Back in August, a brand new player in the online streaming market emerged with the launch of Showmax. We were lucky enough to score ourselves a free subscription and have been testing it out for the past month to let you know just what to expect, and whether it’s a worthy investment of your cash every month.
- What is Showmax?
Let’s start with the basics. Showmax is a local video streaming service which allows you to stream content like movies and TV series straight to your PC’s browser, Apple and Android smart phones and tablets and the latest Samsung and LG Smart TV’s. The people behind it are actually Naspers, the parent company of DSTV (though the two entities are run entirely separately and will in fact be competing for the same client base).
We’ve had a few video streaming services launching locally over the last year or two, like MTN’s FrontRow and Times Media’s VIDI, although Showmax is possibly the most high profile. Naspers is reportedly making this a top a priority for its business and is planning to spend more than R65 million on the service before the end of the year.
- What about Netflix?
Now it’s fairly common knowledge that with just a tiny bit of technical know-how, you can use VPN’s or DNS relay services like Unotelly to get access to international video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, etc., which are restricted to certain countries. There was of course the question of legality of spoofing your location to gain access to a service though, but it’s a bit of a grey area since you’re still paying for the content.
Netflix has stated last year that it will be officially releasing in South Africa in 2016, which will change all of that, especially for those people that felt a bit dubious because of that unclear legality. And hoping to get its foot in the door before that happens is Showmax.
- What does it cost?
They currently offer two packages, Showmax Basic, which is free but has limited content, and Showmax Premium which gives access to all its content. Showmax Premium goes for R99 per month, which is not only cheaper than Vidi and FrontRow – which also still charge you movie rental fees on top of their subscription cost – but that’s about half of what you would pay for Netflix currently, if you add up the Netflix subscription and VPN costs.
If you sign up for Showmax Basic, which only gives you access to some older and local content, they immediately also give you a 7-day free trial to Showmax Premium to check it out.
- What is on offer?
Showmax Premium reportedly boasts over 10 000 hours of movies and TV series, with lots of local shows – including classic children’s programmes like Heidi and Interster – also on offer. In reality, browsing all content, unfiltered by genre, resulted in me seeing just shy of 400 movies and 400 TV series. Certainly a substantial, if not exactly mind-blowing number.
Also, as can be expected from virtually all streaming services, you shouldn’t be expecting movies that are currently in cinema to be appearing on Showmax, but the current selection is not too dated and at first glance appears to have some better (and definitely more) offerings than Vidi or Frontrow.
But while Showmax’s current catalog is much better than their local competition, and includes the very latest episodes of some of the biggest TV series like Game of Thrones, Big Bang Theory and Arrow (probably thanks to their DSTV connections), it still pales in comparison to the US Netflix catalog which boasts close to 8000 titles.
Of course when Netflix launches locally next year, we can probably expect them to offer a much more slimmed down catalog, much like what they did when they launched in other countries outside of the US. In comparison, when Netflix launched in Australia and New Zealand in March of this year, they only had approximately 220 TV series and 900 movies, just slightly more than an eighth of the US offering. I would expect South Africa to get a similar offering.
- How does it perform?
Due to local broadband limitations, Showmax content will only stream at a maximum resolution of 720p, which is still perfect for most shows/movies. Where it shines though, even in comparison to Netflix, is in how it streams that content: Really, really fast.
If you’ve ever used Netflix (it’s OK, you can tell us) you would know that when you start an episode/movie it buffers for a bit, before starting up in a very low resolution. That resolution then increases in quality as the episode plays until it hits the maximum res that your internet line can handle. All of this usually takes a few minutes depending on your line speed.
With Showmax, on the 4Mbps ADSL line that I used to test it on, this process happened in seconds, as the data is actually being streamed from Showmax’s JHB servers. Picture and sound quality looked great (although a few people have reportedly had issues with out of synch sound, but these appear to be isolated cases). And it also ran very stable as I tested numerous movies and TV series.
PLEASE NOTE: If you still have Unotelly or the like connected when accessing Showmax, your content will be routed via international nodes which will hamper streaming. Even so, during my own tests I found that while the quality and speed was better when I disconnected Unotelly, the “lag” was not so much as to significantly affect the experience.
- What do you need?
Showmax recommends that you have a 2Mbps ADSL line at the minimum, though 4Mbps and upwards is preferable. They are currently in talks with Wi-Fi service providers to negotiate ways of offering their services wirelessly.
Showmax also recommends that you have an uncapped ADSL account as data usage can be relatively high (Personally, I use a capped account with a huge cap as there’s no line shaping happening and I get the best performance). On average, one 720p TV episode running for about 40 mins will use approximately 500MB of data, and with movies often running for two to two-and-a-half hours, that can quickly chow through your internet data.
(This is where Vidi and FrontRow actually have a slight advantage, as FrontRow offers free streaming to MTN subscribers, while Vidi users get given free ADSL as part of their subscription)
Showmax supports up to five devices being linked to one account, while you are allowed to stream from two devices simultaneously. To access it via a PC browser, you just need to install a small plugin (it does unfortunately still make use of Flash, although they are looking at alternative platforms in the future), while on Android and Apple devices, you can install the Showmax application via the respective app stores.
The same applies to smart TV’s but are limited only to Samsung Smart TV’s released since 2012, Samsung Tizen TV’s released this year, LG NetCast Smart TV’s released 2012-2014 and LG WebOS smart TV’s released 2014–2015. The application, like the browser interface, is fairly light on resources and has a very easy UI that has undoubtedly borrowed quite a bit from Netflix’s layout (hey, if it ain’t broke!).
- Is it worth it?
As things stand now, it’s undeniable that once you take dubious legality out of the equation, Netflix is still the better option for a video streaming service. However, among its local peers, Showmax certainly appears to be the leader here. We don’t know what the catalog will look like when Netflix launches in South Africa next year, but if it’s severely limited – as has happened in other countries – then Showmax may still come out tops, especially since I cannot see Netflix matching or bettering its price of R99 per month or boasting the local content that Showmax has.
If you haven’t made the sort-of legal jump to Netflix and/or don’t find yourself as a DSTV subscriber (also not into live sport), then Showmax is a very easy recommendation to make, especially if it keeps its catalog updated regularly. Either way, more competition is never a bad thing for the consumer.
Last Updated: September 29, 2015