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Streaming media players & services

Streaming media players & services buying guide

Last updated: November 2013

Getting started

Millions of Americans now watch video that's delivered to their screen over the Internet. Most don't drop TV service but use streaming as a supplement to it rather than as a replacement. Netflix accounts for most of the action in video streaming, but there are several other options as well, both by subscription and pay-per-view.

You should weigh a number of things when deciding which streaming media service best meets your needs, including the selection of titles it carries. Also consider the types of equipment you can use to get streaming video to your TV.

Selection matters

All-you-can-watch streaming video services include Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus. (Amazon Prime is a two-day shipping service that includes unlimited access to a portion of the Amazon Instant Video library.) This type of service requires a subscription with a monthly fee, typically less than $10 or so. Redbox Instant offers a combination of unlimited streaming plus four disc rentals a month from its kiosks.

Limited selection is a common problem with subscription services. The number of titles that most services claim to offer can be misleading. Standard-definition and high-definition versions of the same movie and individual episodes of a TV series might count as distinct titles.

All-you-can-watch subscription services tend to get fewer titles from movie and TV studios, and at a later date, than the services that charge for each video you order. Consequently, many hotter titles and programming from premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime never make it into the unlimited-streaming libraries of Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and Netflix, which include films you might not even be familiar with.

An all-you-can-watch subscription does have its appeal, though. If you watch a lot of streaming video, an $8-a-month plan can be a much better deal than paying individually for each movie and TV episode you watch. If you watched three movies and six TV programs in a given month, that could easily cost $20 or more if you had to pay for each title individually.

Pay-per-view services such as Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and Vudu charge for each title you stream--usually $4 or $5 for a newer movie, a little less for older movies and individual TV episodes. That business model is very similar to the disc rental business, so pay-per-view streaming titles are often available at the same time they're released on disc.

You also have another choice: Redbox Instant, which combines unlimited streaming with one-day disc rentals via kiosks. It has about 35,000 kiosks located in malls and stores you're likely to visit often; each kiosk holds up to 200 titles, according to Redbox. As in the old Netflix combo service (which is no longer offered), subscribers get a mix of unlimited streaming and disc rentals (four DVDs) for an $8-a-month subscription. You can pay an extra $1 a month if you prefer Blu-ray discs to DVDs. Redbox Instant also offers an a-la-carte video-on-demand service with newer titles, much like Amazon and Vudu. You can either rent or buy VOD movies, typically for $5 or $6 for a 24-hour viewing window, and you don't have to have be a subscriber to use the VOD service.

Search

Searching can be tedious on a typical TV remote because you have to "type" by clicking around an onscreen keyboard using the directional arrows. If you're using Netflix, it's often easier to use your computer to add a movie to your instant queue. When you go to Netflix on your TV, your selections will be accessible.

Some search apps and websites for services' content have more robust search functions than the services do. For example, at canistream.it, you can search content across multiple sources, showing you which, if any, offer the title and in what format (including streams, disc rentals, downloads, and disc purchases). Some will e-mail you when a title becomes available.

Cost and convenience

The Amazon Prime service isn't as widely available as Netflix on Internet-capable Blu-ray players, TVs, and media boxes. If you access it through the Kindle Fire, the company's tablet, you can start streaming video with a few screen presses via the device's Video tab.

Hulu Plus's free companion service, Hulu, can be viewed on computers but not on TVs. Unlike most network websites, which carry only their own programming, Hulu offers videos from more than 350 content companies, according to its website. Sources include ABC, A&E Networks, Comedy Central, the CW, Fox, Lionsgate, MGM, MTV Networks, National Geographic, NBCUniversal, Paramount, Sony Pictures, and Warner Bros.

When we checked, TV shows included "Family Guy" and "Modern Family." Movie titles included older hits such as "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" and "Gladiator." You can connect a laptop to your TV--using an HDMI cable, for example-- to watch free content from Hulu and other websites on your big screen.

Consider quality

The picture quality you'll get depends on the speed of your Internet connection. Netflix and other services adjust picture quality in response to the speed of the Internet connection. Picture quality is sometimes poor on startup but improves after a minute or so as the service adjusted to the connection speed.

Cable service is generally faster than DSL, yet our recent survey on Internet service shows that satisfaction with speed varies greatly by cable company. If bandwidth becomes limited--say, if a lot of cable viewers in your area are online at the same time--the service might temporarily downgrade the video quality so that the stream doesn't freeze or break up. Generally, even relatively slow DSL Internet service should suffice for video, but the slower the connection, the lower the image quality, as a rule. Verizon FiOS, the all-fiber service, earned our highest rating for speed in a recent survey.

Streaming video devices

To use a streaming video service, you'll need a device that can access the Internet. You might already own one. The widely sold gaming systems Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation have the ability to stream Internet video. So do many Blu-ray players introduced over the last year or so.

Buying a new TV? Consider one with built-in streaming capability, which is standard on many new models. You don't have to spend a lot: There are relatively low-cost TVs with streaming capability that we recommend in our TV Ratings.

If you're keeping your current TV or buying a new one without streaming, think about adding a set-top box such as an Apple TV or a Roku, each of which costs $100 or less.

Wi-Fi is standard with set-top boxes and gaming consoles, a plus if your TV isn't near the modem or router. Wireless capability is becoming more common on TVs and Blu-ray players. You can count on getting Netflix with any streaming device, but other video services are hit or miss. Note that the device manufacturer can change the lineup of services at any time via a software update.

Set-top boxes

Looking for an easy, cheap way to access Netflix and other streaming video services? Consider an Internet-connected set-top box, most of which cost $100 or less. The small devices work with any TV that has an HDMI input, which includes just about any LCD or plasma TV. (A few boxes also work with older sets.)

We tested several models, all of which yielded very good full HD (1080p) images. All stream Netflix, one or two more video services, and a music station or two. All but a few models also had apps of other kinds that we don't list below, such as Facebook, Twitter, and photosharing services such as Picasa and Flickr. Some also have full Web browsers. All models can access your home network over Wi-Fi. Initial setup is pretty easy. You plug the box into your TV and connect to your wireless network, and you're good to go. A few models even have Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), so no password is needed; you push a button on the router to connect the player.

   

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