HBO's HBO Now streaming service has launched in the US, giving millions of Americans unprecedented access to original films and TV shows in the premium cable network's catalogue without ever needing a cable television subscription.
It's a service aimed at cord cutters, which are people who forgo a cable subscription or landline phone connection in favour of an internet-based alternative like Netflix or pirating. Cord cutters sometimes still have trouble accessing premium content though (like video from HBO), so standalone services are starting to pop up with new options.
HBO Now, for instance, is available to Apple TV and iOS device owners. A single subscription costs $14.99 a month and can be purchased directly through iTunes, but your first month is free via a trial. Now that HBO Now has arrived, you're likely wondering what's it like to use and if it'll allow you to become a cord cutter too.
Well, here's everything you need to know:
There's two ways you can create an account: you can go to the new HBO Now channel on Apple TV and sign up from there, or you can download the iPad or iPhone app from the App Store and sign up that way. Choose whichever method works for you. We went the Apple TV route and found it to be quick and simple.
You'll then need to enter a login email and sign in with your Apple ID. At that point, choose to start the free trial. You might need to enter your credit card's security code, so that HBO can charge your card after the 30-day trial expires. Once you're done all that, the HBO Now service will appear on your television display.
As you navigate through the set-up process, you will agree to terms and other fine print, which alert you to a number of things, including the fact that HBO might change the amount of simultaneous streams customers can watch at any time. HBO also said it might change the number of registered devices allowed without warning.
The terms further mention that costumers are allowed to add "authorized users", thus enabling you to share your account with family; HBO actually said the service should only be shared by people living under the same roof. It's not clear how the company plans to verify or enforce this rule, but it's something to keep in mind.
Apple TV channel interface
HBO Now on the Apple TV looks a lot like the HBO Go channel and is ridiculously easy to learn and navigate.
The menu bar runs along the top and has the following tabs or sections: HBO Now, Watchlist, Series, Movies, More, Search, and Settings. By default, when the channel loads, you will automatically be under the HBO Now section. It has a bunch of horizontal rows, and each one presents a scrollable list of content by type.
You might see a row for Series, for instance, which will display original HBO series like Game of Thrones or Veep. Below that you will see Movies, followed by Documentaries, and so forth. You can scroll down to look at more rows, and then you can scroll left or right to see what's in the row. The entire design is very reminiscent of Netflix as well.
The Watchlist tab presents all the stuff you have queued for watching later, while the Series and Movies tabs just provide another means for discovering TV shows and films to watch. The More tab lists all the stuff that doesn't fall into the Series and Movies tabs, such as a sports event or special. And if you still can't find what you want, try Search.
There's no voice search or anything fancy under the Search tab. Just use your Apple TV remote to manually enter a film name or TV show name, and then HBO Now will show you related results. Those of you who are worried about kids finding adult content can also go to Settings from the menu bar to initiate parental controls.
When you find something worth watching, such as Sopranos or Game of Thrones, you will see a brief summary for the series and an option to watch a preview. You can also add it to your watch list, hit "more" for cast and crew details, or start watching right away. Although that's basic functionality, everyone should be able to figure it out.
iOS app interface
The HBO Now app for iPhone and iPad is as simple as it gets, as well. When you launch the iPhone app, you will be presented with a Home screen and a vertical-scrolling list of suggested content. On the top-right, you can tap a magnifying glass to search for something specific. Alternatively, you can tap the menu button on the top-left.
The menu button slides to a list of categories. You'll see Home (which brings you back to Home), Watchlist, Series, Movies, Comedy, Sports, Documentaries, Collections, and Late Night. Collections groups content into what's new or has an all-star cast, among other things, while Late Night is all about adult content.
The iPhone and iPad apps are super fast and smooth, just like the Apple TV app. They're also, once again, brilliantly simple to master. We think kids, teens, adults, and even grandparents will consider the service a no-brainer to use.
Content and playback
HBO Now offers on-demand access to HBO's entire library of original series, films, and documentaries, along with films through partners like 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, and Warner Bros. Pictures. From Game of Thrones to the controversial Going Clear documentary, there's plenty to watch at launch.
HBO has already admitted that it couldn't build the streaming service on its own, so it’s tapped MLB Advanced as a backend to ensure consumers can access videos without any hiccups. From what we could tell during our brief hands-on, playback worked just fine. Streams were in HD and started without any buffering or freezing.
Let's just hope now that it can handle the Game of Thrones premiere on Sunday. It'll likely attract millions of viewers, especially since HBO Now is free for the month of April to new users via the trial. Thus, as long as it maintains reliability for that, it'll be safe to say that HBO Now is - at long last - a true cord-cutting experience.
We thought it was so nifty to just load HBO Now and immediately have access to HBO content without having to go through a cable company. Just keep in mind that HBO Now does not offer live access, so it's not a 1:1 replacement for the channel. You'll have wait for new episodes and movies to be added, but HBO promises to be fast.
Is it worth it?
We haven't paid for a cable television subscription in years and instead rely on Netflix, Hulu, and other means for watching premium content, but with an affordable monthly price tag and an attractive catalogue of original films and TV shows, it's hard for us to say no to HBO Now. And we think that's why HBO made HBO Now in the first place.
In a nutshell: HBO Now is HBO Go, sans the pricey cable package. All you need to use it is a subscription, internet connection, and Apple's $69 set-top box, and that's totally doable...even for a cord-cutter. Plus, it's really cool that you can access the service on iPhone and iPad, meaning you can be an on-the-go cord-cutter too.