Streaming Media Stick Wars

3d1It began in August 2013 when Google introduced the Chromecast. A small, Rubenesque HDMI dongle that allows you to stream music and video to your TV or home theater, the $35 Chromecast was an instant hit. This groovy petite player allows popular media services like Pandora, YouTube, and Netflix to easily be sent to your home theater from any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet—and even laptops and desktop computers.

Then, in the spring of 2014, Roku introduced the $49 Streaming Stick, a slick little purple dongle that, like Chromecast, plugs into a TV or AV receiver’s HDMI port to bring you music and video streaming from the internet. Roku likes to tout how its dongle is “perfect for wall mounted TVs”; as are all of these svelt mini-streamers. Although slightly more expensive than its competition from Google, Roku’s streaming stick offers a dedicated remote control and so many more channels it isn’t even funny (like, um, 1,700 more, something Roku fans love).

Recently, the market for these mini-streamers got more crowded when Amazon announced the Fire TV Stick, the $39 dongle that falls between Chromecast and Roku in terms of price. Like Roku’s Streaming Stick, it features a nice, ergonomic remote. Unlike its competitors, Amazon sells a $40 game controller for the Fire TV Stick that allows you to play more than 200 different games. If you’re a casual gamer (as opposed to someone who needs an Xbox or Playstation to engage in their favorite first-person shoot out), the Fire TV Stick, with optional game controller, is a unique solution. It’s also pretty much the least expensive way—at $70 total—to get gaming into your living room.

rock streaming stickFor the most part, these inexpensive media streaming devices are more similar than different. They all plug into HDMI ports and require a dedicated power supply (they can’t get their juice from the HDMI port), so you’ll need a spare outlet around your TV or home theater gear. They all use wi-fi to ride on your broadband connection and suck down their audio or video stream from the internet. And they all offer major streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and a handful of streaming music services.

One thing all three of these streaming dongles have in common is being the little brothers to full-fledged “set-top box” media streamers from each company. Google’s new Nexus Player, the Roku 3, and Amazon Fire TV, all priced at $99, take streaming media to the next level, offering more robust features and functionality. Apple is the standout in offering a similar ($99) set-top streamer called Apple TV, but no HDMI dongle variant. One of the biggest advantages of these full-fledged media streamers—with the glaring and inexcusable exception of Google’s new Nexus Player—is their ability to connect to your home network and the internet via Ethernet hard cabling, eliminating the interference and connectivity problems inherent in wi-fi.

Google’s Chromecast is the odd man out in terms of bundling no dedicated remote. Not that there isn’t one: It’s your mobile device. Because this trend-setting device is platform agnostic, it matters not if you use an iPhone, Android smartphone, Samsung tablet, or the venerable iPad. Any Android or Apple smartphone or tablet works with Chromecast.

chromecastBut let’s be realistic, it’s all about the content. As sexy as the candy wrapper might be, what we really care about is the chocolate. Roku’s Streaming Stick offers all 1,800+ channels that its more robust sibling Roku devices deliver. This is, hands down, the largest selection of content offered by any company selling streaming devices. If you’re one of those consumers who blows away the average four hours of television programming consumption per day and desires the largest availability of channels possible: Stop reading this, look up the Roku Streaming Stick on Amazon, and click Add to Cart.

However, this plethora of channels isn’t all peaches and cream. Roku’s lineup offers hundreds of arguably crappy and often obscure channels, many of which are foreign language-based. According to PC Magazine’s review, “…individual channels are still a mish-mash and many aren’t integrated into the search feature, so you have to wade through a lot of things you might not want.” However, Roku wins the agnostic award for not twisting your arm to rent or purchase content from a particular ecosystem, unlike Amazon’s Fire TV Stick.

Speaking of the Fire TV Stick: This newcomer is perfect if you’re a subscriber to Amazon Prime and love to get your entertainment from Prime Instant Video. Like Apple TV, both Apple and Amazon do their best to push you into their respective iTunes and Prime Instant Video ecosystems.

fire tv stickGoogle’s Chromecast differs in terms of channel availability. Instead of serving up a canned set of channels, Google has created a platform on which other media streaming services can jump in if they choose. Thus, the Netflix and Hulu Plus mobile apps have been updated to support Chromecast. When running these apps, you simply tap the Chromecast icon and, voila, you’re watching it on your TV or home theater. The only problem—especially compared to Roku and Amazon—is that only about 35 streaming apps currently support Chromecast. However, if you’re like my cord cutting family and consume most of your entertainment from Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle, and Pandora, these major services all support Chromecast (in addition to Watch ESPN, HBO GO, Songza for music, Vevo for music videos, and, of course, iTunes wannabe Google Play Movies & TV).

So there you have it. Unfortunately, the game-friendly Fire TV Stick won’t be available until January 2015, so forget Santa leaving you one in your stocking (smooth timing, Amazon; what are you smoking out there in Seattle?). It’s nice to see the market for uber-affordable streaming media devices getting competitive and catering to different entertainment ecosystems.

And it’s only going to get better.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ebook Domination: When, Not If

Recently, I blogged about the inevitable dominance of all-electric vehicles over their gas-guzzling siblings. The conclusion was that saving the earth, sci-fi-level tech, and even Porsche-like performance will have little or nothing to do with the intrusion of electric powered vehicles into American garages. Instead, the primary motivator for middle class consumers will be lower cost and greater convenience.

ebook on ipad

An almost identical dynamic is occurring in the world of books. Amazon, the world’s largest book seller, announced way back in May 2011 that its sales of ebooks had exceeded those of traditional physical books (paperback and hardcover combined). Then, in January 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reported that his company’s ebook sales had jumped 70% from 2011 to 2012, while also pointing out how this compared to paper books:

“Our physical book sales experienced the lowest December growth rate in our 17 years as a book seller, up just 5%.”

In 2008, ebooks were so new that they were outsold by audio books and dismissed by many industry veterans—authors and publishing houses alike—as not even ranking within the relatively elitist world of publishing. Amanda Barbara, writing for Forbes in April 2014, said “Buying trends indicate the e-book industry is immature. After all, statistics show that more than 60 percent of readers still prefer print.” According to Aaron Pressman, writing for The Exchange, “Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that…ebook sales rose from $68 million to $3 billion [between 2008 and 2012], what’s technically known as a gazillion percent increase,” adding, “Absent ebooks, total print book sales did shrink about 8%.”

According to the latest stats, industry-wide ebooks sales topped $3 billion again in 2013—with a considerable percentage of legitimate sales not being reported (due to the archaic data gathering of the publishing industry). BookStats, a joint project between the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, reported that the number of ebooks sold between 2012 and 2013 rose by more than 10%, to 513 million.

The installed base of e-readers and tablets, like the iPad (Apple has sold more than 225 million as of October 2014), has finally grown large enough to allow ebooks to sell not only more units than their paper siblings, but is the logical precursor of greater industry revenue in the not-so-distant future. Although, granted, this increase might not be concentrated among a few behemoth old school publishers; it’s called the democratization of publishing for a reason. And the French weren’t able to invent democracy without axing a few heads (already, the legacy publishing business is consolidating).

3d1Yes, per-unit profits will be down, driven primarily by very low prices for titles downloaded to consumer mobile gadgets. But given how Americans enjoy low-cost impulse purchases—like fast food and crap not on their shopping list at Target or Walmart—the number of ebooks available for under $5 will motivate those twitchy fingers hovering over Buy buttons, resulting in record-setting numbers of books sold. It will just so happen that the vast majority of them will be inexpensive (i.e. $1-3) ebooks.

In 2010, when the Apple iPad was introduced, only 5% of Americans owned an e-reader and 4% possessed a tablet. Today, 32% own an e-reader and 42% tout a tablet. According to a Pew Research Center poll, the percentage of people reading books in digital form jumped from 16% to 28% from 2011 to 2014.

It’s not surprising that ebook sales are increasing due to the rapidly growing installed base of e-readers and tablets. It would be easy to assume that this is coming mostly at the expense of pricier hardback books. However, according to a May 2013 New York Times article, “Mass-market paperbacks, the smaller format of paperback popular in airports and grocery stores, also decreased in sales.” Also, one must remember that all of these statistics exclude sales of ebooks not featuring an ISBN, like many from unknown independent authors and even some from prominent scribes, like JA Konrath.

When the digital version of a book is $3-5 and the hardback is $15-30, consumers will allow their wallets to make the decision for them. What? I can get three, five, or even ten ebooks for the price of a single hardback? Granted, paperbacks are more affordable and the biggest sellers among physical books, but they still suffer from material costs, warehousing, shipping, and the dreaded returns system that the publishing industry continues to so primitively embrace.

Moving atoms is a bitch; shifting electronics is cheaper and easier (and more convenient for customers). Average ebook prices will only continue to decrease, with even legacy publishers beginning to see the light of a 21st century economy driven so strongly by digital media, mobile e-commerce, and lower prices for digital commodities, like songs and ebooks. (Yes, shocked ebook authors, you’re creating what is rapidly becoming a commodity, whether you like it or not.)

American middle class consumers want value. Whether we spend a little or a lot, it’s what we get in return that matters. We’re a society of convenience. But what if the most convenient route is also the least expensive, as is the case with ebooks? Anyone betting against ebooks—and any publisher not taking the digital domain seriously—is beginning to look increasingly bound for the dinosaur boneyard. You can almost instantly download and begin reading an ebook, which is likely markedly less expensive than its paper sibling. The convenience of having dozens and possibly hundreds of books on a single mobile device like an iPad, Kindle Paperwhite, or even a smartphone is certainly enticing—and objectively superior to physical books, especially for students and those with mobile lifestyles.

Like with electric cars, it’s simply price + convenience that will drive ebooks to dominance over ink on dead trees. This will be true even among readers who prefer paper to digital (I have only respect; there’s tons of them). Most of us are on a budget. Getting three or four ebooks for the price of a single paperback will motivate even digital naysayers and Luddites to embrace this new format, pushing it to clear market dominance.

Just as there are still candles (even though most of us use light bulbs powered by electricity), there will always be paper books. But they will get relatively expensive. As the installed base of mobile devices grows, the public sightings of physical books will eventually become rare. In the publishing industry, it will be lower per-unit cost—not gee-whiz technology—that will drive this migration from analog to digital.

In other words, don’t tell yourself that you prefer old school paper books, because you won’t decide to adopt ebooks: Your wallet will.

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Curt Robbins

Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.