Refreshing the Stream
Now that Colorado’s epic Indian Summer is officially over, we’re into the season of long nights and TV marathons. And this year, there’s a treasure trove of new OTT content options and refreshed devices to choose sample. Here are some of the new arrivals you might want to check out as we hurtle toward the holiday shopping season:
Apple TV ($199)
Apple TV finally released new hardware this fall — for the first time since 2010 — sticking with a hardware design nearly identical to the last version.
The box is just a fraction of an inch taller, and they’ve given the remote control a refresh too, adding a landscape orientation for gaming. Like all the other devices in this list, the new Apple TV includes a voice search feature – here in the form of the beloved (and/or detested!) Siri.
Google also released an updated version of its popular Chromecast streaming player this Fall, with the same low price point as the original but with a very different design.
The new Chromecast is a complete circle that dangles from a flexible HDMI cable, making it easier to fit into tight HDMI ports. It comes in three color choices (red, black, and yellow) and has three WiFi antennas, for a more reliable connection (the original had but a single antenna).
The new Chromecast also includes a feature called “Fast Play,” which begins pre-buffering videos before you press the play button to cut down on loading times.
Roku 4 ($130)
Roku’s latest flagship device is capable of playing videos at 4K resolution, and also includes a few other features to help sweeten the deal — which is good, because many of us haven’t shelled out for Ultra HD TVs yet, and the 4K content selection is still pretty limited. Our favorite new Roku trick is the way it can page a lost remote control from the Roku 4 box – a big help in houses with dogs, kids, or greedy couches.
The OTT (over-the-top, or available without a pay TV subscription) content selection really took off this year, as did the selection of streaming content available to cable subscribers. HBO and Showtime are now both available as a la carte streaming services ($15 and $11/month, respectively) — a scenario that just three years ago seemed about as likely as a unicorn ride. Here are some other new updates to the streaming content scene:
Playstation Vue ($50/month)
Playstation Vue is a live streaming service that came out in March, but was only available on Playstation consoles . It finally announced expansion to new devices on November 12, starting with Amazon Fire TV devices and expanding to Chromecast in the “near future.” The base package is twice the price of Sling TV, and carries about twice as many channels.
Hulu’s “No Commercials” plan
Hulu started in 2008 with free, browser-only content supported by ads – and when Hulu Plus launched in 2010, it kept the commercials while other premium OTT services streamed ad-free. Hulu finally introduced a “No Commercials” plan, for $12/month, while keeping the $8 plan available for those of us who don’t mind a break in the action.
*There’s always a catch! Be sure to check out the fine print for a handful of shows that are not available commercial-free.
On October 28, YouTube launched its own ad-free streaming service called YouTube Red, for $10/month. Red gets rid of the commercials, and also allows subscribers to download videos for offline viewing. YouTube Red also includes a few features that are often requested by users, including the ability to play content in the background or with the screen turned off – making it easier to use YouTube as a music player, for example. And on that note, the YouTube Red subscription includes access to Google Music’s streaming catalog of 35 million songs (and vice versa, if you’re already a Google Music subscriber). Heads up, Netflix: Google is gunning for you (again!)
To be sure, OTT video has changed a lot (understatement) since we started the blog 4(!) years ago – and while we’re not seeing a lot of new entrants to the device or service categories these days, we’re still seeing plenty of improvements to the user experience. Stay tuned for more updates, including our annual roundup of brilliant and “oh, that’s… interesting” ideas from the Internet of Things.
Streaming Stick Showdown: How Different Dongles Measure Up
Google Chromecast, $35
Features we love:
Chromecast’s small form factor and low price created a big ruckus when it launched back in the fall of 2013, even though the content selection was pretty much limited to YouTube and Netflix at that time.
But because it’s relatively easy to add “Cast” support to most iOS and Android apps, the Chromecast library continues to expand quickly and now most of the major video apps are represented – including HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Hulu Plus, in addition to YouTube and Netflix.
We also like the experience of browsing for content on our mobile devices, versus scrolling through titles on a big screen – to a certain point. Which brings us to the next section.
Things we’d change:
The thing that we find most compelling about Chromecast is also the thing that drives us nuts: No physical remote. Initially we found the simplicity charming – just a device that catches whatever streams you throw at it from your phone or tablet.
But the lack of remote really backfires when pausing involves fumbling for a smartphone, closing the email you were typing, etc. Back in September I was still quite enamored with the Chromecast. But I got increasingly frustrated as I battled frequent connection issues that caused the transport controls (rewind, pause, etc.) to stop working.
Fortunately, a recent Chromecast update largely resolved this issue, by allowing Chromecast to accept signals from most TV remotes. This uses the same CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) function that allows you to power on your TV and control the volume using Chromecast, only in reverse. It worked like a charm on my Samsung Smart TV, but may not work with all TV models.
As of today, this feature works with almost all the Chromecast-compatible apps – with the big exception of Netflix. No word on when that update will drop (Netflix is often a little slower to build new Chromecast features into its apps), but by incorporating a remote without adding another one to our pile, Chromecast is back in our good graces.
Roku Streaming Stick, $45
Features we love:
Roku is always near the top of nearly every streaming device roundup we’ve posted over the years, mainly because it has the widest variety of content. It still does, and tends to be on the forefront whenever a new app is released.
We also like Roku’s universal search feature, which ties together all the major content sources so that you can search in a single interface.
Things we’d change:
With all its good features, it hurts us to say that the Roku Streaming Stick falls a bit short. It packs considerably less power than the Roku 3 or the Fire TV. Where Roku 3’s WiFi remote is responsive to every button press, the Streaming Stick lags and seems to have difficulty getting signals from the remote (also WiFi) when plugged in to the back of the TV.
Last Spring, we wrote about the Streaming Stick’s issues with DIAL – the process of casting content from Netflix or YouTube to the TV was buggy, and often didn’t work reliably. This is still largely the case, but it’s true for Chromecast too.
Roku is certainly the winner in terms of sheer content, but that might be a dubious honor. Sometimes all that content can be overwhelming, as is definitely the case when I look at all the free niche channels in Roku’s channel store.
Amazon Fire TV Stick, $39
Back in December, Amazon started offering Fire TV in dongle form. It sports a dual-core processor instead of the quad-core found on the larger Fire TV, but we didn’t notice much of a difference. Content between the two devices is the same, other than the $99 version having access to a larger selection of games (probably where that quad-core processor comes in handy.)
Features we love:
Amazon’s Fire TV devices support a bunch of different video services, but do a particularly excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own video selection (both Prime and additional content to rent or buy.) If you mainly watch Amazon Prime, you’ll enjoy this feature. The Prime content also includes metadata from IMDB, making it easy to browse for other titles that include the same actors or director.
Like Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV also allows you to “Cast” content from your phone or tablet – and if you have a premium subscription to Spotify, Fire TV lets you control the music with your phone via Spotify Connect (a feature that is sorely lacking on Chromecast and Roku).
Like all Amazon devices, installation was a breeze. The Fire TV showed up pre-authenticated to the account it was purchased from — you’ll still have to sign in to Netflix, Showtime, and the other services on the box, but you can start watching video right out of the box.
And like Roku, Amazon also offers a (nearly) universal search feature. You can search across Amazon and other services like Showtime and Hulu Plus – just not Netflix. Which brings us to the next section:
Things we’d change:
If you like to get your content from multiple sources, the Amazon-focused UI on the Fire TV can be a bit over-the-top (see what I did there?). Most of the screen space is devoted to layers upon layers of Amazon content, with the other services jammed into a single row.
Netflix titles are conspicuously absent both from the search feature and the IMDB recommendations, which is annoying, if somewhat understandable. Sure, Amazon would probably prefer that I pay $2.99 for an episode of Mad Men instead of watching it on Netflix at no extra charge – but I wouldn’t.
Also worth considering, if you’re a premium cable subscriber in the market for a new streaming device: While all three devices have apps for HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, not all of them will let you sign in. If you’re a Comcast or Charter subscriber, you won’t be able to watch Showtime or HBO on your Fire TV until they strike a deal – and in the case of Roku, that process took years.
So which dongle is our favorite?
We get this question a lot, but it’s never an easy one to answer. The Fire TV stick is currently getting the most screen time in my farm lab, and at the lab-lab, and at Leslie’s house – but the Roku Streaming Stick still has a solid content selection. Chromecast was falling short, but controlling it with the TV remote is a game-changer. One thing we know for sure is that these services and devices can look very different in a year, or a few months. Stay tuned for our next update.
Chromecast, a year later
Last fall, we first got our hands on Google’s Chromecast. Now, a little over a year after its release, we’re taking a look back at the little dongle that could. Because by popular metrics, it took the market by storm.
Expanding app selection
When Chromecast launched on July 24, 2013, just two apps were available on iOS: Netflix and YouTube (Android users could also get music, movies, and TV through Google Play). In February, Google finally released the Chromecast SDK and developers everywhere began building the cast functionality into their apps.
Now, there are roughly 78 apps available for iOS — 24 of them “featured apps.” Notable streaming video apps include WatchESPN, Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Watch ABC, YouTube, PBS Kids, MLB.TV, and Crackle. As for the number of Chromecast apps for Android, the count stands at “oh, hundreds” (in other words, we stopped counting).
A small sampling of the Chromecast-compatible apps available for Android
Netflix Post-Play makes marathon watching far too easy
Just this week, Netflix finally brought the “Post-Play” feature to Chromecast – meaning it will now automatically cue up the next episode if you’re watching a series. This feature has been on other devices since 2012, and is extremely useful if you happen to be marathon-watching episodes of Dexter while slicing and dicing your way through a bumper crop of plums (take it from me). Not so useful is the fact that there is no way to toggle this feature off within the app; you’ll need to go to the Netflix website and change the settings there, or risk getting sucked into a marathon. Netflix, you’re a terrible enabler.
Improved browser streaming, and Firefox support
Chromecast also allows you to stream virtually any web video from your computer, using a Chrome Browser extension, but when we first tested out the Chromecast, I found this feature to be downright useless. Because the video streams from the computer and not from the cloud, I ended up with a grainy, sputtering video where the audio track rarely synced up with the picture.
Fortunately, it’s now possible to change the resolution in the extension options. “Extreme” video quality equals 720p high-bitrate, so streaming from a browser never looks quite as sharp as watching something from the Netflix catalog. Dropping to “High” quality, which is still 720p, doesn’t cause much difference in resolution but does smooth out the playback considerably.
Changing the quality settings on the Chromecast browser plugin
The ability to send tabs to Chromecast is coming to Firefox, too. Mozilla now has a “Send to Device” extension in its latest Firefox Nightly Build for Android devices (Firefox for Android Beta 33), where it will presumably undergo further testing before showing up on our computers and other devices. Firefox’s new extension also casts browser tabs to the Roku 3.
Why Chromecast is my (input) #1:
These days, I find myself using the Chromecast more often than I do the Roku Streaming Stick that’s plugged into the same TV. Roku still has more content, but Chromecast is much more accessible and convenient to use. Because Chromecast uses CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), I can just select a piece of content to play on my phone and the Chromecast will seamlessly turn on the TV, switch to the correct input, and start playing the video. Roku’s Streaming Stick, which has no CEC and a limited selection of apps that support DIAL casting, still requires that I juggle two remote controls.
The simplicity of Chromecast is a beautiful thing, and the growing catalog of compatible apps makes it more relevant by the day. We’re hoping this will be the year that Spotify, Amazon Video, and Showtime Anytime get on the Chromecast bandwagon.
For that matter, we wouldn’t mind seeing some more TV Everywhere apps from broadcasters and cable operators, too…and by “everywhere,” we mean in-home and out. And yes we realize that’s a different and special hell of copyright stuff. But still…
Another Device on the Lab Bench: Amazon Fire TV
One more device showed up in the lab recently, once again filling up the shelf space we so recently decluttered. Joining the ranks of Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast is the long-awaited new streaming device from Amazon: Fire TV.
Fire TV’s hardware is a small box, a bit slimmer than an Apple TV but with a slightly larger footprint – not the dongle form that some early reports predicted.
Fire TV has 2 GB of RAM, roughly 4 times that of Apple TV, and a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm CPU (which in theory should make it about 3x faster). While both devices are plenty fast for the moment, we did notice that Fire TV’s UI is extremely responsive, with no noticeable lag when responding to button presses on the remote. It makes quick work of scrolling through a bunch of titles, and stops scrolling immediately when you take your thumb off the button – I found myself “overshooting” a lot less on Fire TV than the other devices.
The remote control is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. With 8 buttons plus a directional pad, it falls in between Apple TV and Roku on the button tally. It’s simple yet functional, and the size is just right – it doesn’t disappear into my hand (and the couch cushions) like Apple TV’s, and it doesn’t feel overly thick and chunky like Roku’s. The voice search button is well-placed, and actually works (more on that in a bit).
Fire TV also has 8 GB of internal storage, and works with Bluetooth gaming controllers for casual gaming. We’ve yet to try this out, but the buzz is that while it’s a solid effort, it won’t be competing with game consoles like the Xbox One anytime soon.
When we started up the Fire TV, a cartoon man immediately launched into a very thorough explanation of how to use our new device. While this might well be helpful for someone new to streaming devices, I always like to jump in and start exploring right away, so I found this really grating. Especially when I pressed the home button, thinking I could bypass the video, and the enthusiastic cartoon spiel started over from the beginning.
Once we finally got past the intro video, Fire TV has a pretty nice user interface (UI), with (of course) a big emphasis on titles offered through Amazon. The home screen intersperses Amazon titles with other apps such as Hulu and Netflix, and has a section at the top for titles and apps that you’ve accessed recently.
I did find myself wishing that I could filter some of the categories to only display content offered for free through Amazon Prime – though it’s not hard to imagine why Amazon might not want to do this. Leslie also commented that the menu items in the left pane of the home screen were hard to read when not selected, and in fact I could barely get them to show up when snapping photos of the UI.
Fire TV’s virtual keyboard is right up there with Apple TV, using shortcut buttons to switch keyboards (CAPS, special characters, etc.) so that I don’t have to scroll all over the place to put in a password.
Fire TV also wins the prize for best screensaver, knocking Chromecast’s pretty pictures out of the way with some stunning photos and a nice “Ken Burns” effect.
Voice recognition technology is finally getting to the point where it works pretty well (with the exception of Siri, who doesn’t understand a word I say.) Fire TV is no exception – just say a title or actor while holding down the microphone button at the top of the remote, and it’ll pull up a list of related content.
In our tests, it recognized speech correctly about 99% of the time. However, at launch there was something notably missing with the voice search function – content from providers other than Amazon. This is changing; Hulu content is already appearing in voice search at the time of this writing — though when I searched for The Daily Show, I had to wade through several seasons of “unavailable” episodes to get to the more recent episodes that are currently on Hulu.
Clearly there are still some kinks to work out. Showtime and Crackle are integrating their catalogs with Fire TV’s voice search in the coming months, but we haven’t heard any word on Netflix yet.
If you’re self conscious about talking to your devices, you can also do a text search on Fire TV. However, for some reason Amazon doesn’t use their excellent virtual keyboard here – instead you have the painful process of scrolling through a single row of letters and numbers.
Fire TV also uses DIAL for its “second screen” experience, allowing you to control the video from a compatible mobile device and read more information about what you’re watching using Amazon’s “X-Ray” feature. However, this is currently only true for Kindle Fire HD and HDX devices – our earlier Kindle Fire doesn’t give us the option to send video to the Fire TV, nor do any of our iOS devices. Amazon says that the second screen feature will be coming to more Android and iOS devices at some point in the future, but with all the DIAL-compatible devices in our lab it seems a bit short-sighted to not have that functionality working right out of the box.
We like Fire TV for its interface and responsiveness, and think it has a lot of potential. It does an excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own content, but we’re looking forward to a more unified search experience and being able to take advantage of the second-screen features on more devices. At this point we’d have a hard time recommending Fire TV (at $99) over Roku ($50-100) or Chromecast ($35) as an all-around streamer, but it’s a great choice for anyone getting most of their streaming video from Amazon.
A Dongle Duel: Roku v. Chromecast
A Roku Streaming Stick showed up at the lab recently, so we’ve been putting it through the paces alongside Google’s Chromecast stick. While both devices have quite a bit in common (such as a dongle form factor and DIAL functionality), they are also fundamentally different. So which dongle do we like best? Read on.
PRICE: Roku’s Streaming Stick will set you back about $50; Chromecast $35.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX: Both dongles ship with a micro-USB cable for power. Roku’s Streaming Stick includes a full-size remote control, while Chromecast is controlled by mobile devices only. Chromecast also includes an extender in case the HDMI port on your TV is a tight fit.
APPS: Both dongles play content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Vudu, and Crackle. Roku carries hundreds of other free and paid channels, including Amazon Instant Video. Chromecast’s library of compatible apps is still small, but growing. So Roku wins on content depth and breadth.
HOW THEY STACK UP: Both Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick use DIAL, which means that within a DIAL-enabled app on your phone or tablet (Netflix or Hulu, for example) you can choose a piece of content, select the little antenna-looking icon, and begin playing it.
Again, this is the only way you can control Chromecast, because it doesn’t come with a remote control.
Roku includes a lot of channels (apps), but lots of them don’t yet work with DIAL — hence the physical remote. (Which is kind cluttering up our recently-decluttered lab). And, alas! The remote for Roku’s stick doesn’t come with the fabulous headphone jack, or motion control, that came with the Roku 3 remote. And while you can buy those separately, they don’t work with the streaming stick.
AUTHENTICATION: Another area where the dongles differ is authentication – signing in to Netflix, Hulu, etc. to get the content you pay for. Chromecast does all of this without prompting you, assuming you’re signed in to whichever over-the-top video app on your mobile device. It does this by sending a token from your mobile device to the dongle, over WiFi.
Not the case on Roku, where you have to sign in to each app the first time you use it. This is a bit of a hassle. Say, for instance, you don’t have HBO, your friend doesn’t have an Internet-connected TV, and you both want to watch Silicon Valley. On Chromecast, you can do this from a mobile phone without authenticating on the dongle itself. Roku makes you enter user name/password, using the onscreen remote. The stick then remembers your friend’s login unless you go in and clear it out.
MOBILE APPS: Chromecast’s app is for setup purposes only, for streaming content Google Cast is embedded into existing apps (such as HBO Go). We find that to be a good thing, because app clutter is as bad or worse than remote control clutter.
We were intrigued to see that Roku’s mobile app for iOS now includes a search feature where you can put in a title, actor, or director and see which content providers are currently streaming what you want to watch. (The feature has been on the hockey-puck Roku devices themselves for quite a while, but it’s new to the mobile app.)
In theory, putting Roku Search on the mobile app is huge, because it lets you sort through the vast amount of content from a handheld device, rather than rummaging around for the plastic remote. Then seamlessly start playing whatever you picked, on the big screen. Sounds great.
Unfortunately, in practice, it’s a bit of disaster. Here’s why. Say you search for Mad Men. You’ll see a bunch of different content providers that have the show, including Netflix. But when you tap on a season of the show on Netflix, expecting to see a list of episodes, you’ll instead find that it immediately starts playing that season from the beginning – and it doesn’t remember where you left off.
Worse, Roku’s search feature on its iPhone app doesn’t work consistently. Selecting a season of a show from Amazon or HBO Go will bring up a list of episodes on the TV screen – I’d rather browse and read episode descriptions on my phone, but at least it works. In the case of Netflix and Hulu, this feature is broken. Selecting a season on Netflix from the iPhone app sends the first episode of that season to your TV (if you’re lucky; often it just times out). It doesn’t remember where you left off and doesn’t let you browse on either screen. In the case of Hulu, this is what we got, every time:
Which begs the question: Why bring the search feature to the Roku mobile app if it doesn’t work in a way that’s consistent or actually useful? This one’s gotta be a bug.
Roku’s stick also seems to have trouble remembering state — that is, if you stop a piece of content midway through, it doesn’t start mid-way through when you resume playout. It typically starts from the beginning when you go back to resume it. Annoying. This hasn’t been an issue with Chromecast.
Another area where Chromecast beats Roku’s Streaming Stick is in CEC (Consumer Electronics Control). Chromecast will turn on your TV and switch to the correct input when you start playing a piece of content (assuming, of course, that it’s not powered from your TV’s USB slot.)
CEC is what lets you do things like control the TV volume from your mobile device. This is a very useful feature, and we wish Roku would start incorporating it into their devices already. Instead, I found myself juggling two remote controls and a mobile app while using the Roku Streaming Stick.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Roku’s devices have been my and our all-around favorite for a long time, but I find their Streaming Stick to be pretty disappointing, out of the box. While it does make any digital TV into a “connected” TV, and does bring all that OTT content in without cluttering up the TV stand, it seems to lag behind the hockey-puck-shaped Roku devices in our lab when it comes to processing power. I’d recommend it over the Roku 1 (which is also $50 but doesn’t include DIAL or dual-band WiFi), but all things considered I’d rather put a little more money and space towards a Roku 3.
Though it has less content than Roku at this point, Chromecast feels far more unified. And let me tell you, I never thought I’d prefer a TV device made by Google over one from Roku. But I found that I prefer Chromecast’s simplicity and lack of a physical remote. The huge variety of content on Roku (and multiple ways to control it) actually started to feel a bit overwhelming.
So: Roku’s Streaming Stick does some things well, but for the price I’d stick with Chromecast.
The Great Lab Purge of 2014
Landscapes are changing, both inside the lab and out. We’ve seen the “hardware streamer” category flare up and settle back down; the major players have been established, and the lab shelves are cluttered with “televestigial” devices and piles of remote controls. And so, the purge begins.
A few of the favorite televestigials get an honorary HDMI port — namely the Boxee Box and a 2nd-generation Sony Google TV. The 1st-generation Sony Google TV gets to stay too, because it’s another screen (but probably the dusty 91-button remote control will live in a drawer).
The multiple outdated devices from Netgear and Sony (not to mention the associated tangles of cords running behind the lab shelves) are getting the axe.
Fortunately for those of us dealing with cord-clutter, 2014 is shaping up to be Year of the Dongle. We’ll have offerings from Roku and (so we hear) Amazon joining the lab next month, and we’re looking forward to covering the next phase of OTT technology and branching out to some new areas as the traditional hardware streamer market dies down.
Meanwhile, I recently moved from the connection-challenged farm and am officially back on the cord. Happiness! My new house gets Comcast service, so I now have access to cable TV and 50MB internet – a big upgrade from the farm, where I’d get 4.7MB downstream on a good day. As soon as I find the boxes labeled “OTT,” I’ll be back with an update on how my streaming experience at home changes with a much faster connection. Stay tuned!
DIALing up the competition
Last week, as I was fiddling around in the lab, I realized just how many of the devices in our lab were quietly using the DIAL protocol.
Example: I opened YouTube on my phone and tapped the “Cast” button, only to see a long list of devices including the TiVo Roamio, Roku 3, Chromecast, and even two generations of Google TV.
DIAL, or Discovery And Launch, is the protocol used for Chromecast, and, increasingly, other devices. It was developed by Netflix and YouTube, with a little help from Sony and Samsung, and has gained support from a number of other big players in both content and hardware.
In a nutshell, DIAL enables apps on 2nd-screen devices (such as your mobile phone) to discover and send content to 1st-screen devices (i.e. Chromecast or Roku) on the same network.
How does it work?
From the user’s perspective, you launch an app. Let’s say it’s Netflix. You launch it from your mobile device and choose an output device on the same wireless network.* Let’s say it’s Chromecast. Then, you can start playing content from your mobile device, and it sends a signal to the Chromecast to go and retrieve that content.
This means that the content streams directly from The Cloud to the DIAL-enabled device — not from the mobile device. This frees up your phone for checking email, browsing the web, searching out other titles to play, texting people, and all the other things we do with our phones/tablets.
Most importantly, it means that the second-screen experience won’t drain your battery life and then grind to a halt. Even with the phone powered off, the video plays on.
*Because the devices need to be able to talk to one another over the wireless network, DIAL won’t work on networks with Access Point(AP)/Client isolation – i.e. don’t bother bringing your Chromecast for the hotel room.
Here’s the tech talk of it. DIAL relies on UPnP (Universal Plug n Play), SSDP (Simple Service Discovery Protocol), and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol).
DIAL consists of two parts: DIAL Service Discovery and DIAL REST (REpresentational State Transfer). In the first part, the DIAL client device (i.e. your phone) discovers DIAL servers (i.e. a Roku, Chromecast, etc.) and obtains access to DIAL REST on those devices. DIAL REST then allows the client device to query, launch, and stop apps on the DIAL server.
DIAL-enabled Devices (and how Chromecast differs)
Several of the devices in our lab already support DIAL, even though some of those devices are a couple years old. And because DIAL is based on UPnP, it may be possible to add DIAL support to other existing boxes through a software update.
Chromecast is a little different in that it uses Google Cast, which is based on DIAL but includes a few extras (of course it does) in the way of playback controls. It also has a more stable YouTube implementation than the other devices (it seems that way to us, anyway).
Chromecast also carries the distinction of using HDMI-CEC (Consumer Electronics Control), for controlling your TV through the HDMI port. All you need to do is find a piece of content on your phone and send it to the Chromecast – it’ll then turn on your TV, switch to the right input, let you change the TV volume, and so on. This is a great feature and we wish more of the devices in the lab had it.
What apps support DIAL?
Currently, only a handful of apps use DIAL – on most devices it’s Netflix and YouTube only. Chromecast currently has a handful of other apps such as HBO Go, Pandora, and Hulu Plus.
More interesting is the DIAL name registry, which shows us which apps may be using DIAL in the future. Not surprisingly, Turner Broadcasting has entries for all or most of its apps, and Comcast is on the list as well. In the OTT space, Aereo, Redbox Instant, and Crackle are all on the registry. And as a heavy Spotify user, I was thrilled to see it listed there too.
However, just because a name is on the DIAL registry doesn’t mean that it will ever end up on Chromecast, or even have a working DIAL implementation – just that the app maker has started tinkering with DIAL in some capacity. As of this writing, the Google Cast SDK is still being finalized and Google is keeping the Chromecast partners to a select few. However, Google promises a busy 2014 on the Chromecast front, with a goal of bringing as many apps to the device as possible. Needless to say, we’ll be watching.
Your 2013 Guide to Streaming Stocking Stuffers
Still looking for some last-minute holiday gifts? You’ve come to the right place. Once again, we’re rounding up our favorite streaming devices in an attempt to make your holiday shopping research a little easier. After all, we follow this stuff all year long!
In keeping with the title, we’re focusing on the stocking stuffers of the streaming world – small, specialized, and relatively inexpensive. Because the price and features differ so much, we’ve left the game consoles and connected Blu-ray players off this list (they won’t fit in a stocking, anyway).
Without further ado, here’s our list (scroll down to the bottom for a side-by-side comparison of the apps that are currently available on each device).
For your tech-savvy friends: Chromecast ($35)
This little dongle made quite a splash earlier this year, and its low price point and small size make it a fantastic stocking stuffer. Unlike Roku’s streaming stick, Chromecast will work on any TV with an HDMI port. It currently has access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, and HBO Go, with more compatible apps joining the ranks soon. Chromecast isn’t as user-friendly as the other devices on this list, but it’s a great choice for anyone who enjoys playing with the latest technology.
For loved ones willing to pay for good TV: Apple TV ($99)
Despite no updates to the hardware for quite some time, Apple TV is finally getting more premium content. In past years Apple TV only had Netflix and iTunes, making it a tough one to recommend. But with the addition of Hulu Plus, and payTV apps such as HBO Go, Disney, and ESPN Live, the premium content selection is starting to look a lot more like Roku’s. And about HBO Go – many of the big payTV operators currently block access on Roku but not on AppleTV, so AppleTV is probably the best bet for any Comcast or DirecTV subscribers on your list.
For just about everyone: Roku ($50-$100)
This one won’t surprise anyone, because Roku is consistently at the top of our list in terms of value, content, and ease of use. (Disclaimer: My parents are still using the Roku I got them for Christmas 3 years ago).
There are a few different Roku devices to choose from:
Old TV? Roku LT or Roku 2.
Roku is the only manufacturer on this list that offers component out, making it a great choice to smarten up any dumb analog TV. At around $50, the Roku LT is a perfect gift for your relatives with an ancient TV. While the LT tops out at 720p, the Roku 2 ($80) streams full 1080p video and also includes a headphone jack on the remote – perfect for watching while other people are trying to pretend to work, or sleep.
For your favorite media junkie: Roku 3.
At $99, Roku 3 adds some premium features on top of the standard ones. Its processor is about 5x faster, and it includes a motion-sensing remote control for gaming (and a free copy of Angry Birds, as in years past). Roku 3 also includes USB and Micro SD ports, making it easier to put home movies and photos up on the big screen. But the thing we’re most excited about is support for DIAL (Discovery And Launch), the same protocol used by Chromecast – this makes it possible to control Roku’s Netflix and YouTube channels from a mobile device.
Google TV Android TV …just stick with Chromecast this year
Google retired the “Google TV” name and is now partnering with manufacturers to make devices “with Google services.” New devices from Sony and Hisense have been announced, and Google is also rumored to be building a “Nexus TV” device. We’ve yet to see the user interface, but the details released so far suggest the same old Google TV experience.
And remember, HDMI cables aren’t included with AppleTV and Roku anymore, so you’ll want to throw one in the box as well – no need for anything fancy, this will do.
Much Ado about Aereo
On October 28th, Aereo came to Denver. It rolled out to the general public on November 4th, but we got early access because we preregistered months ago (and then routinely stalked Aereo’s website hoping for a rollout date.)
Aereo is over-the-air (OTA) television and local channels provided over the Internet – each subscriber has a remote DVR, plus a dedicated antenna, somewhere in a data center in Denver.
Maybe you’ve heard of Aereo in the context of the multiple lawsuits brought by broadcasters – Fox’s CEO publicly threatened to make all its content payTV only, and major networks such as ABC, CBS, and Fox filed lawsuits in multiple states. One or both seem destined to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
All this legal trouble stems from those antennas on the rooftop – Aereo claims that because each subscriber has a dedicated antenna, it is no different from getting those free-to-air channels using an antenna at home. Not surprisingly, broadcasters disagree — vehemently — and want Aereo to pay retransmission fees just like everyone else who carries their signals. So far, the rulings have been in Aereo’s favor, but another crop of lawsuits popped up in Utah on October 25th.
PayTV operators, which do pay handsome retransmission fees for those local channels, are of course watching these proceedings with great interest. A recent article in Businessweek says that DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are weighing similar technology options in the event Aereo prevails, and may have even considered buying the company.
We can’t help but wonder what would happen to the payTV ecosystem, were Netflix to buy Aereo. They both need each other — Netflix for live and linear; Aereo for a big catalog of on-demand fare. But we’ll set that aside for now.
So how does it work?
For $8/month, you get a single tuner and 20 hours of recording time. For $12, you can add a second tuner and increase your recording time to 60 hours. I doubt a second tuner or extra DVR space will get much use with 30 channels in our labs, but is probably a very sound investment for anyone who watches a lot of sports.
Aereo released a dedicated app for Android devices on October 22, and also works with iOS devices and web browsers. However, you won’t find it in the iTunes app store – you need to access Aereo’s website through Safari on your phone or tablet. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to drop a shortcut on your home screen so the end result is that you have an Aereo icon that takes you right to the website – virtually the same as using an app, and Aereo doesn’t have to give a cut to iTunes. Pretty clever, actually.
Aereo isn’t an official iOS app, but it’s easy enough to add an icon to your home screen.
Aereo works on Apple TV via AirPlay, and also has a channel on Roku. The Roku channel is not in the official channel store; you can only add it as a private channel. To do so, you go to the settings area of Aereo’s website and choose “connect to Roku,” then follow the link to Roku’s website to install the channel. Once the channel shows up on your Roku (I had to force a software update in order to see it), you just need to open it and type the confirmation code it displays into Aereo’s settings.
Aereo also has a “Two-screen Mode” for Roku that allows you to control Aereo from your iOS device:
Aereo on Roku, Two-Screen Mode. from Leslie Ellis on Vimeo.
In general, I like Aereo because it gives me a reliable way to watch local channels in an area where I can barely get an antenna signal. I’ve used a number of antenna-DVR combos, but more often than not my recordings were empty because the signal cut out.
But my Aereo antenna, about the size of a dime, is located on an undisclosed rooftop somewhere in Denver and gets an excellent signal – for the first time, I can get all the major networks, and I’ve yet to see a DVR recording that’s just a black screen.
Aereo suffers from my slow bandwidth connection, however (5 Mbps on a good day), so the video often pauses to reload even when on the lowest quality setting.
The playback on my Roku and my iPad appeared to be about equal on the Farm Lab’s DSL connection, and the two-screen mode on Roku worked equally well (this looks to be a Chromecast-type implementation where the Roku is retrieving the video from a URL rather than streaming it directly from the iPad). This also means that you can navigate to a different page or multitask on your device without interrupting the video.
Scheduling a recording from the iPad using Roku’s Two-Screen Mode.
Recording Options on iPad
However, using AirPlay with my Apple TV to watch Aereo was a different story. The video, which was streaming from my iPad to the Apple TV, paused to buffer so frequently that it wasn’t worth watching. AirPlay also relies on the app being up and the iPad screen active in order to work so there’s no multitasking, or even letting the iPad screen go dark as you watch TV.
Other than Aereo, the only way I can watch local news and major networks is using the Slingbox we have hooked up to our Comcast subscription in our Denver OTT lab. While the Slingbox does let me access a lot more content, I mostly find myself using it to watch live local news when there’s something going on.
This scenario is considerably better on Aereo, partly because the streaming quality is slightly more reliable than the SlingPlayer app, and I can watch it on my Roku. What’s more, the Aereo lineup in Denver includes 24/7 News (a subchannel of Denver’s channel 7), which plays the latest local newscast 24/7 – I really wish I had this for the floods back in September, and I’ll surely be tuning in the next time a blizzard rolls into Colorado.
But as much as I like having Aereo at the Farm Lab, there is one little thing I wish they’d change: As someone who uses TV as background noise more often than not, I like live TV because it’s linear – I don’t have to select another piece of content in order to keep watching. So naturally, I expected Aereo would work this way.
Instead, whenever a show ends, it pops up a message telling you to select something else. So if I get sucked into the first 3 minutes of whatever’s on next, I have to clear that message, navigate back through the guide, and find the current segment. Silly.
There are also a few glitches to be ironed out in the Guide by Time – future airtimes don’t list shows in the correct time slot – i.e. looking at the 5 pm slot actually gives you shows airing at 7, and because the guide is organized by show you can’t just tune in to a channel – you’re only given the option to schedule a future recording. It would be nice to have a “tune to this channel now” option in the guide.
The verdict: I’d really like to see Aereo make its linear experience a bit more linear, so that I can keep watching without constantly picking up the remote. But while it’s not perfect, Aereo is something that I can see myself using because my antenna reception is so awful. After buying expensive HD antennas and running extra-long coax all over the house, paying $8 a month for a reliable signal (and DVR) seems like a bargain, even if I should technically be able to get those channels for free.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Chromecast: It’s about time.
Finally, after weeks of waiting and delayed shipments from Amazon, the lab has a Chromecast. And we have it thanks to Leslie’s pal Ryan Petty, who loaned us one of his – thanks Ryan!
I’ve been putting it through the paces for the past couple weeks, and it’s left me intrigued for future applications (and a bit frustrated with the current limitations).
What it is: Chromecast is a streaming dongle that plugs into the HDMI port of your TV, so that it’s barely visible (much less taking up precious shelf space). It’s similar in form factor to the Roku Streaming Stick, with one big difference: Roku uses MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) to power the device, so it only works with a small subset of newer TVs. But you don’t need to find power for it.
This isn’t true for Chromecast – you need to find power for it. It uses micro USB, which means it plugs in to the USB port on your TV, and then to the included wall adaptor. Then you need to find another hole in the power strip.
So, while MHL devices like Roku’s Streaming Stick have the advantage of being completely cordless, with no powering requirements, Chromecast has the advantage of transforming any TV set with an HDMI port into a connected TV. But it needs power.
How it works: Chromecast receives signals from smartphones and tablets, and from computers using Google’s Chrome browser (with the Chromecast plugin installed). It can mirror any web page or video from the computer’s browser, on the TV screen, and it also works with a few mobile apps to play optimized video. The mobile apps work by sending a URL to Chromecast, which then retrieves the video, rather than streaming directly from the device– making for much better video quality.
The premium video content is limited — just Netflix and YouTube were available initially, and Hulu Plus just joined the crowd yesterday — but HBO Go, Redbox, Vimeo, and others have expressed intent to porting their apps to Chromecast as well.
So assuming those Chromecast-optimized apps arrive soon (and there’s no telling, since the Chromecast SDK isn’t even finalized yet), this device will likely be a real contender for the holiday season.
Chromecast setup involved me going to a URL on my mobile device, which then directed me to install the Chromecast app (on both my iPhone and laptop.) From there, I connected to the Chromecast from the WiFi settings on my iPhone (as if it were a wireless network) and gave it the name and password for our local network. Then, it was just a matter of connecting my phone to the home WiFi network again, and then opening an app on my iPhone (i.e. Netflix) and selecting a piece of content. A new button within Chromecast-compatible apps allows you to select the Chromecast dongle as your output device, so whatever you select from your phone or tablet automatically starts playing on the TV.
Bonus: Chromecast doesn’t tie up whatever device you’re using to control it – so you can start a video from Netflix, and then go back to checking your email and browsing the web on whatever device you’re using. Likewise it won’t keep calls from coming in, though I think it would be nice to see it integrated a bit with the phone features – I’m thinking of Boxee’s remote control app, which automatically paused the video when a call came in. Allowing the viewer to select options like “Do not disturb” or “Pause video when phone rings” at the start of a session might make for a better experience.
The Netflix app worked quite well, with no noticeable lag in picture quality or streaming performance. The quality was a bit diminished when I tested it on my slow (~4 Mbps) connection at the farm, as expected.
I did notice that the Netflix app on my iPhone frequently forgets that it’s connected to a Chromecast, especially if I’m using it in areas of my house where the WiFi signal is weak. Then, I’m unable to control the Chromecast or pause the video, and I have to scramble to mute the volume if a call comes in.
I didn’t notice the same problem with the YouTube app, which was somehow able to maintain a connection with the Chromecast as my phone dropped off and on the WiFi network.
Streaming from my laptop, I quickly learned why it might not be such a big deal that people are able to mirror Hulu’s free web content up to the TV using Chromecast – the audio skipped almost constantly, and the reduced picture quality and large frame around the video made for a truly sub-par experience. Fortunately, Hulu finally released a compatible app yesterday so we won’t have to suffer through it any longer.
Chromecast does a lot for $35, but still lacks content – however, it appears that the content situation might get a lot better. If we get apps like Spotify and Amazon Instant Video down the road, this might be my go-to device. I really like being able to browse on a mobile device, rather than using a remote control to browse on my TV screen. Could it really be that Google TV finally got it right?
Well, maybe. Enter Sony’s Bravia “Smart Stick,” which breathless media reports dubbed a “Chromecast competitor” as soon as the first FCC filing surfaced — not so. For starters, the “Smart Stick” only works with Sony Smart TVs, and it requires MHL – that’s a very small percentage of the market.
The idea is to unite Google TV features with Sony’s Smart TV features, plus cable or satellite service using an HDMI pass-through. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Sony Google TV device without the same overly complicated remote control that shipped with their last device – surely a big part of the $115 price tag.
We’ll stick with the Chromecast, thanks. And wait to see what Comcast and its brethren have up their sleeve….