Until now, we have been talking about free tv. Streaming isn’t free. For starters, there is a cost for internet access. To stream, you need a high speed internet connection with low latency, lots of bandwidth, and no throttles or caps. That’s not free. In fact, if the cable company is the only high speed internet provider in your community, you may find high speed internet alone costs as much as internet plus basic cable and you may learn that the high speed internet is capped and or throttled. If you happen to have access to reasonably priced high speed internet, streaming can provide access to content that is very comparable to programming from a premium provider.
Warning #1: Streaming media boxes are not a replacement for a premium service provider. These streaming appliances pull videos from web sites, format them for your television, and wrap the whole thing in a ten foot user interface. There’s nothing wrong with that. Understand that Fox News on a Roku is foxnews.com not Fox News on Comcast and that PlayOn’s CBS channel is more like CBS.com than the broadcast channel. For the most part, these apps play files and clips rather than streaming programming continuously.
Warning #2: For the most part, there are no professional sports on streamers. There are apps for MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL, but they are not free, usually require some kind of premium television subscription, and generally black out live, local events.
Warning #3: Streaming doesn’t ‘just work’. Streaming media is a collaboration. The streamer, its network provider, your network provider, your network, your appliance, and the internet have to get things right to produce a good streaming experience. When Netflix has a bad night, you have a bad night. Poor quality, buffering, and disconnects are not uncommon. When these problems arise, count on your ‘partners’ to disappear.
There are streaming appliances and appliances that stream. If you are planning to supplement your broadcast television with Netflix and/or Prime, most appliances will accommodate you. If you plan to rely primarily on streaming for entertainment, some appliances offer more programming. I’m only going to look at devices I have significant experience with. Your mileage may vary.
Roku: Roku has more apps than any other streamer. That’s what they say, anyway. It’s got enough, that’s for sure. Roku’s apps are divided into three categories: official, private, and rogue. Official apps can be installed from the Roku Channel Store. Private apps must be found in the wild. Sometimes these are promoted on the Roku fan forums, but, more often the private apps are found on web sites that promote private apps. mkvXstream maintains a very good list of private Roku apps as well as a list of adult entertainment apps for the Roku.
All subscribed apps show up on all Rokus on your account. If you subscribe to an adult app on the Roku in the wood shop, it will be on the channel list in the living room. You’ve been warned.
Rogue apps are banned from Roku altogether and must be sideloaded by the consumer. I only know of one of these. It (VideoBuzz) happens to be the best YouTube app for the Roku.
Roku apps can get expensive. Read the fine print. Some apps are bought outright. Sometimes upgrades are not included in the purchase price. Some apps have a monthly fee. Some apps must be purchased and charge a monthly fee for content.
If you are shopping for a Roku, note that the only two Rokus getting the new apps are the Roku 3 and the new HDMI stick. The HDMI stick is too slow for these apps and has a lot of issues with RF interference.
Amazon Fire TV: The Fire TV streamer is the best streamer available at this time. It combines the most popular features of Apple TV, Roku, and Ouya in a sleek package which is much faster at the same price point. I think it is worth noting that Amazon warrants its streamer for a full year while the others only stand behind theirs for 90 days.
The Fire TV is better hardware than Apple, Roku, or Ouya devices. A faster processor, more memory, usb, wired and wireless ethernet, and optical out all perched on a substantial heat sink ensures cool, smooth operation.
Fire TV has apps for the most popular services. The Netflix app supports profiles. The Plex app is being revised. It looks great but lacks some recent features like Play All. The YouTube app can be linked to a PC or tablet so that items selected on that device are played on the TV if the app is running. I like this a lot. There are not a lot of news apps, but I like Now This News.
The Fire TV is a really decent casual game console. Fire TV launched with 136 games. Thirty of these are free. If you have already purchased an app for your android device, you get the Fire TV version for free. Familiar titles include Crazy Taxi, Deus Ex, Minecraft, Prince of Persia, Sonic, Rayman, and Tetris. Games can be played with a usb Xbox controller, an Amazon Bluetooth controller, or the included remote.
Fire TV supports Parental Controls, Amazon’s Freetime, Second Screen, and voice search.
More Options: Apple TV Google and Chromecast are highly regarded alternatives.
Appliances that Stream
Most people stream Netflix, Amazon Instant, and/or Hulu. Smart TVs, blu ray players, and other devices stream the main services. Netflix is available on most devices. Amazon maintains this list of devices that stream their Prime service. Hulu maintains this list of compatible devices.
BDP-S5100: Right now, my favorite streamer is the Sony BDP-S5100 (replaced by the BDP-S5200. This sub $100 3D blu ray player streams…
- Amazon Instant
- Simple DVR
The BDP-S5100 is a highly regarded 3D BD player which upconverts standard DVDs, plays files off a thumb drive, and streams video. It has both wired and wireless internet, can play files of a USB disk, and included apps from Sony Entertainment and the Opera App Store.
The BDP-S5100 includes a web browser (authenticating on public WiFi is not supported on other streamers). You can plug a keyboard into a USB port to help navigate the internet with the built in web browser.
Other areas where the BDP-S5100 distinguishes itself from other streamers…
- Sleep timer (my TV shuts itself off after the BDP-S5100 goes into sleep mode)
- Parental Controls
- HDMI Control with compatible televisions
- Advanced BD settings
- Rock solid performance
- Snappy PS3-like user interface
- Remote controls TV functions; has Netflix and SEN hot buttons; takes AA batteries
Hulu Plus: If your broadcast reception is not great or your selection of programming is limited, Hulu is a great alternative. For $8 per month, Hulu streams recent episodes of popular programs. The programs include ads. A Hulu Plus subscription includes access to a library of movies. Learn more about Hulu Plus here.
Netflix: Netflix is the most popular streaming service. $9 per month gets you access to ad free tv and movies for all ages. Profiles and parental controls make Netflix family friendly. Learn more about Netflix here.
Amazon Prime: Amazon bundles free movies and television with books, music, and shipping discounts in its Prime Service for $100 per year. The Prime library is growing fast, but still trails Netflix. Learn more about Prime here.