Foxtel Now Box Review: A good box in need of improvement

Alex Kidman 16 November 2017 NEWS

The Foxtel Now Box makes it easy to watch Foxtel Now on the big screen, as well as other streaming apps, but stability issues are a big drawback.

Quick Verdict
If you're a Foxtel Now subscriber stymied by the lack of big screen streaming options, the Foxtel Now Box is exactly what you've been waiting for. If you're interested in wider streaming applications, wait for updates before taking the plunge.

The Good

  • Enables big screen Foxtel Now streaming
  • Open Android TV platform
  • 4K Chromecast streaming
  • Integrated TV tuner

The bad

  • No PVR capability
  • Instability problems
  • No Netflix at launch
  • Very Foxtel-centric
  • Odd shape
  • 4K Foxtel Now is still MIA

Foxtel's announcement earlier in the year that it would develop its own "puck" device for Foxtel Now streaming was something of a surprise, given that partner Telstra already had its own Telstra TV platform, and a new Telstra TV waiting in the wings at that.

Even more surprising was the announcement that it was using the open Android TV platform, enabling other apps including games and competing streaming services to run through the Foxtel Now Box. While it's a fine device at a competitive price if you're already a happy Foxtel Now subscriber, it's worth considering your needs and options if you have broader streaming aspirations.

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Design

You certainly can't accuse the Foxtel Now Box of not standing out, given its unusual shape and size. While many set-top boxes opt for small and unobtrusive, a la the Apple TV 4K or Fetch Mini, or at least flat in the style of the larger Telstra TV 2, the Foxtel Now Box is a large cone-shaped lump.

It's not much of a "box" really, with the "puck" moniker that many were giving it prior to its announcement making much more sense from a descriptive point of view.

Depending on your living room decor, it may stand out a bit, because it's too big to hide in the same style as an Apple TV, but not large enough to blend in with standard consoles or PVRs in a TV cabinet. It's going to stand out at least a little thanks to the Tron-style lighting at the base in any case.

Like the Telstra TV 2, the Foxtel Now Box features a standard antenna input for free-to-air TV, but it only features the one input. If you're happy handing over all your free-to-air watching to the Foxtel Now Box that's fine, but if you want a passthrough to share your antenna with other devices, you're plumb out of luck. Like the Telstra TV 2, there's also no PVR functionality for recording free to air programs (a perfectly legal activity in Australia) to watch later.

There is a USB slot at the back for attaching your own storage with your own recorded material, but you'll have to source that elsewhere. Connectivity is either wireless via 802.11ac Wi-Fi, or cabled Ethernet, and video signal is predictably sent out via HDMI.

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Performance

Foxtel is rather obviously anti-piracy, and I was reminded of this the moment I started setting up the Foxtel Now Box because it complained immediately about the HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) status of my TV and home theatre setup. HDCP is the anti-piracy technology implemented to stop naughty types diverting or recording protected content, and while I'm as much in favour of paying content providers as anyone, when it hits a brick wall with regular consumer AV gear, it can be a nightmare sorting out whether it's cabling, TV or home theatre audio at fault.

I hit the exact same problem with the Fetch TV Mighty (but not the Mini, or the Apple TV or Telstra TV), and in the end took the alternate path of running HDMI direct to the panel and optical audio out to the amp, which seemed to satisfy the Foxtel Now Box eventually.

If you fancy the Foxtel Now Box purely for its Android TV features, you do need to bear in mind that while a Foxtel Now subscription isn't mandatory, you will need a Foxtel Now login to actually activate the box. Likewise, if you want apps from the Google Play store, you'll need a Google account.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the Foxtel Now Box is seriously a platform to sell Foxtel services, and that hits you every time you switch on the Box because it always promotes Foxtel content above all else. If you're happy with Foxtel Now's fare this is fine, but for other streaming services it's a very mixed experience. ABC iView and Stan are pre-installed, but if you want to experience other streaming services, you'll have to hit up the Google Play store.

That's when you'll realise that they're not all present. Foxtel has been very firm on its anti-piracy stance, which is why apps like Kodi won't actually install, but there are other noticeable legitimate gaps. Amazon Prime Video is nowhere to be found for The Grand Tour fans, and Netflix is similarly MIA. Foxtel representatives have told me that they're "talking" to Netflix about getting the Foxtel Now Box approved for the popular streaming service, but for now, it's not only missing but also blocked.

What you do get over and above platforms such as the Telstra TV 2 or Fetch Mini is the ability to load other apps such as music streaming or games to the Foxtel Now Box. You'll need an Android games controller to take advantage of most apps, and you may find (as I did) that some don't carry across from your existing Google account even if you have previously purchased them. Still, the app offering on the Foxtel Now Box is only really eclipsed by Apple's much more expensive Apple TV 4K.

The Foxtel Now Box also acts as a Chromecast for casting content, but try that with the Netflix app for Android or even via a Chrome browser, and you'll be stopped at the gate. Given the immense popularity of Netflix in Australia, this is a huge issue for Foxtel to solve, given that every other local streaming box offers Netflix as an easy-to-use option, and it's increasingly available on smart TV platforms too.

The Foxtel Now Box remote isn't quite as squishy or cheap feeling as the remote on the Telstra TV 2, and unlike that remote, it does feature onboard volume controls. You've also got the option to pair your smartphone via Bluetooth if that's more to your taste, or just because the kids are really good at losing remote controls.

While it's Foxtel-branded, it's also vital to understand that the Foxtel Now box is a device for delivering Foxtel content via the Foxtel Now platform. That might sound obvious, but if you're a subscriber to the more traditional cable or satellite delivered Foxtel product, you might think that the Foxtel Now box would give you access via the Foxtel App, making for an easy and affordable second box along with your IQ3. It's not so, however, because while the content is identical, the services are distinct. If you get a Foxtel Now Box and you already have Foxtel, you'll have to pay again to access the content you're already paying for! It seems like such an obvious missed opportunity for Foxtel not to reward longer term customers who are typically paying more for the service to make the Foxtel Now box work for full Foxtel customers.

General response from the Foxtel Now Box is relatively swift in menus, but there is some noticeable lag when switching between apps or between IP-delivered Foxtel Now content and live TV, even on a relatively nippy Telstra HFC connection. The other major frustration I hit while testing out the Foxtel Now Box is that it had some genuine stability problems.

Several times when powering it up, it would indicate that the core Foxtel app had itself crashed, requiring a hard reboot. Intermittently programs would simply stop, dropping me out to the main menu and not even giving me the option to resume playback at the point where they had dropped out. It's early days for the Foxtel Now Box, and these are hopefully software issues that can be ironed out with updates down the track. Still, I can only review what's in front of me, and right now, the Foxtel Now Box could use a little software TLC.

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Verdict

The Foxtel Now Box is a surprising debut for Foxtel's IP streaming ambitions in some ways, and not in others. If you're a Foxtel Now subscriber who up until now has been using a connected PC for any kind of watching larger than a tablet, it's a fine way to make more of your existing subscription. The asking price isn't much more than a couple of months of Foxtel Now subscriptions, and even less than some full Foxtel packages. It's also a Chromecast and Android TV platform with plenty of potential to grow, as well as a single tuner digital TV platform, all for only $99, the same essential price as a Chromecast Ultra.

However, it's also beset with some pretty serious crash bugs, which is not what you want when you're kicking back on the sofa for some serious couch potato time. The lack of Netflix is a notable downside, and while you can use it for watching other streaming and catch-up services, the fact that Foxtel Now is always the default can make it more tricky to surface content you want to watch than you might like, especially if you're only subscribing to a small subset of the many Foxtel Now add-on packages.

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Alternatives

There are a number of alternative devices to consider, although we're still waiting for the one real obvious contender that everyone should buy. The one box to rule them all, as it were.

Apple's Apple TV 4K can handle 4K content just as well as the Foxtel Now Box, and has the best UI in the business, as well as apps for a variety of other purposes, and is well suited if you're already heavily in the Apple ecosystem, because its AirPlay functionality nicely mirrors the Chromecast ability of the Foxtel Now Box. There's no Foxtel Now app on Apple TV, though.

Fetch's Fetch Mini has a digital tuner and can handle the streaming standards of Netflix, Stan, YouTube and even Hayu, although it's not 4K and works best in concert with an existing Fetch Mighty PVR if you've got one of those.

The Telstra TV 2 does support both Netflix and Foxtel Now, as well as 4K content where available and a single digital tuner, although it has a cheaper remote and costs twice that of the Foxtel Now Box. Telstra's tight control over apps means that it's a less flexible device than the Foxtel Now Box, however, and that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon.

If all you're after is the ability to cast programming on your TV, then Google's Chromecast could fit the bill. The Chromecast Ultra costs $99, at which point you may as well buy the Foxtel Now Box, but the Full HD Chromecast 2 variant can be had much more cheaply if you shop around.

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Foxtel Now Box: What the other reviewers say

SiteCommentScore
CNET Hands On"Foxtel seems to be creating the hardware to back up what many Australians are thinking: We don't mind paying, just give us easy access to content when we want it."N/A
SMH Hands On"Too little, too late, Foxtel's long-awaited streaming media player is outclassed by the Telstra TV 2."N/A

Pricing and availability

The Foxtel Now Box sells for $99 outright, although it doesn't come with any kind of Foxtel Now subscription, which will cost extra on a monthly basis with no ongoing commitment.

Specifications

Product Name
Foxtel Now Box
Output
4K
Platform
Android TV
Compatibility
Foxtel Now, ABC iView, Stan, Free-to-air via tuner, various streaming and Google Play apps
Networking
802.11AC or Ethernet

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