In the age of streaming and subscription-juggling, most of us tend to assess OTT platforms based on the kind of titles they offer and how much they appeal to us. But content aside, there's also the matter of the platforms themselves and how committed they are to optimising the watching experience.
At present, India has close to 50 OTT platforms (and counting), and each one has its own personality in terms of its features and how it functions (or in some cases, how it refuses to); whether it's about how easy its library is to navigate, or how it recommends, skips, autoplays and so on. From the bare basics to the snazzy value adds, here's our look at the viewing experience offered by some of the top streaming services and the pros and cons of each.
In terms of technology and intuitiveness of the platform, you really can't go wrong with Netflix. They're winning the streaming wars and for good reason. No platform remains as committed to offering an easy-to-use, issue-free watching experience, with every aspect of the platform designed to keep you watching.
Pros: Take your pick. The unrivalled algorithm for personalised recommendations or the ridiculously easy-to-use interface. Not to mention the impressive search function which finds what you're looking for and others like it, all before you've even finished typing out the full name. Right down to the smaller features like the 'Skip Intro' button or the slickness of how easily Netflix plays the next episode. Equally cool is their mini-screen feature on smartphones, which keeps the video playing in a smaller window if you go onto another app. Ideal considering much of their content is designed for ambient viewing.
Cons: It's hard to find faults with these folks, but if I had to nit-pick, their homepage autoplay feature (which automatically starts playing trailers as you scroll past them) has incurred the wrath of many. Although they recently introduced the option to turn it off. Then there's also their categorisation of films which isn't always accurate, especially when it comes to their Indian titles. Scrolling down to the 'Comedy' section you'll find titles like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Dear Zindagi and even Andhadhun. Also, strong programming and a robust platform comes at a price as they remain the most expensive platform out there, ranging from Rs 499 to Rs 799 a month. They do however have a mobile-only plan at Rs 199 a month.
Considering it's the other big streaming giant after Netflix, especially in India, it's surprising just how shoddy and clunky Amazon's platform is, with no effort being made to better it.
Pros: Though they do have a few things going for them. First is that reasonable price point of Rs 129 a month or Rs 999 a year. Then there's the one feature which is unique to them and admittedly quite useful – the cast tagging, which tells you the names of the actors in a scene. Not to mention the rolling pop-up trivia many of their newer titles have which is equally delightful. Like Netflix, Amazon also has the mini-screen feature on smartphones.
Cons: A few snazzy features aside, in terms of the bare basics Prime Video's simplistic layout and shoddy interface does a disservice to their titles. Where to begin? First there's what can only be loosely described as a 'search' function. While Netflix will accurately guess what you're searching for, give you a whole bunch of related titles, a hug and a high five, Prime Video's search will throw its hands up in defeat if you get all of one letter wrong.
Add to that a library which is anything but easy to navigate. Prime example (pun intended) when using the app on a smartphone, if you go to the 'Hollywood Movies' section for example, you'll see a filter button in the corner. Does it let you filter by genre? Year perhaps? Nope, you can only filter by clicking …'movies', while you're you know… already in the movies section. Truly ground-breaking stuff.
Also, if you search for a show, for reasons which are yet to be understood by the human race, each season appears as its own title, rather than as a single show under which you can select different seasons. Are they worried audiences just don't know how counting works?
Similar to Amazon, considering it's one of the world's biggest companies, you'd expect far better from Disney. You'd think they'd find some time in their busy schedule of spinning-off every superhero and Star Wars story out there, to invest more in the platform and interface.
Pros: In terms of what works well – free content. Disney+ Hotstar has arguably the largest bank of free (Indian) movies as compared to any other premium platform (though that means dealing with ads of course). Equally, the platform has movies across Indian languages and lets you sort through their movie library by language, and remains one of the few to do so. Additionally on the language front, they also offer many of their bigger Hollywood and Indian movies dubbed in multiple languages.
Cons: No personalisation whatsoever. Unlike Amazon, Netflix and SonyLIV, Disney doesn't offer a 'profiles' feature, which lets you create multiple profiles so the viewing habits and histories of different users can be recorded. So, sections like 'My Watchlist' and 'Continue Watching' can get jumbled up, which means if multiple users are watching the same show, you'll lose track of which part of which episode you were on.
The personalisation issue extends to the fact that, on the website version, all things are marketed to all people at all times. It doesn't matter if you're there for sports or serials or superheroes, it'll all look the same. Also, the homepage slider on the website version does nothing to reflect the latest buzzy releases. Instead it just has random popular releases. You'd think the newest shows like WandaVision or 1962: The War In The Hills would be front and center.
Then there's the all too common complaint that they have the motherload of Indian movies from the last few years but many of them without subtitles. More frustrating is that when they dub an Indian film in multiple languages, unlike Netflix, they don't tell you what the original language is. For example the recent Tamil films Bhoomi and Teddy are available in Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu but only googling will tell you that they're originally Tamil films, meant to be seen in Tamil. And there's more. If I select 'Telugu' in the 'Movies' section I'd like to see their selection of Telugu movies, for which I need to first wade through a sea of Hollywood movies dubbed in Telugu.
The new player on the block, SonyLIV relaunched in 2020 with a shiny new look and a new slate of promising originals. But how does the platform itself stack up?
Pros: For starters, the first episode of all their originals is free which helps sample the shows and make an informed decision. Unlike Disney+Hotstar, SonyLIV does have the Profiles features which let's multiple users keep track of watching different things. Like Netflix and Prime Video, they also have the mini-screen feature on smartphones.
Cons: Despite offering profiles, there isn't much personalisation on offer here making it tough to navigate. If you, for example, are someone only interested in their English content or originals like Scam 1992, you still have to wade through sports and soap operas and other categories to find what you're looking for.
Add to that the fact that they don't seem to offer a 'Skip Intro' feature which is now just the bare basics for all streamers. Also, aside from many movies in their library not having subtitles, they also seem to have a feature called partial subtitling, wherein a number of their shows like Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist have subtitles for some episodes and not others. Moreover, their Movies page is also poorly structured and appears to keep recommending the same titles over and over again in different categories.
ZEE5 is by far the most prolific Indian streaming platform, having produced more than 60 titles last year, spread across more languages than any other platform. But the platform itself isn't as impressive.
Pros: Like SonyLIV, they offer first episodes of all their originals for free. There's also that reasonable price point of Rs 99 a month or Rs 999 a year.
Cons: Unlike other platforms where the Skip Intro button takes you to a second before the episode starts, ZEE5's Skip Intro takes you a few seconds into the runtime of the episode which can be quite frustrating. Like Disney+ Hotstar, ZEE5 doesn't let you have multiple profiles to track multiple viewers. Also, despite shows in multiple languages, there's no way to filter by language. On top of that, if a film is dubbed in multiple languages, each version is seen as a different title and there's no way to change the language while watching the movie, know which languages it's available in or even what the original language is. Their 'Skip Intro' button also extends to certain movies, but in the case of movies like Khaali Peeli, pressing it means skipping the first scene of the movie.
Given its popularity, clearly what matters for a large base of Indian audiences is price over prestige content, or in this case a lack of price. But being free of costs comes with its own kind of price.
Pros: It's free, you don't even have to create an account to watch stuff. They also let you filter shows shows by genre and movies by language.
Cons: It's so frustrating when you go on MX Player to watch ads and sometimes they randomly play web shows in between. In short, there's ads. A lot of ads. Next is their temperamental subtitles which seem to have a mind of their own considering you need to keep turning them off and on again to ensure they appear. Also, much like ZEE5, MX dubs shows in multiple languages but it doesn't tell you what the correct one is, for those who don't want to have to endure poor dubbing. Prime example is their flagship Tamil show Queen which is available in multiple languages, but it's near impossible to tell which one's the original language.
The correct answer is Tamil-English which is somehow different from the Tamil version. Yes it's that frustrating.