Disney+ is now officially in South Africa. The service launched earlier this week to a rocky start. On launch day, users raged as their 12-months-for-the-price-of-8 promo emails took what felt like forever to arrive. Then there was that awkward private information breach where subscribers logged into their account only to find someone else’s email address and cellphone number listed on the service. Let’s not forget the downtime yesterday that saw Disney+ go offline for over an hour. Worst of all, Disney hasn’t said a word about any of this. In fact, the social media accounts have just gone about their day sharing trailers for upcoming shows and movies. The so-called “support” channel has been replying to tweets… two days later.
But launch issues aside, Disney+ does have an incredible lineup of content that will keep you binge-watching shows and movies for months ahead. I especially love the classics like Ugly Betty, Fresh Off The Boat, Family Guy and The Simpsons. It is made even better by the fact that these shows are actually complete with up to 33 seasons to get through. In a country where we have been locked behind incomplete shows and time-limited releases, this is great news.
However, underneath all the Moon Knight hype and Kardashian glitter, Disney+ is a pretty horrible experience in South Africa. It all boils down to one word – “Hotstar“. You see, the South African version of Disney+ isn’t what it seems. Underneath the library of content is an entirely different platform in comparison to the US, UK and EU Disney+.
Think of it as an Audi. You get Audi which is the fancy, top-tier experience with the best trimmings, support and experience. Then you get VW which is still a car but it isn’t an Audi. It is made by the same company but it just isn’t an Audi. Disney+ in South Africa is that VW. We can still use it, watch everything the US version has (bar a few exceptions) and the latest releases will arrive on day one on the platform. However, behind the “car” there’s an engine that doesn’t run as fast, plastic finishes instead of leather and a service that is well…. not an Audi.
While the launch of Disney+ is exciting in South Africa, Hotstar is a hot pile of garbage in comparison to the real deal. While Disney doesn’t specifically tell you that South Africa is using Hotstar as its platform, the ugly truth is revealed throughout the experience. Almost everything Disney+ offers from a user experience is dumbed down on the Hotstar platform. Sadly, this is mainly due to the app and what users can and can’t do on Disney+ because of… well, Hotstar.
The biggest drawback of the Hotstar platform is its streaming quality. If you have noticed your streams looking a little low-res, perhaps your sound quality is muffled and your video quality isn’t as sharp, it is because Hotstar uses a lower bitrate than Disney+ resulting in a subpar experience. Those who have used a VPN previously to watch the US Disney+ will immediately notice the difference when booting up the South African version. This is especially found in the sound quality across HD streams which lack any sort of surround sound codecs. Most of the time, you’re getting muffled stereo sound. Sound also drops in and out of 5.1 and stereo at times which is definitely related to a lower bitrate issue.
I noticed this when watching Wandavision. Comparing the video quality between the US and South African apps shows a very different stream. The US version is a lot clearer and the sound is punchier. The South African version isn’t on the same level. While both apps trigger Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision to kick in, I found myself turning up the volume to a higher decibel on the SA version due to its subpar sound quality.
For me, knowing there is a better quality version of a stream out there is tough to live with. I would rather find alternative ways like a VPN to watch that version than sit and view a half-assed stream using this Disney+ “cough cough Hotstar” app. I won’t apologize, we live in a time where Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision have elevated home entertainment and for Disney+ to release content that doesn’t meet its so-called “quality” standard isn’t acceptable. We are also living in South Africa. We have internet lines that can support higher bitrate streams. We own TVs that can do all the fancy things the US version of the app needs. This lower streaming quality is just sad and disappointing.
Users have also complained about the poor scaling of content across the app. Shows and movies stretch across the screen out of their original aspect ratio. There are also a lot of problems with HDR which doesn’t seem properly implemented either. In fact, most of the HDR content looks like SDR content with a colour gamut algorithm faking real HDR. Bright scenes aren’t as bright as they should be and the colour is washed out.
If you feel like the Disney+ app is missing the most basic features that is because it is. The Hotstar version is a sad replica of the US Disney+ app and from the moment you launch it, you’ll feel its cheap and clunky design. The iPad app, for example, cannot be used in landscape mode. This means everything on the app is shown in portrait and when you start something you have to rotate it around. I felt like those technophobes who sit and shake their iPad in hopes that the screen magically flips orientation so I could leave the screen in landscape and just click and watch.
This is NOT the iPad app we got
The app is also missing the most basic features. There are no downloads. So you can’t download shows and movies for when loadshedding kicks in. Chromecast doesn’t let you skip intros or credits or even go to the next episode without watching all the credits. Let’s not mention the complete lack of categories and non-existent algorithms that recommend new content to watch. Right now, this Disney+ app is for those who know what they want to watch. Good luck finding classic movies or collections of content. It’s just Disney telling you to watch what they are selling.
The Hotstar implementation also has its limits. Due to its SMS requirement to log in to Disney+, you won’t be able to log in if you can’t get that SMS. While you enter your email address when signing up for the service, this isn’t used as a form of authentication. In fact, if you change your number, you’ll have to ask Disney support to port your new number over to your account. It is not just a simple change of email.
South Africans who travel a lot will also be locked out of their local Disney+ account. If you try and log in to your SA Disney+ app while in another region that doesn’t use the Hotstar platform, you’ll have to sign-up and pay for a subscription in that country.
But Hotstar has done a great job hiding away its involvement in this launch. The app was originally used for only Fox and Star streaming. It was also very different from the US version. For example, Disney+ originally locked the Hotstar service behind two concurrent streams and four profiles. However, to make this platform align more with its US counterpart, they drastically redesigned the app to almost look identical from the outside and boost the streams to four and user profiles to seven.
Also NOT the app we got
A clear sign that we are using the horrible Hotstar app is seen in The Simpsons. The older episodes of the show stream in its remastered 16:9 format instead of 4:3. The real US Disney+ app comes with a feature that allows users to toggle between the classic format and the remastered format. Sadly, Hotstar doesn’t let us do this.
I could go on all day about this but you kinda get the point here. Disney+, while being an exciting new service in SA, feels cheap and pretty underwhelming. I don’t know if they thought South Africans didn’t have the technology to benefit from the best experience or if they lowered the quality to match the R119 price point. Honestly, if I could pay more for the real experience and get real 4K Dolby Vision and all the bells and whistles, I would. It is just a pity this is what we got… Given how little Disney has done to improve the experience where Hotstar is available, I don’t see this improving anytime soon.