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.
Not long ago, I bid farewell to the flood-damaged farmhouse in Longmont, Colo. and moved on to greener, less swampy pastures. Despite the stress of moving and the fact that there are still boxes everywhere, there’s a lot to love about the new digs – a neat old Victorian surrounded by gardening space and fruit trees.
And the best part? I’m back on the cord!
One of the first orders of business at the new house, even before the moving truck pulled in the driveway, was to get Comcast service up and running. After the ultra-slow (<5 Mbps) DSL service at the farm, I was beside myself with joy when I saw this:
So how does the “cord-cutting” experience change now that I’m back on the cord?
For starters, I can watch streaming video and download software simultaneously – at the farm, this same challenge caused everything to grind to a halt for 5 or 10 minutes.
I also don’t see nearly as much buffering — there’s some, of course, but it’s generally limited to when I first start playing a piece of content. For example: Slingplayer, whether on my iPad or another device, will now keep playing without dropping the connection for hours on end (at the farm, Slingplayer would lose sight of the Slingbox at the lab at least once an hour, and every 5 minutes if I was watching something particularly interesting).
I expected to see some improvements in terms of video quality, but found it to be about the same as at the farm. Slingplayer works without interruption, but only in the SD or Auto settings – if I change the picture quality to HD, it’s full of skips and starts just like at the farm.
And the same can be said for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus, regardless of whether I’m streaming to a Roku, Apple TV, or Chromecast. I can’t say that the picture quality is noticeably sharper than it was on an ultra-slow DSL connection. What I do notice is that videos play smoothly at the new house, with virtually no “buffer breaks” (which, like commercial breaks, were a good time to grab a snack. Now I have to pause the video).
This underscores the fact that our OTT devices are really good at handling streaming video, even when the connection is less than optimal. At the farm, even at <5 Mbps, the video generally looked pretty sharp and the buffer breaks were manageable when using a streaming device connected to my TV. The main difference now that I’m on a 50 Mbps connection is that videos load much faster, and I very rarely see buffering in the middle of a piece of content.
Aside from the faster connection, the biggest difference with my new setup is that I can easily get local channels with an antenna. Finally!
You may recall that I spent hours moving a huge high-powered antenna all over the farmhouse, and tripping over coax in the hallways, only to find I STILL couldn’t get all the major over-the-air networks. When I connected the dinky little Boxee antenna to a TV at the new house, it immediately picked up ~35 channels, including ABC and NBC, two that I tried in vain to pick up at the farm. Of course, I can get those channels (and more) through my cable service, but the rarely used upstairs TV doesn’t warrant its own cable box. And now that Aereo has shut down its service in Denver for the time being, the timing couldn’t be better.
It’s good to be on the cord again. The fast Internet and cable TV feel downright luxurious after doing without for years, and I’m excited to finally be able to explore some of the other technologies that are making their way into homes. Now that we’re in the time of home automation and connected bike helmets, I’m glad to be back on the cable loop.
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!
Spring Streaming Update 2014
Spring snowflakes are flying in Colorado, as are the news headlines surrounding some of our favorite devices and services. So today, we bring you a sampling of the latest news items to sprout in the world of OTT technology.
Roku’s Streaming Stick is refreshed and ready to compete with Chromecast
Roku announced an update to its Streaming Stick on March 4th (to be released in April; yes we’ve pre-ordered) with a few changes that position it nicely as a backatchya to Google’s Chromecast. Starting with the happy fact that the Roku stick works on all HDTVs. Previously, it required HDTVs plumbed with an MHL (Multi High-Definition Link) HDMI port, so as to power the device. The price is also peppy, down from $100 to $50. Still not as low as Chromecast’s $35 price tag, but hey. Roku owns the category.
In terms of content and user experience, Roku’s Streaming Stick comes with the standard Roku remote and 1200+ channels, while Chromecast is controlled entirely from your mobile device (no physical remote) and has around 20 compatible apps. The two devices have DIAL functionality in common; Roku’s YouTube and Netflix apps allow you to browse and control the content from your mobile device, while all Chromecast-compatible apps are controlled solely from your mobile device.
We expect Roku to release a new version of its mobile app in April, integrating its Universal Search feature – meaning you’ll be able to search across services using your mobile device, then tune to your content without drilling down into the individual service to find it.
We’ll keep you posted on Roku Stick v. Chromecast as soon as the thing arrives.
Apple TV Moves Up
At the annual Apple Shareholders’ Meeting at the end of February, CEO Tim Cook revealed that Apple TV device sales grew by about 80% in 2013, reaching about 10 million units for the year. (What!) Total worldwide sales of Apple TV since 2007 sit at about 28 million units (compared with about 8 million Roku devices sold in the U.S. since 2008. Ouch.).
We’ve heard a lot of buzz about new Apple TV hardware for over a year now, but nothing’s been confirmed, yet again. What has changed is the amount of content available on Apple TV. Once the most limited in terms of content, Apple TV’s app lineup improved dramatically in 2013 with the addition of Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and a whole host of other payTV apps from A&E, Lifetime, History, Disney, Smithsonian Channel, and more. While Apple TV doesn’t have nearly as much content as Roku, it’s no longer just a Netflix-and-iTunes player.
Aereo Goes Dark in Denver
After ongoing court battles with broadcasters, on February 19th Aereo got slapped with a six-state injunction (covering Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana.) U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball granted Aereo a temporary reprieve on the 25th, allowing it to continue normal operations for 14 days.
Alas. Earlier today, March 7, Federal Court Judges Briscoe, Hartz, and Bacharach overturned the temporary 14 day stay. We kept Aereo streaming all day in the lab, wondering if it would suddenly go dark. It’s 7 p.m. as I post this, and I’ve still got the local news streaming on my computer. According to an email that hit my inbox about an hour ago, from Aereo founder Chet Kanojia, service in Denver and Salt Lake City will cease tomorrow at 10:00 AM MST (and we’ll be getting a full refund for the month).
It’s not over yet. Aereo and the broadcasters are expected to face off before the Supreme Court on April 22, so time will tell how all of this shakes out in the end. As Aereo has become a well-used service at the “farm lab,” where antenna reception is ridiculously bad, I’m hoping this injunction will be temporary.
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.