Adopting a Digital Media Adapter?
Despite the growing penetration of all-in-one smart TVs, an increasingly popular method for receiving and watching so-called over-the-top (OTT) video content is coming from digital media adapters (DMAs).
These DMAs, which are also known by a variety of other names, are typically small set-top boxes or thumb-drive-sized HDMI dongles that usually have a built-in Wi-Fi receiver to connect to a wireless network and an HDMI port to connect to a television set. A DMA will include an operating system, processors and a collection of apps to access streaming services the device maker has arranged to include. Depending on the DMA selected, a viewer may have access to one, a handful or hundreds of streaming multimedia apps, sometimes exceeding those offered in a smart TV or Blu-ray player.
More on DMAs and some of their various benefits and drawbacks after the break:
Often DMAs are positioned as devices optimized for cord-cutters, who wish to break away from traditional cable, satellite and telco TV services, but media-use studies have found that they tend to be used more as supplements to multi-channel pay-TV services.
Among the more popular DMAs available today are:
- Apple TV, a diminutive set-top box (STB) from the marker of Macs and iPhones;
- Fire TV, a STB and the Fire TV Stick, a thumb-drive like device for a TV’s HDMI port, from e-commerce giant Amazon;
- Google’s Chromecast, another HDMI stick adapter that uses a wireless connection to a PC to access content;
- Netgear’s NeoTV STB;
- Roku, which offers a number of set-top boxes, the latest and best featured is the Roku 3, and a Streaming Stick for HDMI TV inputs;
- Vizio’s CoStar streaming STB;
- Western Digital’s family of WD TV media player boxes.
Vudu’s Spark stick adapter (available online and through select Walmart stores) is another alternative, which was designed to receive only content streaming from Walmart’s Vudu service, and is therefore a Digital Vudu Adapter and not a true DMA. Spark is intended largely for owners of non-connected TVs or the few smart TVs (and DMA’s like Fire TV) that don’t already have the Vudu app installed.
A number of alternative methods are available for accessing entertainment streaming apps and services, including broadband-connected video game consoles; or PCs, Macs, mobile phones and tablets with a variety of features like MHL tethers or Miracast apps that allow sharing services streamed from the portable device to the bigger-screen TV set.
An increasing trend in DMA development has been to shrink these adapters down to the size of a USB thumb drive to remove clutter around the set, and in some cases to provide streaming services to TVs mounted in tricky locations where running a lot of wires is a problem, like an A/V cabinet or wall mount.
For the sake of this article we’ve chosen to focus on four of the top-selling media adapter solutions:
Apple TV, which received a recent price cut to $69, is a small STB (or set side box) with a slick, elegant user interface designed to stream video and music content purchased and stored in the cloud from the iTunes Store. Many of the device’s functions are targeted at users of other Apple devices, especially iPhones, making this useful for iOS users and, perhaps, frustrating in some ways to others. Apple TV also provides a selection of about 50 apps for third-party streaming media services including: Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, MLB.TV, and others, with a few glaring omissions, like Amazon Prime. However, the lineup is continuously updated with new selections. Meanwhile, Apple just added three free channels including: TED, offering tech-oriented lectures and programming; Tastemade, providing food and travel content; and Young Hollywood, a celebrity focused news channel. Also, Apple recently said the adapter will be the first (through a limited-time exclusivity window) to provide the new HBO Now service, which charges a $14.99 per month subscription to view on-demand HBO original TV shows and select movies, without the need for a separate subscription through a cable/satellite/telco TV provider, as the HBO Go service requires. Recent speculative media reports have suggested that Apple is working on a live streaming OTT package of cable-TV-like channels, similar to Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. If so, it’s logical to assume it will appear on Apple TV (or a future version of it), although nothing has been officially announced. Apple TV is equipped with an ARM-based A5 processor, PowerVR GPU and 802.11n wireless capability. It also provides access to music and personal photos streamed from iOS devices using AirPlay. AirPlay allows streaming Web videos to the Apple TV from Mountain Lion-powered Macs. In short, Apple TV is a great solution for Apple device users, although others may want to consider some other options. Those who love and use Apple products will love this constantly evolving and improving platform (although some speculate that a newer more powerful version might be on the way). However, the recent price cut makes it one of the least expensive products for the Apple ecosystem.
Amazon Fire TV STB ($99) and Fire TV Stick ($39), released last year, were big catalysts for recent sales activity in the DMA category. Since the launch of the STB last April, Amazon has heavily advertised and promoted the adapters and its Prime service, which brings access to hundreds of video programs, games and music available through the devices. Although having a subscription to Amazon Prime Instant Video is not required, it really is recommended to get the best Fire TV experience, as the devices revolve around an intuitive program search and recommendation engine that positions Amazon-delivered content prominently ahead of content on competitive services. Prime subscribers also gain access to a lot of exclusive content not available anywhere else, in addition to a collection of popular HBO programs. It also supports Dish Network’s Sling TV live OTT cable-channel programming package (starting at $20 a month). Both devices provide very similar functions and offer the same content selections – including dozens of third-party service apps. However, the Fire TV STB has a more robust feature set, including local storage capability for games and other content using attached USB storage device. It also comes with the very cool voice-enabled remote, which costs extra to Fire TV Stick users.
Features common to both devices include: an ASAP instant streaming feature that shortens content buffering times by learning the programs a viewer is most likely to want to watch and preparing those for playback first; special remote control operation using Android or iOS device apps or the supplied handheld remote; voice-activated searches using a free app or special remote control (supplied with the STB but extra for the stick); handheld device mirroring on a TV; and video game play with select games such as Angry Birds.
The STB features a quad-core processor for robust gameplay (among other things). It also adds an optical output and Ethernet connection. Amazon said this week that it soon will be adding a bundle of additional features to both devices through a software update. This will bring expandable USB storage on the Amazon Fire TV STB to supplement the 8GB onboard for better performance of larger games, and the ability for users to use both the STB and Stick with Wi-Fi services that require Web authentication, such as hotel or dorm rooms, at “most major hotels” and “some universities.” Also being added is support for curated Prime Playlists, a new PIN entry screen that hides the numbers selected, and a shortcut that lets users put the devices into sleep mode or enable display mirroring by pressing and holding the remote’s “Home” button. The STB will also add support for wireless Bluetooth headphones.
Google’s Chromecast ($29.99) has been around for a couple of years now but continues to evolve and set a pace for others to follow. The device is a thumb-drive-like HDMI dongle that connects wirelessly to an in-home Wi-Fi network, but is designed to be paired with a phone, tablet or computer. Chromecast doesn’t provide a user interface like the other devices. Instead, it connects with the PC, tablet or smartphone and relays content they pull up to the connected TV screen. Through a recent firmware update bringing the addition of HDMI-CEC, Chromecast will now allow control of playback using a TV’s remote control.
Chromecast is compatible with most streaming services available to the PC or handheld including: Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, YouTube, Vimeo, Hulu Plus, Pandora, HBO Go, Starz and Showtime Anytime. It will soon support Dish’s Sling TV. Using apps of supported services, Chromecast will stream directly from the internet without going through the other connected device. Other services can be called up on a browser in the mirrored PC, Mac, tablet, etc., but this adds to network traffic, which can affect smoothness of playback with some routers and broadband services. Video from any web site can be cast to Chromecast using a Chrome extension called “PlayTo for Chromecast” or an Android app like “Web Video Caster.”
Using the remote control app running on a phone or tablet, playback is triggered using a “Cast” button. The Google Cast SDK allows apps like AllCast to display video and photos through Chromecast using Android and Apple iOS devices. Users can also playback music and video content stored on PCs through apps like VLC, Plex and “Media Browser,” the latter is an app for iOS and Android that streams media content stored on any computer in the house.
Roku 3 ($99) is the latest in a collection of Roku’s set-top DMA’s. It’s designed to bring one of the most expansive collections of app-driven streaming media services to non-connected TVs or smart TVs that might be deficient in certain services. Unlike other DMA’s tied to content services offered by the manufacturer or vendor, Roku is content agnostic and provides almost anything an OTT streaming enthusiast could want, short of a browser to playback videos from random Web sites.
In its collection of streaming enabled devices, Roku also offers smart TVs from several brands that build the Roku experience right into the set, as well as a thumb-drive-like “stick” that connects to a standard HDMI input.
The Roku 3 is the most robust of the company’s outboard DMAs. It features a simple-to-navigate interface that presents the most-used apps immediately on the screen at startup, and a fast processor that makes it quick and satisfying to dig down to find new or less-used apps. The unit has built-in Wi-Fi reception and adds an Ethernet port where a wired network connection is desired. Roku provides more than 1,200 app channels, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Vudu, YouTube, the Sling TV live OTT service and others. It also includes a useful cross-platform search engine that draws program selections from multiple TV and movie services. The remote control is well thought out and keeps buttons to a minimum. It even adds a built-in headphone jack so viewers can listen to the TV without disturbing anyone else in the room.
The Roku Stick ($49) offers a very similar experience to the Roku 3 with a few differences. First, it isn’t as powerful as the Roku 3 so certain applications take a little longer to load. It has a similar looking and operating remote control, but it omits the handy headphone jack. The stick design enables the Roku to plug into the back (or side as the case may be) of the TV so it’s out of the way, but on some sets with finicky HDMI connections it might require using the supplied power cord, which could pose installation problems in some placement applications, like wall mounts. Wall mounts could also be affected if the HDMI port is placed facing outward toward the wall, as the stick extends outward by several inches. In cases where the Roku Stick is powered through the HDMI connector, operation will be slowed, taking several minutes at startup.
By Greg Tarr
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