Telstra’s new Telstra TV 2 is a worthy update to its original Roku-powered streaming media box. The system has grown up, matured and is ready to take its place is your AV setup – if you’re willing to work with a couple of peculiarities.
Streaming video is taking over the world. Right now it’s very likely you have at least one subscription to a streaming video service, if not more. If you haven’t taken out a subscription you’ve likely thought about it. But there’s next to no loyalty between users and services. As consumers of media, we’re getting really good at going where the content we want is, so if anyone’s going to take over HDMI 1 on our TVs, they need to offer everything.
Telstra introduced its Telstra TV product in 2015 to much acclaim. Then, as now, the box was a rebadged Roku device but it was a cute little thing that inspired awws and giggles. Its hardware was alright for the time, but you could find better specs in other devices. Thing is, you’ve always been able to find better specs elsewhere – it’s the experience that matters, and if you’re going to be setting up a streaming device for someone else then the interface needs to be foolproof. Simple.
Telstra TV is Roku-powered, but it’s not a straight-up Roku device. It’s got access to Roku apps, but only a curated subset of them, selected by Telstra and relevant to the Australian market. It’s simple, and that’s key.
Roku’s OS has a pretty simple on-screen interface, controlled by a simple remote. There’s a directional pad, enter key, home key and a back key (there’s also media play/pause, forward and rewind media controls). The on-screen UI might be a little boring, but it’s also straightforward and easy to understand.
The hardware itself is now low and flat, with a glossy finish on top, and rubber feet to stop it slipping around on the back. At the rear there’s the usual complement of ports – power, ethernet, HDMI, antenna and the same always-useless USB port (oh sure, it’s for “servicing”). The remote is a cute little thing made of black curved plastic with big chunky rubber buttons.
Where the original Telstra TV met the market with “good enough” specs, Telstra TV 2 is smashing it out of the park. You get 4K HDR output – if your setup can handle it – and the Roku OS is very good at helping you set the best output resolution for your device. In what’s becoming a theme for 2017’s streaming boxes, Telstra TV 2 also offers live TV via the antenna port on the back of the box.
Apps are pretty straightforward. Roku’s development SDKs seem to offer two modes for developers – a cookie-cutter screen populated by horizontally-scrolling rows that take you deeper into some content catalogue, or a richer experience with a more refined UI that you see in some of the apps from bigger companies.
All the Australian broadcasters are represented on Telstra TV 2, mostly with pretty standard Roku apps. Still, they’re all serviceable and mostly consistent with the platform.
Netflix is probably one of the most mature Roku apps available on Telstra TV, and it provides a great experience. Shows’ logos flash up when they’re paused, and the app takes you into videos without you even having to hit the start button. It also offers the full complement of “skip” operations, with “Skip Intro”, “Skip Credits” and even “Skip Recap” and it’ll also take you to the next episode automatically at the closing credits of the show – even if that next episode is actually another series (for instance, the end of Star Trek Discovery takes you to the show’s behind-the-scenes show After Trek) – well done. I’ve actually become accustomed to Netflix’s Chromecast experience, and this was a lovely change to more direct on-screen control.
Foxtel Now looks like the Foxtel Now experience on other platforms (in particular the recently-launched Foxtel Now Box’s custom-built launcher), and Stan looks pretty much like Stan’s website. I guess we should say it, just in case … Hayu (the new reality TV streaming service) is also on deck and there’s also a YouTube app and a Roku Media Player preinstalled.
The Roku Media Player is an interesting one. If you have a Plex Media Server in your house, and you’re familiar with the original Telstra TV, you’ll know that the official Plex client for Roku is no longer updated. In its place there’s a number of unofficial clients that aren’t maintained like Plex Classic and Rarflix that require you to put the device into development mode (which you can definitely do on the Telstra TV 2 to sideload apps, if you can find them). None of these apps picked up my Plex Media Server, but Roku Media Player actually happily browsed the photos, videos and audio offered by the server. It could do with a more refined UI and it was a last resort “hail mary” – I was surprised it worked.
In the app store you’re probably not going to find much you don’t already have or know about (there’s only 32 apps in Telstra’s private little corner of Roku’s world), and they’re all the apps and streaming services we’ve seen before – Red Bull, Yupp TV, TED talks, GoPro, UFC, DocPlay, Vimeo and CrunchyRoll. You’ll either know what those services all provide and be really happy to see them included, or you likely won’t think that much of them. There are a couple of interesting items there though – Fox Sports, NRL and AFL apps. Given Telstra holds streaming rights to these services and provides such apps on iOS and Android, it’s not a surprise to see them here. If your Foxtel Now subscription doesn’t already cover these services and channels then this is a way for sports fans to stream just the code they’re interested in.
A notable omission from the apps is Google Play Movies and TV – this will disappoint those of us in Google’s ecosystem (such as, well, most of us writer for and reading Ausdroid). The app exists on Roku’s service in the US as an installable channel (as well as apps for other smart TV platforms), so it’s a shame Telstra hasn’t sought to bring it to Australia to complete the streaming picture (while other services like Yupp TV get a look in).
Live TV is a new service offered by Telstra TV this generation. It’s pretty easy to set up – plug an antenna in, scan for channels and there’s a Live TV option in the main menu. If you don’t set it up out of the box, the OS will prompt you to do so from time to time. It doesn’t let you record live television (you’ll still need a PVR to do that), but it’s a simple and easy way to watch live TV without having to fumble your HDMI inputs ever again.
It’s not been all smooth sailing, but it’s been close. While my Telstra TV 2 worked just fine in a particular configuration for a couple of weeks, just this weekend it’s started complaining about being unable to establish a HDCP connection to the TV, despite the display clearly showing HDCP 1.4 on the setup screen.
I swapped the cable and it came good, but that’s a bit concerning. Occasionally the box has required a reboot when I haven’t used it in a while, too.
For those of us who are pretty deep into the Android streaming ecosystem, it’s a nice curiousity but it doesn’t necessarily offer something new over a Chromecas-based setup, and you can get a Chromecast Ultra for a little under $100. Given that Telstra TV 2 isn’t also acting as a Chromecast, you’re probably going to end up spending the extra $100 on buying one as well. It’s worth remembering though that a Chromecast setup isn’t for everyone, and it might baffle less tech-savvy members of your household.
Telstra TV 2 is a hard sell if you’re not a Telstra customer, though – you’re probably already on a contract to another broadband provider and unable to make a move. But if you’re looking to move to a new home broadband provider and happy to take up a 2-year contract at $99/mo or above, you’ll get Telstra’s broadband service with a Telstra TV 2 at no cost. That’s an awesome addition as it has almost all the streaming services you’re likely to use and melds them with live TV, all on one input with a simple UI and it costs you nothing.
If you really want to get in on the action and you’ve got a friend who’s with Telstra you can get them to obtain the box for $192 upfront and you should be able to set it up with a Telstra ID.
Telstra TV 2 is built on a mature and stable platform. It might not be the most exciting one out there, but it’s stable and easy to use and it just works. With a huge install base from the original Telstra TV you’ll find that new streaming services that come to market can’t ignore the userbase, and are likely to release apps for it. That’s future-proofing your investment.