Ever since Foxtel’s CEO Peter Tonagh announced a dedicated streaming device was on the way for Foxtel Now, there’s been a great deal of speculation about exactly what it would be – and what it would be able to do. Known by some as a “puck” device – because most such streaming boxes are small, flat devices that could be mistaken for a very large hockey puck – Foxtel’s box was being designed from the ground up to give customers the easiest and high-quality Foxtel Now experience possible.
There’s no need to speculate any longer. The new Foxtel Now box launches this week, and we got the chance to put it through its paces at Foxtel HQ recently. And the news is quite good. Not only does the box boast an incredible feature set into its compact frame, it will sell for only $99 outright. That’s half the price of the new Telstra TV 2 released just weeks beforehand. It does, however, arrive with one rather important feature noticeably absent. More on that shortly.
What is the Foxtel Now Box?
One thing that’s almost a given with streaming devices released by media companies such as Telstra and Foxtel is that they’ll be based on an existing hardware design. Regardless of how big the company is, the last thing they’re going to do is get into the hardware design business. Telstra’s boxes have been custom-modified versions of well-respected company Roku’s devices (which aren’t sold to consumers here). Meanwhile, Foxtel has opted for an off-the-shelf device from Technicolor (the company formerly known as Thomson, whose name was on one of the very first digital set top boxes released in Australia!).
More of a “cone” rather than a “puck” – with a soft green glow coming from its base when powered on – this compact device is designed to plug into the HDMI input of your TV. It’s also meant to become the go-to for all of your viewing – not only Foxtel Now live streaming (and on-demand) but also Stan, YouTube, TV catch-up services like iView, and live digital TV as well. It’s an entrant in what some call the “battle for HDMI 1;” a box that you’ll plug in, switch the TV over to and use for all your TV entertainment from that point on. That’s the reason for the built-in live TV tuner. You can bounce between streaming and the latest episode of The Block without having to change inputs on the TV at all.
What can the Foxtel Now Box do?
The really, really good news about the Foxtel Now box is that it’s an Android TV device. A custom version of the same Android you’ll find on phones and tablets, Android TV is designed specifically to be the main interface for a smart TV. Sony’s more recent models use it, for example. It can also be used in stand-alone TV devices such as this one.
Android TV is incredibly flexible. It’s fast, it uses a modern, crisp high definition interface that’s light years ahead of the competition, and it’s endlessly extendable with apps you can download from the same Google Play store you’re familiar with from your phone.
What this means for you, the user, is a device that never feels like it’s getting in the way of you watching what you want. Put next to the Telstra TV 2, the interface here is night and day. And that carries over to the apps that run on it as well (Stan’s app for Android TV is regarded by many as one of the best ways to watch Stan, for example).
If you’ve ever used an Android-powered TV you’ll feel instantly at home with the Foxtel Now box. Even if you haven’t, it’s all effortlessly easy to use and great fun to explore. NO slow, clunky menus here. The interface zips around in response to the remote with smoothness and speed.
As you explore the Foxtel Now box’s interface with its Bluetooth remote (which means you can hide the box in a cupboard if you like) you’ll realise you’re dealing with four main feature sets; Foxtel Now itself, the Android TV app platform, Chromecast and live free to air TV.
The Live TV screen is where you stream your live Foxtel Now channels – and it’s brilliantly done. If you’re ever used a Foxtel iQ3 box, the interface will look familiar. It’s almost exactly the same, but a lot faster to navigate. The On Demand screen is again similar to its iQ3 counterpart (but again, faster to navigate), while the Kids page does what it says on the tin by offering the latest programs and movies suitable for the little ones.
Foxtel Now live streams are at 720p, just like the other HD platforms supported by the service – but if you want to watch on demand, your shows and movies will be at 1080p full HD as long as the show or movie is available in that format.
Unlike the tightly-controlled Telstra TV boxes with their tiny library of apps, Foxtel hasn’t locked down their box at all. There’s a Google Play Store button right there on the home screen, and you can download whatever you like (free or paid – app payments are handled through your Google Play account). That makes this box immensely powerful – if it’s on the store and designed to run on Android TV, you can run it on this box. That includes the many games that are available for the platform, as well as apps for everything from weather to social media!
The Foxtel Now box has another trick up its sleeve – it has a full-fledged Chromecast Ultra built right in. That means that any phone or tablet app that supports Chromecast (and there’s hundreds of them) will work with the Foxtel Now box exactly like they would with a stand-alone Chromecast Ultra. 4K streaming and all. Considering that a Chromecast Ultra costs $99 here in Australia, that significantly ups the sheer value of this clever little device.
Live Free-to-air TV
Plug your antenna cable into the back of the Foxtel Now box and you can take advantage of all the features of Android TV for watching Free to air television – including what we think is one of the best on-screen program guides available anywhere. We have seen it in action on several smart TVs, and we’re comfortable in saying you can rest assured it’ll deliver TV with the same crisp and detailed user interface. We’ll update this review with all the details on the live TV features of the Foxtel Now box, once we finish testing it in a real-world situation.
What CAN’T the Foxtel Now Box do?
Foxtel has made a very smart choice is going with the Android TV platform. They came up with a box that not only runs their own service flawlessly, but can also handle just about anything you want to throw at it. And yet, there’s a very large elephant in the room that can’t be ignored.
The Foxtel Now box does not – and cannot – do Netflix. At all.
Foxtel tells us that the reason behind this is entirely on Netflix’s side. Devices that stream Netflix need to be approved by Netflix, or the streaming service’s servers simply won’t send them any video. The exact reason for this isn’t entirely clear (and Foxtel wasn’t keen to go into detail). The box itself is perfectly capable of running the Netflix app and streaming all the way up to 4K, but Netflix themselves have blocked it from actually doing so.
You can’t install the Netflix app on the box, nor can you Chromecast from the Netflix app on your phone – it’s entirely blocked. Foxtel suggests that customers contact Netflix to ask them to change their mind. And with millions of Netflix customers in Australia, maybe enough requests will force them to give in. If — or when — that happens, the box will go from being a great bargain to a world-class device.
In the meantime, though, it’s a disappointing omission from what is otherwise pretty much the only streaming device you’d ever need.
What media formats does the Foxtel Now Box support?
While we didn’t get a chance to test out playing back media from a USB drive or SD card – both are supported, and we’ll test them once we get hold of a box – the specs show that this one should be at least as capable as the “plays anything you throw at it” Telstra TV 2. All MPEG video formats are supported including the latest (HEVC/H.265, used for high quality video with very small file sizes and the format of choice for Apple’s new iPhones) and it can play back at up to 4K resolution at 60 frames per second.
How much does the Foxtel Now Box cost?
In a market where popular streaming devices are pushing the $200 mark and above, Foxtel’s making a very bold move here. Telstra TV 2 costs $192, while the latest Apple TV 4K sits at a wallet-challenging $259. Android TV based boxes are popular overseas but rarely released here; Nvidia’s Shield TV box, which is one of the most-liked, sells in the US for the equivalent of $290.
The pricing of the Foxtel Now box, then, is in some ways its killer feature – it’s only $99, and yes, you own it outright. To start using it, you do need to sign up for Foxtel Now – but you can take advantage of the free two-week trial, cancel without paying a cent and, according to Foxtel, the rest of the box’s features remain fully functional. For such a capable Android TV device, it’s an absolute bargain.
Foxtel Now Box Specs
There’s a lot of very cutting-edge tech inside the little cone-shaped Foxtel Now box, and a lot of the innovation is in the Android TV software that runs it all. If you’re interested in the hard facts about what the box can send out to your TV, though, here’s the essentials:
- Video: Up to 3840×2160 UHD 10-bit, HEVC compatible, 50/60fps capable
- Output: HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2. Additional TOSLINK optical audio output.
- Data: USB 3.0 socket, Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4 and 5 GHz)
- Available storage: 8GB
- Memory: 2GB
- Remote control: Bluetooth, infra-red
Packing an absolute ton of the latest tech into an unusual but appealing little device, the Foxtel Now box is absolutely superb in almost every area. It’s fast, packed with features, versatile and, thanks to the Android TV platform it’s built on, a far better way to watch free-to-air TV than the tuner built into your actual television.
With access to the full Android TV feature set and its app store as well as a built-in Chromecast Ultra, the sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can do with the box. And its Foxtel Now functionality is the best available on any platform. In fact, it’s arguably a faster and smoother way to channel-surf Foxtel than the mighty iQ3!
The only downside to all of it is the absence of Netflix. And that’s big considering Netflix’s estimated 7.6 million Australian subscriber count. We can only hope that whatever problems caused Netflix to block their app from the Foxtel Now box will get resolved. If that happens, this box doing Netflix in 4K will be only an app download away.
Ultimately, though, with all the features offered by this box at such a low price, whether you’re planning on using it for Foxtel Now or not, it’s still one that’s well worth picking up. It may not do Netflix (yet) but everything else it does, it does better than any of the competition.
- Fast, feature-packed Android TV box
- Superb Foxtel Now interface
- Endlessly expandable with apps
- Built-in Chromecast Ultra
- Feature-rich free-to-air TV
- Remote is both Bluetooth and IR capable
- The price is a bargain
- Netflix completely blocked at present