ShowMax, SA’s latest video on demand service tested


ShowMax, the latest in a line of video on demand services to become available locally, launched yesterday with quite a bit of fanfare. If you’ve never heard of ShowMax, here’s what was revealed at the launch.

Up to speed? Good.

I was intrigued by what I’d heard about ShowMax, so I opened an account to test their service and investigate their selection. While I’m sceptical of any video on demand service, that R99pm price convinced me to give them a go.

Easy first steps

The signup process is as quick and easy as it can reasonably be expected to be. All it required was the creation of a single ShowMax login and some basic billing information.

Thereafter, my Premium subscription was activated and my free seven-day trial started. I had the option to stream content from any PC or Mac  as well as any Android and iOS smart device through ShowMax’s mobile app (available on each platform’s respective stores).

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I was quite pleased to see that my credit card was not charged right away – that is only set to happen once the trial period expires, and only if I don’t cancel.

ShowMax’s user interface is intuitive and easy to use. It essentially functions the same way as any website or app  – look, point, click/press – and if you want to find a specific show or movie, there’s a handy search box.

The content

It appears the people at ShowMax put a lot of time and effort into sourcing the kind of shows and movies people actually want to watch. You can find the likes of Suits, Dexter, Game of Thrones, Elementary, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy and a lot of other high-profile television shows, while movies offer a selection of popular flicks from the past decade or so, including the stand-up performances from some big-name comedians like Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle and George Carlin.

Perhaps, most relevant to South Africa’s audiences is the service’s selection of Afrikaans shows, which is pretty extensive and unavailable on a lot of other platforms. If you want to watch the entire run of Orkney Snork Nie, Agter Elke Man, and Ballade vir ‘n Enkeling, it’s now possible. Fans of locally-produced Afrikaans TV shows and movies will be in entertainment heaven here.

Unfortunately, not every series is bang up to date, particularly the American and British shows currently airing overseas – Only the first two seasons of Elementary, for instance, are available on ShowMax, and DStv subscribers will know that the show’s third season wrapped up on M-NET a few months ago already. The movie selection doesn’t include recent blockbusters; there are no listings for movies released in 2014.

So while the service only asks for R99 per month, and I don’t have to pay per movie and show as is the case with some other services, the limited international selection is a bit of a letdown.

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But once people have finished binge-watching whatever shows they have not yet caught up on, what will there be in subsequent months to keep them engrossed? While ShowMax has indicated they will add more shows down the line, those are still an unknown quantity.

Fortunately, subscriptions can be cancelled at any time, as you’re not locked into any kind of contract, so if you run out of things to watch you’re free to cancel and move on until such a time as that changes.

Registered devices

ShowMax lets you register up to five different devices – PCs, laptops, tablets and phones – to your account, and stream its shows and movies to any two of them at the same time. At one point I was watching Game of Thrones on my phone, while The Newsroom played on my work laptop without any trouble. That’s good news for people with families whose members may want to watch different content at the same time.

Image Quality

The measure of any video on demand service (VOD) comes down to two things: selection and video stream quality. Unfortunately ShowMax falters in both categories.

I was hoping against hope that “…adaptive streaming up to HD (720p)” as stated on the ShowMax website’s Help section meant that the stream would adapt to my connection speed, and deliver crisp and smooth 720p video all the time, exactly as I have come to expect based on my success at streaming at 720p (and above) on other websites like YouTube.

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So far, this hasn’t been my experience, largely due to the fact that ShowMax uses the outdated (and hated) Flash plugin for video rather than the more recent – and far more efficient – HTML5.

Work_Speed_Test_LTE

Pictured: A lot of available bandwidth.

I’ve attempted to stream shows and movies both at work, where we have an LTE connection whose most recent benchmark showed a 64mbps download/8mbps upload speed, and at home on a 4mbps capped, unshaped ADSL connection. The results have been identical; streamed shows varied between smooth but muddy-looking (textures and fine details aren’t clear but the picture is watchable) to pixelated and unwatchable, which seems to happen most often in scenes where there’s a lot of motion.

Band_Of_Brothers_Action_ShowMax

Pictured: I have no idea.

Band of Brothers’ explosive combat scenes, for instance, were often so pixelated in places that I was left wondering what on earth I was actually looking at. Even pausing the action and, presumably, allowing the video to cache a bit, did nothing for the quality of those particular scenes.

You also can’t adjust streaming settings on ShowMax’s video player, which would have potentially solved the problem by allowing people to force the quality they want, and click Pause while the necessary data downloaded. Personally, I’d rather wait a bit and watch a proper HD-quality show than have to deal with visuals that fluctuate between “okay” and “horrible”, but unfortunately with ShowMax, I can’t even do that.

Multi-platform testing

In my testing, I’ve watched shows on my Android phone via the ShowMax app, via Google’s Chrome browser on my Windows 10 laptop and desktop systems, and Chrome again on my Windows 7 gaming machine. Several screen sizes were involved – a 40-inch HDTV, a 55-inch HDTV, a 15-inch laptop screen and a 4.5-inch phone screen – and I found that on smaller screens, the fluctuating image quality proved far more bearable.

It could be that tons of people have signed up for the service and these issues are because ShowMax’ servers are getting hammered, of course, which is to be expected with any new service, but I am nevertheless left feeling very underwhelmed.
When watching the same Band of Brothers combat scene on my Android phone via the ShowMax app, for instance, the visual issues were still there, but they weren’t quite as jarring. On bigger screens, the smallest visual glitch was magnified, to the point where I could not actually sit through a complete episode of anything on my home’s primary TV which is, you know, the one place I’d hoped to get the most use out of my ShowMax subscription.

But it’s not just dodgy image quality that has me wary of recommending ShowMax: movies and TV shows occasionally pause, even on our 64mbps work connection as data cached. That’s something I didn’t expect to see, especially not for a 720p video.

At least it didn’t happen all the time – I’d say it occurred maybe once an hour, on average, and pauses lasted probably less than 10 seconds. Still annoying, though.

Then there’s the slight delay between on-screen actions and the accompanying audio, which is even more jarring than the poor visuals. It’s about as off-putting as a clock that ticks twice or three times every third or fourth second.

The same happened on every device I used, too, implying that the audio delay and occasional caching were not a hardware issue on my end.

Inefficient bandwidth use

I also noticed that my 4mbps ADSL line was only using 62.5 per cent of the available bandwidth while streaming – Windows Resource Monitor showed Chrome only pulling 250kb/s when my line regularly does just under 400kb/s, and nothing else was downloading at the time – again implying upstream problems with ShowMax’s delivery.

It could be that tons of people have signed up for the service and these issues are because ShowMax’ servers are getting hammered, of course, which is to be expected with any new service, but I am nevertheless left feeling very underwhelmed.

On the off chance that my issues with the service have been caused by addressable problems on my end, I’ve solicited advice from ShowMax’s support to see if there’s anything I can do to ensure better and more consistent image quality and synchronised audio. At the time of this writing, however, I am still awaiting feedback.

They’re probably a bit busy at this point.

Verdict

So at present, I can’t unreservedly recommend ShowMax for anything other than watching the occasional show or older movie on a tablet or phone screen, or for binge-watching Afrikaans TV shows and movies.

Given that ShowMax only costs R99 per month, image quality and movie selection issues can be somewhat overlooked. That said, if you primarily watch movies and TV shows on your mobile device(s), you’ll find a lot to like here.

It’s also great if you’ve not watched any of the shows on offer and want a quick, inexpensive way to catch up, provided you’re not particular about video quality and you just want to put something on in the background while you work.

If, on the other hand, you prefer watching your entertainment on your big HD TV in your lounge, and you like watching movies made in the last two years, I would say give it a skip until ShowMax sorts out its quality and performance issues.

While I’m usually not one to kick people when they’re down, one of the biggest drawbacks to ShowMax is just how slapdash it feels in its execution. If ShowMax’s viewing platform had been created with any care and attention, they would never have used Flash as the online video technology behind their service.

After all, Flash one of the most hated things on the internet, so much so that various tech companies are actively campaigning for its obliteration because other web technologies like HTML5 deliver far better results using far fewer resources.

To its credit, though, ShowMax has done a pretty decent job of cherry-picking some of the best TV shows around today, and while their selection doesn’t encompass absolutely everything, it’s certainly deep, with enough episodes and seasons of the more popular shows available to keep a lot of viewers happy. Their South African selection is especially good.

But with its lacklustre delivery of all this content, it’s unlikely that ShowMax will unseat other competitors, convince people who use international Netflix via VPN to switch or keep South Africans away from Netflix when it finally arrives in SA in 2016.

Sorry, ShowMax. Your efforts may be laudable and your pricing attractive, but you’re still a long way from convincing me to stay.

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