Our Connected TVs Explained post clarified all the different streaming options available, plus what each TV manufacturer is offering. In this article, we’ll take a look at the streaming options on Blu-ray players, plus a host of dedicated streaming boxes, otherwise known as “Digital Media Receivers.”
The same guidelines we discussed in the TV article apply here. You need an Internet connection of course. Most streaming content providers require a 2.5 megabits per second (mbps) connection for HD content. VUDU for their 1080p HD stream requires 4.5 mbps. Slower Internet speeds will cause the provider to send you a higher compressed/lower quality signal. Just because you have “broadband” doesn’t mean you have a fast enough connection. Best to check with your Internet provider to find out what speed you’re getting. You can also go to Speedtest.net which will test your actual connection speed.
Generally speaking, your home network should be able to handle even 1080p streams. If your Blu-ray player/digital media receiver is far from your wireless transmitter, you may experience problems (dropouts, etc), in which case you’ll need to run a wired Ethernet connection.
The same content providers are available over BD players and DMRs. They break down into two basic categories: subscription and pay per view. Subscription services, like Netflix, charge you a nominal monthly fee to have unlimited access to everything they have available. While there’s lots of content, it’s not going to be last night’s episode of anything. For that you’ll need one of the pay per view services. These include the ubiquitous iTunes, Amazon Video on Demand, and also boutique higher end providers like VUDU.
Blu-ray Players (text continues after graphics)
The precipitous drop in Blu-ray player prices has had little effect on the inclusion of additional features, like Internet streaming. BD players offer a low cost of entry into the wonderful world of streaming. The functionality is usually a button on the remote, or just not inserting a disc, to bring up the streaming menu. The implementation varies greatly. Some players, like Sony and Panasonic, have elaborate streaming interfaces (BRAVIA Internet Video and VIERA CAST respectively). Others, like Samsung, offer “Apps” that give you access to all of their content.
Like the Internet connected TVs, most players will be able to be updated to include new streaming options should they become available. This isn’t a guarantee, of course. Adding something like Pandora, a fairly low bandwidth audio streaming service, is fairly simple. Adding 1080p video streaming may be more difficult.
The advantage to having streaming in a Blu-ray player is having all your non-TV content in one box, with one connection and one remote.
If you already have a Blu-ray player, or for some reason don’t want to get one, digital media receivers are a fantastic option.
Digital Media Receivers
While digital media receivers have been around for a while, their functionality and popularity has really just taken off recently. Apple haters can hate all they want, but the Apple TVis a huge boon to the market. Priced at $99, it’s the only DMR that can access the iTunes Store and your entire iTunes library. It also has access to Netflix.
Then there’s TiVo, Moxi and Roku, which offer Netflix along with Hulu Plus (both) and Amazon VoD (Roku). These give you access to recent programming in addition to all that Netflix offers. Pricing is similar to the Apple TV
The powerful current generation of gaming consoles, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, both offer Netflix streaming. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 just got a Netflix overhaul with a new interface, 1080p streaming, and 5.1 audio (on certain titles, anyway). As of this writing it is the only device capable of 1080p/5.1 with Netflix, though there will certainly be more going forward. These consoles are in millions of homes already, so if you want to test the streaming waters, there’s zero cost of entry, as presumably you already have one.
The Wii also does Netflix streaming. As it is makes out at 480p, we can’t recommend it as a dedicated streaming device.
The latest incarnation of Internet connected products is the much marketed Google TV. Found on a line of Sony TVs, it’s also available in a Sony Blu-ray player and the Logitech Revue. Google TV’s promise is Google-like searching of your current content, and searching the web for more of the same. In practice it is very underwhelming. It will surely get better, but at the moment there is little to justify its price premium, especially when you can get most of its functionality from one of the cheaper streaming boxes.
The one thing that Google TV offers that very few other products do is access to the actual Internet. Nearly every streaming device will give you pieces (weather, news feeds, etc) but few have an actual browser built in. With Google TV, it’s just like the web on your PC. With the PlayStation 3, it’s close, though certain website and Flash compatibility issues have been reported. Also, unless you have a USB keyboard, navigating with the PlayStation controller is not exactly user friendly. Much the same can be said of the Wii, though with the added disadvantage of significantly lower resolution. Viewsonic’s NexTV comes with a clever remote with a QWERTY keyboard on the back, though any site with Flash is not going to be visible.
Streaming content is certainly the future, and with the low price of many of the options here, it’s hard not to recommend the concept to everyone. Adding a Blu-ray gives you the advantage of being able to view truly gorgeous content for the movies/TV shows you want to look the best, plus all the streaming options for the content you just want right now. Digital media receivers are even cheaper, and are great for those who already have a BD player, or for a second room.
Glossary of Services
Below is the text from our the Connected TV article verbatim as it describes each service and content provider.
The near universal adoption of Netflix’s streaming service in TVs (and Blu-ray players) is a testament to the quality of the content you can get. Not picture quality, mind you, which is predominantly SD and occasionally 720p HD. The content quality, in terms of finding something worth watching, is excellent. Most people will be able to find something to watch any time they chose to. Not everything is available for streaming, and most of the streaming content is usually a year or so. Catching up on TV shows from a few years ago, though, or modern documentaries, and thousands of movies, all make this service well worth the small monthly cost.
And what’s the cost? The cheapest plan as of this writing is a $8.99 plan that includes one disc at a time at your house, and unlimited streaming. There is talk of a slightly cheaper plan ($7.99, some say) that will just be streaming.
Picture quality wise, even the best HD content isn’t quite as pristine as what you get on most cable or satellite providers. That said, it’s not bad. I watch Netflix on a 100-inch projector, and I have never had an issue. Sure Blu-ray looks better, but you’re trading for convenience and free-ness. Videos are streamed using the VC1 Advanced Profile codec (http://blog.netflix.com/2008/11/encoding-for-streaming.html) with 2.0 audio.
The PlayStation 3 is the first, and so far only, device to get 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround sound and 1080p content streaming from Netflix. So far there’s no word if this will come to TVs with built-in Netflix.
Netflix is so cheap, so convenient, and offers so much entertainment, it’s the proverbial no-brainer. Do you need it in your TV? Not if you have it in your BD player, PS3, Xbox 360, Apple TV or elsewhere. If you don’t, I can honestly say it’s well worth looking at a TV with it. Thankfully, nearly every TV company offers it.
Calling YouTube entertainment stretches my definition. Watching 30 second clips of narcoleptic dogs (seriously, Google it) is one thing, but I just can’t picture people sitting around a TV for hours searching for things using the TV’s alphanumeric remote.
The biggest reason for this is picture quality. Watching a clip in a tiny window in your Internet browser is one thing. Watching it on a 50-inch flat panel is entirely another. No matter what you do, or what fancy processing your TV has, most YouTube clips are going to look horrible. As in, barely watchable.
So don’t expect much. Most TVs have YouTube as an option, for what it’s worth.
Amazon Video on Demand
AVoD is a pay-per-view streaming service by, wait for it… Amazon. Current movies and TV episodes (including the most recent episodes) are available. Prices for rentals are $0.99-$1.29 for TV shows, and $1.99-$3.99 for movies. For purchase, prices are $5.99-$19.99, though most are $14.99-$15.99.
Picture quality is perhaps a little better than Netflix, though that’s going to vary depending on what you choose to watch. HD is VC-1 and 720p. The big advantage is being able to watch current TV shows and movies whenever you want. Not quite the excellent deal that Netflix is, but extremely convenient none the less.
Unlike Netflix and Amazon, VUDU has 1080p and uses the H.264 codec similar to many Blu-rays. Audio output is 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus. Picture quality is how VUDU tries to differentiate itself, and if that’s of importance to you as well, then the additional money to rent from VUDU will be less of a concern. Movie rentals range in price from $0.99 to $5.99, but the lower prices aren’t for HD. For the highest HD quality expect to pay on the higher end of the scale. You can also buy movies, but these range up to $24.99 for the highest HD quality, and for that rate we’re not sure why you wouldn’t just buy a Blu-ray. VUDU is owned by Wal-mart, though as of yet no elderly greeters are planned to welcome you to your downloaded content.
VUDU is certainly great for those who want the best picture quality, but are too lazy to drive to a Best Buy and get the disc.
Hulu.com is a fantastic, free way to watch new shows from the ABC, NBC and Fox networks, and their various sister channels and studios. The “Plus” in Hulu Plus is plus money, yours, to the tune of $9.99 a month (though there are rumors this will drop). For the monthly fee you get to watch Hulu content on your TV, with the same commercials as the free web version. You also get access to entire seasons and a larger back catalog. Streaming resolutions up to 720p are available, but if picture quality is anything like what you’d find from their streaming web content, don’t expect much.
Most consider Hulu Plus like an up-to-date, but crappier version of Netflix. If you want to get rid of your cable bill, but can’t wait for the content to be available on Netflix, then Hulu Plus has merit. Only a few TVs have this built in, as it’s quite new.
CinemaNow has 1080p downloads much like VUDU using primarily the VC-1 codec. Rental prices range from $2.99 and $3.99 and purchase prices range from $9.95 to $19.99. Though branded by Best Buy (even cross promoting their Napster music service), CinemaNow is owned primarily by Sonic Solutions. How much of their “extensive library” is available in HD is not devulged.
Blockbuster on Demand
Having recently announced bankruptcy, and currently only available from two TV manufacturers, Blockbuster on Demand is kind of an also-ran. They, like Best Buy, have partnered with CinemaNow. But unlike Best Buy, there is little to no mention of HD on Blockbuster’s site. Rentals seem to range from $1.99 to $3.99, with purchases around $17.99. There is very little information about Blockbuster on Demand on their website or elsewhere, which is sketchy, in my book. Unlikely they’ll survive long in their current state anyway, so this may all be moot.
Pandora and Slacker
Pandora and Slacker are free music streaming services. Internet Radio, if you like. In theory, they’re competitors, but in usage they’re very similar. They both let you pick an artist or song, then their algorithms play music similar to that artist or song. It works great and is free, with just a few advertisements. Both offer a subscription service that is higher quality, fewer (if any) ads, and a few advanced features. Both are great and if you haven’t checked them out, you should. If there’s no other way to get music into the room where your TV is, and your TV speakers don’t suck too bad (sorry, they do), then these are a great thing to have. Sound quality is roughly on par with your average MP3 download. This is to say it’s passable, but a far cry from CD despite “CD quality” claims by each.
The pay service called Napster has nothing to do with this name’s storied past. For $5 to $10 a month you can stream unlimited amounts of music. The difference between Napster and Pandora/Slacker is that you can choose what you want to play. Pandora and Slacker are more like a radio station, playing random songs that fit the style of music you choose. Owned by Best Buy.
Rhapsody is a subscription music service. For $10-$15 a month you can download all the music you want and listen to it as much as you want. It’s a lease, though, as once you stop paying for the service, you can no longer play any of the songs you downloaded.
Twitter and Facebook need little introduction. Though why you would need them on a TV is beyond me. Skype is a program that allows you to make voice and video calls over the Internet. You’ll need a video camera add-on for this.
Flikr and Picasa are web services to share photos. Upload from your computer, share them in the living room.
Lastly, Sony is currently making a line of TVs that have Google TV built in. So far Google TV is underwhelming, offering similar content streaming capabilities as other TVs, just adding in a web browser for full Internet surfing, something no other TV offers.
By Geoff Morrison
Edited By Gary Merson
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