Thanks to some smart content partnerships, the Hotstar app in India has some of the most in-demand world content. Hotstar has partnered with Disney and has most of the company's content, from the latest films like Finding Dory, to classics like the original Jungle Book. You'll find Star Wars there as well, and many of the Marvel superhero movies. Thanks to its tie up with HBO, Hotstar also plays host to Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley, two favourites of audiences worldwide. That's not to mention live streaming of cricket and other popular sports, as well as its portfolio of other content in Hindi, English, and other languages.
While Hotstar has done a great job at acquiring content, the app remains stuck in a fairly broken state, which is so long overdue for an overhaul that the company might as well start over afresh.
Just as Hotstar's sports streaming has issues, the same can be said about the service's general user experience as well. We're not even talking about things like the Game of Thrones stream refusing to load for many users. After all, even HBO's own site couldn't handle the load, so Hotstar's woes on Monday morning can be filed as a one time thing that was resolved in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes.
On the other hand, the other issues that plague the Hotstar experience have been present from nearly the start. In various informal conversations, the company has said that it’s working on fixing most of them, but changes have come at a snail’s pace, at best.
For example, the company took a really long time to add Chromecast support, and when it eventually launched, it came without basic features like subtitles. Streaming used to drop off at random, and although this has now improved and subtitles have also been added, the fact is all this took months, even though these are standard features on rival platforms.
And that's barely scratching the surface - Gadgets 360 reached out to Hotstar to get an official statement on any improvements coming to the app, but the company has not responded so far.
A litany of woes
The overall experience of the service is so primitive, that it wouldn't be unfair to say that if Hotstar were to tie-up with another company who designed its app and website while streaming Hotstar's existing portfolio of content, everyone would be a lot happier.
As things stand though, the app has a long list of problems. For one, support across multiple devices is a joke. Your user account is only used as a simple toggle to determine whether or not you can access Premium content. Beyond that, everything is stored locally - videos you're watching can only be resumed on the same device; shows you watch are only listed on the same device; recommendations are based on your viewing history on - you guessed it - that device only.
So if, for example, you watch Hotstar on your phone when you commute, but use a Fire TV Stick at home, then your viewing progress doesn't sync between the devices at all. Watched half of a movie at home and want to finish it off on your commute? You'll need to to fast-forward your way to where you left it last.
Worse, there's no simple way to make a watchlist. The iPad app does support this feature, but it's the only one, and so you can't mark the shows or movies you want to watch later on any other device. Every time we open the app, if what we want to watch is not in one of the carousels already on screen, find it can be a real pain. All this really affects the usability of the app, particularly if you are someone who regularly juggles multiple devices.
While using the Hotstar app on Fire TV Stick, simply scrolling through the list of videos would cause the selection to jump about unreliably, and trying to use the search function made the app crash. The Hotstar experience on Apple TV isn't much better, though the app isn't as unstable as it is on Amazon's platform.
Add to all of this the fact that the "HD" stream that Hotstar offers is playing at 720p. On a phone that quality might be reasonable enough, but on a tablet, things start to look fuzzy. And if you're watching Hotstar on your TV, then it really takes a hit. Other streaming services have quality settings that go all the way up to 4K now - why is Hotstar resisting that?
Better than torrents?
The argument could be made that Hotstar is customising its app for India. The prevalent usage would therefore be on the smartphone, and it's possible that most of its user have just one device. Most people in India don't have a fast enough connection to justify full-HD (1080p), so forget 4K.
In such a scenario, ignoring multi-device usage, limiting the resolution to 720p, and poorly optimising smart-TV apps makes a certain kind of sense, if the company is limited in terms of resources. But in that case, the focus on getting shows like Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley, not to mention movies such as Deadpool, simply does not compute.
The fact is that nearly all of the issues we've raised about Hotstar here are not new issues - they've been plaguing the service since the start, and these are all problems whose solutions are well understood. You can see good implementations across a variety of platforms, so it's not like the streaming service has to do something truly original here.
Hotstar has done a great job on content. If it can do even half as good a job with its app, we'd be incredibly happy.