Review: Deep Dive Into HBO GO
Yes, this means you can watch "Game of Thrones" while sitting on your own throne. Or "Taxicab Confessions" while riding in a taxi. Or "True Blood" while giving blood. (I think I just wrote HBO’s next promo.)
I’ve spent time with the iPhone, iPad and Web versions of HBO GO since the official U.S. roll-out May 2nd. (There is also an Android version I did not get to try.) Here is a deep, deep dive into HBO GO.
- •Extensive library of content
- •No commercials
- •Multiple platform support (iPod, iPad, Android, Web)
- •Resumes playback at pause point (at least on same device)
- •Free for HBO subscribers
- •Great video quality on high speed connections
- •Watchlist for favorite shows
- •Appealing visual design
- •Low bandwidth forces streaming to audio-only mode
- •No mobile device video output to TV screen
- •HBO GO pre-roll plays every time on resuming playback
- •SMS & alerts exit video playback rather than just pausing
- •No download option for offline use
- •Parental controls not in app and can be hard to find on provider’s Web site
- •No closed captions yet
You start by choosing your TV service provider/distributor/MVPD/cable/telco/satellite company and then going through a process of signing in with your existing login for that provider. If your provider does not yet participate in HBO GO, you’re out of luck.
In my case, Charter TV is participating as a beta test, so I signed in with my Charter account from within the app. This is the account you use from then on to sign into HBO GO.
I filled out the form again, went to the terms and privacy pages, and it retained my info when I returned so I could submit. But from this point, it was confusing to know what to do. The app left me on the same form screen instead of taking me to the home screen, so I had to figure out to use a close button.
Fortunately, you only have to create an HBO GO profile once and it is then linked to your distributor’s account. When I switch devices, I just have to select Charter cable and sign in with my Charter.net account.
HBO says only one device per account may watch video at a time, which I found to be true. However, it also says up to three people can watch on multiple devices if you have sub-accounts. It doesn’t explain sub-accounts or how you know if you have them, so this may be beyond a lot of users. People may get confused about which parts of this app are controlled by HBO and which are controlled by the TV service provider. Tennessee users had better stay honest and not share logins or they could go to jail.
Little glitches appeared sometimes when returning to the app, but nothing too serious for a first release. Once when I started the iPhone app and tried to play a video, I received a pop-up message saying, “Your session has timed out. Please sign in again.” This was weird since I could only see a Sign Out button in the bottom right corner, not a Sign In option. Hitting Sign Out changed the button back to Sign In and let me log in with my Charter account again.
The amount of quality content available is impressive. This is Super VOD right in your hands. From all the back episodes of shows such as “True Blood” to stand-up comedy to documentaries, there is a great depth of content.
You won’t find every show ever aired – there’s no "John from Cincinnati" or "Mr. Show" – but you will find back catalog content such as "Carnivale" (24 episodes), "Deadwood" (36 episodes) and miniseries including "John Adams and "Band of Brothers."
There are movies, of course – 215 at the moment. Genre filters make it easy to get straight to comedy, family or other movies.
Navigating through all this content was challenging at times. The iPad app home screen starts with a large number of scrolling, animated tiles for featured videos that can move up, down, left and right. It’s visually interesting, but I found it a bit distracting from a utility standpoint. It’s okay for browsing, not seeking, and repeats endlessly when you keep moving in one direction.
Unless I happened to see the show I wanted right in the middle, I just skipped straight to the content categories for more straightforward navigation.
The iPhone version home screen uses a simple vertical scrolling list suited to the smaller dimensions.
When I navigated to a show, it felt odd to see the episodes listed in reverse order. That makes it convenient to find the most recent episode of current series, but means you have to constantly work backwards to make your way through an entire season. I didn’t watch the first couple of seasons of "Big Love," so to start from the beginning I have to find season 1, scroll to the bottom and play episode 1. Then I have to work from bottom to top, right to left through episodes 2, 3, 4, etc.
There is a movie collection area with curated groups of content. The program selections seemed a bit odd sometimes. “The Brave & the Proud” collection (already removed) contained mostly serious fare such as “Green Zone,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Taking Chance,” but ended with the 1951 comedy, “You’re in the Navy Now.” Once I drilled down into a collection, it wasn’t clear how to go back to the collections list.
In the Web version, some screens have movie thumbnails offering a pop-up description on mouseover, while other screens do not. It would be nice if they all did.
Also in the Web version, there are multiple ways to view the lists of titles, similar to the way you can browse iTunes or the Microsoft Media Library by name, small icon or large image. I did not like the big sideways scroll on the Series A to Z page of the Web version. Personally, I’d rather have a vertical scroll. The wide screen looks oriented like it’s designed for an HDTV screen. Does this signal a future intent or reflect how someone might today navigate on a screen with a simple remote control? This looks like it was built for navigating on a TV screen. It would work great with a Nintendo Wii controller. Perhaps HBO GO is headed for gaming systems the way Netflix did.
It looks like someone went to a lot of trouble to prepare big, beautiful still images for each program and added titles cleanly to the ones featured. Out of all the images, I only spotted one obviously pixellated and one clearly stretched from a narrower image.
There is a learning curve in navigating, especially when switching between HBO GO on different platforms. You have to figure out which taps/clicks will get you a preview, more information, or the actual video stream. Sometimes I started a movie I didn't want yet, added something to my Watchlist by mistake or ended up on an info screen when I wanted to play a movie.
It’s hard to figure out how to back up sometimes once you drill down in the app. If I drill down into the Movies A-Z section on the web and then into a movie’s info screen, it’s not clear how to get back to the A-Z list. I went back to the main movies screen to select the A-Z list again. Some simple breadcrumbs or iOS-like navigational arrows would help.
Pay particular attention to the parental controls before handing your device to kids. The family-friendly series page with "Harold and the Purple Crayon" is only one tap away from the Late Night section featuring “The Hills Have Thighs.” The app’s only instructions for adjusting parental controls say “please visit your television provider’s website.” Well, Samsung provided my TV, but I don’t think that’s what they mean.
I found a lot of parental control info about set-top boxes on my cable provider’s site, Charter.com, but nothing about HBO GO settings. Eventually, I found a link at the bottom of Charter.net labeled as “Charter.net Parental Controls.” I found I can set limits for TV ratings and movie ratings, but they don’t mention HBO GO. It appears settings managed through TV providers are out of HBO’s control, but it would be much simpler for parents to just change settings from within the HBO GO app.
At least one user posted a review in the iTunes App Store telling people how to find parental controls for his cable company.
HBO GO includes a Watchlist feature that is kind of like a Netflix queue plus TiVo’s Season Pass. Add a show to the Watchlist and new episodes will appear there as they are released. Add a Series Pass and the new episodes for the current season of a running show will appear in your Watchlist. The Watchlist defaults to displaying episodes in what looks like random order. I added "Game of Thrones," but they appeared in the order of episodes 8, 5, 7, 6, and 4 one day and then 6,4,5,7 and 8 another day. Fortunately, they switch to numerical order when you sort by title.
It is nice that the app remembers your place in a show so you can pick up where you left off on the same device. It did not remember my last point when I switched devices.
One feature they could do away with is the HBO GO video bumper that plays before each show when you resume playback. At first, I thought seeing it again meant the app had lost my place and was starting over, causing me to audibly groan at my iPhone and not even wait the three seconds for it to play – I just went straight for the scrub bar thinking I had to find my place manually. When I was patient enough to see the app remembered my place, I just became annoyed with the HBO GO bumper every time I had to see it. If HBO must play a branding pre-roll when you restart, it would be more helpful it if said something like, “Returning to your last viewing point.”
The app exited the player mode every time I received an SMS or other alert. Perhaps the upcoming iOS 5 notification center announced last week will change that. Currently, every alert on my phone means I have to manually resume playback and watch the HBO GO video bumper again.
The 30-second rewind button is a welcome feature during playback, although I wish it didn’t have to rebuffer sometimes. I’d rather have TiVo’s 8-second instant replay button with no buffering than a 30-second replay button with buffering.
No TV Output for Mobile
HBO GO does not support TV output for mobile devices. You can output sound, but no picture. As a consumer, I don’t get it. HBO GO already knows I’m a paying subscriber through a traditional distributor. I would like to be able to connect to a hotel TV when away from home or to any TV in my house. Netflix supports TV output, which I use to connect my iPhone to an old TV while on a treadmill at home.
HBO GO does support output from a computer to a TV screen, so I'm hoping there just wasn't time to support TV output for mobile devices. There could also be a concern consumers would use this as a workaround to avoid paying for as many set top boxes. But right now, there is no set top box that matches the content library of HBO GO.
Hotels might say they shouldn’t pay for HBO if travelers are going to plug in their own device. Hotels will also lose out if mobile video subscribers stop using the in-room pay-per-view options, but they've seen that coming for years.
Interactive Viewing: Game of Thrones
The Web version of HBO GO offers additional interactive content for "Game of Thrones." Each episode, you can optionally watch with extra features appearing in a sidebar to the right. I was surprised to see the production commitment to these features for an online interactive experience, but they are stretching their dollar by reusing some of the extra content in other places.
Extra content modules for the show appear periodically at the top of the sidebar. They often contain images with information providing more background on the current scene, such as, “The Starks arrived in King’s Landing with only 50 guards.” There are also set images, 3D renderings of props to manipulate, a family tree of characters, and extra videos. Selecting some optional content will pause the show and take over the playback window for you to explore. A sweeping story as complex as "Game of Thrones" is perfectly suited to such reference material.
The player contains a button so you can hide or show the special features sidebar without interrupting playback. If you skip ahead in the show, all the special feature up to that point are revealed in the sidebar (similar to the way Nielsen Media-Sync’s iPad app works).
Second, my mouse wheel seemed to scroll the interactive sidebar opposite from what I would expect. In most programs, you spin the wheel down to go lower in the page. In HBO GO on my iMac using Firefox 4, I had to scroll the mouse wheel up to go lower in the interactive sidebar. Their way would make more sense if I were swiping a touchpad.
I found the interactive elements distracting while trying to watch an episode for the first time, but enjoyable for repeat viewings. It reminded me of all the bonus features you would see with a DVD. There were 40 modules in the 58-minute episode 8.
HBO is in an interesting spot for multi-platform viewing since they don’t have to worry about commercial advertising. This eliminates a lot of variables that other networks have to consider – no Nielsen C3 rating concerns about whether the same commercials ran online, no synchronized banner ads, no pre-rolls or mid-rolls, no affiliate concerns about local cut-ins, no geotargeting ads, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them add promotional pre-rolls in the future, but maybe they’ll keep the viewing experience pure. Just remember when you look at HBO GO that they don’t have to jump the same hurdles with technology and stakeholders as ad-supported networks.
The Web and iPad versions of HBO GO contain buttons on the info screen of individual episodes and movies to use Twitter and Facebook to tell my friends what I'm watching. The iPhone version doesn’t seem to have any social media integration yet.
Some iPad shows have a "Follow on Twitter" button, but it didn't seem to work correctly for me. The first time I hit it, the app asked me to log in to Twitter and connect my accounts. However, there was no confirmation screen after that to say it worked. When I tapped the Follow on Twitter button again, the app just displayed a non-stop loading icon and locked up. I had to exit the app, double-tap the home button to pull up the quick switch drawer, and then tap and hold the HBO GO app to completely kill the program.
I checked out the XML data sent between the app and the Web and found that some programs include a GetGlue URL, Twitter hashtag and Twitter URL for the selected show. "Game of Thrones" had this info, but the movie “Knight and Day” did not.
I found where the Twitter hashtag is appended to a prepared message for your tweets (“I'm watching $PROGRAM_NAME via @HBOGO. http://itsh.bo/ieYYiZ #HBOGO $HASHTAG”). I did not see any place GetGlue or the show’s Twitter URL was in use within the app. It’s either buried or not in use yet.
The service works very well when you have a good wi-fi connection. I had good picture quality with no buffering most of the time on my home network. The iPad app's picture quality will really benefit whenever it gets retina-class resolution.
The strangest thing with the app was when I tried using it in low-bandwidth situations. I was on vacation over Memorial Day weekend and Ye Olde Wi-Fi at a Colonial Williamsburg hotel just wasn’t up to streaming video. No surprise there, but then HBO GO dropped down to an audio-only mode rather than just pausing to buffer more data. “Avatar” is hard enough to watch on an iPhone, but there isn’t much point in just listening to it. I could only imagine audio-only working for stand-up comedy specials and concerts. Netflix seemed able to perform slightly better on the same poor connection, but it also gave out eventually.
The good quality may be due to the various bitrates and content delivery networks (CDNs) supported. One interesting XML file downloaded while using the service provides clues. It lists different default CDNs for each affiliate. Comcast and TWC list Limelight as the default. Verizon has VELOCIX. AT&T, BHN, Charter, COX, DIRECTV, DISH, SuddenLink and WOW have Level 3 as the default. All have at least one backup CDN service.
Bitrate options, presumably listed in kilobits per second, listed in their XML as options are 400, 800, 1200, 1800, 2600, and 3500 with 1200 for previews.
Interestingly, “HBO” is an affiliate option in the code right next to all the MVPDs. That made me wonder if HBO is already set up to sell directly to consumers. It didn't look like it was for promotional clips since a separate section in their XML called <freeContentAffiliates> lists only HBO and no other providers. Later, I found XML that says the HBO affiliate info is for "HBO Employees and Guests."
That code was in another XML file the app uses to display the options for affiliates participating in HBO GO. Note that while the first file included settings for affiliates BHN (likely Bright House Networks) and WOW, they are not listed as available options for users yet in the app. That suggests they'll be joining the HBO GO party soon.
The apps send analytics data to metrics.hbogo.com, which maps to an Omniture server. It reports back just about everything you do in the app – what you watch, what you browse, what screen resolution you have, etc. It actually reports a lot more data than you would think necessary, such as the MPAA movie rating. HBO GO could just send a unique ID for the movie and match that with the movie’s metadata on the backend, but it’s probably just more convenient to report it all to Omniture for ease of drilling down in reports to tell, for example, in which regions kiddie fare is most popular.
HBO should be getting some great analytic data out of these apps in near-real time. This can help inform programming, promotion and partner decisions.
Users might eventually demand an analytic opt-out if they have a problem with HBO knowing everything they watch down to the second.
First, the name. It is HBO GO, not HBO TO GO or HBO2GO as many people say or write. HBO GO doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue yet.
Marketing of HBO GO could be a little confusing for users because the same name is applied to multiple offerings that differ in features. There is a single iOS app with interfaces customized to the iPhone and iPad screens. There is an Android app. And there is a Web site that offers interactive TV features.
Viewers have to listen closely to HBO promos to know which platform to hit for which features. If you want the interactive "Game of Thrones" features, you have to use the Web site and not the mobile apps. If you want to use social media while you watch, use the Web or iPad app, but not the iPhone app.
HBO is also making a heavy push with on-air promos, e-mail newsletters, Twitter tweets, search engine keyword buys and mobile display ads.
I’ve always said you’re not an Internet success until you crash the servers. The biggest marketing push I’ve seen for the service came the weekend before Memorial Day when the network promoted you could see the next episode a week early on HBO GO. It was apparently so successful, a lot of people couldn’t get through to it. The service appeared overloaded as soon as the new episode became available. Keep an eye out to see if HBO does a similar promotion with "True Blood" on June 26 and releases Season 4 Episode 2 a week ahead of the Independence Day weekend. If they do, check out HBO GO at 10 p.m. ET to see how it’s holding up this time. HBO is already promotion "True Blood" season premiere clips on the service.
HBO also faces the problem of potentially confusing customers by offering multiple apps. Their apps include “HBO,” “HBO GO,” “HBO – Inside Boardwalk Empire,” and “Game of Thrones: Ice and Fire.” There are also licensed and unlicensed apps based on HBO shows such as "True Blood."
App branding is a growing issue for networks and reflects both the early nature of the marketplace and the decentralization of app strategy governance at many companies. Should a network have one app that does everything? Should every show have an app? Should you build apps by daypart? What’s the best move for a network vs. a content creator? What happens when a show ends or changes networks? Watch and see what the market does.
IT Takes a Village
As with most technical products today, this is actually the work of several companies. Correction: I misinterpreted Conviva's press release and originally posted that HBO used Conviva's Subscriber Xtension services to handle authentication and viewer authorization. Dan Flynn, Director of Market Development at Conviva, says HBO is using them not for user sign-on, but for verification during viewing that the user is still authorized to watch the content. Also, Conviva monitors and analyzes the video stream quality on the user's end in the app and adjusts on the fly to select the best bitrate and CDN.
The HBO GO mobile apps were designed by HUGE. (Perhaps ALL CAPS are required for names on this project.) HUGE is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.
HBO uses the Azuki Wireless Platform for mobile devices.
There are likely others, but those are the press releases I found so far for the U.S. release.
MAX GO from Cinemax is also available on the Web with the same interface. I found it shared my user profile from HBO GO, which saved me from filling out some additional fields.
The first message after signing up contains welcome text and info on setting parental controls. That’s probably a good idea since the only content sections are “movies,” “browse by tags” and “max after dark.”
It looks like the iOS and Android versions are not yet available. MAX GO has not had the same huge promotional push as HBO GO and I could not even find a mention of it on the Cinemax.com site. I didn’t even know I could use MAX GO until I saw it mentioned in the code sent between my browser and some HBO GO servers. There's also a mention of it in the HBO GO support FAQs.
Just as HBO GO does not yet roll off the tongue, some people may think MAX GO sounds like a Flomax competitor. Maybe MAX GO will inspire a sense of speedy downloads. Of course, people laughed at the iPad’s name until it sold a bajillion units.
App Store and Critical Reviews
The iPhone/iPad app has a 3-star rating out of 5 with 5,719 user ratings so far. That includes 2,459 reviews with five stars and 1,876 with one star. It looks like most negative reviews appear to concern sign-in problems, the lack of certain TV service providers and lack of video output to the TV. If you took out all the complaints from users about TV service providers not participating yet, the average rating would be higher.
When it works, users say it works very well and it seems to have met pent up demand for a mobile streaming option. There were a lot of comments about people watching HBO on the bus, on the porch, etc. It’s easy to imagine that some people might watch HBO less on TV because of this. The question is whether they end up watching less TV overall or just watch other networks when around a big screen.
Thoughts for other platforms
Traditional Cable/Telco/DSS: This service shows there is no technical reason for HBO to need a traditional cable/Telco/DSS provider to reach consumers. HBO could go completely over the top (OTT) and let users subscribe directly through HBO GO without ever using a middleman. However, there are many business reasons why the middleman is still valuable. It is unlikely for now that HBO could replace MVPD subscription dollars 1:1 with direct sign-ups. Second, the cable/telco/DSS companies do a ton of marketing for HBO so they can get a share of subscription revenue and increase ARPU. There’s no good reason for HBO to give up that partnership today. This approach of integrating TV service providers with plenty of logos also keeps HBO on their good sides. Remember, those MVPDs happen to control most of the internet bandwidth to HBO GO users.
Theoretically, HBO could have treated HBO GO as an upsell and charged subscribers an extra $2 to $5 a month for mobile access like Sirius XM and (not much chance) maybe not even have shared the incremental revenue with MVPDs. Instead, I’m guessing the cost of the service will have to be built into the monthly bill for all HBO subscribers. Any associated price increase would presumably be shared with the providers.
Not charging extra also helps deter piracy and could make HBO GO seem like a greater value than competing services such as Netflix and Amazon On Demand. I do see a monthly charge for Neflix and my Amazon purchases, but I can’t tell you what I actually pay for HBO since it's bundled with other channels on my cable bill. Keep an eye on whether this no-extra-charge service changes now that Apple’s updated subscription rules could allow HBO to charge a fee without giving Apple 30%.
There’s some interesting wording in the HBO GO FAQ: “No, HBO GO does not offer pay-per-view. However, as part of your HBO GO subscription, you have access to hundreds of titles to watch every month.” Note that this says “HBO GO subscription", not “HBO subscription.” You must have an HBO subscription to use HBO GO and the phrasing used may not be significant, but the subtle distinction between the two could mean a lot to a TV service provider.
One feature you won’t find in HBO GO: a full schedule for the linear HBO channels. It’s in a different app. You can find air times for individual shows on their info pages within HBO GO.
Other movie channels: It’s time to step up. Consumers, would you rather pay for a premium channel with all these mobile features or one without it? Starz provides some content to Netflix, but has a 90-day delay on original series. HBO has set the standard here for catalog size, price and interface. The Showtime iPhone app just contains clips and some sample episodes. Epix says support for iPhone/iPad/Android etc. is in the works and their site says spring 2011 release (one April story I found said it’s rolling out to select TV service providers).
Just as with HBO, these networks will likely incur costs for app development, infrastructure development and promotion.
VOD: These mobile apps are so convenient that many users may find they never use VOD again. VOD is still the easiest option to see content on demand on your big screen (tied with your TiVo or DVR, which will keep it accessible longer than VOD if you bother to record something). But users may find they catch up on HBO shows when a) they’re away from home, b) someone else is using the main TV, or c) they’re in a room without a VOD-compatible STB.
Netflix: This certainly confirms you’re not going to see HBO content on Netflix anytime soon. But you won’t see the Netflix library on HBO’s app, either. Movie buffs will get both, cord cutters will get Netflix, and people who just love HBO will enjoy having a large content library available on demand. I think a rising tide here will lift all boats. Netflix will enjoy a residual benefit of HBO introduction consumers to premium on demand content. Some will probably find it so useful they end up willing to try Netflix, too. For now, I believe you are likely to see more consumers increasing their spending than cutting back.
TiVo: A funny thing happened to me at the same time HBO GO officially launched. My two TiVos (TiVoes? Tivi?) will no longer let me transfer HBO and other premium network content between them or to my computers. For years, I’ve been able to transfer such content from one room to another or even to my computer so I could convert it for viewing on my iPhone and iPad.
From what I read online, the timing of this change may just be a coincidence since it has already been in place in other markets through a flag sent by the MVPD. But the effect is I can now only watch HBO content on the go through HBO GO when I have a decent wi-fi or 3G connection. And if I want to watch on a TV at home, I have to plan ahead when I set the recording -- often from my iPhone -- to think about where I will want to sit to watch the movie. This can be a complicated question – Will we want to be upstairs so I can be on my iMac? Will it be too warm upstairs because the air conditioner didn’t keep up? Will we need to sit downstairs by the back door because the dog has diarrhea? I haven’t had to think about this for years and this makes the TiVo less useful for me than a month ago.
Since I can’t transfer HBO content from TiVo, it does mean I’ll use the HBO GO app when I have a good connection. I may end up using TiVo less because of the copying restrictions and because I know I can watch something whenever I want on HBO GO with no premeditated recording needed. That's a tough thing for a TiVo fanatic like me to consider. At least I can still watch Netflix through TiVo.
Apple: Apple may sell fewer movies through iTunes thanks to HBO GO, but probably not enough to make a large difference. It could make a dent when all the premium channels catch up and the only reasons to buy/rent a movie through iTunes (or Amazon) are a) if you’re a cord cutter or b) flying on an airplane without Internet access.
Syndication: Keep an eye out on how this affects the second-run market. Rather than watch a watered-down, edited version of "The Sopranos," I’d rather watch any of the 86 episodes on HBO GO with all the creative curse words preserved. This won’t kill linear TV reruns anytime soon, but you’d have to think it might start chipping away.
HBO has packed a lot of features at a good price for subscribers and backed it with a heavy promotional campaign. The alignment of the on-air and online content brings the brand nearly seamlessly to the mobile environment. The ripple effects on consumers, HBO’s partners and competitors will affect the TV business for everyone.
Wes Williams grew up in a household without cable TV and always had to go to his friends' houses to watch HBO. He is Director of Online Production for Scripps Networks.
Contact Wes at email@example.com
Standard disclaimer: I am expressing my own opinion. The content published here has not been read by or approved by Scripps Networks Interactive and does not represent the company’s views.