Design and Setup
Update: With ABC iview and Tenplay on the Telstra TV, you can now access every Australian streaming service via the Telstra TV, so we’ve updated the review.
The biggest promise of the Telstra TV is a unified big-screen platform for all of Australia’s video streaming services. Since the arrival of Presto, Netflix and Stan, users have had to cobble together a variety of streaming and beaming solutions to watch all three services on a television.
The main holdout was Presto – While Netflix is available on everything and Stan has slowly made its way to both the Apple TV and now Sony’s PS4 and PS3 consoles, Presto was initially stuck on web browsers, tablets and phones since launch.
But now that’s all changed. Starting with the Telstra TV (and quickly followed by apps on Playstation devices), Presto is now easily accessible on the big screen.
And while the trio of Aussie SVOD apps are available on both Sony consoles and the Telstra TV, catch up TV is another matter entirely. The recent launch of Tenplay and ABC iview in the tail end of 2015 means that the Telstra branded Roku box is the only way you can access all of Australia’s SVOD and catch up services in one place.
That combination of the holy trinity of Australian SVOD services is undoubtedly the platform’s biggest selling point, but it has come at a cost.
While the Telstra TV is essentially a rebranded Roku 2, Telstra has taken a virtual hacksaw to the software in order to make it a truly Telstra device.
And make no mistake, that plays a big part in our final verdict of the platform. In a market that has Apple opening its successful (and historically closed) Apple TV platform up to developers, Telstra’s decision to essentially lock down what is a fairly open platform in its natural state is a definite frustration. But more on that later.
Given that the Telstra TV is essentially a rebadged Roku 2, the hardware is anything but a surprise. It’s still a small squarish box with a weird purple clothing tag coming out the side, plus USB, ethernet, SD card and HDMI ports around the back (and side).
But this time around, instead of saying Roku on the front and remote, it says Telstra TV, and those little cloth tags read “Roku powered”.
The puck is deceptively lightweight – not that you’ll notice once it’s tethered to your TV – and at 88.9 x 88.9 x 25.4mm it’s small enough that it can comfortably rest underneath a TV on a stand.
It’s quiet, and doesn’t seem to generate a huge amount of heat, so you could potentially stack it next to a games console without fear of burning the house down.
There are no physical buttons on the device to speak of – the Telstra TV instead sits in standby mode while waiting for a signal from your remote.
Integrated Wireless N means you can comfortably rely on a wireless connection to stream your favourite shows, but if you really want the best possible connection you’re going to take advantage of that ethernet port in the back.
The remote itself is a compact, no frills affair. The shortcut buttons to your favourite streaming services found on the Roku 2 are gone – not replaced with local services, simply removed from action.
This is a shame, really. While the selection is obviously different over here, having shortcut buttons to Australia’s SVOD platforms would be a keen differentiator for the Telstra TV.
But where the Telstra TV truly differentiates itself from Roku is in the software. Unfortunately, it’s not by opening up the Telstra TV to a whole range of content, but by locking it down to a much more restricted collection of apps and services.
The HDMI port on the back will pump out 1080p video streams. While it’s not the 4K streams we want (that you can get in the US in the Roku 4), it’s still on par with almost every other streaming device in Australia, so we can’t mark it down too much.
Setting up the Telstra TV is a relatively straightforward affair, although it’s worth noting that you will need a Telstra account ID to get things up and running.
You can probably make your way around this restriction by picking up a cheap Telstra pre-paid SIM, creating an account and then activating the streaming box, although we can’t say for certain this will work as we used our own Telstra account to get started.
Once you switch the Telstra TV on, you’ll be prompted to connect to a Wi-Fi network (if you’re not using that ethernet jack), and the box will then pull down the latest firmware before the installation carries on.
You’ll be prompted to add your timezone information, then you have to agree to the device’s terms. For those who like to speed through the T&Cs without actually reading what they’re agreeing to, you’ll hate the fact that scrolling through the terms with the Telstra TV remote takes ages.
Contract signed, the Telstra TV box will download its “pre-installed” apps (Presto, Stan and Netflix, plus a few more), before then requiring you to activate the box with your Telstra account.
To do this, you’ll need a web browser and a Telstra account. The Telstra TV will generate a code with a 30 minute refresh rate that you need to enter on a dedicated activation page. It’s a slightly roundabout process, but you only have to go through it once, so it’s an acceptable compromise.
Once activated, the box will give you three simple control tips, before updating those apps it only just downloaded – or maybe it’s the ones that were already there? It’s not really clear, but there’s definitely more downloading going on before you can start streaming.
The whole process takes about 15 minutes, so it’s not a massively laborious process. But it’s not fun either.
Content, Performance and Verdict
Telstra has included Presto, Stan and Netflix apps straight out of the box.
This combination – straight out of the gate – means that it’s got the best collection of SVOD services available on Australian boxes anywhere.
Catch up TV services are also well catered for – Yahoo!7’s Plus 7 app is there, as is SBS On Demand and 9’s JumpIn (the first time we’ve really seen it away from a browser or mobile app).
A recent update saw both TenPlay and ABC iview land on the device as well, which gives a fairly complete free-to-air suite of catch up services.
Also on the app front, you get BigPond Movies, YouTube, GoPro and RedBull out of the box. But the list of apps is fairly short: Alongside the ones already mentioned, there’s the Roku Media Player, Crunchyroll, TuneIn radio, WSJ Video, Vimeo, and AwesomenessTV.
Unfortunately though, anyone hoping to leverage the Telstra TV as a tool to access global streaming services, like the US Netflix catalogue or HBO Now will be entirely out of luck.
One of the biggest restrictions of the Telstra TV is that it locks down any ability to play with the device’s settings. So those who like to tweak the DNS to access the US streaming services and their larger libraries.
In and of itself, this probably isn’t going to phase too many customers. But when factored in with the fact that Telstra has locked down one of the Roku 2’s most endearing features – more than 2,000 niche content channels to choose from.
Instead, everything you get on the Telstra TV has been carefully curated by the telco. Again, for most people having access to Presto, Stan and Netflix will be enough, but for anyone hoping for the Australian Roku, this probably isn’t it.
Like the Roku box that it’s based on, the Telstra TV is incredibly easy to control. The remote has a simple, minimal button layout that is easy to come to terms with for even the most novice user.
At the top, home and back buttons prove to be key navigational tools. The four-way D-pad is next, with the OK button conveniently located in the centre.
Below the D-pad is the Roku’s two distinct buttons – a short rewind button that allows users to jump back 30 seconds to let you quickly catch up on missed bits of a show, while the asterisks button offers contextual menu options in certain situations.
Unfortunately, the remote isn’t the most responsive unit we’ve ever wrapped our hands around, especially when compared to the quick touchpad-unit paired with the new Apple TV. Trying to cycle quickly through a list of programs, or even type out your login details to Presto takes time, especially when not every press is recognised.
However, the bigger challenge isn’t in the remote itself, but in some of the local apps. While the Netflix app shows all the polish you’d expect from the global streaming service, some of the local offerings are comparatively archaic.
Presto, for example, is a disappointing experience. When you launch the app, you’ll see a large splash page suggesting you sign up if you’re new. That happens even after you’ve logged in and are regularly running the program.
That splash page will remain onscreen for about five seconds before a countdown clock appears in the bottom left corner that tells you it is about to start the app. So, 10 seconds after launching Presto from the menu, the app finally begins to launch.
However, it still takes the Telstra TV about another 20 seconds to actually present you with the content selection. 30 seconds to access content is pretty terrible in today’s day and age, especially when Netflix will get you to the content in a couple of seconds.
Once you’re in Presto, there’s no easy way to quickly continue watching something you’ve been bingeing, either. If you want to find a particular show, you have to press up from the menu, and either search for it manually or browse through the TV or Movie menus.
And when you are trying to binge on Presto, you will need to manually start every episode while watching on the Telstra TV.
The catch up TV services aren’t quite as disappointing – they all have the same navigation with a rather clunky on screen font and probably require a press too many to actually access content, but otherwise they are fairly responsive.
Stan’s app is a familiar experience to anyone who has used the PS4 or iOS version of the app. It’s also fairly quick to launch and easy to navigate, despite the remote’s seeming lethargy.
But overall, the experience wasn’t fantastic. It was easy, sure, but it seemed to lack polish and speed, something the new Apple TV delivers in spades.
One other quirk we noticed while reviewing was the fact that when you’re playing your own mkv files using the Roku Media Player app, the Roku box doesn’t decode a Dolby Digital audio signal.
Instead, it offers support via HDMI pass through, meaning that you need to have the Roku box plugged into a device (like an AV receiver) capable of decoding the format.
Depending on your setup, this could be a massive frustration, or it could be nothing.
Also missing from the Telstra TV is Roku’s universal search functionality, which lets you search for your favourite show and have the device tell you where you can watch it across your streaming services.
Apparently this will be released down the track in a firmware update which will help improve the device. But for the moment, it’s simply not there, which makes navigating to your favourite program just that little bit more difficult.
Until every streaming service manages to make its way to every smart TV and games console(or Presto gets around to an Apple TV app), the Telstra TV has a relatively unique selling point in being a one-stop shop for video streaming for Australians.
That’s a pretty enticing offer, given the variety of content between the services (and the fact that a subscription to all three is still cheaper than a decent Foxtel plan).
But having the content available isn’t the same as being a good product. And performance-wise, there’s still a long way to go for the Telstra TV before it becomes an essential partner to home viewing.
The good news is that almost every issue we have with the Telstra TV can be fixed with a firmware update, so we’re keen to see just how far Telstra takes this device in the future.
Well, you can’t go past the content selection. Telstra’s ability to bring Netflix, Presto and Stan, plus all the catch up services, onto a single platform is certainly noteworthy.
The controls and setup are fairly simple – easy enough for most punters to get right without calling up the family tech-support member at least.
And once things are streaming – well, the quality is generally pretty good.
The Presto app is, frankly, a disappointment. Despite the fact the platform has plenty of great content, it seems little thought has been given to actual user experience.
Some of the other apps, with the exceptions of the big global apps like Netflix, also suffer on the usability front, although not to the same extent as Presto.
Telstra has also cut back the versatility of the box this is based on, which means the wide variety of channels and custom settings have been locked down. While that probably won’t affect most users, it’s certain to challenge tech-savvy adopters looking for an Australian Roku product.
Even though externally, the Telstra TV is identical to the Roku 2 box it is based on, Telstra has done enough on the software front to deliver an entirely different product.
Sadly, we don’t think that these changes have actually improved the offer for Australian SVOD fans.
Sure, they’ve managed to collect all the local SVOD platforms in one place, but the truth is that the experience isn’t up to scratch, especially compared to the latest Apple TV’s UI.
There’s also the fact that the Sony Playstation consoles have all the SVOD services now, although lack the complete collection of catch up services
Still, for $109, the Telstra TV is priced well, and does have a unique content offering. With a few firmware updates, it could even become a must-have device. But for now, you’re probably better off saving your cash.