Streaming Devices a Thing of the Past? Not So Fast
In-Stat released an interesting report earlier this year, questioning the long-term viability of dedicated streaming players. The report suggested that the growth of other connected devices, such as TVs and Blu-ray players, would eliminate the demand for dedicated streaming devices, and went so far as to predict that the popularity of standalone streaming players would peak this year before experiencing a rapid decline over the next five.
I’m not so sure.
Many of the connected TVs and Blu-ray players I’ve tried don’t quite seem ready for prime time. While dedicated streaming players are designed to stream video, these other devices have a different primary purpose and processing power often suffers as a result (game consoles are the obvious exception here, with more than enough power to handle streaming video).
For example, I’ve seen a lot of complaints from people who have purchased connected TVs or Blu-ray players to watch Netflix or Hulu, and end up with poor resolution or a video that keeps pausing to reload. The first instinct is to blame the service provider, but in many cases the device is really the problem. When these same people try a standalone streaming device on the same connection, the problems often vanish altogether. Even on the very slow DSL connection at my house (about 5 Mbps), I get crisp video with no interruptions on all streaming devices.
Connected devices like TVs and Blu-ray players will certainly catch up eventually, but the fact remains that consumers don’t make those big purchases very often. At this point, streaming players offer a better experience at a much (much) lower price. I think it’s likely that many people will wait a few years to see what happens before purchasing their next TV.
Another thing this study fails to address is that a lot of people still have old TVs, and they will for a while. Many people keep their old TV around when they get a new one, and many of these streaming players (especially those with component output) are an ideal companion to a “dumb” TV in the guest room or kid’s room. In an era when there’s a lot of talk about home gateways, a small inexpensive set-top still has a lot of potential.
This month Roku is releasing the LT, a scaled-down version of its popular player, with a $50 price tag. Not only is it bright purple — a cosmetic first in streaming players — I have a hunch the Roku LT will be the first in a long line of budget streaming players. The LT supports 720p video and composite video out, or, all you’d need for an older digital TV. All the same subscription services are available as on the more expensive models, and initial reviews are very positive.
I think there’s still a lot of demand for dedicated streaming devices, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that demand continues to grow over the next few years. HDTVs are less expensive than they were a few years back, but they’re still expensive, and they become obsolete quickly. If you just bought a fancy connected TV, chances are you may find yourself connecting it to a Roku in a few years.
New Device in the Lab: Netgear NeoTV 200
Several new inexpensive streaming players are hitting the market this fall, and another device we picked up recently is the Netgear NeoTV 200. Netgear first released its “NeoTV” line of streaming players a year ago, with the NeoTV 550 (original price tag $219, now $199). The first device has DLNA and uPnP compatibility so that it can stream video from networked sources; the less expensive NeoTV 200 (available on Amazon for just under $75) doesn’t include this functionality.
The NeoTV 200 is relatively small — just slightly larger than an Apple TV. It’s encased in shiny black plastic, which highlights the rippling effect where the top meets the sides. While this doesn’t affect performance, it does make NeoTV 200 look flimsy alongside virtually all the other devices in the lab. The remote control is nice enough — not too large, and the rubber buttons have a satisfying click, though at times the device seems slow to respond to button presses.
Setting up the Neo TV 200 was a pretty simple process, due in part to the fact that there weren’t many subscription services to set up (the box only supports Netflix, Vudu and YouTube, so far.) The layout of the onscreen keyboard is average, but the remote control could be a little more responsive. I didn’t have to enter much text, though — the setup for this box is very similar to Roku in that it displays a 5-digit code for you to enter into a web browser.
User Experience and Content Selection
The main menu is where the NeoTV 200 really shines. The menu text could be a bit larger, but it is crisp and easy to read from 10 feet away. The sponsored movies from Vudu add interest to the top of the screen without making it feel cluttered. The logos for the various services dominate the screen, but I found myself thinking it would look a lot better if the Hulu and Amazon logos were up there alongside Netflix (Again – it only has access to Netflix, Vudu and YouTube). Netgear used the standard Netflix interface instead of designing a custom interface, which is not always a bad thing (see also: Sony SMP-N200).
(more after the break)
Like Roku devices, the NeoTV 200 provides access to a lot of free content sources. However, the NeoTV does more in the way of organization. Applications are grouped into categories, which I found much less overwhelming than browsing the Roku Channel Store. The flipside is that there’s no way to group your favorite channels together in one place.
I find myself comparing the NeoTV to Roku quite a bit, which is interesting because Netgear was an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) for Roku, effectively giving Roku a foot in the door at many big box stores. (That agreement ended in 2010, as Roku quickly grew some pretty big feet of its own).
Unfortunately, Netgear hasn’t been able to secure the same agreements with service providers, and as a direct result, their device falls short so far. That’s far from a death sentence, though: Netgear has done a lot of things right with the NeoTV, and new services can always be added in a future update.
Google TV 2.0: Too Little, Too Late?
Like many other early adopters, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Honeycomb update that was originally scheduled to hit the Google TV last June, and which finally began rolling out October 30th (first to Sony devices, followed by Logitech).
The Honeycomb update was not only long overdue, it was also sorely needed. Google TV launched with a lot of fanfare last year, but the excitement quickly fizzled as Hulu, followed by all the major service providers, blocked Google TV’s browser from accessing their streaming content.
Lack of content wasn’t the only problem. The initial screen layout was difficult to use in a living room setting, and many users complained about the complexity of the navigation and remote controls (the Logitech Revue uses a full-size wireless keyboard, and Sony devices come with a large white controller that is easily mistaken for a label maker.)
On the whole, and as Leslie often quips: The first iteration of GoogleTV didn’t work well as a TV or a PC.
Consumer uptake waned. As a result, in July, Logitech dropped the price of its Revue to $99 (about a 60% reduction) after returns eclipsed sales. In early August, Sony followed suit by slashing prices on its Google TV devices across the board. The Sony NSZ-GT1 Blu-ray player, which was $399 last November, dropped to $299 and is now selling for $199. D’oh!
Google TV 2.0 looked good on paper. The Android Market with apps optimized for TV, a simplified user interface, an improved YouTube experience, and improved search with a dedicated TV & Movies app? Sounds like a great idea. But, as usual, the devil is in the details.
The “TV & Movies” feature seemed very promising — especially because it included search results from Amazon Instant Video, which previously existed only as a link to the main Amazon website in Google TV 1.0.
Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed. The app displayed search results from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other sources, but that’s where its utility ended. It didn’t show which results were Amazon Prime titles (and therefore free to Amazon Prime partakers), and it didn’t know which we’d already purchased.
I had to follow a link to buy the title, which kicked me back out to the Chrome Browser to select my video. The Netflix integration wasn’t much better: The Netflix app crashed the first few times I tried to play a video, and required another button press to start the video once it launched. It ended up feeling like a whole lot of work for something that was supposed to make things easier.
News of the Android Market coming to Google TV had me excited, I’ll admit. I imagined all sorts of useful apps, optimized for the television, and I couldn’t wait to give them a spin. But then I opened up the Android Market for the first time, and was greeted by the top TV app: AOL HD. (Sigh.) The featured TV apps also included a word scramble game, a couple of news reader apps, and an unintentionally hilarious app called Classy Fireplace.
The most useful app, Clicker for Google TV, was buried beneath all the others. Unlike the preinstalled TV & Movies app, Clicker can actually tell which Amazon titles you already own, and which you can stream for free through Amazon Prime. Hallelujah!
Clicker is also supposed to pull in free full episodes from the web that aren’t blocked on the Google TV, but every episode I tried gave me the old “Sorry, you can only view this video on a standard laptop or desktop computer.” In other words, “Nice try, but we know that’s a Google TV you’re using.”
Poor selection aside, I ran into a major problem while trying to install these apps: They take a surprisingly long time to install. To boot, the install progress isn’t shown, but the application appears to be available right away. This resulted in about 20 minutes of cryptic error messages while I tried to launch an app, before I finally got a popup notification that it had been successfully installed.
(more after the break)
The most disappointing aspect of the “new” Google TV is that they removed useful functionality for apparently no good reason. In Google TV 1.0, pressing the menu button in any service or application gave you the option to exit. Alas. This is no longer the case, and only a few applications like Netflix actually have the option to exit. Instead, you’re left to push the “back” button repeatedly, or just pressing the home button (which leaves the application visible behind the home menu). Even more perplexing is that for the Sony Blu-ray player, there doesn’t seem to be a way to exit the Disc Player app at all — even the back button doesn’t work.
I was really rooting for Google get it right this time, but once again great ideas were dampened by poor implementation. For all its delays, the Google TV platform still feels like a rushed beta version.
Ever the optimist: With new hardware on the horizon in 2012 (Samsung and Vizio are confirmed to be among the vendors), maybe Google will iron things out. A girl can hope. 🙂
Google TV Honeycomb Update
Overview of the new user interface and features added with the new Google TV update (November 3, 2011)
Text Entry: A Comparison Amongst OTT Video Devices
When I had Comcast service — back before my sister and I moved to the farm, where DSL is the only option — I don’t think I ever used my set-top remote for text entry. I never had to set up my own box, and the idea of searching for what I wanted to watch was comical. Besides, I had most of my favorite channel numbers memorized, and the VOD selection was all in one place and easy enough to browse by channel.
Streaming devices are a different story altogether. I find myself using the search feature more often — there’s a lot of content out there, and most of it is organized by cover art. While the cover art makes for a much nicer user interface indeed, it can take significantly longer to browse than a grid guide.
You’ll also be setting up your own box, which means at a minimum entering a wireless password, and probably a handful of passwords for streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Depending on the method of text entry, setup can either be a breeze or a multi-hour ordeal that has you ready to ship the offending device back to its manufacturer.
In other words, a great device can be spoiled by a bad text entry experience. Fortunately, most manufacturers now allow you to download remote control apps for iOS and Android which are often a much more elegant solution. Which brings me to a question: Whither the fate of the physical remote?
Click below for highlights of the text entry experience on some of our devices, I’ve summarized each device after the video.
Apple TV offers the simplest remote, but the most elegant onscreen keyboard. The cursor is very quick to respond to the remote, and you can easily scroll through the letters by holding down the directional buttons without overshooting. One very nice feature is the ability to quickly toggle between keyboards (letter, number, symbol) by pressing the play/pause button. iOS and Android remotes are also available.
The Boxee Box takes it a step further by including a full QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote. This works very well, with two exceptions: the letters are difficult to see in a dark living room, and it’s easy to accidentally press the buttons on the other side of the remote. Boxee also has iOS and Android apps, including an iPad app that works both as a media server and a remote control.
Roku’s onscreen keyboard is quite clunky and slow to respond, especially when attempting to scroll over to a letter on the other side of the screen. It’s also difficult to switch between different keyboards, so entering passwords is very time-consuming. One thing about Roku is that for most services you’re not actually required to enter your password using the onscreen keyboard. Instead, a message directs you to visit a URL and enter a 5-digit token code to link your account to your streaming player. It does require another device, but I rarely watch TV without a smartphone or laptop nearby.
GoogleTV remotes are often criticized for their complexity, but they are great for text entry. The Sony remote features a full QWERTY keyboard, and the Logitech device comes with a full-size wireless keyboard. There are iOS and Android remote control apps also, but they are almost as cluttered as the physical remote.
The controller doesn’t make for easy text entry — it’s difficult to scroll using the joystick controller — but the voice recognition features of the Kinect camera may make content searches a breeze in the future. You’ve also got the option of plugging in a USB keyboard for text entry.
TiVo offers a unique solution to the text entry problem: It sells a $50 remote, called the TiVo Slide, which opens up to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard. This is a nice option for text entry, but if like most people you already have too many remotes, it’s a tough sell — especially since there are free apps for iOS and Android devices.
WDTV Live Hub
This is another one of those devices where a smartphone remote app really saves the day. The flimsy remote control makes text entry even more tedious, each button press requires a substantial amount of effort.
I’ve saved the worst for last here. The virtual keyboard on Sony’s new device is smaller than it needs to be, and is laid out in a T9 format with the letters spread out across ten number keys — completely unchanged from last year’s N100, except that the numerical keypad was removed from the physical remote so now it makes even less sense. The letters on screen are small and hard to see, and they are interspersed with numbers, which only adds to the confusion. To switch case or add a symbol, you have to scroll to the bottom and switch keyboards. In other words, a text entry nightmare.
New Device in the Lab: Sony SMP-N200
Looking at the description for the Sony SMP-N200 (SMP stands for “Streaming Media Player”), it appears to be the ultimate streaming device: It supports DLNA streaming, but also has access to all of the major services: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Crackle, etc. — all for about the same price as the Roku 2 XS.
Unfortunately, a counterintuitive user experience and limited file support overshadow the many good qualities of this device.
The SMP-N200 has a lot of the same functionality as last year’s device, the SMP-N100, but comes in a prettier package. It has a smaller footprint, and the utilitarian design of the N100 has been replaced with a sleek metallic top and curved sides. It’s still on the large side — about 4 times the size of a Roku 2. They’ve also done a nice job overhauling the remote, in that it’s lost the old generic remote control look, in favor of a smaller size and flat plastic keys. It fits the hand well. My hand, anyway.
(new and improved remote next to last year’s model)
User Experience and Content Selection
When I fired up the device, I was greeted by the same old XMB interface that was on the last one (XMB stands for “XrossMediaBar”, Sony developed this interface for the PSX back in 2003 and it hasn’t changed much). This interface is fine for game consoles, but doesn’t work so well for a dedicated streaming device — all the video sources are organized under a single menu, and there are a lot of sources clogging the list that probably won’t be useful to most people.
The Sony media players are also the most memorable devices I have set up, and not in a good way. For starters, Sony has once again chosen to go with a T9 layout for the onscreen keyboard. This was mind-boggling enough on the previous device, but now that the remote control has lost its number pad even those of use with residual T9 texting skills are out of luck.
Setting up the services was another headache. In order to sign in to Amazon Instant Video, I first had to register for Sony Bravia service, then retrieve a code from the “Enhanced Features” menu in my network settings, to enter into Sony’s website. If this box is designed to stream video, can that really be called an enhanced feature? Fortunately Hulu and Netflix were a little more straightforward — I had the option of either entering my password using the onscreen keyboard (no thanks), or entering a 5-digit code into a web browser.
Sony also designed its own interfaces for services like Netflix and Hulu, and in the process made the user experience a lot worse. They reduced the size of the cover art so that it’s barely readable, but there aren’t any more titles on the screen at once than you’d see on a Boxee, for instance — it’s all just empty space. They also removed the ability to jump to a certain letter when browsing genres in Hulu, and for some reason renamed Hulu’s “Genres” menu to “Channels.” I found this to be very confusing alongside “Networks” in the main menu. The standard UIs for Netflix and Hulu are so much easier to use, I found myself wondering why Sony spent the time developing their own in the first place.
Network File Capabilities
The SMP devices are also DLNA-certified, which is rare for a device that runs in the $99 price range. For people who own a lot of digital content, this is often a bigger consideration than a slick user interface or ease of setup. The box does a great job of finding my network drives, but the files were hard to navigate and I had a hard time getting anything to play — even MP3 and MP4 files, which should be supported, came up as being unreadable or corrupted (though the Boxee Box recognized the same files without issue).
The Sony SMP-N200 packs a lot of important features and services into a sleek little box, and for a reasonable price. The device is quick and responsive, and it feels well made. With more robust file support and a better user interface, the SMP-N200 could really give the other devices a run for their money. But I think Sony will need to engage in a lot of user testing in order for that to happen.
Let’s Make a Deal: Xbox, Netflix, Amazon Cut Content Deals
Here’s a roundup of what’s happening this week, on the streaming video / connected device front:
1. Microsoft launched a new “playful learning” initiative, in cooperation with Sesame Workshop, National Geographic and various learning institutions. Downloadable, linear episodes will allow children and families to interact with the characters, don virtual costumes and explore the environment on-screen. Kinect is filming interactive versions of current Sesame Street episodes and will also provide access to classic clips from the show’s archive. A series of interactive children’s books is also in the works. We can’t WAIT to check this out. Availability uncertain; we’ll keep you posted.
Read more at the official Microsoft blog.
2. Amazon announced that it expanded its licensing deal with PBS in order to offer more current and past programming. It’s all part of its Amazon Prime streaming offering. This follows last month’s announcement that Amazon would be adding streaming content from Fox to its Prime catalog. See a trend here? The OTT camp is playing let’s make a deal. We’re in for a deal season…
3. Speaking of deal season, Netflix signed a deal with CBS and the WB last week to add streaming content from their CW network to Netflix’s streaming service. The arrangement runs through the 2014-2015 season. Programming will include shows like Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. Recall that last month, Netflix announced a new deal with DreamWorks to offer films and TV shows via its streaming service. (See “we’re in for a deal season” … 😉
Meet the Devices
We have a lot of streaming players in the lab, with more being added all the time. Here’s a roundup of the devices we’ve got running in the lab today:
Dedicated Streaming Players:
Roku 2 XS, Roku XD
WDTV Live Hub
XBox360 with Kinect
Samsung 3D Blu-ray Player
Sony Internet TV with GoogleTV
Panasonic Viera Smart TV
Samsung Galaxy Tablet
Welcome to the Lab
Hi, and welcome to our Over-the-Top lab! I’m Sara, and I’ll be here every week to discuss all things related to streaming video — from comparisons of the latest devices to explanations of the underlying technology.
Consider this a visual sort of “Translation-Please,” for services and devices that stream video over IP.
I became a cord-cutter a little over a year ago, out of necessity. I moved to a rural neighborhood and found out that I couldn’t move our Comcast service to the new house. Armed with a Sony PS-3, a Netflix streaming disc, and an extremely slow DSL connection, I started my adventure and quickly found a new hobby – trying every streaming player I could get my hands on.
There are so many devices and services on the market today that it’s nearly impossible to keep them all straight, especially without having them all set up side by side.
Thats where I come in. I’ve joined forces with Leslie to run an OTT Video Lab, with all the major streaming devices. (I’ll rattle them off to you in a later post. Promise.)
Our intent is to observe how well each works (or not!) and how they stack up against one another. Also to see what would and wouldn’t compel consumers to cut the cord, and/or to go to the “connected” input of smartTVs, tablets, smartphones, and on and on.
We especially want to hear what you — yes you, you, reading this right now — are most interested in. Please drop me a line (OTTlab@saradirkse.com) if there’s a device you’d like to see us review, a burning question you want answered, or if you’d like to schedule any tests for the lab. And thanks for reading!