Game of Thrones Season Three arrives on blinkbox today – months before next March, when it crawls onto DVD. Want to see it now without buying a disc? With their all-new VOD rights in the UK, Tesco’s movie/TV service is currently your only non-Sky option.
But what is blinkbox? And is it any good? We put the website through its paces.
A pay-per-view VOD service (or TVOD, if you like to get technical), blinkbox positions itself as the opposite of LOVEFiLM and Netflix – and in many ways, it is. But while it sits far away from subscription platforms, it edges close to another big VOD rival: iTunes. Both offer purchases and rents, with rentals lasting for 30 days – and expiring the standard 48 hours aftert you start watching them.
With no monthly fees, blinkbox works on a pay-per-download basis and charges a pretty reasonable £3.49 to rent a movie in SD (£4.49 HD) and £10.99 to buy (£13.99 HD). That’s not hugely cheap, you could argue, but it’s on a par with the market – ever since Blockbuster set the £3 mark all the years ago, iTunes and other digital providers have followed. In fact, it’s probably more helpful to compare blinkbox rates to iTunes: Apple’s VOD service also charges £3.49 per movie (in SD, not HD) and £9.99 to buy (again, in SD). blinkbox, then, is pretty competitive in price.
TV episodes cost £1.89 each (the same as iTunes’ SD rates) and you can also buy series for varying rates. Game of Thrones, for example, is £17.99 per series (discounted from £18.90) – cheaper than the price of most TV DVDs when they’re released, not bad considering you can’t own the show in any other format until March 2014.
Like iTunes, blinkbox also offers 99p rentals for a limited period of time (every “Movie Monday”, 12 are released). There used to be free content to stream, too, with ads stuck in the middle. That, though, has now been changed into a Tesco Clubcard service, offering members titles such as The Shawshank Redemption.
Content – TV
What does blinkbox have? It’s much easier to answer the question what don’t they have. In short: not very much. Breaking Bad, True Blood, Luther, The Walking Dead; blinkbox has all the major titles you can find on LOVEFiLM and Netflix without any subscriptions but with a higher cost to view. It goes one step further, though, also boasting many things that Netflix and LOVEFiLM can’t get their hands on: The Wire, Sopranos, Homeland, Mad Men and, of course, Game of Thrones. If it’s been released on DVD, the odds are that blinkbox has the rights – although not always to everything. Mad Men, for example, is only available in flavours 1, 4 and 5.
blinkbox also offers collections in a similar manner to other providers, including the rather arbitrary “TV for Mum” (Friends, Sex and the City, Downton Abbey, An Idiot Abroad, Sherlock) and “TV for Dad” (Dr Who, Luther, Spooks, Alan Partridge, Top Gear, An Idiot Abroad, Sherlock). We’ll leave you to decide how stereotypical they are.
Content – Film
It’s much the same again here: all the major new DVD releases are available on blinkbox on the same day of release – and often in advance. Side Effects and Arbitrage, for example, are both already available to stream, despite not being out on disc for a week or two. £10.99 to own something may seem steep, but with DVDs starting at £15, for day-and-date home entertainment releases you can’t really complain. Even £13.99 for an HD title nips in under that barrier.
This is where blinkbox starts to lose points because it doesn’t have HD for everything. Its default streaming, which appears to bend with your bandwidth, clocks in around the BBC iPlayer (non-HD) mark, which is reasonable enough to enjoy a film – although not necessarily in the crisp detail you would want for, say, Cloud Atlas.
Luckily, though, the number of HD offerings are on the up: out of their new releases this week, Robot & Frank, Side Effects, Welcome to the Punch and Game of Thrones are all available in HD. Give it a few months and we wouldn’t be surprised if a large majority of their titles are in high-def.
For now, there are variable settings for quality when you watch a film on a PS3 (the only console we had for testing).
Speaking of PS3s, a quick warning: blinkbox doesn’t go very well with PS3s. You can load up the website in the console’s browser, but Sony’s slow web interface leads to a painful search for titles – a shame given the website’s sexy, easy-to-use layout on PCs and Macs. Once playing on a PS3, you can choose between three quality levels, although for Cloud Atlas, even the highest quality struggled in the darker and more complex moments.
blinkbox also has an Xbox 360 app. It looks impressive:
If you’ve used it, let us know what your experience was like.
For Mac users, the compatibility problems continue: because the service uses Microsoft Silverlight to play videos, Mac users cannot view blinkbox videos in Chrome or Internet Explorer – both of which work fine on PCs – and have to use either Firefox or Safari. Even then, the installation of Silverlight can be fiddly, temporarily leaving you with no ability to play videos, while downloads are not permitted at all. (When contacted, blinkbox technical support were admittedly fast to respond.)
[Note: Netflix and LOVEFiLM both use Silverlight so problems may be encountered with their playback as well, although we are yet to have any such issues.]
iPhones, too, cannot play videos through the website, although there is an iPad app available. At a time when iOS is increasing in popularity, that lack of support is shown up by Netflix’s cross-device compatibility.
On the other hand, with the devices you do have, blinkbox shares Netflix’s ability to pause a video on one device and instantly resume it on another – which, for Game of Thrones fans, means you never have to miss Tyrion slapping Joffrey again.
Not everyone wants to be locked into a subscription service. Likewise, not everyone wants to have an iPhone. For those people, blinkbox is a fantastic service, offering a huge range of movies and TV shows both old and brand new – and at competitive prices. With iTunes only available on iOS devices and not offering direct streams, blinkbox widens the VOD market to the general public, offering the chance to both download and stream purchased titles.
The website itself is pretty and intuitive and works in your living room through a PS3, Xbox or specific brands of smart TVs/Blu-ray players and set-top boxes.
But while the catalogue of content is cracking, the site’s compatibility is not as wide and its visual quality leaves something to be desired – to their credit, blinkbox already seem to be doing something about that.
A solid addition to the VOD market and a major rival to pay-per-view competition such as iTunes, blinkbox is a promising alternative to Netflix and LOVEFiLM – not least because of its rights to Game of Thrones. Season Three is only available to watch through them. We highly recommended doing so.
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