In 2007, the already popular movie rental mail service Netflix introduced streaming capabilities, allowing subscribers to watch select movies and TV shows directly through their computers. It wasn't long before the Web site Hulu.com became popular for its own streaming content, including the latest episodes of popular TV series. With the right equipment, users can also send these Internet feeds through to their television, thereby adding a vast library of content to their home viewing options. Cable companies have even started to fear that customers are canceling their subscriptions in favor of simply using online streaming media services.
As streaming media has exploded in popularity in the past several years, consumer demand has been increasing for devices that allow people to watch streaming Internet content more easily from their televisions. And we seem to have more choices than ever before when it comes to home entertainment. But with a plethora of choices also comes a great deal of confusion. Those who pride themselves on smart purchases might feel lost in the sea of devices, each one promising the best streaming capabilities.
Part of your decision should rest on which streaming media services you're interested in using. If you're a diehard Netflix user, for instance, make sure to find a player that advertises the ability to stream Netflix content. Luckily, Netflix is one of the most in-demand services, so it shouldn't be hard to find a player with that capability. Devices that can stream Hulu are also relatively easy to find. Another popular service is Amazon Instant Video, with its own vast selection of movies and TV shows. Vudu and iTunes also offer streaming media, but they aren't quite as popular, and you'll have more trouble finding devices that support these services.
Besides films and TV shows, you might also be interested in finding devices that support other media. Some stream YouTube videos or music services, such as Pandora or Last.fm. If you're a sports fan, look for players that offer services like MLB.tv, NFL Sunday Ticket or ESPN3. Many players also stream photo Web sites like Flickr.com.
Once you have a good idea of which services you most want, you'll want to know which types of streaming media players are available. Read about them on the next page.
Types of Streaming Media Players
Not all streaming media players are the same, and some will fit your personal needs better than others. In addition to the particular services each one offers, you'll probably want to decide which type of streaming media player works best for you.
First, there are the straightforward streaming media consoles. The function of these devices is to simply stream media, and they typically don't have any other major applications. But they're perfect for viewers happy with their current home entertainment setup, and they don't need anything additional besides streaming capabilities. The most popular console in this category is the Roku, the first player to work with the Netflix streaming service. It has since come out with more advanced models and offers an array of streaming services in addition to Netflix. Other boxes to consider in this category include the WD TV, Apple TV, Google TV and Boxee Box.
If you have TiVo or you're a gamer, you might actually already own a perfectly good streaming console. In addition to its recording features, TiVo can stream Netflix, as well as Hulu and Amazon content. And several game consoles, such as the Sony PS3, the XBox 360 and the Nintendo Wii have the ability to stream media. If you've been looking for an extra excuse to get a gaming console, the streaming abilities could make it worth the purchase for you.
If gaming isn't your thing, but you'd like to have the versatility to play DVDs and Blu-ray discs, you could opt for any of a slew of DVD/Blu-ray players that offer streaming. Companies like Insignia, LG, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony offer not only Blu-ray players but also HDTVs and home theater systems with streaming functionality. So, if you were already planning on a major overhaul of your current home entertainment center, it's certainly worth considering getting something that also satisfies your streaming desires.
Finally, besides consoles, you might also consider simply streaming to a mobile device. Although people seem to prefer to watch Netflix and Hulu on TV rather than a mobile device, streaming videos from YouTube is extremely popular on smartphones and tablets [source: Carmody].
What else should you take into account when looking for a streaming media player?
Streaming Media Player Considerations
Because of the variety of options out there, you'll have much to consider when picking out a streaming media player, including the different services offered, additional functionality and, of course, price. Perhaps no streaming media player on the market will be perfect for you or fit your budget exactly, but by investigating the different options, you'll at least be able to get the best bang for your buck.
We've already discussed a little about the available streaming media services you'll want to consider. While most consoles offer Netflix, fewer will include your favorite streaming music service or sports service. The Sony PS3, for instance, offers NFL Sunday Ticket, a service previously only available to DirectTV customers. This is one reason why CNet recommended the PS3 over the XBox 360 or Nintendo Wii when reviewing the best gaming console for streaming [source: Falcone].
Another advantage the PS3 has over other gaming consoles is its ability to play Blu-ray discs, which brings up the issue of additional features. For some, a simple streaming console like Roku is enough for them -- either because they have no interest in gaming and Blu-ray capability, or because they have other devices that fill these needs. For others, these extra features will justify the bigger price tag.
Although price is another important factor, you'll have to look deeper than just the ticket price of the player itself. One disadvantage to streaming media with the XBox 360, for example, is that you need an XBox Live Gold membership, which requires an annual fee. This is in addition to subscription fees that might be required for particular services. If you don't already subscribe to Netflix, for instance, you'll have to sign up for an account with it to get its content on a streaming media player. The same goes for Hulu Plus and most other services.
Another consideration is usability. To see if you like a particular player, test out the interface at a store display or at the house of a friend who uses the streaming player. For gaming consoles, you might want to spring for a remote rather than use the gaming controller to navigate the screen. And not all players include built-in Wi-Fi, which may be important to you if your TV doesn't have easy access to a wired Internet connection.
With all of the options available, now is a great time to jump into the world of streaming entertainment. But don't rush into a purchase until you've considered all the competitors as well as your particular entertainment preferences. For lots more information on streaming media, see the links on the next page.
- Carmody, Tim. "Post-PC TV: How and Where We Watch Netflix, Hulu and YouTube." Wired. July 29, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/07/post-pc-netflix-hulu-youtube/
- Falcon, John P. "Which Streaming Media Device is Right for You?" CNet. Aug. 19, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-20025670-1/which-streaming-media-device-is-right-for-you/
- Lasky, Michael S. "Western Digital Takes on Roku with New Set-top Streaming Boxes." Wired. Nov. 14, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.wired.com/reviews/2011/11/wd-tv-live/
- Svensson, Peter. "Cable, Satellite Companies Lose Record Number of Subscribers." USA Today. Associated Press. Updated Aug. 12, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://www.usatoday.com/money/media/2011-08-10-cable-satellite_n.htm
- Warren, Christina. "5 of the Best Streaming Media Services Compared." Mashable. Feb. 14, 2011. (Nov. 16, 2011) http://mashable.com/2011/02/14/streaming-media-comparison/