Yesterday HBO took the wraps off its new online video portal, HBO Go, which was designed to offer its subscribers access to additional online video content on demand. The site, which is part of parent company Time Warner’s broader TV Everywhere strategy, became available to Verizon FiOS TV and broadband Internet customers who also subscribe to HBO’s premium programming as part of their cable package.
I got a chance to play around with the service today and was able to confirm what others have already suggested: While the video quality is good and the user interface is easy to navigate, the site lacks compelling content that subscribers might want to view. What follows is a step-by-step look at where the service excels and where it falls short.
The authentication system seems fairly straightforward for Verizon FiOS users, asking for log-in information that subscribers use with the pay TV provider’s own systems. Unlike Comcast’s Fancast Xfinity TV authentication system, there’s no need to download a client plug-in to make the system work, and it appears that users only need to log in once to have access to the service. All in all, the authentication process for Verizon FiOS subscribers seems relatively painless, but it’s worth noting that as more service providers sign up for the service, they may choose to handle authentication differently.
User Experience & Navigation
The HBO Go web site itself is visually stunning, with lots of full-screen visuals for each of the featured TV shows, movies, and other bits of programming that scroll past once a user is logged in. Browsing through the different featured sections — Movies, Series, Comedy, Sports, Documentaries, and Late Night — is quick and painless, with each offering up an easy-to-navigate interface for choosing between titles. Users can customize the viewing experience by choosing between cover, grid, and list modes of viewing available content.
The site unveiled one small pet peeve of mine, though: The navigation between titles in cover and grid modes scrolled from left to right, rather than top to bottom, which wasn’t as intuitive to me. Also, at the time of testing, the search function seemed not to be working; no matter what I searched for, I was met with a blank screen.
Based on watching a few videos, I found the overall quality of the video to be pretty good, even in standard definition mode. I did have problems once I switched to high definition, however, as I encountered heavy buffering and occasional slow down and dropped packets in video playback while viewing videos. Based on the way that the videos buffered, HBO Go doesn’t appear to be using any sort of adaptive bit rate technology to adjust to changes in network conditions. Also, I was disappointed by the video controls; any skipping forward or back in the video resulted in buffering as the video adjusted.
The biggest disappointment I found in the HBO Go was with the available content mix. The site claims 600 hours worth of content, including about 200 full-length movies, which is not a lot when you consider what other services make available. EPIX, a joint venture between Viacom, Paramount and MGM that also operates a cable-and-broadband service, has more than 300 titles available. And Netflix, which offers a hybrid DVD-by-mail and streaming service, has more than 17,000 titles available to its users.
HBO has the benefit of some original programming that others don’t have, including series like The Wire and The Sopranos. But HBO Go doesn’t take full advantage of this. Some of its better shows — like Deadwood and Six Feet Under — were nowhere to be found on the service. Other series, like hit show Sex and The City, only had a limited number of episodes available.
HBO Go might offer casual users and fans of HBO’s original programming an occasional place to catch up on episodes that they have missed or browse movies on a lazy weekend afternoon — but it probably won’t lead new customers to sign up for HBO’s cable programming.