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.

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Cutting the Cord

cord_small (1)It’s 2015, and most of us have at least heard the term cord cutters. They’re consumers who have chosen to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in favor of internet-based streaming media (or simply popping old school discs into their Blu-ray players).

About nine years ago, after struggling with Time Warner Cable for years—and the company spending literally thousand of dollars trenching new coaxial at our curb in an effort to remedy our digital cable woes—my family cut the cord. We’ve never looked back. We were paying about $90 a month. That equals roughly $10,000 in savings. Wow.

It was a relatively daring and unusual move a decade ago. Our motivation wasn’t simply to rid ourselves of the quality headaches we were experiencing with Time Warner, but also to alleviate the pain of commercials. Our children were young and we felt good about virtually eliminating their exposure to the incessant stream of ads that run on television. Admittedly, it would have been challenging if we had been big sports fans (today, services like MLB.TV and NFL Now help ease that pain).

It’s estimated that only 6.5% of Americans (about 20 million people) are cord cutters (according to Experian Marketing Services). While still small as a percentage, this rapidly growing market segment has caught the attention of some tech and media corporations. TiVo, for example, recently introduced a DVR aimed at cord cutters that will record shows for those lacking cable TV. Features of established entertainment channels, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime—while they don’t cater specifically to cord cutters—help bridge the gap between conventional cable or satellite TV and the mobile device-toting cord cutter lifestyle.

In June 2014, the Leichtman Research Group reported that nearly half of U.S. households subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime (or, as is often the case, a combination of these services). In 2010, this number was only 24%.

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A study released by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in 2014 supports these numbers. The organization claims that 45% of American households watch streaming video from the internet on their TVs. In 2013, it was only 28%. Something is trending, folks. While the CEA study revealed that only about five million American homes rely on internet TV exclusively, 10% of all TV-consuming households said they’re probably going to cancel their cable or satellite TV service in the next 10 months. Should Comcast, Cox, and AT&T be nervous?

More proof of this trend? In May 2014, The Verge reported that 500 of those ubiquitous Redbox kiosks we’re all so acclimated to seeing will disappear this year. Americans want to stream a significant portion of their entertainment content—regardless of whether they’re cord cutters or not.

Britain’s The Guardian recently surveyed North American cable and satellite TV customers who had chosen to cut the cord. A former Comcast customer in Marysville, California stated, “After a traumatizing series of bad customer service experiences, I decided I’d rather sit in a dark cave than give [Comcast] another dime. Not one regret.” A disgruntled former Shaw Communications customer from Alberta, Canada, said, “I didn’t want to be the person who stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the magic bullet blender commercial over and over and over again.” An ex-cable subscriber in St. Louis echoed this sentiment: “I have a busy life and sitting through commercials is something I am not interested in.”

One of the biggest complaints of consumers is paying for hundreds of channels on cable, but watching only a few. Advocates of TV reform have called for a la carte channel packages for years. A recent study by Nielsen reported that the average U.S. home receives 189 cable channels. And how many of those do they actually watch? Only 17 (that’s less than 9%). In addition, The Guardian survey revealed that only 3% of cord cutters would consider going back to cable if providers began offering a la carte pricing. The lack of a la carte is obviously only part of a much larger discontent.

fire tv stickBut let’s be fair: Cutting the cord doesn’t simply erase your cable bill. Consumers often are compelled to spend more for better internet bandwidth and a streaming video device or two (like a Roku or Apple TV) to compensate for their lack of cable or satellite service. There’s also subscription fees for services like Netflix and Hulu Plus and rental costs for iTunes or Vudu.

So let’s do some quick math. I got rid of Time Warner Cable at $90 a month and later subscribed to Netflix ($9 a month) and Hulu Plus ($8 a month). I spend $10-20 per month at my local Family Video store (because you can’t feed anything to your home theater better than a Blu-ray disc). A few times a month, my family also rents movies or TV episodes from Google Play Movies & TV or iTunes at $3-6 a pop. But we never spend $90 a month. And the commercial interruptions we tolerate are light (basically just Hulu Plus, which features far fewer than conventional TV).

No, cord cutting isn’t free. For that, you’ll need a rooftop or desktop antenna to pull in your local affiliate stations. But the value proposition of cord cutting is so great that it’s hard to ignore. The fact that it’s less expensive than cable and features few or no commercials makes cutting the cord an increasingly appealing alternative for middle class consumers.

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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.