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Eye on Demand | September 26, 2017

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HBO NOW Review

HBO NOW Review

Review Overview

Quality of Video Stream
7.5
User Interface
5
Content on Offer
8
Device Availability
6
Value for Money
6.5
6.6

Great Content

It’s amazing how much hype one television network can have around the world, and HBO’s launch onto the OTT on-demand scene with HBO Now has certainly created a buzz. But is this one network worth US$15 per month?

Before we get too far into the review, it should be noted that HBO Now isn’t the network’s first foray into on-demand television, as many a follower would already be aware of the network’s other services HBO Go and HBO Nordic.

The problem with HBO Go however, was that viewers needed an American cable TV contract in order to access it, accompanied by all the additional baggage that drags along for the ride, such as long-term contracts, paying for endless channels that customers may not want, high monthly costs and of course, a physical American address since cable TV isn’t just handed out to anyone.

HBO Nordic was quite different, as it was the network’s first attempt at a true OTT online-only service, and as the name suggests, in Europe’s Scandinavian countries. Unfortunately, this was marred by poor platform support, and limited content, otherwise it may have become a little more popular than what it actually did.

HBO Now on the other hand is the real McCoy, a true contract-free online-only monthly subscription service that has has pretty much every title in HBO’s library, and with no complicated requirements along with the ability to opt out at any time. All you need is the Internet (with a decent enough broadband connection) and US$15 per month – presuming of course you are in the United States of America. Naturally, it is also possible to access from outside of the US as long as you are using a Smart DNS or VPN.

Quality ButtonWhat that $15 per month gets you is nothing but HBO, but that alone means all of HBO’s current and past television shows, along with their collection of movies and the bulk of which are available in high definition quality. Our own tests peaked at an average of around 4800kbps, which is certainly HD, but not quite the bitrate we had seen via Amazon Prime or Netflix. Still, it was visually hard to tell the difference between them.

Platform support is slowly growing with web, iPhone & iPad, Android, Android TV, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Amazon Kindle Fire Tablets, Chromecast, Samsung Smart TV and Xbox 360/One apps

 

 

  • CONTENT

    There is no doubt that HBO content is highly sort after. Whether it is for incredibly popular shows like Game of Thrones or True Detective, cutting edge comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Veep and Flight of the Conchords, or even their back catalogue including titles such as the Sopranos, HBO is a network famed for high quality, innovative and pioneering shows.

    It’s no wonder so many people around the world desperately try to find services that provide access to it. And in many countries, there are some that do, whether this is Foxtel in Australia or Sky in the UK, not to mention Amazon Prime, there are usually other pay TV networks or on-demand services that will have some HBO content. But it is always highly limited. They may not have the back catalogue, or latest season, or whatever it is that you really want to watch, which is why a dedicated service like HBO Now is so incredibly useful.

    Of course, not everything is made specifically for HBO here. There are a lot of television shows imported in from other countries or regions, in particular the UK and Latin America, with some Irish and Australian content as well.

    All that said at the end of the day, $15 is a lot of money for just one network. There will never be as many shows and movies as can be found on Amazon Prime, Netflix or Hulu Plus. Hulu Plus in particular often has the latest seasons and episodes plus back catalogues from multiple networks. But it’s not always quantity that counts.

    This isn’t to say that HBO Now doesn’t have plenty on offer. With over 200 movies, and every HBO show from the past until present along with a pile of imported content, there should be enough to keep a lot of people happy. But $15 is still a lot of money for one network – especially if you factor in other subscription services that are required to get everything you want.

    Have a look below at some selected titles available at the time of publication. Naturally, this list is not exhaustive, and doesn’t include everything in HBO’s catalogue.

    TV Posters Movie Posters1 Movie Posters2 Movie Posters3

     

     

  • Via Laptop or Computer Browser

    HBO Now

    I’m never a big fan of using a web browser to watch IPTV. After-all, why watch on the small computer or laptop screen, when I can enjoy it all on the big-screen TV? But there is actually a good reason here, and that’s because until HBO Now’s exclusivity on Apple devices end, this is currently the only non-Apple way to watch HBO Now content.

    Although you will still need an Apple TV or iOS device to actually sign up (if you don’t have one, you could always do it on a friend’s device), once you have a running account, you can watch on any Mac or PC web browser.

    Outside of the fact I don’t like to watch TV on a computer screen, I find HBO Now’s website a rather pleasant affair.

    First of all, it’s the only platform where you can easily add an entire season to the Watchlist. Try doing that on an iPad or Apple TV and you’ll find yourself only able to add specific episodes. That’s not to say the website has faultless episode management – it’s still a far cry from Netflix – but when the Watchlist is combined with the Continue Watching list, it is “just” possible to keep track of what stage the viewer may be in a series or season.

    If you are used to HBO Go, you’ll find the new HBO Now layout to be very similar but slightly more spartan. It sports a refreshing new look with minimal clutter and a pleasant design. Unfortunately, all that visual goodness does come at a bit of a cost for usability.

    I would have liked a banner across the bottom of the screen showing the last shows I watched, or the next episode in a queue. Scrolling down the screen brings plenty of highlights showing what is on offer, but you’ll have to hit the above mentioned Watchlist to find where you stand in HBO’s world.

    Video quality is surprisingly good for a web portal, with the average bitrate we measured hovering around the 4350kbps* mark. This is an excellent HD stream that could be described as 1080i quality. It’s above what Netflix offers via a browser, but shy of the 5800kbps we’ve seen on Netflix when played back on a set-top-box.

    HBO Now Web 4350kbps

    FFW & REW operate from a scrubbing bar at the bottom of the playback window, and work smoothly enough. There are no thumbnails or visual clues as to where you may end up however, which is something we hope arrives in the future.

    Overall, there are actually merits to accessing HBO Now via the web, and it certainly is a pleasant enough experience.

    Platform Pros:

    • The best Watchlist of all platforms.
    • Excellent 1080i video quality.
    • Pleasant, uncluttered UI.
    • Cross-platform support.
    • (Currently) only way to watch on a non-Apple device.

    Platform Cons:

    • Episode management is too limited.
    • Watchlist is still not as good as it should be.
    • Not the best armchair way to watch HBO.

    (Accessing HBO Now outside of the United States may require a good VPN or Smart DNS service)

    CC BUTTON Movies BUTTON Sport BUTTON On-Demand - BUTTON Catch-up BUTTON Watchlist BUTTON Time Bar BUTTON HD BUTTON Resume BUTTON Cross Platform BUTTON

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    Ad GetflixAd SDNSP

     

    * video quality results are averaged from multiple tests and may be affected by geographic location as well as available bandwidth.

     

  • via iOS (iPad and iPhone)

    HBO Now is also available on iOS, with dedicated apps for the iPhone or iPad that can be dowloaded for free from the US iTunes store.

    Visually, the apps are quite simply beautiful, with minimal clutter and easy navigation to browse the various sections, genres or collections.

    The only gripe I really have here is the rather lame episode management. This means it is quite difficult to keep track of what shows you are currently watching, and which episode you are either ready to start or are halfway through. It’s not that there is no episode management at all, there is, it’s just poorly implemented.

    Like the web portal, there is a Watchlist, but unlike there you can only add individual episodes. Say for instance I want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. Adding a specific episode to the Watchlist only allows me to access that single episode, regardless of whether I have watched it or not. Clicking the link just plays back the same episode over and over again, and there is no way to reach other episodes in the season.

    The Continue Watching list would almost solve the problem, but it only displays unfinished episodes, so once you complete it, it won’t just pop up the next episode in the season, you’ll have to go searching for it still.

    This is quite frustrating. At least once you manually search for a series, you can clearly see what you have watched or not by a timebar, but I would have liked to see a proper list like Netflix has.

    All that aside, playback is excellent. We tested an average bitrate of 3635kbps* which is a good 720p HD stream, more than enough for the small iPad screens. In fact, the iPhone thankfully pulls in the same quality stream so there is no loss in quality despite the smaller screen sizes.

    HBO Now iPad 3635kbps

    AirPlay is beautifully supported, with full multitasking allowed, meaning once AirPlay begins, you can use the iOS device for other purposes, or even switch it off to save power. Oddly enough though, we did see the video quality drop when airplayed over to our reference television. Bitrates were reduced to around 2500kbps, which is rather odd considering it is now playing on the larger screen.

    Perhaps this was just a bug, as we found another one whilst trying to airplay from our iPad, which unlike the iPhone, crashed on several attempts.

    Overall, this is a good platform, but I do miss proper episode management. Hopefully this will come soon.

    Platform Pros:

    • Well designed iOS app.
    • Excellent quality 720p HD stream.
    • Full AirPlay support with multitasking.
    • Resume and cross platform support.
    • FFW & REW scrubbing bar.

    Platform Cons:

    • Poor Watchlist implementation.
    • Poor episode management.
    • AirPlay a bit buggy and has lower quality streams.
    • No FFW & REW thumbnails.
    • No offline downloads.
    • No Chromecast support.

    (Accessing HBO Now outside of the United States may require a good VPN or Smart DNS service)

    Sport BUTTON CC BUTTON Movies BUTTON On-Demand - BUTTON Catch-up BUTTON Time Bar BUTTON HD BUTTON Resume BUTTON Cross Platform BUTTON AirPlay BUTTON

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    Ad GetflixAd SDNSP

     

    * video quality results are averaged from multiple tests and may be affected by geographic location as well as available bandwidth.

  • Via Apple TV

    HBO Now is also available on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Apple TVs, with the two earlier models requiring the location to be set to the US, or the 4th gen model simply accessing a US iTunes account.

    Like pretty much any other Apple TV app, the UI bucks the trend and follows its own course. HBO Now on the ATV looks like Netflix, Hulu or effectively everything else on that platform. It’s very dark and what it lacks in innovation and character, it makes up for in usability.

    That said, like the iOS app, HBO Now’s episode management is very poorly implemented. And because of the way search works on an STB without voice control, it is even slower than iOS to find a television series you are actively watching.

    There is a timebar for unfinished episodes, but there doesn’t seem to be any way of identifying which episodes are watched, let alone what is the next in line. Not a serious problem in moments of binge, but when a few weeks may lie between viewings, it may pay to keep a pencil and paper handy.

    The Watchlist is equally frustrating, once again only allowing the ability to add individual episodes. I have yet to find a use for this, as it would be so much more practical to add an entire series, complete with the ability to show the last episode played, or one that is currently ready or unfinished.

    All that said, once you get down to the sharp end, the Apple TV averaged HBO Now’s best tested bitrate of 4840kbps*. As with the web portal, this is more of a 1080i HD stream rather than 1080p, but it still looks great on all but the biggest of screens.

    HBO Now ATV 4840kbps

    FFW & REW are like all ATV apps, very average with only three speed settings. But although there are no thumbnails, it will show a preview on the screen that helps in finding precise spots.

    There is no doubt I am looking forward to the AFTV or Roku apps, but until then the ATV portal will certainly suffice. I just wish HBO would sort out some half decent episode management.

    Platform Pros:

    • Excellent quality HD streams.
    • Good, functional Apple TV UI.
    • Resume and cross platform support.

    Platform Cons:

    • Lacks oomph.
    • Very poor episode management.
    • Poor Watchlist implementation.

    (Accessing HBO Now outside of the United States may require a good VPN or Smart DNS service)

    Sport BUTTON CC BUTTON Movies BUTTON On-Demand - BUTTON Catch-up BUTTON Time Bar BUTTON HD BUTTON Resume BUTTON Cross Platform BUTTON

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    This service is geographically unblocked on this platform by the following Smart DNS providers:

    Ad GetflixAd SDNSP

     

    * video quality results are averaged from multiple tests and may be affected by geographic location as well as available bandwidth.

  • Alternatives to HBO Now

    Finding alternatives to watching HBO content had never been easy. Other regional markets may have some pay-TV outlets that provide limited HBO content, but they were never exhaustive enough to cover even a small percentage of HBO’s library. There are far too many countries to list here, but Sky and Now TV in the UK, Foxtel and Presto in Australia along with Sky DE and Watchever in Germany come to mind.


    That said, there are still some realist alternatives:

    HBO Nordic is an option many have considered in the past. It is geo-restricted to Scandinavian countries, but VPNs or many Smart DNS services support it. Pricing is generally speaking very good, but content is lower than HBO Now and platform support is a serious issue.

    HBO Go was always the holy grail prior to HBO Now, which is effectively exactly the same product but with one major difference; HBO Go requires an American cable or satellite TV service and that in turn generally speaking necessitates a physical address in the US. There is also the added complication of traditional cable goonieisms, where they force feed countless unwanted channels at very unpleasant looking prices before the customer is granted the right to subscribe to HBO.

    Sling TV is another whole new alternative that has also just suddenly arrived onto the scene. Sling TV is basically a contract-free cable-tv service, but accessed via the Internet. Unfortunately, they operate still pretty much like big cable, and force a base package before the customer has permission to add HBO. This means a US$20 monthly fee is needed in addition to HBO’s $15 supplement, but the base package does include live channels such as ESPN, A&E and AMC amongst others.

    HBO via Sling TV should provide the same on-demand TV and movies as HBO Now, but with two added advantages – a live channel as well, plus very wide platform support. If $35 is not an off-putting price, then check out our Sling TV review here:

  • Signing Up and Paying for HBO Now

    One of the easiest ways to sign up is simply to do so by credit card, but if you don’t have a US card, you may find access is blocked. However, Apple TV owners anywhere have a much easier way.

    Even if you don’t actually own one of these, but still wish to sign up so you can watch on an alternative device, you can always borrow a friend’s Apple TV (though you may want to sign out before leaving so as to make sure they don’t clog up your limited number of concurrent streams).

    If you have your own Apple TV, simply make sure the region is set to the US on older models, or install the app from a US iTunes on the ATV 4, and the HBO Now app will appear. iPad and iPhone owners will need a US iTunes account to download the app.

    If you live outside of the US and don’t have an account, follow the steps here in order to create one for free (without the need of an American credit card).

    You will need to find a way to keep your US iTunes account topped up. If you have an American credit card, this is pretty easy. For those living abroad, the best way is through US iTunes Gift Cards. You can’t officially buy those outside of the United States, but there are websites such as MyGiftCardsSupply and MiTunes.tv which for a small fee, will sell you one and email the voucher code shortly afterwards. I’ve personally used both the websites listed here without any issues.

    Unless you have an American credit card that can easily update the iTunes account, you’ll have to keep tabs on how much credit is in the account, and top it up periodically.

     

  • Conclusion

    When HBO Now arrived on the world’s IPTV scene, it quickly became one of the most talked about and sort after on-demand streaming services in America, and for that matter, the world as well.

    About the only serious complaint I had about this service then, was the lack of platform support – a problem that seems to be getting better, and the rather poor attempt at episode management – something HBO could learn a lesson or two from the likes of Netflix. I had troubles finding content I started to watch, and keep track of where I was in a season, especially on the Apple TV. But the basic principles are still there.

    These are the main reason for HBO Now’s low initial score.

    That said, content is HBO’s greatest asset, and what an asset it is. There are a lot of great series and movies to be watched on HBO Now, with excellent video quality to boot. But $15 a month is a lot to ask for considering at the end of the day, that this is just another network. Is HBO really any better than CBS, NBC, SyFy, BBC or ITV? It all depends on taste I guess.

    Pros:

    • Fantastic content on offer.
    • Great HD streams over all platforms.
    • Full AirPlay support.
    • Watchlist to keep track of shows.
    • Cross-platform support with Resume.
    • Up to at least four concurrent streams at any time.
    • Commercial free (that’s right, no ads).

    Cons:

    • No offline downloads
    • No live streams.
    • Watchlist and episode management is very poor.

     

    * video quality results are averaged from multiple tests and may be affected by geographic location as well as available bandwidth.

    Sport BUTTONCC BUTTON Movies BUTTON On-Demand - BUTTON Catch-up BUTTON Time Bar BUTTON Watchlist BUTTON HD BUTTON Resume BUTTON Cross Platform BUTTON AirPlay BUTTON

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Log:

    10.04.2015: Review published: Score 6 – Great Content!

    22.04.2016: Updated due to platform support improvements. Score increased to 6.6.

    Opps: We’ve seen some performance issues at US peak times on HBO Now, but this should be expected for a brand new service. It may take a few weeks for HBO to optimise their servers and bandwidth to cope for the sudden influx of new customers. Just be prepared.

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    This service is geographically unblocked by the following Smart DNS providers:

    Ad GetflixAd SDNSP

     

 

Comments

  1. Phil

    Hi Jo, love the site. Just a question on signing up for HBO from outside the states. I have followed the steps mentioned but am having problems. When signing up through Apple TV all seems to work ok until a Payment Information Request is shown on screen. It says i must sign into my iTunes account and add a valid payment method. I currently have none selected. If I top up with a gift voucher at this step should it work? I was only going to top up after I had signed up and decided if i wanted to keep after the free trial period.

    • Jo Chambers

      Hi Phil, this should work. I have used this method although I already had money loaded into my US iTunes account so that I could access Hulu. I used iTunes gift cards which I bought from MyGiftCards as in the links provided.