Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Streaming Boxes–A Biased Overview

I should start by stating a few things that should really disqualify me from writing about this subject, but really when has this ever stopped anyone. I have a third generation Apple TV. I don’t have any of the other devices that I’m going to mention and I have very limited exposure to the fourth generation Apple TV (I asked a guy at an authorized Apple store a couple of questions about it but didn’t get to play with it extensively) and the Roku devices. Another big thing is that I’m a Canadian. If you don’t think that has a lot of implications, then you are in for a learning experience. It restricts the hardware that’s available, the services that you can get and even the programming that is available on many of those services. I intend to discuss services and the differences between Canada and the US, and vent my spleen a bit about the way Canadian TV is set up, in another article.

So let’s start with hardware. What I’m discussing here are set top boxes (though with flat screen TV’s no one can actually put any of these on the top of the TV set) that stream video from Internet providers generally using Wi-Fi. In Canada you basically have three companies to choose from: AppleTV, Roku, and Google. Amazon doesn’t sell its Fire TV (or the Fire tablet for that matter) in Canada and doesn’t offer the Amazon Video service in Canada. Western Digital also sells the WD TV Live product here but it is primarily a device for streaming video from your computer to your TV, and has limited connectivity to Internet sites. It doesn’t do what the devices I’m focussing on do.

Here’s what’s on offer in Canada (prices are in Canadian Dollars, from Best Buy Canada):
  • Apple TV 3rd Generation – $89.99
  • Apple TV 4th Generation 32 GB – $199.99
  • Apple TV 4th Generation 64 GB – $269.99

  • Roku HDMI Streaming Stick – $59.99
  • Roku 1 Streaming Media Player – $59.99
  • Roku 2 Streaming Media Player – $79.99
  • Roku 3 Streaming Media Player – $109.99

  • Chromecast 1st Generation – $39.00 (online only)
  • Chromecast 2nd Generation – $45.00

Let’s start up with the Chromecasts and the Roku Stick (Amazon has it’s own contender in this field the Fire Stick). Their big advantage is portability. You could easily keep one in your luggage when you travel without having to loose any item, although with the Roku Stick you need to take its remote too. The Roku and the first generation Chromecast look like USB keys, albeit a bit larger. They plug into an open HDMI port on your TV so if your TV doesn’t have HDMI you’re out of luck (and should probably get a new TV) with one of these devices. The second Generation Chromecast looks a bit like a smaller than regulation hockey puck on a leash, which is in fact a short cable plugging into the HDMI port. HDMI ports aren’t powered so they need to get power. All three can draw power from the TV’s USB port (if it has one) using a detachable USB cable which can also plug into an adapter to plug into a wall or power strip.

That is where the similarity ends. The Roku Stick comes with a remote and has the capacity to store apps for services like Netflix onboard. In short it sort of acts the other Roku Media players in a much smaller package. Although it is also possible to use your phone as remote, it’s more cumbersome than using the Stick’s own remote. The process with the Chromecast is far different. Your phone is not only your only remote, but it is an essential part of the process. If a service has a phone app then you can use that to select programming and then, if the app is compatible you can tap an icon to send that information to the Chromecast via Wi-Fi. You can also “cast” material that doesn’t directly support Chromecast onto the device using your phone, and can even mirror what you are doing on your phone – browsing a webpage, listening to music, playing a game etc. – although there can be lag problems with game play.

The Chromecast seems like a great device from what I’ve been able to find out, but if what you want to do is watch TV with a familiar interface, either because you’ve got a Roku (or even an Apple TV) at home, or you just want something that is relatively simple to use, you are probably best to go with the Roku Stick.

Turning now to the set top boxes, we should start with the Rokus. Roku has done a very interesting and important thing with this device. Each version fills a particular niche. The Roku 1 works for older TVs; it has composite as well as HDMI connections to the TV, supports analog audio, and works with TVs with 480p, 480i, 720p and 1080p resolution. So if your TV doesn`t have HDMI (like my old CRT in the dining room) you can use the wired connections on this without problems. The current Roku 2 does 720p and 1080p, does not have analog audio of any sort, and only offers an IR remote. The Roku 3 does most of the same things as the Roku 2 but has an analog audio output on the remote through headphones that plug into the remote and allows users to use “WiFi Direct” (basically any device using WiFi including your phone, tablet or – presumably – your laptop) to control the box. The Roku 4, introduced in October 2015 but not offered at Best Buy Canada, supports 4K TVs, offers an optical audio output on the box, and has voice search.

The competition in this field is the Apple TV. The 3rd Generation of the Apple TV (which I own) has an HDMI and Optical Audio output. It supports TVs with 720p and 1080p resolution although the product details section at Best Buy claims it can do 480p. There’s no option to control the box with a wireless device like a phone. The 4th Generation Apple TV drops the Optical Audio output and supports 720p and 1080p resolution, but to the surprise of many does not support 4K. The 4th Generation remote has the standard buttons but also has a touch screen and some voice commands using Siri. You can, for example, tell Siri what sort of movies you want to see, and it will report back movies that fit your search…on some services that support Siri. You can then refine the search by naming a specific star or director etc. There are some other tricks like skipping forward or back by telling Siri how far ahead or back you want to go. Another trick is that by saying “What did he/she say?” Siri will skip back 30 seconds and put up close captioning of the dialog in that particular scene. This is some of the stuff that you can do with the 4th Generation Apple TV that you can’t do with the 3rd Generation device or on the Roku boxes.

Of course what makes these boxes isn’t the hardware, it’s the content. In a very real way “content is king” with all of these devices and that’s where the difference between the United States and Canada comes into play. There are something like 63 to 66 services available to American users of the 3rd Generation Apple TV and only about 33 available to Canadians, and two of those are only available to Canadians. It is possible to get around these restrictions using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), but I’ve been given to understand that at least some of those services are cracking down on customers who use a VPN for that purpose.

Of course, even if you do use a VPN in Canada to get channels available in the United States, you’d probably still see all of the available streaming services. Slightly under a third of the services in the U.S. require you to subscribe to cable channel and in some cases not all cable companies are support Apple TV for specific services. While the number of streaming services available on the Roku is greater (one commenter to an article I used to research this piece commented “63 apps? That's it? Rook (sic) has hundreds and Apple's answer is 63 apps?”) a number of those apps will also have restrictions requiring you to have the cable TV version of the service. A number of the other services require some form of monthly subscription. In some cases – notably HBO Now – this is a “good thing” as it allows you to access premium content without having to have HBO on cable. Of course the price of HBO (in Canada at least) is about $18.00 (Canadian) but it’s the principle of the thing I suppose.

The complaint of the commenter I mentioned, that the 3rd Generation Apple TV had only 63 apps while his Roku box had hundreds is is negated by the 4th Generation Apple TV. There are now hundreds if not thousands of apps available for the new Apple TV. And while most of those are games (and most of those games are of the sort that you play on an iPhone or iPad rather than on a full console) it does represent a major sea change for the Apple TV. On the 3rd Generation Apple TV the only way you could watch material from Leo Laporte’s TWiT network was on the Apple TV’s podcast app. On the new Apple TV there are at least four TWiT apps and one of them is even free (the other three are $0.99). And there are at least four apps from Canadian media companies in addition to Shomi and Crave: CBC News, The National Film Board, the Weather Network, and Sportsnet.

Of course the biggest argument for buying any version of the Apple TV is that it is the only streaming box that includes iTunes, and specifically movie and TV series purchase or rental from Apples iTunes store. There’s also the Apple Music presumably including Beats 1 radio, although this hasn’t been offered to me on my 3rd Generation Apple TV (because I’m Canadian?) There is something to be said for owning content such as a copy of a movie even in these days of streaming media and services. Movies appear on Netflix but they also disappear, and there are certainly things that rarely appear on the streaming services that I can watch (I’m thinking older movies, like from the 1960s and before, and stuff shot in black & white; you won’t find the classic John Wayne movie Red River on Netflix) that are available for sale or rent from Apple.

When most reviewers are asked which streaming device to buy, they usually come down strong on the side of the Roku box in some version. I don’t necessarily think that they’re wrong, in spite of the fact that I own a 3rd Generation Apple TV. I won my Apple TV in a machine at the local mall, and even when I factor in all of the money that I had spent over the previous months to win it, it was still less than the current price of the box, let alone the price at the time ($109). At the time that I won my Apple TV I was actively looking at set top boxes as my next purchase after the soundbar that I was close to getting. I was leaning towards the Roku 3 based on everything that I had heard about the two devices. If I were paying full price and the choice was between the Roku 3 and the 3rd Generation Apple TV, I think that even though the Apple TV is about $40 cheaper I might go with the Roku 3 because of the ability to customize the experience. However, even though the 4th Generation Apple TV is about $90 more than the Roku 3 I’m not totally sure that I wouldn’t have waited a bit and spend the extra money.