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.
2014 Year In Review
After thumbing through every 2014 issue of this magazine, five tech trends rose to the top:
1. We’re now squarely in the middle of the transition to “all-IP” (Internet Protocol), as the umbrella covering cloud-delivered services, bandwidth (wired and wireless), connected devices, TV everywhere, and all else in the technological vogue. It began with the cable modem, in the late ‘90s. Nobody really knows when the “all” part of “all-IP” will happen — but “not in my lifetime” is a seldom-heard response.
2. This year, the term “OTT” — Over-the-Top — became less a categorical description of Netflix, Amazon, and the rest of the new ilk of video competition, and more a common technological ingredient, used by all. In short, with every step toward cloud, operators are “over-the-topping themselves.”
3. The recognition that “the competition” now extends beyond satellite and telco-delivered services, to the OTT camp, brought with it a new “tech culture” reality. Vendors, operators and programmers alike spent a sizeable chunk of 2014 retooling to work at “web speed,” which means adopting agile software and “DevOps” strategies.
4. RDK, the Reference Design Kit, rose in strategic importance this year, again, and big time. Evidence: In October, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries off-handedly called RDK “a DOCSIS moment,” referencing the cable modem specification that changed the economics of what became the broadband industry.
5. “Speed vs. capacity” will sustain as one of the more important tech subtleties. It’s the “gig” that can gum things up: GigaHertz is a unit of capacity, Gigabyte a unit of storage, and Gigabit a measure of speed. But! As important is throughput, or, the amount of stuff we’re moving to and from our various screens. Knowing the distinctions matters.
That’s the short list! Merry merry, and may your 2015 technologies be kind and useful.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
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.
Fresh Meat! Sandvine’s Latest Work on Broadband Consumption Trends
By Sara Dirkse and Leslie Ellis
Sandvine released its Global Internet Phenomena report earlier this week, giving us a fresh look at how all these video streaming services — which we spend a whole lotta time studying — are performing.
Here’s the highlights.
Netflix continues to lead in fixed access (wired) downstream (toward consumers) traffic, with 31.6% of peak traffic during September. That’s down slightly, from 33% for the same period last year. But most of this data was collected before Netflix made SuperHD (1080P) content available to all subscribers – so Sandvine expects Netflix’s share of traffic to rally.
YouTube, on the other hand, grew 9% this year, and now accounts for 18.7% of peak downstream traffic. Together, YouTube and Netflix deliver more than half of all downstream traffic. (Note: This is only for fixed access — when it comes to mobile, YouTube tops the list — and Netflix comes in eighth. Go figure.)
File-sharing site BitTorrent continues to slide, netting just 4% of peak downstream traffic. BitTorrent remains #4 on the list of top traffic sources this year, but illegal/borderline illegal filesharing on the whole is losing traffic with gusto – more than a 20% drop over the past 5 years. This suggests that people will pay for streaming content, rather than going through the hassle, technically or morally, of downloading it illegally.
iTunes remains the czar of rental/VOD, in terms of traffic, but is down slightly in market share — dropping from 3.92% to 3.27%. Amazon also declined in viewing share, from 1.75% to 1.61%. That one surprised us, especially following reports of significant Prime subscriber growth in the past year.
Hulu cracked the Top 10 for the first time this year, with 1.29% of peak downstream traffic. Congratulations, Hulu. We’ll keep trying to remember to think of you first (or second, or third) when looking for stuff.
So thanks, Sandvine, for the update. There’s nothing like fresh data, from authentic spigots. It’s confirming to see some trends sustaining — like how streaming traffic continues to usurp peer-to-peer filesharing.
The jockeying of the streaming services, with toolkits inventoried with original content and service provider partnerships, are what we think will add the next contours of broadband consumption. We’ll be watching.
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….
Summer Streaming Update
The original content battles are heating up this summer, and we’re seeing some interesting developments on the hardware side as well. In keeping, here’s a Summer Streaming roundup from our OTT Video Labs.
Chromecast: A successful TV device from Google at last?
In case you haven’t heard, Google released a new TV device on July 24th called “Chromecast.” Ours is set to arrive this week. Chromecast is a $35 HDMI dongle, similar in size to Roku’s streaming stick, but with some different features.
For starters, it uses a USB power source (either from your TV, or a wall socket adaptor), which means it works on HDTVs without MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link)-compatible HDMI ports. MHL allows devices to get power via the HDMI port, for instance the Roku Streaming Stick (which requires MHL). But most TVs in use today aren’t MHL-compatible, so we’re glad to see Chromecast will work for everyone.
And, it enables you play web video you select from a computer, tablet or phone, on the big-screen TV. It’s much like AirPlay Mirroring (or AirParrot) on AppleTV, meaning you can use Chromecast to watch browser-only content from Hulu or other sources, on your TV.
This last one is a biggie. Recall that when the first GoogleTV devices hit the marketplace, in 2010, Hulu and most networks blocked GoogleTV’s browser from accessing their content. With Chromecast, because the viewer is “flinging” content from another device to the TV, rather than tuning to it from an on-board browser, there’s no easy way to keep that “web-only” content off the TV. Hulu would have to either block the Chrome browser on all devices, or switch from Flash to Silverlight – both of which seem very unlikely.
Instead of putting up a fight, Hulu seems to be taking the position that Chromecast is about connectivity more so than access – that it’s just slightly easier than using an HDMI cable to connect a computer to a TV screen. Its bet: People will pay for easier. Plus, there’s the whole “more eyeballs” angle, always a factor.
Like Netflix and YouTube, Hulu is working to make its mobile app Chromecast-compatible. These compatible apps (located on the mobile device, not the Chromecast stick itself) provide much better video quality, because Chromecast essentially receives a URL link to the content, then pulls it directly from the public Internet, rather than streaming from one device to another.
We’ll be putting Chromecast through its paces in the lab over the next few weeks, so stay tuned for a full review.
And speaking of game-changing devices: Fanhattan’s FanTV box is now in trials with Cox in Orange County, Calif., for an IPTV service it calls “flareWatch.” FanTV is a small, attractive device that replaces the traditional cable box to combine live TV and DVR with streaming services. In the Cox implementation, access to Netflix or Hulu isn’t an option, at least initially. Cox says this is because they’re early on in the trial and just testing the user interface at this point, but we suspect it might have more to do with contractual obligations between the networks and OTT providers.
Redbox and Roku, together at last
And finally! We got the long-awaited Redbox Instant channel on Roku. While Redbox continues to add new content and devices, the selection is still quite limited when compared to other services, particularly because there’s no TV content – only movies. Assessment: Yawn.
Another almost-sale for Hulu
Hulu Plus was up for sale for a second time, and once again its owners pulled it off the auction block, opting to instead plow another $750 million into it. For what? As many as 20 original series premieres this year, two of which were released earlier this month: “The Awesomes” on August 1, and “Quick Draw” on August 5. Unlike the Netflix model, these are released on a weekly basis rather than all at once.
Hopefully these original series pay off for Hulu, because they’ve been losing content to exclusive deals between copyright owners, and competitors Netflix and Amazon. For example: Last month Netflix got exclusive rights to past seasons of Fox’s “New Girl,” so now Hulu Plus users will only have access to a few episodes at any given time. Before, it was the entire series.
Original content is taking off
Speaking of original content, Netflix is up for 14 Emmy Awards for its original content, nine of which are for “House of Cards.” (That’s up from zero nominations, any time before.) A new Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black,” is also getting rave reviews.
So it’s hardly surprising that we’re starting to see headlines calling Netflix “the new HBO.” More content is on the way, with the Ricky Gervais series “Derek” premiering September 12. Netflix also has quite a bit of original children’s content in the works, through its partnership with Dreamworks.
And to keep it all separate, Netflix recently introduced “identities,” allowing families to create multiple logins under the same account — so parents will no longer be inundated with Disney flicks, nor will they have to worry about their kids getting recommendations for “Breaking Bad.”
Let us not forget Amazon, also very busy with original content. It just announced another 5 new pilots, all geared towards children. As with its last round of pilots, Amazon involves viewers to participate in which shows get greenlighted for a full series.
With all this high-quality content now being produced by OTT providers, we’re interested to see where it ends up – will we eventually see the next big show coming from Netflix, and syndicated on cable TV? And if so, how will pay-TV providers incorporate it into their offerings?
We’ll keep an eye on it for you.
Silverlight’s Twilight, and the Dawn of HTML5 Video
Netflix announced last month that it is finally moving towards its goal of ditching the Silverlight plugin, with a little help from Microsoft.
Background: Netflix currently uses Silverlight (a Microsoft product) plugin to deliver streaming video to most web browsers. Netflix announced their intent to move away from Silverlight in favor of HTML5 in a blog post back in April, after Microsoft listed only 8 more years on Silverlight’s lifecycle.
And that wasn’t the only reason: Not all browsers support plugins, particularly on mobile devices. And even on supported devices, some consumers view plugins as a security risk and avoid installing them.
So for the past couple years, Netflix has been involved with three W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) initiatives, collectively known as the “HTML5 Premium Video Extensions.” The general goal is to develop specifications that will make it possible to play premium video directly in a web browser, without the need for consumers to download proprietary plugins such as Silverlight or Flash.
The W3C initiatives involve three key areas: Playback and Adaptive Streaming, Digital Rights Management (DRM), and Encryption.
Meanwhile, the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) initiative covers DRM implementation by providing standardized support for various DRM systems. (Notably, Leslie adds, the DRM-protected HTML5 stream is an area where multichannel video providers, steeped in how to satisfy contractual agreements with the program networks they offer, consistently grumble about monkey wrenches.)
One of the main hurdles for Netflix is getting these Premium Video Extensions implemented on all browsers – Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer. And this is where we’re finally starting to see some progress.
Back in April, with Google’s help, the Premium Video Extensions were implemented for the first time on the Samsung ARM-Based Chromebook. This isn’t a complete implementation; WebCrypto hasn’t yet been implemented in Chrome so a Netflix-developed API handles those operations for now. But once Google’s WebCrypto implementation is complete, testing can begin for Chrome on Windows and OS X.
Notably, and to the “with a little help from Microsoft” in the title of this post, Internet Explorer 11 is the first to implement all three of the Premium Video Extensions. If you’re running the preview of Windows 8.1, you can now watch Netflix using HTML5. If not, or if you prefer Firefox or Safari, you’ve still got some waiting to do. But if the current uptick is any indication, maybe it won’t be long.
Regardless, HTML5 is a hot topic and a big, big deal across the video ecosystem. Netflix’s moves are noteworthy, but not an isolated achievement by any stretch.