Technology & Science·REVIEW

Shomi offers good variety of film, TV shows but lacks Netflix's features

Canadians will be able to sign up to Shomi for $8.99 a month regardless of their internet provider. But U.S. video streaming juggernaut Netflix offers superior functionality, features and catalogue breadth, so it's hard to justify Shomi's equal pricing.

New streaming service is wonky on some platforms, unavailable yet on others

The wide availability of Shomi means the video-streaming wars are underway in Canada. (Shomi)

With Shomi finally becoming available to the general public on Aug. 20, the video streaming wars are officially underway in Canada. 

The service was previously available to only Shaw and Rogers TV or internet customers, but any Canadian is now able to sign up to Shomi for $8.99 a month regardless of their internet provider.

With that, Shomi is going up against Netflix, the U.S.-based streaming juggernaut that has more than 62 million subscribers around the world. An estimated six million of those are in Canada.

Comparing the two isn't entirely fair, given that Shomi first launched in "beta" in November 2014 while Netflix has been streaming video since 2007. Then again, Rogers and Shaw are charging the same subscription fee as Netflix's main high-definition service, so apples-to-apples comparisons do indeed seem to be fair game.

After test-driving Shomi for almost three months, it's apparent the two competing streaming services can be judged on three merits: quality of content, functionality and features. Here's how Shomi stacks up against Netflix.

Content is king

Content is the most subjective part of any streaming service, which makes it difficult to judge "quality." After all, for every individual who loathes Glee, there is another who adores it. (Shomi does indeed have every episode of Glee, for what it's worth.)

The Canadian service does smartly try to differ from its chief rival by focusing mainly on current or recent hit shows. Whereas Netflix pushes movies and its original programming, Shomi puts comedies such as Modern Family and New Girl, and dramas such as Sons of Anarchy and Vikings, front and centre.

The reality of the streaming world isn't that different from old-style TV channels — there isn't likely to be a one-stop shop for everyone's programming needs.- Source

The series are generally up to date, featuring full episodes from previous seasons, usually up to last year.

Shomi has an exclusive deal to air Amazon's original content, starting with acclaimed comedy Transparent. The company says about 70 per cent of its content is exclusive, so it's the only streaming service in Canada with shows such as Jane the Virgin and American Horror Story.

On the downside, it's missing many sought-after shows from HBO and Showtime, such as Game of Thrones and Penny Dreadful. Many of these are either not legitimately available for streaming in Canada, or the rights have been sewn up by Netflix or Bell's CraveTV service, which is currently available only to TV subscribers. (Bell says CraveTV will open to the general public in January.)

The reality of the streaming world isn't that different from old-style TV channels — there isn't likely to be a one-stop shop for everyone's programming needs. To get everything they want, a discerning viewer will have to subscribe to multiple services.

This is a subjective judgment, but Shomi feels like it has enough variety of TV series to keep viewers interested for a long while. The shows are supplemented with more than 1,200 movies, although browsing through them can feel like rifling around in the bargain bin at Walmart. Many of the films listed as most popular, including The Simpsons Movie and Coraline, are more than a few years old.  

Netflix also has an unofficial content advantage in that you can access its inventory in other countries if you're willing to flout the rules and know your way around circumvention software such as virtual private networks. 

An estimated one-third of Canadian subscribers are accessing U.S. Netflix in this way, despite calls from Bell to clamp down.

Does it work?

It's easy to take Netflix's ubiquity for granted — the streaming service is available on just about every device imaginable. It's surprising you can't watch it on toasters yet.

U.S. giant Netflix is the main competitor for Shomi, and Bell says its streaming service, CraveTV, will be widely available next year. (iStock)
It's the other way around with Shomi. It's currently available on computers, phones and tablets, as well as Chromecast, Apple TV and Xbox 360. That sounds like a lot, but it's missing a swath of widely used products, including Roku devices, smart TVs and newer game consoles such as the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

During our test, we used Shomi on an iPad, Apple TV and Chromecast. It worked fine on the iPad itself but we experienced frequent problems when beaming to the Chromecast from the tablet. We had disconnect the two devices from each other and then reconnect frequently.

The Apple TV implementation worked for the most part, although video quality was sometimes lower in the evenings. The Netflix app on the same Apple TV, however, didn't experience similar dips in quality.

The Apple TV experience also suffers from Apple's outdated, plain grid interface. 

Netflix has continually developed its interface to the point where it's smooth and slick on almost every device, but it too is hampered on Apple TV.

Shomi users are thus stuck choosing between an older, antiquated experience or wonky newer ones. Support for additional devices can't come soon enough, but existing problems also need fixing.

Shomi the features

Navigating Shomi's colourful grids of content regardless of platform or device is smooth and pleasant, but the service lacks a few features that Netflix users have come to expect.

U.S. streaming juggernaut Netflix has been running since 2007. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)
The most noticeable is the lack of autoplay when an episode or movie is finished. Netflix automatically queues up the next episode or related film while Shomi requires a manual start. It's sometimes convenient not to have continuous streaming, but many binge watchers love autoplay.

Similarly, Shomi doesn't track viewing or remember where you left off on Apple TV, the main device used for the purposes of this review. If you're binge-watching a show, the onus is therefore on you to remember.

Netflix, on the other hand, remembers and shows you which episodes you've seen, regardless of which device they were viewed on.

Shomi also doesn't have the same algorithmic power to recommend content, instead relying more on its human staff to suggest shows and movies. Curated "collections" group similar content – for example, "Here Comes the Bride" features films about weddings, while "To Serve and Protect" is stacked with cop movies.

The collections are a convenient way to discover related content, but there's nothing personalized about them. While Netflix's recommendations aren't perfect, they are at least based on what you've already viewed.

Compounding the issue is the fact that Shomi doesn't easily yet allow for multiple user profiles, like Netflix does. Multiple profiles can only be set up by logging into Shomi's website. Fortunately for parents, Shomi does have a dedicated kids section.

Bottom line

Shomi works surprisingly well with a decent number of features for a service that isn't even a year old. It's also a relative bargain compared to a traditional TV subscription.

Even with the "quality" of content being a purely subjective thing, many viewers will find Shomi packs enough of it to be a veritable steal at $8.99 a month. However, when compared objectively against the superior functionality, features and catalogue breadth of Netflix, it's hard to justify its equal pricing to the U.S. service.

For those reasons, Shomi probably should be a bit cheaper than its rival, but that's something the market will have to sort out.

There is certainly room for more than one streaming service in Canada. But that doesn't mean they're going to be equal on all levels – especially pricing. That's perhaps the biggest difference from the old TV paradigm.

Clarifications

  • An incomplete version of this story was originally published. It has since been updated with the full version of the story that includes details on playback memory and profile creation.
    Aug 24, 2015 1:14 PM ET
  • This story originally reported that Shomi doesn't keep track of what you've viewed. In fact, it does track this information if the viewer is using the iPad app, but the Apple TV app does not offer this feature. And to clarify, viewers can create up to six separate profiles, but this must be done through the Shomi website (at the time of publication, it was not a feature of the apps).
    Aug 24, 2015 12:18 PM ET

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