Stream what you want, when you want it
Streaming video services are the big bang behind your exploding viewing options. Those online services offer thousands of movies and TV programs, old and new, that you can enjoy on your own schedule. To stream video, you need a broadband Internet connection (our experts recommend 5 mbps or higher, provided by most cable services) and either a TV with built-in Internet capability or a device that you connect to the set—a media player, an Internet-enabled Blu-ray player, or a game console.
Most services charge either a subscription fee, usually $10 or less per month, or several dollars for each movie or TV episode you stream. Subscription services save you money if you stream a lot. Renting a few movies and TV programs every week can get expensive if you have to pay for each one individually.
On the other hand, subscription libraries usually don't have current titles; pay-per-view services often get new releases the day they come out on disc. For quantity, a subscription service wins. For currency, go for pay-per-view. Or do both: Get a subscription and use pay-per-view occasionally to see new releases.
One major service, YouTube, has a huge selection of free movies and TV shows, though it's known mostly for amateur videos. But video quality varies more than with the paid services, which usually offer very good quality on a decent Internet connection.
Netflix, which costs $8 per month, is the most widely available service on TVs, media players, and other devices, and it has a large library of movies and TV programs. (Newer titles might be available only as DVD and Blu-ray rentals, which require a separate subscription.)
Amazon Prime provides unlimited access to a portion of the Amazon Instant Video library as part of its $79-per-year, two-day shipping service.
Hulu Plus, $8 per month, is weighted more toward TV programming than movies. Redbox Instant, a hybrid service, charges $8 per month for unlimited streaming plus four DVD rentals from its kiosks, $1 more for Blu-ray.
Pay-per-view services such as Amazon Instant Video, Apple iTunes, Blockbuster OnDemand, CinemaNow, M-Go, and Vudu charge $2 to $7 a day to rent a movie or TV episode. The price depends on how new a title is and the quality you choose.
To stream video you'll need either a TV or a device with Internet capability. A growing number of TVs offer built-in streaming, but you don't have to buy a new set if you're otherwise happy with your TV. One of the cheapest, easiest options is to connect it to a set-top media player. Prices start at $35, and most players cost $100 or less.
Media players plug into an HDMI input on any newer TV. A few models have outputs that work with older sets lacking HDMI inputs. You connect the player to your home network to access your broadband service. All models can do so via Wi-Fi, and some offer wired Ethernet connections. Our tests of a dozen or so streaming media players found that most delivered very good HD images.
Every model we tested streams Netflix, a few other video services, and a music station or two. All but a few have apps for YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and photo sites such as Picasa and Flickr. More services may be added over time. Some models have full Web browsers as well.
The most widely sold set-top boxes are the Apple TV, $99, and the Roku series, which includes several models that sell for $50 to $100. Apple TV is a smart pick if you have lots of iTunes content. Roku is recommended if you want the most choice. The bargain champ in streaming is Chromecast, a $35 thumb-drive-sized device that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port. In addition to streaming several services, Chromecast can send your TV Web content from a PC or Mac using the Chrome browser.
—James K. Willcox