We pitted the two biggest video streaming services against one another. Hours of TV, piles of empty microwave popcorn bags, and one worn-out couch later, this is what we’ve learned.
Jerry and Newman, Homer and Ned, Pawnee and Eagleton: TV is full of great rivalries, but these days one of the fiercest isn’t between on-screen characters, it’s between video-on-demand platforms. In the red and black corner, US heavyweight Netflix. In the pink and blue corner, rakish upstart Showmax. Let’s get ready to, um, binge.
The “free trial” is the staple of new customer acquisition in industries across the world. Netflix no longer offers a free trial to users in South Africa (as of December 2019), but Showmax recognises that users want to kick the proverbial tyres before committing.
Showmax offers 14 days of free streaming to potential customers. Still having a hard time committing? You can always do another trial using a partners’ details, but eventually you’re going to have to make a decision. Do you want to pay a nominal fee for access to great content, or do you want to return to the sadness of terrestrial television?
South Africans are a price sensitive bunch, so no discussion of a subscription service is complete without considering the costs involved. Here Showmax delivers an uppercut of simplicity with its single monthly fee of R99. You can watch content on up to two devices simultaneously and can register up to five devices in total (though you can always remove a device and replace it if you, say, get a new iPad, or something more serious happens, like divorce).
Showmax also offers Showmax Mobile for only R49 per month for users who are happy to access the full catalogue on a single mobile device. (Find out more here.)
Plus, if you’re a DStv Premium subscriber, you can sign up to Showmax for no rands at all. A tonne of extra content, for no extra money equals a big win for Showmax.
Netflix offers three plans. First up there’s the basic plan at a Showmax-matching R99/month. But, unlike Showmax’s, Netflix’s introductory offer only lets you watch on one screen at a time, and only in standard definition (SD). Step up to the R139/month standard plan and you get a second simultaneous stream and high definition (HD) content. Then, for the big spenders, there’s the R169/month premium account that allows for four simultaneous streams at up to Ultra HD (UHD).
Ultra what now? Well, quite. UHD is just another term for 4K. What’s 4K you ask? It’s the new standard in high-quality video that offers four times the resolution of full HD (twice as many pixels across by twice as many up and down).
The question is a simple one: Do you have a 4K-capable TV and unlimited data? If so, you want to spring for the premium package with Netflix. Sure, only some content is offered in UHD/4K, but the fare that is looks amazing and is definitely worth the extra expense. Don’t have a 4K TV? The standard package will do… plus you can always upgrade later if you get a new goggle box.
There are myriad ways to consume content from both Netflix and Showmax, and we do mean myriad. You can use the web browser on your laptop or desktop computer (Google Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, whatever), or the native apps each offers for your smartphone, tablet, smart TV.
Both services also have apps for Apple TV and support for Google Chromecast. Got an Xbox or a PlayStation gaming console? Yip, those are covered, too, as are smart TVs from the big-name brands like LG, Samsung and Hisense (most of which now come with Netflix and Showmax apps preinstalled anyway).
The only noteworthy difference? Showmax is available on the DStv Explora decoder while Netflix isn’t. It’s a very minor distinction but given how prevalent DStv is in South African homes, it’s worth mentioning.
What’s going to break the tie? The interface, it turns out. Netflix insists on auto-playing trailers no matter which device you’re using, with no way to turn the feature off. It’s awful, and it makes browsing the Netflix catalogue unnecessarily stressful, particularly if – like us – you loathe trailers (at least the ones for things you know you want to watch).
Streaming video is great until the power goes out, or you find yourself on an airplane, in a tent, or somewhere else internet connectivity is a problem. Which is why any respectable streaming service lets you download content for offline viewing. Blessedly, both Showmax and Netflix are respectable.
With Showmax, you can download content to your phone or tablet, and it’s available for a maximum of 30 days, or up to 48 hours from the time you hit play.
Netflix, meanwhile, lets you download up to 100 things, over as many devices as your particular package allows. You can’t download content in 4K, but can choose between standard or high quality, depending on your preferences (and probably your internet connection and available storage on the device you’re downloading to).
How long you can keep a piece of Netflix content before it expires varies depending on the individual licence from the company that owns the content… but you don’t need to worry about the details, as you’ll be notified how long you’ve got via the downloads page. Like Showmax, most content expires 48 hours after you first start playing it.
In the world of music streaming, things are simple. Everyone tries to license everything from everybody, so the decision between services largely comes down to features or personal preference. In the land of video, things are way more complicated.
Streaming video is all about exclusive content licences and in-house originals, and if one service gets the rights to something, odds are its rivals don’t. That means that with such similar feature sets and device support on offer, the choice between subscribing to Netflix or Showmax will likely come down to what you want to watch.
Showmax has great local shows like Tali’s Wedding Diary, The Girl from St. Agnes and the comedy-reality show Trippin with Skhumba. Plus, many of the mega-popular M-Net, kykNET and Mzansi Magic Originals, such as The River, The Queen and Trackers, come to Showmax. Many shows come express to Showmax, so you can watch your local favourites either at the same time as, or directly after, they show on DStv.
You also get exclusive access to content from studios like ABC and HBO, including Game of Thrones, Westworld and Silicon Valley, and oldies (but goodies) like The Sopranos and The Wire. (Because HBO has their own streaming service in the US, they’re competitors with HBO, so Netflix is an HBO no-go zone.) There’s also more child-friendly video than you can shake a half-chewed piece of biltong at.
Netflix, meanwhile, has a formidable (and ever-growing) selection of Netflix Originals series, including recent (highly bingeable) shows like Dirty John, Russian Doll, The Umbrella Academy, Maniac, BoJack Horseman and Ozark, and its own movies and documentaries like Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, Mowgli and Bird Box. Then there’s comedy: If stand-up’s your bag, Netflix is tough to top.
For those of you keeping score, you’ll notice that, between these titans of the streaming world, Showmax pulls out ahead.
Netflix wins with its 4K fare but then loses ground with its infuriating insistence on autoplay previews and lack of a free trial. Showmax sticks it to big red with its one-package-fits-all pricing, its awesome catalogue of local shows and HBO and other series, its offer of a free trial and its Showmax Mobile option for those who only use a smart device for streaming.
Want to try it to make up your mind? Well, you can! And if you think you’re still struggling to choose between Netflix and Showmax, the pricing is so reasonable you can always skip a couple of takeaway coffees a month and subscribe to both. Whichever way things play out we’ve got one piece of advice: Invest in a truly comfy couch. You’re going to need it.
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