Songza & Pandora: Affordable Music Discovery

3d1I try to use a variety of streaming music services. Not simply because I write about consumer tech and home theater, but also because music streaming is such a dynamic and competitive space. Services are continually enhancing their features and expanding their song catalogs.

But my family keeps coming back to two services: Pandora and Songza. Pandora is one of the most popular music discovery services in the world. Songza, on the other hand, is relatively unknown. Both are also among the most affordable music services—Songza being free, while Pandora can be had ad-free for as little as $3 per month. Both also support Chromecast, important for listening on a real set of speakers or your comfortable living room home theater.

While I listen, commercial-free, to the Kenny Barron Trio on Songza’s Jazz for Reading station, enjoy my latest blog post (an excerpt from Home Theater for the Internet Age). And while you’re at it, check out some of the tunes on these great services.

After all, who wants to read in silence?

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Curt Robbins


Songza

Songza, owned by Google, is one of the lesser known and more unique music discovery services. It’s unusual due to how you select radio stations and the lack of paid subscriptions. While free with ads is your only option, the ads are pre-play video commercials and display banners only. From a listening perspective, there are no commercial interruptions. Songza doesn’t offer on-demand listening or locker storage, and supports only a wimpy bit rate of 64 Kbps. Chromecast support gives it an advantage over many otherwise more powerful services, especially among home theater owners.

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Like Pandora and iTunes Radio, Songza imposes skip limits. Overall, it’s an excellent music discovery service with a fresh look and youthful sense of humor. According to Chris Welch at The Verge, Songza is “a music streaming app that places a huge focus on curation and finding the right song for any moment.”

The “right song for any moment” involves Songza generating radio stations based on the time of day or your current situation or activity. For example, when logging into Songza, you’re met with a screen that reads something to the effect “It’s Sunday Late Morning, Play Music for:” that lists “Waking Up Happy,” “Drinking Gourmet Coffee,” “Recovering From Last Night,” and “Working Out.”

Because it’s free, Songza can be a nice alternative to your go-to full-blown on-demand service. It brags that its playlists are curated by a team of 50 experts from throughout the music industry, not computer algorithms. The fact that this free service features no audio ads (which its music-loving founders say “ruin the vibe”) gives it an edge over rivals iTunes Radio and Pandora’s free version.

When casting Songza with Chromecast, the service will display on your TV beautifully crafted screens containing basic song information, including high-resolution, original album artwork. The artwork looks great on a big display panel. These are without a doubt the most attractive song info screens I’ve seen, better than Pandora and Google Music when played via Chromecast, and a lot nicer than iTunes Radio ala Apple TV. While this might seem trivial, it’s great for home theater owners and takes advantage of your big display panel investment. Sometimes I launch Songza just so I can see those beautiful album covers on my widescreen TV! And now my kids actually know who Miles Davis is.

I strongly recommend checking out Songza—but only if you live in North America, the territory to which it’s limited (it’s one of the few services available in Canada). Now that it’s owned by Google, anticipate bit rates and other aspects of this service to improve or expand. There’s a reason Songza won PC Magazine’s Editor’s Choice for free music streaming service.

Pandora

Pandora, probably the most recognized music streaming service, has more than 75 million monthly listeners and 250 million registered users. Ironically, it’s also one of the most limited services in terms of functionality. Pandora popularized the “radio” listening format, streaming a constant flow of songs related to the name of a custom station. The ability to set it and forget it is one aspect of the service that makes it so popular. However, because this is a radio-only service, there’s no on-demand listening.

Pandora, Songza, Rdio, Rhapsody, and Google Music are currently the only music services to support Chromecast, a major consideration for any home theater owner who would rather listen to music produced by their living room speakers than suffer with the tinny, hollow sound produced by a tablet or laptop or mess with a hard connection from their mobile device to their AV receiver (if the receiver even supports it).

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While Pandora’s one million song catalog is significantly smaller than that of most rivals, it is expertly curated and leverages the Music Genome Project, something Pandora claims is the “most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected.” What this means for the average listener is that Pandora is very good at guessing which songs you’ll actually enjoy. After a bit of training (via thumbs up and thumbs down), Pandora does an uncanny job of choosing songs that you either have already heard and love or new songs that you somehow begin feeling like you can’t live without.

Pandora is available in both free and subscription-based accounts. Free accounts force you to endure audio and display ads, while the $36 per year and $4 per month paid accounts eliminate all commercials, boost the bit rate to 192 Kbps (but only on a PC running Pandora One or via Chromecast), and increase the number of permitted skips and thumbs down.

The biggest disadvantages of Pandora are relatively low bit rate, (especially on the free service), limited availability (only the United States, Australia, and New Zealand), and the repeat of songs due to the relatively small song catalog (more noticeable during longer listening sessions or for very niche stations).

Like Rhapsody, Pandora is also bundled into a significant number of consumer hardware products, such as smart TVs, Blu-ray players, video streaming boxes, and AV receivers (my Pioneer Elite receivers both integrate Pandora access directly into the input menu, as do my Blu-ray players and Panasonic TVs). Pandora is conspicuously absent from Apple TV, but only because Apple offers competing services in the form of iTunes Radio and Beats Music.

For those who reside within its limited global reach, Pandora is an excellent choice. You’re permitted up to 100 radio stations, so you can easily suit a number of listening scenarios and moods. The few bucks a month you toss at Pandora’s ad-free version will always feel like money well spent.

[What’s your favorite streaming music service? Why? Let me and my readers know in the comments below.]

[Also check out Streaming Music: The Types. If you like to drink coffee and listen to music when you read or do online research as much as I do, check out Improving Coffee.]


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.

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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.

Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?

3d1[Updated August 6, 2015]

The market for streaming media devices has, quite favorably, become somewhat crowded in the past year. Apple TV, Roku’s lineup, Amazon Fire TV, Chromecast, and Google’s new Nexus Player all vie for the dollars of both cord cutters and cable subscribers alike.

Macworld UK reviewed the now $69 Apple TV in the summer of 2014. It’s biggest criticism: “Not much content.” When I first purchased my two Apple TV units in the spring of 2013, the service offered roughly 25 streaming services—some requiring subscriptions (like Netflix and Hulu Plus), some requiring a cable or satellite TV account (the Disney channels, for example), and some free (Sony’s ad-supported Crackle, among others).

Today, Apple TV offers 74 channels—including Google’s YouTube, Vimeo, the new HBO NOW, and more specialized stuff like Bloomberg TV for financial news, Vevo for music videos, and even Yahoo’s Flickr for crowdsourced photos (which can even serve as a source for Apple TV’s screen saver, a very groovy feature indeed).

If you don’t own an Apple TV, but checked out the channel lineup a year or two ago, you’ll be pleased to know that it now provides several channels from mainstream TV that were previously absent. These include ABC, CNBC, Smithsonian Channel, Fox Now, and Britain’s Sky News—all of which require no cable/sat TV subscription (but you’re also getting canned episodes and segments, not a live stream). Many channels, however, require old school TV service and a login to watch on Apple’s venerable streaming box. These include Disney’s multiple offerings, PBS and PBS Kids, FX Now (famous for featuring every episode of The Simpsons), reality-leaning A&E, and grandpa’s favorite, the History channel.

There’s also access to top-tier “premium” services from the cable/sat TV world, including HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, and Disney’s ESPN. Even with basic cable, these avenues for high-quality entertainment will serve only to taunt you from Apple TV’s navigation menu. Slowly, but surely—in its own very purposeful fashion—Apple continues to offer more channels and expand the offerings of its industry-leading set-top streamer.

And then there’s the other big ecosystem-driven box: Amazon Fire TV. Like Apple’s offering, this same-price ($99) media streamer caters to people who subscribe to Amazon Prime and utilize the company’s Prime Instant Video (one of the best options for folks who don’t want Netflix, or to supplement it, and have no desire to watch stuff from iTunes). Fire TV offers some features absent from Apple TV, like a more intelligent remote, but also continually pushes users into Amazon’s ecosystem for rentals and purchases of music, movies, and TV episodes.

apple tv for blogRoku’s various streaming devices—it sells four (priced at $49-99); more than any competitor—are the agnostic “do everything” media muscle residing in the middle. Roku’s website legitimately boasts “Over 1000 more channels than Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Chromecast.” Roku has definitely differentiated itself from Apple’s minimalist channel lineup. For those who watch a ton of TV (especially cord cutters) and want the widest selection of channels available—including a boatload of obscure, arguably crappy, and fringy foreign language programming—Roku is the hands-down winner in the streaming media box wars.

One of the most appealing features of Apple TV is support for AirPlay, Apple’s wi-fi-enabled media casting tech. Built into all of the company’s mobile gadgets and computers, AirPlay allows you to send music and video to your TV or home theater with the tap of an icon (said CNET in August: “AirPlay is just awesome”). Some AV receivers, like many from Yamaha, Denon, and Pioneer Elite, already have AirPlay built into them. For most consumers, however, Apple TV is a great way to AirPlay-enable your display panel and surround sound speakers. But, again, this will be appealing only for those with multiple iOS and OS X devices already in use.

And let’s not forget Apple TV’s slim and sleek aluminum remote control. While it might sound trivial, the remote is a critical element of any media streamer. It’s the part you touch, toss on the ottoman, and sometimes curse. But Apple has some work to do in this department. Its remote supports only infrared (IR; a beam of light), not a radio frequency like Bluetooth or wi-fi. This means you have to point it at the small black Apple TV puck sitting next to your TV or AV receiver. This is a huge pain for many, like me, who have a TV mounted on a wall opposite their home theater gear and must point the remote behind them. Both the top shelf Roku 3 and Amazon Fire TV feature radio frequency-based remotes. Unlike Fire TV’s offering, the Apple TV remote also doesn’t support voice navigation and search.

roku 3The “match” between a consumer’s lifestyle or preferences and a media streaming device should depend most on one’s existing (or planned) digital ecosystem. If you have several of Apple’s iOS mobile devices floating around your home, Apple TV makes sense. If you don’t—and enjoy Amazon’s Prime Instant Video, for example—it probably doesn’t. Apple is obviously catering to its huge installed base of tablets, smartphones, and computers.

Who gains the most from Apple TV? Consumers who use iTunes to consume music, movies, and TV episodes, people who love to groove to Beats Music for on-demand songs or enjoy iTunes Radio for Pandora-like music discovery, and those who can’t do without their beloved iPads, iPhones, and other iDevices.

Quite honestly, those who simply suck down tons of Netflix and Hulu Plus, and own few or no Apple devices, can gain equal benefit from nearly any streaming media box. Personally, I’d recommend the Roku 3, unless you’re really into Amazon’s ecosystem and you’re a lightweight gamer, in which case the Fire TV is probably most appealing.

Don’t make the mistake of pigeonholing Apple TV into a corner appropriate only for fanboys. I’m an Apple fan, but not a fanboy. With two iPads, a Mac Mini, and several iPod Touches floating around my house, Apple TV simply works. The intuitive navigation, slick interface, and Apple’s minimalistic DNA shine through. If you’re a fan of Apple’s design and approach to all things digital, you’ll feel right at home with this premium media streaming device.

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Curt Robbins

[For more of my opinions regarding Apple, check out Back to Apple and Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot.]


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.

Apple vs. Google: Where Focus Meets Buckshot

Apple’s success can be directly attributed to its intense focus on enticing design, superior build quality, and an overall excellent user experience. Yes, there’s the highly manipulated and hyperbole-laden product release press events. But despite all criticisms, few can deny that Apple’s products are either the best or among the very best available.

Unlike Google, Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC, and many other Android-fueled smartphone manufacturers, Apple puts its considerable R&D and channel partner weight behind only two models—the last generation iPhone 5C and 5S and the current 6 and 6 Plus.

Only Two

Likewise, in tablets, Apple offers only two, the iPad Mini and the full-size Air. Desktop computers? Only three models: Mac Mini, iMac, and the brawny Mac Pro. Laptops? MacBook Air and the venerable MacBook Pro, two of the most popular computers in the world. Regardless of the number of products it its stable, Apple’s intense focus on the user experience and overall quality of its gadgets is an inspiration to the CEOs of both small startups and multinational corporations alike.

One thing Apple doesn’t do, however, is moon shots. That’s the territory of Google and, more specifically, co-founder and 30x billionaire Sergey Brin. Google’s daredevil and left-leaning computer scientist “directs special projects,” according to Google’s official Management Team webpage. He’s also been described as an “enlightenment man” by The Economist.

apple vs google for twitterThe products of Brin’s efforts? Self-driving cars (legal to “drive” in California and Nevada), Google’s Project Loon, an internet delivery mechanism intended to help previously unserved regions of the world via what’s basically a high-altitude weather balloon, and the infamous and celebrity-endorsed Google Glass smart glasses (the owners of which, when wearing them in public, are said to be glassholes by the gadget’s critics).

Lab Experiments

I’d argue that Google Glass and Project Loon are really just lab experiments with an abundance of media exposure and good PR. This is despite the fact that Glass is now available for anyone to purchase. But at $1,500, it’s an expensive experiment in wearables on the part of customers, the pursuit of which defies the practical disposable income of most middle class consumers. The self-driving cars, however, are truly impressive. They do more than provide gee-whiz technology to a burgeoning generation of millennials who are less concerned with driving than the status of their social media lives. They disrupt—and in a big way.

As impressive as Google’s self-driving cars are, two of Google’s three major moon shots are currently unavailable to even the most well-heeled consumers. Apple’s products, meanwhile, can be purchased anywhere, including Walmart, Amazon, and Best Buy. Contrasting the two companies, in many ways, is truly comparing apples and oranges. Another difference between these tech titans is Google’s offering of affordable ultra-high-speed residential internet service in the form of Google Fiber. Unfortunately, this service is in only Austin, Kansas City, and Provo. Thus it, too, is basically unavailable to nearly all consumers.

apple logo for blogBut what about the largest, most important product category: Smartphones? The playing field was recently leveled when Apple released the significantly enlarged 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and it’s big brother, the 5.5-inch Plus variant (the first iPhone to sport a true 1080 display). While it could previously be argued that Apple had great hardware that wasn’t satisfying consumers’ desire for larger screens—driven primarily by our insatiable desire to consume video from YouTube, Netflix, and Facebook—this is no longer a pertinent argument.

Now that Apple has upped the ante by competing on size, it’s hard to knock advising consumers to simply purchase an iPhone and get on with their lives. In reality, Apple is actually offering three smartphone display sizes because it’s still selling the 4-inch iPhone 5 models. For those who prefer a smaller, more pocketable form factor, 2013’s iPhone 5S is an excellent choice, especially for those wanting the photo and video capturing capabilities of the iPhone 6 and the majority of its processing power. Those criticizing Apple’s prices as being prohibitively high need to wake up and smell the coffee; the iPhone 5C, the award-winning smartphone with a reputation for capturing excellent photos and superlative video, is available from nearly all carriers for free (subsidized on a two-year contract). If you can live with the smaller screen, last year’s 5C is the value leader, costing you nothing out-of-pocket.

Goodbye Bloatware

There’s also the fact, in no way insignificant, that Apple’s products completely lack bloatware and, in the interface department, are skin-free. While manufacturers like HTC, LG, and Samsung continue to tweak and augment their respective versions of Google’s Android mobile OS, Apple’s iOS is free of any carrier-loaded software “enhancements.”

In addition, updates to Apple’s mobile operating system are available immediately to its entire installed base of devices (including its tablets), whereas Android updates are provided by Google to phone manufacturers, which must then apply their own modifications, typically releasing them months later—or not at all (carriers are under no obligation to provide Android updates to their subscribers).

tim-cookFinally, one can’t help but analyze the situation from a business perspective. As Apple CEO Tim Cook recently pointed out (and ad-free social network Ello emphasizes), with Google and its free services, you’re the product. You and the data regarding your online preferences and behavior are the product sold by Google to advertisers (just like how Facebook operates). With Apple, including all of its services, you’re the customer. Apple in no way remarkets or sells the data regarding its customers to advertisers or third parties.

In the end, the mature stance is understanding that Apple and Google each possess distinct and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. Google takes a buckshot approach to its products and services, spreading its resources among a weird variety of both practical and, seemingly, impractical projects—which may or may not become available to consumers (there’s a reason Alyce Lomax at The Motley Fool called Google a “Jack of all trades, master of none”).

Apple, thinking different, focuses on the few painstakingly positioned models in each of its product categories, ensuring industry-leading quality, reliability, and customer satisfaction while sweating the details for each new product cycle.

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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.

Chromecast for Christmas

Like a few million other tech geeks and home theater aficionados, I was one of the first people to purchase a Chromecast streaming media dongle from Google back in August 2013. For those of you unfamiliar, Chromecast, which is about the size of a Rubenesque USB flash drive, plugs into your home theater audio/video receiver or TV and allows you to use your mobile devices and computers to send internet-based streaming media (like movies, music, and games) to your TV and surround sound speakers.chromecast

At $35, Chromecast is a steal. Best of all, especially for families like mine, this groovy media streamer is platform agnostic. Your iOS-based iPhones and iPads and your Android smartphones and tablets can take equal advantage. In other words, you don’t have to worry about compatibility with your existing mobile devices and computers.

Success at Home

Having only a few months prior installed two new home theaters in my house, Chromecast perfectly complimented a family where everyone has at least one (and typically two) personal mobile devices and there’s an average of one PC per human—but where everyone also loves to sit in front of a big display panel and enjoys surround sound through real speakers (not the crappy ones built into your TV; they’re a joke). Every family member, on nearly a daily basis, began streaming music from Pandora and Songza and video from Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu Plus (some of which we could already do using Apple’s wi-fi-based AirPlay). All from our iPod Touches, iPads, iPhones, and Nexus 7 tablets, as well as our three Windows 7 laptops and a slick little Mac Mini. If the zombie apocalypse results in a shortage of silicon, looters will surely stop at my house on their way to Silicon Valley.

Having gained so much value from such an inexpensive and fun device, Chromecast obviously was at the top of my gift giving list for the 2013 holidays. Because of its incredible ease of use, I didn’t have to worry about whether the recipient was a techie. If he or she could plug the device into an HDMI port and install apps on a smartphone, they were basically in business.

The One that Worked

I gifted two Chromecasts, one each to two different friends (one in Ohio, the other in Colorado). My friend in Ohio, a single guy with no kids, instantly fell in love with his new media streamer, using it on a 23-inch computer monitor in his dining room to watch stuff on Netflix.

Once when I visited for dinner and drinks, we watched a James Bond movie on Netflix with the volume cranked. I was amazed that a $130 computer monitor and a $35 HDMI dongle—combined with the Samsung Galaxy smartphone already in my friend’s pocket—were able to produce such stellar (and portable) results. I might never walk on the moon, but I have at least seen home entertainment and media distribution reach this point of ease and amazing affordability.

The One that Didn’t

My other friend in Colorado, a married dude with three teenage daughters, never mentioned his Chromecast. We’ve been drinking pals for twenty years, so this wasn’t interpreted as rude. But I was curious as to how he was enjoying it or if he was even using it. After all, different strokes for different folks, and many homes aren’t quite as digitally enhanced as mine and those of other tech journalists.

christmas story blindIt turns out that my buddy wasn’t using his Chromecast. In fact, he hadn’t even installed it. I politely said my feelings weren’t hurt, but I was curious as to why he wasn’t. Turns out he wasn’t entirely sure what it did. Ok, fair enough. I explained the benefits, including the screen mirroring function introduced in the summer of 2014.

It was at this point in the conversation that I realized where the train jumped the tracks. A misperception on my part had resulted in me giving a strikingly inappropriate gift. However, in my defense, when considering my friend’s present, I knew he had a killer surround sound home theater (I had enjoyed big budget CGI-laden films like Transformers on it) and was a subscriber to Netflix. He also had several mobile devices floating around his house, including his daughter’s Nexus 7 tablet and five smartphones. He was perfectly outfitted to enjoy Chromecast.

Or so I thought.

Turns out his subscription to Netflix was for the disc-by-mail service, not the considerably more popular streaming option. And the role of Pandora in his life for streaming music was limited to the thousands of miles he logs on the road, in his car, as a sales dude visiting customers.

After discussing the topic for about five minutes, I realized that his family’s use of and dependence upon streaming media was 180 degrees opposite that of my house. I had truly made a poor choice by gifting my buddy in Colorado a Chromecast. It is gathering dust in a box in his basement—and probably will forever.

Simply because his family doesn’t consume streaming media. Unlike my household, they aren’t cord cutters. They subscribe to cable TV.

This will teach me to assume that a subscription to Netflix is for streaming. Even more ironic, my Colorado friend once subscribed to both the streaming side of Netflix as well as the by-mail disc service. He found that his family rarely used the streaming service, so he intelligently cancelled it. I originally subscribed to both sides of Netflix as well, but did the opposite: I nixed the disc service because the four people in my home were using only streaming (and tons of it).

Lessons Learned

Sometimes we become so entrenched in a particular digital or media consumption lifestyle that it’s difficult to understand that someone else—with a nearly identical technical infrastructure and demographic—might practice something very different. My friend’s reliance on physical discs over a broadband-based media streaming service had nothing to do with a lack of gear.

He has fast broadband, mobile devices, a killer surround sound home theater, and his family has an appetite for movies and TV shows. Unlike many, he gave streaming media a chance, and for a long time paid for a service from which he and his family gained almost no benefit, based purely on their particular lifestyle. He certainly isn’t a laggard or a Luddite. Like the rest of us, he simply doesn’t want to waste his money on products or services that provide him with little or no value.

Let’s chalk this one up to lessons learned (a $35 lesson, to be exact). But if you’re thinking of gifting someone a streaming media device for the holidays (like an Apple TV, one of those cool Roku boxes, a Chromecast, or maybe the game-friendly Amazon Fire TV), first learn if the intended recipient is even a consumer of streaming media in the first place. Just being a gadget freak, owning an iPad, or enjoying technology doesn’t necessarily mean that your gift of streaming media will be the one that keeps on giving.

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Curt Robbins

[See also Streaming Media Stick Wars and Apple TV: Best Media Streamer?]


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.