Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Internet TV

Over the past several years, we've seen a proliferation of devices designed to bring the Internet to your TV. There are smart TVs where Internet access is built in. There are also game consoles like Sony PlayStation and XBox that include Internet capabilities. Recent Tivo boxes include access to various Internet services.

Then there are small boxes and now dongles that hook into you TV and wireless to provide that access. I'll look at a couple of the most popular options available today.

Before we look at the boxes, let's talk a bit about the content that's available via these boxes. There are free and subscription channels available. Some like, Netflix and HuluPlus (the free version of Hulu is not compatible with set top boxes or mobile devices) require monthly subscriptions. Amazon has a streaming service that is available free to Prime subscribers but you can also buy or rent individual movies, TV episodes and/or seasons of shows. iTunes allows you to buy or rent content as well. In addition, there are some channels that are only available to you if you have a paid cable or satellite TV subscription. These include HBO Go, ESPN, etc.

Apple TV $99 - Apple has had their little box available for the past several years. The main distinction for Apple TV is that it allows access to purchased iTunes content. It also has a number of channels that allow access to other streaming services, e.g., Netflix, HuluPlus, PBS, YouTube, Disney channels, etc. but does not provide access to Amazon or Google TV content. You need a wifi connection to access the Internet. You can control Apple TV with the remote provided. You can also stream content to it from iPads and iPhones using AirPlay.

Roku has several different models ranging in price from $49.99 to $99.99. Their latest device is an HDMI streaming stick similar to Google's Chromecast (see below) for $49.99. Roku claims to have 1000+ channels available. Roku does stream Amazon content but not Google or iTunes. Nor does it stream YouTube content. You can control it via remote or an app on a tablet or phone. You need a wifi connection. I've had a Roku box for several years and use it all the time. It's particularly useful for cord cutters (people who've cut off their cable and/or satellite TV subscriptions). I have paid subscriptions to Netflix and HuluPlus which are the channels I watch most often. Most of my other viewing is limited to tech content from TWiT and Revision 3. Both are free channels.

Chromecast is Google's entry into the set top box. It's an HDMI stick like Roku's and sells for $35. You control it with a portable device either a tablet or a smart phone. There are apps available for iOS and Android. You can also use it with the Chrome browser on a Windows laptop. The channel selection is currently fairly limited. You can get Netflix, HuluPlus, YouTube, HBO Go and Google Play content. But that's about it at this time. Some people like the control by tablet. I find it a bit clunky.

One piece of general advice. If you have a lot of purchased digital content from iTunes, Amazon or Google Play Store, you'll want to choose the device that will provide access to that content. Also, understand that you'll be determining where you get your content by the device you have. But if all you're looking to do is stream content from Netflix or HuluPlus, just about anything will do. They're very good at making their content widely available.

CNET Review - Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Roku 3: Which media streamer should you buy?

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