Connected Devices: The Year in Review
As we begin the last month of 2011, it’s a little hard to wrap my head around how many things have happened with the technology in our lab since last year. So, this week we’re bringing you a review of what’s changed on the device and service front. Next week, predictions for the coming year.
The second-generation Apple TV was released a little over a year ago, and we’ve seen a few changes this year including the addition of AirPlay streaming functionality (so you can stream video from your computer or iPad to the AppleTV). AppleTV also received an iCloud update that allowed users to purchase and stream iTunes content directly through the device, instead of needing to use a computer to do so. Finally, Apple discontinued the 99-cent TV episode rentals in the iTunes store, because they weren’t getting a lot of takers — it turns out people prefer to purchase each episode, Apple says (and it may have something to do with the fact that several shows weren’t available for rental until several weeks after air date).
It’s been a busy year for Roku. Last year, a Netgear-branded Roku player was just making its way into big-box stores in time for the holidays. Since then, we’ve seen the Roku change from a boxy, utilitarian device to a sleek little player with a smaller footprint than the AppleTV. Roku also released two new models this year, the Roku XS (made for casual gaming, with a motion-sensitive remote) and the LT (an inexpensive but well-received SD-only streamer). Roku has also seen a lot of changes in the content available, with services like Amazon Prime and Crackle appearing this year.
The GoogleTV platform has been out a little over a year now, with quite a few hiccups along the way. After a much-hyped release, GoogleTV quickly fizzled due to its complicated user interface and lack of content (virtually all the major content providers blocked GoogleTV’s Chrome browser from playing video on their websites). This summer, returns for GoogleTV devices exceeded sales and prices were halved across the board. The long-awaited Android Honeycomb finally hit GoogleTV devices early last month, promising apps optimized for TV and a much cleaner user interface. I was especially excited to see the integration of Amazon Video into the new TV & Movies app, but was disappointed to find I still got kicked out to a web browser. Even worse, it didn’t know which titles were free under Amazon Prime or already in my library (if I already own something, it’s a little unnerving to click “BUY” every time I want to watch it!). You can read our full review of the new GoogleTV update here.
The Boxee Box by D-link was released a little over a year ago, and aside from some updates and user interface tweaks we haven’t seen a whole lot of changes. There are some interesting things confirmed for 2012, though, so expect to see a lot more about Boxee in next week’s post.
We haven’t seen many changes this year in the streaming video experience on our Xbox 360 with Kinect, but Xbox just announced a new update rolling out this week, centered around the Kinect camera — from what we’ve heard, this may make it a lot easier to find video content on the Xbox by integrating search results from all the available services, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. It looks like 2012 will be a big year for Xbox, too.
We got two new set top boxes this fall, the Sony SMP-N200 and the Netgear NeoTV 200. Both are meant to compete with Roku and AppleTV, but fall short — both devices have been on the market less than two months, and already dropped prices.
We’ve seen a huge influx of Android tablets in the past year, including the $199 Kindle Fire (which arrived on our doorstep two weeks ago.) While it has a smaller screen than the iPad, the Fire is a solid on-the-go streaming video device, with sources including Hulu Plus, Netflix, and (of course) Amazon Instant Video.
While I’m on the subject of Amazon, they’ve really come out of the woodwork this year with their unlimited Amazon Prime streaming service. Their catalog of free titles expanded to include several of the same shows available through Netflix, only they’re included as part of the Amazon Prime membership. Amazon also offers a huge variety of titles for rental or purchase through Amazon Instant Video, so you can supplement your unlimited streaming titles without going to another place.
Hulu introduced their Hulu Plus subscription service a little over a year ago, and steadily rolled out the service to a number of connected devices over the past year. Roku was for sale for a good part of the year, with companies like Google and Yahoo! joining the bidding. Ultimately, Hulu was taken off the auction block — but we’ll see if it goes back up in 2012.
Netflix had a rough ending this year, as you’ve probably heard (we don’t need to rehash that whole Qwikster debacle, do we?). Suffice it to say, TV viewers are a fickle bunch and nothing is set in stone. This time last year, Netflix was the clear leader in streaming subscription services. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year?
We’ve also seen an increase in streaming services that are linked to pay TV subscriptions, like HBO GO and Showtime Anytime — also known as, “stuff I wish I could watch, but can’t because I’m a cord-cutter.” Sure, this model is great in terms of maximizing the value of the cord. But as someone who’s unable to get cable at home, I often find myself wishing I could subscribe to these services on an a la carte basis. But if these comments from HBO Co-President Eric Kessler are any indication, that’s still going to be on my Christmas list in 2013…