Naspers launched its local version of Netflix, the Video on Demand service, in South Africa in late August. This came about no doubt as means of capturing some of the market before the rumoured launch of Netflix in South Africa, which would make it easier for consumers currently required to use overseas accounts, addresses, proxies and the likes, ultimately seen as illegal by ICASA.
The service was launched almost 3 months ago, and while it has grown its catalogue, it’s still left with many mixed reviews from both tech journalists and the general public. At a cost of just R99, it makes is a worthwhile offer for many consumers not very interested in sports, documentaries and reality TV offered on DStv’s Premium package. But, is it worth opting into the ShowMax streaming services, or even cancelling your pre-existing services to make the switch?
First Steps: Setup
There’s no need for decoders, cables or any such arrangements. All you require to setup your ShowMax account is a reasonable Internet connection, and a form of connecting to it. What this means is that you’re able to stream from your PC, Mac, Android and iOS devices. If you’re using the PC or Mac, you’ll sign in via your Web browser (ShowMax.com), register an account, and setup your billing information. Interestingly, ShowMax offers a brief trial period of 7 days before deciding on whether to cancel your subscription or upgrade to the full offering.
For mobile platforms, however, the ShowMax app is available from the respective stores. You will still have to register via a browser, whether on your PC or mobile device, but not directly from the app itself, which serves mainly as a streaming tool, while still being able to view important account details.
In Use: Content
The first and foremost question on most people’s lips is whether ShowMax includes Game of Thrones. And before we get into the discussion on content, yes it does. And a lot more on top of that too.
For many, this was, and still is, the biggest fear of using ShowMax; what type and how much content would be available. Thankfully, you’re able to stream quite a large percentage of the mainline series and movies (those released to DVD and Blu-ray). And the content isn’t just B-grade TV fillers either, but rather a good mix of current and previously released series, such as (already mentioned) Game of Thrones, Suits, Big Bang Theory, and The Fixer, as well as a few classics, such as Dexter, The Sopranos, and Heroes. And this doesn’t even include the line-up of great movie, stand-up and local Afrikaans shows also available from the same subscription.
At the launch, most of the series content only included the first few seasons of a particular show, but has seen the addition of more up to date seasons in recent weeks. Many users who signed up from the start used the platform to binge watch a lot of their series. This meant that there was the possibility that they’d eventually run out of their favourite shows after too long. Since customers aren’t locked into any contract, they can cancel the subscriptions whenever they liked, and accumulate a few more seasons to binge watch at a later stage. What makes the recent updates even more alluring is that ShowMax has upgraded certain offerings by including same day re-broadcast after it has been released overseas. And the list continues to grow as the weeks go by.
In Use: Quality and Support
While registration was a breeze for setting up ShowMax for first time use, actually streaming my first show proved a little more complicated. Both Firefox and Chome required a plugin to be downloaded to support the type of Flash-based streaming on offer via the Web browser. Initially, using Firefox proved challenging, as I kept being redirected to the plugin download page, even after already having downloaded it and restarted the browser and PC. Chrome, on the other hand, proved a lot simpler to use, although also not as straightforward as one would have hoped. Thankfully, such teething issues have been sorted and I’m able to enjoy streaming on a platform of my choosing.
ShowMax indicates that their content is streamed using adaptive streaming up to 720p HD. Although this is the case for many, it’s not so for all. For certain of the series available, the show may have been airing for the last decade or so, which means that the earlier seasons may only be available in SD quality and not HD. In addition to this, the 720p quality isn’t always as good as I’ve become accustomed to watching via other streaming services such as YouTube. Still backgrounds shots are fine, but whenever there’s any movement, be it the characters or scenery, or a panning shot, image quality becomes grainy and pixelated. My suspicion for this lies with the use of the required flash plugin ShowMax has opted for on most platforms, instead of the more modern HTML5 approach it uses on Chrome. There is also no indication that pre-rendering and buffering the video beforehand assists in solving the issue.
Points Worth Considering
While there a number of supported devices for available to stream on two platforms simultaneously, it doesn’t always work on devices you’d expect. The Android app will work on devices such as the Nexus 5 and 6, as well as a few Samsung Galaxy smartphones, but runs into difficulty on others such as the LG and Sony smartphones. Sometimes the issues relate to image quality, loading without playing any video, along with some registration and login errors. Then there’s the apps inability to support Chromecast, which would allow uses to stream the content from their devices to their TVs via Wi-Fi. It is, however, worth pointing out that a few Smart TVs do have their own ShowMax app available via the respective brand stores to make things easier.
Irrespective of your Internet connection, ShowMax doesn’t truly “adapt” streaming as stated. Testing the service on 3G, LTE, and ADSL connectivity doesn’t yield any differences in image quality, and often only uses a portion of the bandwidth available. Many users have also been reporting issues with sound synchronisation, which wasn’t an issue on my end during any of my testing and viewing, but it worth noting.
At launch, ShowMax experienced quite a large interest from the public with registration it may not have fully catered for. The company boasted a catalogue of more than 750 different series and movies available at launch, a number which it has expanded upon since, which makes for good news for those still curious about signing up. There is also a good selection of kids and Afrikaans shows and movies available. While the content available certainly gives you a good return on your R99 investment, the image quality doesn’t live up to the same value. That said, using the streaming service on the go on your mobile devices, be it tablet or smartphone, generally appeared a lot less abrasive.
The big question here is whether it is able to replace Netflix as the preferred medium to source content, given the additional hurdles required before being able to register. But, even with all that jumping, Netflix may still be the option here, based largely on its effectiveness and optimisation in providing a full end-to-end VOD services. And it may even get worse given that Netflix is set to release locally in 2016. I would imagine that a few upgrades may still be on the cards between now and then, and perhaps it’s unfair to judge solely on the current solution ShowMax presents. At this point, though, I’m unable to unequivocally give my recommendation, but perhaps a relook at ShowMax in the next 6 months or so will give better insight as to where the company is heading.