HBO GO is the latest new service to bring pay TV content to your PC -- assuming you can prove you pay for cable. So today when FiOS announced that its subscribers were to be one of the first to use it, we decided to try it out. Honestly we didn't even expect it to work considering, you know, we don't subscribe to HBO. Now we're sure it won't take long before this is locked down to actual HBO subscribers, but in the meantime we spent some time playing so you'd know what you were, or weren't missing.
Picture and sound quality
As you'd expect, the videos are available in HD, otherwise we just would've skipped this post altogether. Now of course this is HD Flash which means although it is obviously a higher resolution than SD, it won't be mistaken for Blu-ray -- and of course requires a fast CPU. Regardless, the picture quality was high enough to make the experience on a laptop enjoyable and is on par with what we've seen from other HD video streaming services available via a web browser. The audio sounded good too, in our headset, but we didn't hook it up to a PC to check for Dolby Digital surround sound, but we'd be shocked if there was considering there was no mention of it on the site.
The usability of the site was pretty good as well, but not perfect with the biggest problem being that you can only resume the most recently played video. The good news is the resume did persist a log out, so as long as you watch one video at a time, you shouldn't have to try to remember where you left off. The other issue of concern was that, like other online streaming sites, the content has an artificial shelf life. The time frame seemed to be all over the map (from weeks to months) but the good news is that all the content was plainly marked and you could even sort your Watchlist by the date the content expired.
Speaking of which, the Watchlist lets you quickly add any show or movie to an easy to access list so you can browse now and quickly go back and watch all the things of interest to you later. You can even subscribe to a series so that new episodes are automatically added to the Watchlist where they remain until they expire or until you remove them. Your viewing options are pretty nice as well, you can watch in the main browser window in SD or HD, or you can pop-out the video and resize to fit on your screen as you work on other things. And of course there's a full screen option for those times when you want to focus on the content and try to forget you're on your PC. At least on our rig -- we were impressed with how quickly the scrubbing forward and back worked, as well as how little the video had to buffer.
Selection and finding shows
The selection was pretty impressive as well, but not perfect. We already mentioned that content has an artificial shelf life, but more concerning was how many things we noticed were missing. Although there was over 200 movies to choose from, we were able to find one that wasn't in HD (The Abyss) but only tried about 5. Basically it appears that any movie or show that is on HBO this month is available via HBO GO. This means that we couldn't go back and catch up on episodes of last seasons Entourage or Curb Your Enthusiasm, but we were able to watch Big Love and How to Make it in America. Finding things to watch was pretty easy as well. You could browse categories in either a list, thumbnail, or cover flow like view, and of course search. And like we said before, thanks to the Watchlist it is easy to queue up everything you want to see and watch it one by one.
No doubt pay TV providers see these streaming services as a way to add value to its offerings without giving those looking to cut the cord more reasons to try to go free. In fact HBO GO is just the latest in the line of services like ESPN360, EPIX HD, and even the Winter Olympics. We can't say we're crazy about the name though, after all it only works where you have internet access, which isn't everywhere we go, and it isn't exactly a mobile phone app either. Overall though we have to say that the intended goal has been reached. HBO GO gives subscribes an enjoyable way to watch content on the 3rd screen and is done in such a way that does kind of make you glad you pay for cable. So in other words, when we see big content creators like HBO go this far out of its way to add value to what we already pay for, it really does give us yet another good reason to keep paying that monthly cable bill.