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Streaming media players & services

Streaming media players & services buying guide

Last updated: May 2015
Getting started

Getting started

Millions of Americans now watch video that's delivered to their screen over the Internet. Most don't drop TV service entirely 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.

Set-top boxes

Looking for an easy, cheap way to access streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and other services? There are a number of options. More televisions are now "smart TVs" with the ability to access a variety of streaming services directly from the set. Most Blu-ray players, as well as video game consoles, also have this feature, as do gaming systems such as Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation. But for many of us, a dedicated streaming media player is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to add streaming capability to any TV.

Streaming players from Roku (Roku 1, Roku 2, and Roku3), Apple (Apple TV), and Amazon (Amazon Fire TV) are all popular choices, and range in price from about $60 to $100. Google recently updated its Google TV concept as Android TV, which is used by its $100 Nexus Player. These are all small settop boxes that connect to the TV via an HDMI cable. There are also several tiny stick-style players, about the size of a USB flash drive, that plug directly into a TV's HDMI port, drawing power either from the TV's USB port or an AC wall outlet. Popular models include Google Chromecast, which costs $35, the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick, and the $50 Roku Streaming Stick.

All streaming media players have built-in Wi-Fi, and some have an Ethernet jack for a wired connection to a modem or router. All can hook up to TVs via HDMI connections, but only a few have analog-video connections for use with older TVs that lack an HDMI input. Some include a USB port for playing your own media, such as music and photos, though the device. Most models come with small remote controls, but many can be controlled using an app downloaded onto your mobile device. Some, including Chromecast, have no remote, so they have to be used with a mobile device such as a phone, tablet, or portable computer.

Almost all boxes have access to Netflix, plus a few other video services and a music station or two. All but a few models also have apps of other kinds, including Facebook, Twitter, and photo services such as Picasa and Flickr. If you want a specific service, make sure any player you're considering offers it. (It's possible the manufacturer could add other services in the future, but there's no guarantee it would be the one you're looking for.)

We've found that 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. The media players we tested all yielded very good full HD (1080p) picture quality.

Video services

Millions of Americans now watch video that's delivered to their screen over the Internet. Most use streaming video as a supplement to regular TV service rather than as a replacement. That could start to shift, as there are now a growing number of options for "cord-cutters" who want to replace traditional TV services with other options. Netflix still accounts for most of the action in video streaming, but there are several alternatives, 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. All-you-can-watch subscription 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.

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. Amazon recently reached a deal with HBO for older shows from that network to be available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Both Amazon ("Transparent," "Bosch") and Netflix ("House of Cards," "Daredevil") now have popular original series. Hulu Plus is adapting Stephen King's best-selling time-travel novel, "11/22/63," as an original series.

Pay-per-view services such as Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, M-Go, and Vudu charge for each title you stream--usually $4 to $6 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.

For newer titles and a wider selection, pay-per-view services have the edge. An all-you-can-watch subscription 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 $25 or more if you had to pay for each title individually.

Consider quality

The picture quality you'll get depends on the speed of your Internet connection. At least 5Mbps is required, so most cable services should suffice. 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. All the services can deliver high-definition picture quality, but some--including Amazon and Netflix--now offer a limited amount of 4K content to those who have higher-resolution UHD TVs. But you'll need a relatively fast connection, at least 15 to 25Mbps, for streaming 4K content.

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. We're now starting to see faster speeds--in excess of 50Mbps--becoming more widely available from many of the larger providers.

New alternatives

If a streaming video service isn't quite enough for you, there are some new options for TV service that might be the perfect complement. Recently, several pay-TV alternatives have emerged, targeting viewers looking for more flexibility and lower prices than are usually available in a traditional TV package.

  • Sling TV has a $20-per-month online plan that combines local and popular cable channels with several channel packs--such as a sports package that included ESPN--for an extra monthly charge.
  • Sony's more comprehensive PlayStation Vue plan starts at $50 per month.
  • Verizon's Custom TV package combines local and broadcast channels with different levels of broadband service for about $65 per month, and lets you add and swap genre-based channel packs each month.
  • Cablevision has a new service that provides a free antenna for local channels with different levels of broadband service for about $50 per month.
  • Apple is reportedly in the late stages of putting together its own streaming service for a launch later in the year.
  • And perhaps the biggest news: You can now get a standalone HBO service, called HBO Now, for $15 per month without a pay TV subscription. Right now it's available on Apple devices and from Cablevision, but it's expected to soon become more widely available.
   

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