updated the T-Box hardware in some time.
With respect to FetchTV, finally, FINALLY, Australia has a mature, technically excellent and comprehensive PVR/IPTV/movies on demand platform widely available through various ISPs. We highly recommend FetchTV; if you’re at all interested in this kind of offering, check it out. We suspect you won’t be disappointed.
Also; stay tuned. This review is all about the current FetchTV service. However, the company is preparing a broad swathe of new functionality, which we’re currently talking to it about. We hope to shortly publish a second article outlining this upcoming functionality and how it will push FetchTV’s limits even further.
Image credits: FetchTV/Delimiter
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