Netflix vs NOWTV vs Amazon Prime Video in the UK – the good, the bad and the maddening

I subscribe to three video streaming services, primarily for access to specific shows. Enough shows exist on each platform to justify continued payment, given alternate legal options (buying series on iTunes, which remains absurdly expensive, or grabbing DVDs).

But what I find interesting about these services is that only one of them appears to heavily care about the user experience – and that’s the one that relies entirely on subscriptions for its survival.

Netflix is, for the most part, great. It’s flexible regarding payment plans, subtitles the majority of its content, and, most importantly, doesn’t bug you about shows or who supplied the content at any point. The user interface is a dog’s dinner at times, but no worse than its rivals.

NOW TV remains an ongoing disappointment, especially for Apple TV users. It appears that Sky has abandoned the platform – the Apple TV app hasn’t been meaningfully updated since launch – although NOW TV’s support staff claim otherwise (despite not offering a timescale for updates).

The service lacks subtitles, and on Apple TV has all kinds of bugs and shortcomings. You get the odd pre-roll ad for other content and, annoyingly, ident stings in the middle of every show. Nothing adds to the atmosphere of the latest Game of Thrones than seeing the HBO logo abruptly appear and animate – sometimes twice in quick succession.

Amazon Prime Video is the worst offender for me right now, though, for one key reason. Before I get to that, this is a pity sad because Amazon gets most things right. Subtitling exists (although, for some reason, needs activating for each individual item watched on my Fire TV), and although Amazon and Apple seem to be having a ridiculous spat that means there’s no Apple TV app, the impact to users is minimal since Amazon’s iOS app has full AirPlay support.

But Amazon’s tendency to shove pre-roll adverts for its original series in front of everything you fancy watching is annoying. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the Grand Tour one. I didn’t want to watch that show anyway; now, I’d like to see it eradicated with fire. But, worse, it turns out Amazon’s trailers team don’t seem to care whether they ruin your enjoyment of original series that are being advertised.

Yesterday, I watched a film on Amazon Prime. Naturally, I got to watch the Grand Tour trailer for the billionth time first. The film finished and I wanted to watch a trailer for another movie.

  • Amazon: “Hey, this would be a GREAT opportunity to advertise The Man in the High Castle!”
  • Trailer: “Hello! Here is a MASSIVE SPOILER regarding one of the main characters.”
  • Me: “For CRYING OUT LOUD. I’m already watching this series, but hadn’t got to that bit yet, you bafflingly stupid buffoons.”

Yes, this is only a small niggle in the scheme of things, but I write about tech and media, and in the scheme of those specific things, it’s astonishing to see a company blind about users to the point of ruining their enjoyment of the very thing they’re being encouraged to watch. Worse, why can’t Amazon spot the fact I’m halfway through season one and therefore not show me spoilers for a show I’m already watching?

Mind you, this is the company that after I bought an electric toothbrush kept suggesting I buy more for the following six months.

January 16, 2017. Read more in: Opinions, Television

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The day BBC Food died

So it begins. The BBC Food website is to be axed. 11,000 recipes on a usable, inclusive website are to vanish, because Tories have been convinced by their rich friends that competition is only acceptable when the BBC is out of the running, and that the BBC Food website apparently is too dominant (i.e. not rubbish).

According to the BBC, scrapping the website is part of a plan to cut £15m from the corporation’s online budget, even though leaving the website up would cost naff-all. Furthermore, a BBC source stated:

What we do has to be high quality, distinctive, and offer genuine public value. While our audiences expect us to be online, we have never sought to be all things to all people and the changes being announced will ensure that we are not.

This is a rocky road the BBC is heading down — being forced to head down. The Conservatives would prefer at most for the BBC to become a broadcaster of last resort — a small PBS-style outfit that only creates content that others cannot or will not. Now, it’s being urged to not compete with other terrestrial broadcasters in prime-time slots, to pare back its website, and to focus on more niche fare.

We’ve seen this play out before. In a few years, Conservatives will be slamming the BBC for not having enough TV audience share/overall website users to justify the licence fee. The BBC will be told it is a broadcaster that’s supposed to cater for everyone, but now it’s only serving the few. And it’ll be ordered to pivot accordingly. Rinse and repeat.

All the while, the general public — still largely pro-BBC — will gradually get increasingly irritated by the corporation, and see less value in the licence fee. If enough people are hoodwinked, there’ll be a call for it to be scrapped entirely. And Rupert Murdock will crack an evil grin, while figuring out how he can somehow close down The Guardian and The Mirror.

Update: As Tom Pride notes, Murdoch has a couple of recipe sites waiting to launch. I can’t imagine that had anything to do with getting the BBC to scrap its recipe website, and also only have future recipes online for 30 days.

May 17, 2016. Read more in: Politics, Television

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NOW TV: when your competition is Netflix, you need to be better than Netflix

I have subscriptions to Netflix and NOW TV. The former is well-known. For those unfamiliar with the latter, it’s a kind of on-demand Sky, without signing up to full Sky. I mostly subscribed to it for a season of Game of Thrones, reasoning that the entire series through NOW TV would cost less than the DVDs, and there would be other things to watch. Said other things have led to the NOW TV subscription remaining active.

However, in using both services, you can see the differences between a market leader entirely reliant on everything working well, and a challenger doing so with only half an eye on the game. Netflix may have its quirks, but it’s a broadly usable, stable and reliable service. NOW TV, on the other hand, ranges from reasonable to outright user-hostile.

Despite being running for years, NOW TV lacks subtitles. And when you watch shows, there are channel stings throughout. Nothing boosts the tension or excitement in a show as much as abruptly seeing the FOX or Sky Atlantic logo twice in a row. Additionally, NOW TV frequently fails to connect, and the third-gen Apple TV app remains atrocious, ignoring even the bare basics of providing a list of recently watched shows. To get to a new episode, you therefore go to one of the vague categories, scroll until you reach the show you want, flick through to the most recent season, and then scroll to pick the latest episode. Rubbish.

Today, I received an email stating that NOW TV’s throwing another curveball. Children’s channels Nickelodeon and Nick Jr are being carved off and turned into part of a separate ‘Kids Month Pass’. The Disney Channel is also vanishing from the standard Entertainment Month Pass, for other reasons. In return for all this, a new channel is arriving in their place… Nat Geo Wild.

This all strikes me as cynical. Any parent knows how useful streaming services can be, but at least with Netflix you’re not expected to double your outlay. In combination with all the other problems, it makes me wonder what NOW TV’s end game is. It’s almost like a Netflix mole is in charge of NOW TV, and enters every meeting screaming “How can we ensure our product is worse than theirs?” while baffled but loyal underlings nod along.

May 5, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Technology, Television

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The top three Apple products ever, as decided by a toddler

It turns out that tiny humans are fond of Apple products, too. Our own particular tiny human (21 months at the time of writing), has expressed preferences for specific hardware in certain ways, most notably by gleefully smacking it with baby paws, or wailing in an eardrum-splitting fashion when it’s suggested that said Apple hardware is, in fact, someone else’s.

Here, then, are the top three Apple products, should the company want to directly target the next generation today.

1. Apple keyboard. 

For some reason, keyboards are like catnip to tiny humans. SMASH SMASH SMASH. This is especially so when a keyboard happens to be connected to a Mac on which daddy is doing work while on deadline.

2. Apple TV remote (pre-Siri).

Our living-room Apple TV is a third-gen, and mini-G decided no-one else is to be trusted with the remote (to the point when daddy accidentally stopped Peppa Pig, said remote was snatched away and hidden beyond reach). The only tiny snag is mini-G’s current usage, which is CLICK BIG BUTTON UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS. (Often: playing an entirely unsuitable trailer.)

3. Daddy’s iPhone. 

We had a knackered old iPod touch knocking about, and that became mini-G’s, loaded up with kiddie apps that run in iOS 6, and music for sleeps. But it turns out that daddy’s iPhone is SO MUCH MORE FUN. Cue: evenings where daddy watches Peppa Pig while mini-G quickly switches between Novation Launchpad, Endless ABC, and My Very Hungry Caterpillar, in a manner that makes daddy’s head spin.

March 31, 2016. Read more in: Apple, Humour, Television

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“This service is ending”. The curse of the Smart TV

I have a Smart TV. It’s not overly smart. It’s a Samsung, and looks quite nice, but the interface was seemingly designed by a sadist. The TV runs on-demand ‘apps’, which take ages to load; Freeview audio is always out of sync, despite Samsung going ARGLE WARGLE WILL FIX SOON HONEST BARGLE at regular intervals; the panes within the interface lurch and spin as you switch between them; and the menus seem to have mistaken accessing options for an exciting game of hide the settings.

But what’s most struck me of late is how temporary the ‘smart’ bit seems to be. This telly is about a year old, but now barely a week goes by without a little message appearing at the top of the screen about a service ending. Mostly, these are for apps I don’t really care about, but Samsung itself pulled off a doozy last summer, removing 40 per cent of the front end, so it, apparently, could make improvements and add new features in the future. Naturally, there have been no improvements and no new features since.

What gets me is that tellies are all-in-one units, which are designed to last many years, but it’s clear the software on them isn’t. And this has made me reconsider what I’d go for in future — a much dumber TV to which you can attach an Apple TV or equivalent box. At least those appear to have a bit more of a future, cost little to replace if you want to upgrade or switch units, and tend to add more capabilities over time rather than take them away.

March 24, 2016. Read more in: Opinions, Technology, Television

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