Digital Life

Hands on: Foxtel Presto streaming movies

It's a slick first effort, but Presto must come to lounge room devices if it's to be a serious contender.

Foxtel has been working hard to expand its IPTV offerings in the last few years, rather than just sticking its head in the sand and hoping the internet will go away. Its latest offering is Presto, a $19.99 per month all-you-can-eat subscription movie service with an on-demand back catalogue, live streaming channels and pay-per-view access to new release movies. There's no ongoing contract and the service is only $4.99 for the first month, to encourage people to take the plunge.

Foxtel's Presto movie service running on an Apple iPad.
Foxtel's Presto movie service running on an Apple iPad. 

Presto launches with around a thousand movies but no television shows. It draws titles from seven of Foxtel's traditional movie channels; Premiere, Comedy, Romance, Thriller, Action, Family and Masterpiece. These channels are streamed as "OnAir now" channels which are in sync with corresponding movie channels available via the full Foxtel service. Once a movie has screened once on these channels it is added to the Presto on-demand section as well. Disney channels are coming in April.

Presto's inclusion of content from the Foxtel Premiere Movies channel – which screens movies seven to ten months after their cinematic release – gives it an advantage over local competitors like Quickflix. Presto's movies will switch from pay-per-view to the subscription service much sooner.

A quick comparison is very telling. In Presto you can watch Skyfall, Jack Reacher, Oblivion, Iron Man 3 and Red Dawn from the on-demand catalogue without paying extra. Over at Quickflix you'll only find Oblivion and it's a $3.99 pay-per-view.

To be fair, all of those movies are available from Quickflix on DVD/Blu-ray if you're happy to receive them in the post. They're also available to stream from Netflix if you can bluff your way in. If you value Quickflix, Netflix or HuluPlus for their TV shows – which I'd say is their strength – then Presto is a non-starter. Foxtel may add TV shows in the future, although it would further blur the line between Presto, Foxtel Play and Foxtel Go.

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Unfortunately Presto's movie back catalogue is pretty thin, as you'd expect with only a thousand-ish titles. Last year as a test I drew up a list of 25 popular movies from Citizen Kane to Pulp Fiction – only two were in Quickflix and none were in Netflix. None of them are in Presto either, although I did stumble across the occasional old movie like The Man with the One Red Shoe from 1985.

The quality of one's back catalogue is generally dictated by your relationships with the studios, but Presto is also hampered by Foxtel's deals for its movie channels. Once movies drop off the Foxtel movie channels they'll also drop off Presto, so it's never going to build up a decent back catalogue. If you're interested in recent movies then Presto looks attractive, but Quickflix and Netflix will always have larger back catalogues to explore.

Presto also offers new release rentals for $5.99 but right now it only seems to offer B grade rubbish and I'm not sure why they even bothered. When you consider the limitations of Presto I wouldn't hire new movies here anyway. Not if I had access to something like iTunes, Quickflix, Bigpond Movies, a console movie service or one of the hardware vendors' offerings from the likes of Samsung or Sony.

At launch Presto only works on a PC or Mac in a Flash-enabled browser, or on an iPad (but there's no support for AirPlay streaming to an Apple TV). Android is coming later in the year. You can register up to three devices and watch different movies on two devices at the same time. The browser and app feature a slick interface and they even remember where you were up to when you jump between devices and resume playback. But if you want to watch Presto movies on your television you're out of luck.

Everyone is different, but when I really want to see a movie I usually want to watch it on the television in the lounge room, not on a computer or tablet. I certainly don't expect my entire family to crowd around such a device. I think Presto will struggle to win people over until it joins Foxtel's other IPTV offerings on lounge room devices like the Xbox 360, T-Box, smart TVs and Blu-ray players. Until then you might find that Foxtel Play, which offers movie channels, is a better option than Presto.

If you're like me you might have a computer hooked up to your television, but unfortunately the Presto 480p picture quality is pretty average viewed on a big screen. Movies are only available in standard definition and you only get 2-channel stereo sound. Animated movies like Wreck-It Ralph look fine on my 46-inch television but live action movies like Iron Man 3 are rather murky – perhaps enough to satisfy kids but not up to scratch if you've an eye for detail. If I didn't have an Apple TV, Sony Blu-ray player, Fetch TV or other device at my disposal, I'd rather drive to the video store than watch Iron Man 3 from Presto on a big screen.

It might seem unfair to judge the picture quality of Presto when it's only designed to watch on small screen devices, but I think it's a fair point when competing services like Quickflix and Netflix work on both handheld and lounge room devices. If you watch more than four new-ish movies per month then Presto might seem like a good deal, but remember you're denied access in the lounge room. If you're still paying for movies in the lounge room then Presto's value proposition starts to break down. If you're a satisfied Quickflix or Netflix customer you're unlikely to jump ship.

So what's the verdict? Presto shows a lot of promise – I like what I see, I'm just frustrated by where I can see it. You'll need to weigh it up against Quickflix and Netflix – with their TV options – and the movie rental options at your disposal to see if Presto is a good fit for your home.

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