While anyone with an active Foxtel account can access the service, there's a few cautions to bear in mind (which Chris over at Gizmodo has neatly summed up). The service is Windows only, requires the use of a dedicated player, and doesn't have any deals in place to offset download use.
To use the service, you'll need to first register for a Foxtel online account (which includes an appallingly over-sensitive CAPTCHA process that makes Google's own feeble efforts look state-of-the-art). During registration, you'll need both your account number, which you can find on your bills or installation documents, and your smart card number, which can be found on the smart card in your set-top box or iQ and begins with three zeros. Switch off the device before you remove the card.
After registering and signing in, visit the download page to access the player installer. The installation is 5.3MB, which isn't too excessive.
Once you run the installer, it will ask you for an online validation code. There's supposed to be a system to automatically add this if you're signed in, but it wouldn't work for me in Firefox without a separate visit to the site.
You can also set some user preferences before installation. I de-selected the 'run on startup' option since I hate extra software dragging down my boot time.
At launch, you get one more reminder that you could be in for a world of ISP bill pain:
The chromeless player is pretty bare-bones when you start up, launching into a My Downloads screen with nothing in it. The suggestions section doesn't seem to be working yet. (Note also the Dominos ordering button, which isn't very sophisticated: it's just a link to the Dominos site.)
To actually download anything, you need to return to the Foxtel site. Despite still being signed in to Foxtel, the newly-launched download window didn't recognise my login -- this process should be a lot smoother. The site itself uses a series of small preview windows for each available show or movie. There's a search option, but it didn't seem to be working when I tried it, returning 0 results even when the exact names of shows listed on the site were entered.
According to the site, a typical 30 minute show will consume about 300MB. The shows you can download are limited by the packages you have -- because I'm on the simplest Foxtel package, a lot of content is off limits (indicated with a padlock icon). Selecting a download launches another browser window (which you're warned not to close), then begins the download process in the software itself. Again, this feels messy and badly planned -- an integrated player would be much better.
As I write, a simple 30 minute show is downloading (on a standard Telstra ADSL connection), a process predicted to take up to two hours. As such, it's hardly a compelling way of hunting down some content to view in a hurry: for that, iView or YouTube are more appealing. One mitigating factor: once a show is partially downloaded, you get a 'Playback Enabled' notification and can start watching the video.
Playback is handled via an embedded version Windows Media Player, and you'll need to download a codec update before you can watch anything. The playback controls are basic -- Play/Pause, skip to the beginning or end, a volume control, and a full-screen toggle. Annoyingly, there's no rewind or fast forward options when watching a partially downloaded video (even dragging the timeline didn't work).
Picture quality was impressive on my laptop, but I'm not entirely sure how well it would work streamed to a typical lounge room television.
My initial verdict? The search and download experience needs to be smoother, the lack of speed during downloads is disappointing and restrictive, if a little expected, and the playback system should have more flexibility. If you give the player a whirl yourself -- or manage to get it work on a Mac inside an emulator -- tell us about it in the comments.