There is a growing trend in Canada, one that after a few years has finally caught the attention of the largest telecommunications provider. True, Netflix had caught their attention a while back, but it took them a few years to finally accept the trend and make an effort to emulate and even innovate a little. An average of about 5-6% of cable TV subscribers are cancelling their service in favour of internet based providers annually in Canada alone. This trend has become known as “cutting the cable”. As internet speeds rise and content on streaming services like Netflix has grown, more and more Canadians have seen the value in the 90% or greater reduction in monthly cost. After much fussing and fanfare, Shomi has been launched.
My wife and I cut the cable from Rogers TV just over three years ago and decided to rely primarily on Netflix for our viewing. About a year or so after that we bought an inexpensive digital HDTV antenna which added a couple HD Channels to our free lineup. Between the two we had all the shows we wanted and even some sporting events (yay, golf on Global!). In the few rare moments we didn’t, often times we were able to stream via HDMI on my laptop. Occasionally there was an app on my XBox 360 that allowed us the same. In essence, we haven’t missed having (or paying) for cable. We are the very definition of the target Shomi is aimed at. I’ve taken the day to use this freshly released system and have found a lot of promise to be had. But before we get into the review…
What is Shomi, exacly?
You can get the answer right from Shomi themselves.
Shomi is a video streaming service created by Rogers and Shaw Communications. Launched just two days ago on November 4th, 2014 for a competitive $8.99/month with a 30 day trial for free. Shomi is currently only available to Rogers and Shaw internet or TV customers. You don’t need to have both services, just either or, which is key for a cable cutter like me. Shomi has an impressive array of TV shows and movies on launch, with dozens of exclusives thanks to their signing power with media producers and in house productions. They advertise over 1,200 movies and 347 TV shows at launch with more to come (Netflix Canada has 4,000 movies). Shomi does currently have limited mobile and integration, cross platform capabilities have been announced and are shortly on their way. This program has only just launched so expect it to grow as subscription base does. In addition there will be set tops, for Rogers and Shaw customers only, which will integrate with your cable TV experience seamlessly. A plus for those who don’t yet own a smart TV or a console of some kind. Now, on with the experience.
Frequent users of Netflix will find themselves right at home in Shomi. Interface and actions have a similar look and feel to the current Netflix UI. That said, however, I do prefer the interface of Shomi to Netflix. It’s more fresh and has a more modern flow to it, featuring the increasingly popular “Metro” design scheme. Popular and featured shows and movies are quick to launch. Your recently watched shows tuck nicely into a sidebar on the left. You can also add shows and movies to a playlist, nested below your recently viewed. This makes a lot more sense from a UI perspective. Recommended viewing, genres and age groups are all grouped and scroll vertically, similar to their Netflix counterpart. Content player follows the same scheme and works well. You can quickly access episodes lists while content plays and UI movement is slick. This UI would be right at home on a Windows 8 device.
Initial log in takes you through a customization process which lets you pick the preferred genres for your account, create accounts and modify attributes. As with Netflix, you can create a separate account for kids viewing. The interface flows smoothly and buffering is quick when playing shows. They load fast and buffer up to full resolution quickly. I will note that there must be some heavy bit-stream on content. My test machine is a fairly capable modern computer and even it chugged on the video as it first rendered. A HUGE plus for Shomi, for me at least, is how it doesn’t rely on cookies for show viewing. I use Firefox in private mode (history/cookies turned off) which means I can’t watch anything on Netflix. I have to switch to Chrome, cookies enabled, just to watch something. Shomi, on the other hand, just lets me watch content regardless of my browser or privacy settings. Big marks there.
Movie buffs and fans won’t be disappointed. Some exclusives include hit shows like Scandal and Sons of Anarchy, among a long list. I noted Men in Black 3 and Happy Gilmore (along with most of Adam Sandler’s others) just on first scroll through. Happy Gilmore made me very, very giddy. The lengthy list of launch content includes BBC’s Top Gear, Battleship Galactica, Borat, Dragon’s Den, American Horror Story, Narnia, DodgeBall, Modern Family, Veronica Mars and SO. MUCH. MORE. Seriously, that’s just naming off the things that flash before me on my dashboard. As with Netflix, it would take most of your 30 day trial to sort through the content and gauge it. Considering this is only a couple days after initial launch, selection is admirable.
This section is probably where most of the non technical people will check out and skim. If you want to know how much Shomi could potentially cost you, in addition to the monthly cost, this will tell you. Shomi, as with Netflix, allows you to customize the quality of your streams which in turn will dictate your total usage. I ran some tests of Top Gear episodes (since Netflix and Shomi both have it) and found the usage rates to be roughly the same. Netflix shows in full HD ran and average of 1.8Mbps (Mega Bits per second). Shomi pushed up to 2.1Mbps on average. These are rough numbers but should be fairly typical for full HD viewing. Crunching the math suggests a 90 minute length flick will take 1,417MB (Mega Bytes) of data on Shomi compared to 1,215MB on Netflix. While that means your compression on Shomi is less so quality is better, it also means you’re using an extra 200MB of data per movie. It only takes 10 movies in a month to have used 2GB (2000MB) more than with Neflix. That can easily cause people with lower bandwidth caps to get caught with overage charges. You would want to monitor usage initially and set your quality accordingly.
For the techie: How did I get my data? I use a Meraki MR18 wireless access point at home which tracks real time usage at layer 7 (application layer). This means I can see which applications and URLs are generating traffic and how much. Reports can be run in real time per client. I ran 25 minutes of each episode on my client and averaged the throughput used by both services through my access point. The Meraki dashboard is wonderful to play with, this was just another excuse to do so!
So, should you buy it?
Hmm, this is an interesting question. As a stand alone Netflix competitor, Shomi may find it difficult to get many converts its way. People who aren’t currently Netflix members, however, should definitely consider Shomi. Netflix will be raising the price of admission in 2015 which will make it a few dollars more per month than Shomi. As Shomi grows it’ll quickly begin to out-value Netflix as a serve, IF Rogers and Shaw are serious about growing it.
As a Netflix customer, however, it’s hard to decide if Shomi is worth adding to your roster. My initial hope was that Shomi would be a value add to current Rogers and Shaw customers, not an additional fee. If Shomi was free to current customers it would be an essential part of most Canadian’s viewing diet. Stand alone, however, it’s not quite where Netflix currently is. But Shomi shouldn’t be counted out just yet. If the service grows and continues to provide exclusive content and services that Netflix doesn’t, Shomi will make a strong case for itself. People currently pay extra to unlock US only content via some grey area services. When you consider this, Shomi’s current and potential value increases.
In short, the decision is yours. But try it out (if you can) for yourself, and don’t let negative media response turn you away. It’s free for 30 days. Give it that chance at least.