The Foxtel Now Box is another new 4K streaming device that wants you to make it your main viewing device. It’s a $100 box that streams (unsurprisingly) Foxtel Now and a number of other services alongside live TV, but is perhaps more notable for what it lacks.
Foxtel has reinvented itself this year, embracing the booming month-to-month streaming market with the launch of Foxtel Now, offering streaming packages covering most of its content, including live channels being streamed to all comers on non-Foxtel hardware.
Now, its the turn of the Foxtel Now Box to step into the spotlight. This is a $100 box that’s designed to be your gateway into the Foxtel Now world, but – surprise! – it’s also an Android TV box that grants access to the growing world of Android TV streaming apps that are slowly popping up for Australian streaming services. Better still, it’ll stream at 4K if your provider and your connection will support it.
It’s also got an antenna input that allows it to mix streaming Foxtel channels with live TV in a friendly unique way. It’s a very 2017 feature, but it’s still a welcome feature if it means I don’t need to mess with inputs any more.
Being an Android TV device, it also has Chromecast built in, and at $99 that makes the Foxtel Now Box possibly a better buy than a Chromecast Ultra.
Before you complain that I’ve gone loopy, let me ask you – have you ever tried explaining to your parents how Chromecast works? It’s a conversation that doesn’t usually end well (especially in my case), and it’s hard to beat the simplicity of “device, tv, cable, and remote control”.
The Box’s hardware design is pretty unique. It’s not actually a “box” by any definition of the word, with nary a straight edge to be seen.
For the last few months this device was known as “the puck”, and that seems apt – it’s a nice, round shape and almost looks like a black Google Home with the top lopped off it. There’s a green/red LED in the base to indicate when the device is in standby, and the top of it is a big button to switch it “on” and off (well, standby), just like the power button on your phone.
Around back, there’s a standard array of inputs and outputs for the features on offer – ethernet and power input, USB, and HDMI and digital audio outputs.
The remote is a pretty basic black plastic affair with a d-pad, power, volume and mute controls along with Android home, back and search buttons and a play/pause combo. About all you need really. It notably doesn’t support voice input which is a shame; the search button instead takes you to the built in search functionality.
You’ll notice that I’ve had to take photos of my TV to show the Foxtel Now user interface. This is because despite being able to switch of Developer options I wasn’t actually able to ADB to the box to take screenshots. That said, there’s a pretty dedicated community of folks over at Whirlpool looking to poke the box and see what makes it tick so you might eventually find this avenue opened up.
Foxtel Now and Android TV
The Foxtel Now Box is running quite the customisations on top of Android TV. For one thing, you’ll need a Foxtel Now account just to complete setup, although that account doesn’t need to have any active subscriptions attached to it.
The launcher is basically the Foxtel Now app, with extra rows for Android TV apps and related settings and options. It’s actually a rather neat way to make the Box distinctly Foxtel-y without compromising on Android TV’s features. It does seem to need to reload its content fairly frequently though (maybe it’s to update some live TV reference?) and this takes a little longer than it should.
The main home screen puts Foxtel Now content right in front of you, so it’s pretty easy to find something to watch, or an app to run. It’ll prioritise things that are available on your subscription, and if you can’t watch something it’s gracefully “locked” with a key icon on it. The UI is easy to navigate, but occasionally a bit sluggish.
Not all broadcasters have Android TV apps, so until that coverage happens you’re not going to be able to access some catch-up services on this platform. That’s not Foxtel’s fault though, and it looks like they have been reaching out to try to get broadcasters on board with their platform – the ABC iView Android TV app on the Box appears to be exclusive.
Tabs at the top of the UI provide quick access to the “home” screen, live TV, on-demand streams (Foxtel Now), Foxtel Kids, search and settings.
I find Foxtel Now’s live TV interface surprisingly good. It lists every single Foxtel channel (even the ones you don’t have access to with your subscription, they’re also “locked”), and it mixes live channels from your antenna in the mix. Channels all have logos, and you can move up and down the channel list pretty quickly to find what you’re looking for. It also offers some basic now/next EPG-like functionality.
The search interface is a bit lacking at the moment, only offering search across Foxtel Now’s content (whatever happened to all of Google’s content indexing services?), although the autocomplete suggestions on the keyboard are thankfully loaded with relevant suggestions. This is an area we’d like to see improve in the future — with services like Apple’s TV app and even Google Assistent + Chromecast offering access to an aggregation of content across multiple services it is obvious this part of the Box is a bit basic.
Foxtel Now itself actually provides quite a good navigation and viewing experience on the Box. Menus are neatly arranged and offer an intuitive drill-down into series/seasons/episodes. Streams were quick to start and held up at high definition, although it doesn’t necessarily reveal the bitrate (Foxtel Now doesn’t yet offer 4K streams, as well).
The settings offer fairly comprehensive control over your experience, too – from parental controls to device management and playback settings, antenna setup and access to the Android system settings.
… but not Netflix
Straight up, the Foxtel Now Box doesn’t support Netflix. It’s not clear who’s to blame, but it’s a hell of a disappointment.
Foxtel says that they’re “working with” Netflix, and Netflix doesn’t seem particularly interested in commenting on the situation.
The trouble is, Netflix doesn’t actually allow you to cast to a Chromecast Built In device, either. In every other case, it seems that a device with Chromecast Built In will actually silently run the Android TV Netflix app, which isn’t possible on the Foxtel Now Box because the app won’t run.
Foxtel’s played a dangerous game in launching the device without having Netflix on board. By excluding Netflix they galvanise its userbase, and those users will never want this box on “HDMI 1” regardless of the other benefits and features on offer.
If a user has to change the input to get to Netflix, there’s a good chance they just won’t bother coming back. Netflix becomes its own platform, instead of just an app on Foxtel’s platform which is what – if you were Foxtel – you would so desperately want it to be.
Software updates to the same hardware in other markets have brought with them Netflix compatibility, so we’re hoping to see that happen here. It would be in their interests to expedite whatever discussions are going on between the two companies.
As for Foxtel Now itself, I’ll just come out and say it – it’s a good service. I tried it out at launch for a while with a review account courtesy of Foxtel, and I’ve enjoyed access to shows like The Walking Dead (and its offspring Fear The Walking Dead), The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight that I’ve signed up for a monthly subscription so I can stay current with them. The ability to stream live Foxtel channels is also a boon if you’re looking for something to watch.
I might not stay subscribed all year round though, and that’s my choice – I can stop and restart my subscription when I like.
If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer present for someone in your family who’s into their TV and doesn’t already have an up to date streaming box, the Foxtel Now Box is a good way to get into Android TV at just $100, with almost-full access to the Play Store (Foxtel says they won’t allow piracy-oriented apps to run on the device and have singled out Kodi as one such app).
For your $100 you actually get some decent value – you can pair Bluetooth controllers to it and get into some games, and it’ll also function as a Chromecast. The nearest way into Android TV is the Xiaomi MiBox which needs to be imported.
There’s no way to sugar coat it though, the lack of Netflix is particularly annoying and it’ll damage the Foxtel Now Box’s reputation if it’s not sorted out, and soon.
You can buy the Foxtel Now Box directly from Foxtel … via their eBay store. Foxtel says they’re looking to get the box stocked at retailers, and that is probably going to be the key to the device’s success (along with getting Netflix working…)