Entertainment
Brought to you by

Foxtel Play: Lifehacker's Complete Guide

Foxtel has officially launched its long-promised Foxtel Play service, promising no-contract pay TV through your internet connection. But which channels are excluded, how much bandwidth will you chew up, which channels can you watch for free, what devices will be supported in the future, and is it worth it? Find out with our exhaustive guide.

So how does Foxtel Play work? Foxtel Play uses your broadband connection to deliver live pay TV channels to your computer, Xbox 360 or smart TV. You pay a basic fee for a channel bundle (called a Genre Pick in Foxtel Play-speak), and can pay extra for additional channel groupings. You also receive access to Foxtel Go, Foxtel’s service for mobile devices, covering any channels you’ve paid for.

How much does it cost? The minimum cost is $25 a month, which gets you a base group of channels plus one ‘genre pack’ of channels. A two-channel pack bundle costs $35; you’ll pay $45 for three or $50 for four. (This is another conspicuous example of decoy pricing; most people who are paying $45 for three packs will probably conclude that $50 for four is better value.) On top of that, you can pay an extra $25 a month for the Sports bundle, and/or $25 a month for the Movies bundle (these options are called Premium Picks).

Foxtel is offering a seven-day free trial; you need credit card details to sign up, and will be charged if you don’t cancel in that seven-day period.

What’s included in each channel bundle? Everyone gets access to these channels: Sky News, Sky News Business, Fox Sports News, V and V Hits.

Here’s what’s in each bundle. Unless indicated, channels are available both live and with on-demand content (which you can watch whenever you like, but which won’t include the full range of programs on the channel). The Sport package does not include on-demand content.

Drama: UKTV, SoHo, SF (Sci Fi), Universal, FX
Documentaries: History, BBC Knowledge, Discovery, National Geographic, Nat Geo Adventure, Discovery Turbo Max, A&E
Kids: Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Disney Junior, Boomerang, Baby TV (on-demand only)
Entertainment: Lifestyle, FOX8, Lifestyle You, Arena, Comedy Channel, TV1, MTV
Movies: Movies Premiere, Movies Action/ Adventure, Movies Family, Movies Comedy, Movies Drama/ Romance, Movies Thriller/ Crime, Masterpiece, Showcase, World Movies
Sport: Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, Fox Sports 3, SPEED, Footy Play, ESPN, ESPN 2, Eurosport, Fuel

OK, which channels are missing? The most obvious exclusion is the full range of HD channels; these remain a “full-Foxtel-only” proposition, as do +2 catch-up channels. A quick scan of the Foxtel guide also highlights plenty of missing sub-channel options; for instance, you get Lifestyle, but not its specialist Food or You brands. In News, you don’t get BBC or Al Jazeera. In sport, you don’t get racing. So it’s not a complete replacement for standard Foxtel.

Whether these matter to you will be a matter of personal taste (Foxtel viewing figures are dominated by a handful of “major” channels, most of which are offered). Another point: Foxtel Play does not retransmit existing free-to-air digital channels. That’s unlikely to be a dealbreaker, since you can get them for free on any digital TV, but it does mean that you can’t solely rely on the service in the way you could with a conventional Foxtel connection.

Which platforms are supported? Clients can be downloaded for Windows (XP or later) or Mac (OS X 10.6 or later), as well as the Xbox 360. There’s also an app for 2012 and 2013 model Samsung smart TVs. Foxtel says an LG TVapp will be available soon, and it is also working on a Sony client. Foxtel says it is considering a browser-based version, which would potentially make Play an option on Linux machines and on tablets, but that’s not expected in the near future.

One point to note: three of the channels on offer — TV One, SF and Footy Play — are not available on PCs or Macs, and World Movies is not available on Xbox 360. This is because of strange residual rights issues; Foxtel says these are likely to be resolved eventually. Note that Footy Play is available on Foxtel Go, so you’ll be able to watch it there — just not on your computer.

Can I record programs? No. If you want to do that, you need a conventional Foxtel subscription and a set-top box. The service does offer pause and rewind for live TV, which means some recording is actually going on. As such, I’m sure that enterprising hackers will work out ways to record the streams on PCs and Macs, but Foxtel in its turn is likely to try and disable them (either by altering elements of the service or via legal action).

How fast does your connection need to be? Your broadband connection has to be at least 3Mbps, which will exclude some ADSL1 customers.

Won’t all this use an awful lot of bandwidth? Potentially yes. By Foxtel’s own calculations, watching two hours a day would use around 60GB in a month. One hour of viewing uses a maximum of 1310MB.

Are any ISPs offering unmetered access to Foxtel Play? Yes; Telstra BigPond customers don’t have access counted against their download total. That makes it potentially a much more appealing prospect for Telstra customers. Foxtel says it is “open” to discussions with other providers, but none are active right now.

Can you control the amount of data downloaded? Yes; there’s an option to switch to a lower viewing quality, which Foxtel says reduces the maximum download per hour to around 470MB. In our test viewings, this didn’t look noticeably worse.

Foxtel says that on the existing Foxtel on Xbox 360 service, which has always offered this choice, virtually no-one chooses the lower-quality option. However, since that service is provided through Telstra and is unmetered, that’s not altogether surprising. We’d expect more non-Telstra customers to use it, especially if they’re heavy TV viewers.

Do I get the full content of all channels? Actually, no. Some programs where Foxtel has only acquired the TV rights are excluded from broadcast online; these are listed on its blackout page.

What’s to stop me sharing my account with all my friends? You can only have three devices registered with Foxtel at once (to cover both your Play and Go usage), and can use two of those at any one time. You can change these, but only one device can be switched in a calendar month, and you can never have more than one Xbox 360 registered. So splitting an account with everyone you know would be tricky.

Can I access it overseas? Officially, no (rights deals mean broadcast isn’t allowed outside Australia). In practice, if you’re an expat with an Australian credit card and are happy to pay for a VPN service to ‘fake’ an Australian IP address, you might be able to use it.

How does it compare with ‘regular’ Foxtel? Delivery mechanism aside, the most obvious difference is that you don’t have to sign up for a contract. You can leave the service at any time (you’ll be billed to the end of the current month), and then sign up again when it suits. We can imagine many sports fans singing up purely during the active playing season. Experience suggests that even when your account isn’t active, you’ll still be able to watch Sky News and the other ‘basic’ channels. Note that you won’t get the free seven-day trial when you rejoin the service.

The cheapest standard Foxtel package is the $47 Essentials deal. That gets you 37 channels. $50 on Play gets you 26 channels. So if you’re willing to sign a contract, you will get a wider (but different) range of options.

What’s happening with Foxtel on Xbox 360 and T-Box? Foxtel has effectively “grandfathered” the Foxtel on Xbox 360 service. Current customers can continue using it, but can’t make any changes to their package. If they want to do that, they have to switch to the Play package instead. Right now, Foxtel isn’t planning to offer Play on the T-Box, so customers using Telstra’s home tablet will have to stick with the existing Foxtel on T-Box service (which is potentially cheaper in some circumstances, though not if you want the full range of genre packs).

Foxtel Play