I still remember that terrible night in 2011 when millions of fans screamed in agony as Game of Thrones started, stuttered, and died on HBO Go. We all felt burned by HBO’s crappy internet service. But HBO Now, launched just in time for last night’s GOT premiere, promised to be better. Was it? Yes.
What Is It?
HBO Now is a brand-new app designed for people who don’t have cable. It’s been available for Apple devices since last week. You just download it from the App Store, sign up with your email address, and you receive a free month to get you hooked. If you don’t have an Apple device, you can get the same content via Sling TV on a variety of other platforms. Either way, it’s $15 per month, roughly twice what it costs for similar streaming services from Netflix or Hulu Plus.
Still, you get a pretty big bang for that 15 bucks, with every episode of HBO’s popular series on tap—from Silicon Valley and Girls, to Boardwalk Empire, Veep, and the John Oliver show. When you’re done with those, you can mainline classic HBO series like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, and True Detective. There are several popular Latin American shows as well. You can finish your night by watching dozens of on-demand movies, too.
Of course, you’ll be doing it on your iPhone or iPad (like I did), unless you have an Apple TV or Sling TV. That’s fine. I love watching TV on my iPad.
Bonus points if you can figure out what device my iPad is resting on right now.
Opening the app, you see a simple interface that offers the most popular content up top—just scroll down to see more. A menu pops out of the left side to offer movies, series, comedy, documentaries and even “late night” options like Intergalactic Swingers. It’s easy to use, and easy to search. Though the Sling TV version offers live HBO programming, HBO Now feels more like Netflix. You pick what you want to watch from a menu, and just start gorging.
The Game of Thrones Test
When I tuned in to watch the Game of Thrones premiere last night, it was as smooth as milk. Just a couple of seconds to load the show, and no stutters. Of course, my Comcast connection gets about 100Mbps down, so factor that into your evaluation of my evaluation. I also asked folks on Twitter what their experiences were and most were favorable. Our reviews editor Sean Hollister mentioned that he got booted out right in the middle of that tense conversation between Jamie and Cersei, but he was able to get right back in.
You may be the King’s Guard, but I’m the Master of Guilt Trips.
But like I said, my experience was good. Just to see how it would go, I started and stopped the show a few times. No lag. I even jumped out of the app, then back in—and the show started again exactly where I’d left off. It felt almost like watching a video file stored locally on my iPad.
That Old-School TV Experience
So does HBO Now feel like watching old-fashioned television, where you’d tune in at a certain time to watch a show with all your friends? Absolutely not. Most of you kids probably don’t even remember what watching live television was like, but it did not involve having a pause button for bathroom breaks or a little time to pack your vape with fresh-ground flowers. It also did not involve being able to watch a show on eastern time, despite being in San Francisco like I am. Oh and finally, it REALLY didn’t involve being able to pirate the first four episodes of a new cable show on the internet the night before the season premiere aired.
So again, HBO Now does not deliver a TV experience that is anything like what us olds went through trying to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation on our local stations in the early 1990s. And thank the All-Mighty Benevolent Space Cats for that. Seriously, TV sucked. Don’t ever do that again.
HBO Now does give you the opportunity to watch shows at the same time that they air on cable, and that’s nice. But it also gives you all the convenience of streaming, which is to say you can pause and rewind — or take screenshots of stuff that you might want to look at again later.
I mean, there was nothing in that episode that I would want to screenshot for later. Nope. Not me.
One quirk of the user interface on HBO Now did unintentionally emulate old-fashioned TV watching. Right up until 5:58 Pacific Time, there was absolutely no indication that the season premiere of GOT was about to air. Sure, they had ads for Season 4. But nothing said, “Hey watch the premiere of Season 5!” You just had to know to tune in when it was about to happen.
OK, so where is season 5? What, no teaser 15 minutes before it’s supposed to go live?
Oh hey, there it is! Very subtle.
And then, at 5:58, without any fanfare, suddenly there was another season of GOT in the menu.
Should You Chuck HBO for HBO Now?
HBO Now has stood up to its toughest test, which is basically not collapsing under the load of millions of people streaming. It has therefore already surpassed HBO’s previous online offering, HBO Go. Which means that the cable giant actually has an app worth shelling out some cash for. But should you get HBO Now instead of HBO?
If you already have an Apple device or Sling TV, and you love HBO content, I think the answer is a tentative yes. $15 is a pretty good deal to get all of HBO’s content, plus the ability to watch new shows at the same time they air on cable. That said, once you’ve binge-watched all the HBO back content, is it really worth shelling out $15 per month just to watch maybe 3 or 4 new episodes of your favorite series each week? It’s a conundrum.
You know nothing about cord cutting, Jon Snow.
Plus, it may seem cheaper on its face to cut the cord and get HBO Now, but cable isn’t just about the premium content. Most cable companies offer HBO as part of a much bigger package, with tons of channels in multiple languages — and these packages usually include a streaming service that lets you watch back episodes of all your favorite shows, too. So if you wanted to recreate the full cable experience, you’d need HBO Now, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and several other online services. Which winds up costing quite a bit, and is kind of a pain in the ass.
But if you just want Game of Thrones, signing up for HBO Now for the next few months will get you everything you want — plus all that marvelous back catalogue of shows you’ve always been meaning to watch.
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