Surely you know all about Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and the now literally thousands of other internet video streaming services.
The internet has progressed astonishingly – do you remember, seemingly only ‘yesterday’, when the internet struggled to allow poor quality audio to be broadcast? The first attempts at video, with appallingly low resolution and constant pauses for rebuffering the stream? Contrast that with now – the internet is increasingly the prime source of not just HD but even 4K video, with 4K video available through internet streaming long before 4K Blu-ray discs and players started to appear.
Indeed, video disc sales in general are dropping, due to the growing popularity of streamed video. These days the typical distribution cycle of a movie – to theaters, then to disc, then to streaming video and cable – is shifting, with some movies now skipping the video disc part of their distribution entirely.
This shift in ‘consumption’ is certainly true for me. I used to buy a DVD or Blu-ray most weeks – I’d watch it and then store away, likely never to be watched again, on my increasingly crowded bookshelves. Now, I might buy one or two a year, and only on rare occasions when it is a movie I absolutely have to watch, and which isn’t (yet) on one of the streaming services. The cost of Netflix ($8 – $12 a month) is less than half the cost of a single DVD or Blu-ray disc, and so is extremely easy to justify. As for Amazon Prime Video, it is included for free as part of their regular Prime membership.
So how can you too best access the amazing world of internet streamed video and enjoy it on your regular television? You probably already understand how to watch it on a tablet/phone (with apps) or computer (usually through a web browser). But don’t forget the big screen experience too, complete with surround sound coming out of your home entertainment system too, every bit as impressive and involving as if it were a DVD or Blu-ray in your player (and possibly even better).
Big screen televisions also give a better quality picture, usually offering better picture contrast (dark scenes don’t lose all their detail and become featureless blobs). If you’re wanting to watch something with a partner, it is much more practical with a big screen than a tiny computer screen.
Using an external streaming device, rather than apps on a computer/tablet/phone also give you a more convenient way to access and manage all the many thousands of different video streaming services available. Which seems like a good place to move on to the next heading.
The Amazing World of Video Streaming
Coming from New Zealand, I still vividly remember when our television sets offered only one television channel. And being an old guy, I remember when that one channel was black and white, and only operated between 6pm and 10pm.
Within the US context, the earlier concept of a dozen or two broadcast channels evolved into cable and satellite television, and potentially 100 or more channels of programming – something that a couple of decades ago seemed more than anyone could possibly ever need.
But the internet has made cable television seem as ridiculously old fashioned as, well, as those four hours a day of single channel black and white television was, a mere 50 years ago, in New Zealand.
One hundred channels? That’s peanuts. Even 1,000 channels is very little. How about 5,788 channels accessible through a Roku streaming box! That’s how many were listed in early September 2017 on this site. And while some channels charge for access, 4,741 of them are free. Sure, 1,300 of those are religious channels, and plenty of the others have advertising, but you still have thousands to choose from.
Plus, the numbers are growing all the time. In January 2014 I referred to ‘over 1,000 channels’ accessible through a Roku player, now there are 5,788. So, in round figures, that is about 100 net additional channels every month – and in reality, many more, because channels are being discontinued all the time. I also referred to a ‘create your own Roku service’ that, back then, was serving 3,040 different streams. Now the site claims to be serving 22,654 streams.
Which points to another large chunk of channels. In addition to the public channels, there are an unknown number of private Roku channels out there too (explained in my earlier article). Here’s a reasonably comprehensive list, and Google or Bing is your friend to help you find more.
Much of this is being offered in better quality than is available o ncable or broadcast tv. Oh yes – talking about cable, increasingly people are cancelling their cable service and relying on the internet streamed versions of their favorite cable and local television channels. This of course creates an interesting situation, because in much of the US, our (former) cable providers are in a second monopoly position, being our only choice for obtaining the internet access we want/need so that we can then cancel their cable service. The most polite way of looking at this interesting conflict of interest is that they’re going to get money from us, coming or going.
Internet Bandwidth Requirements
Of course, all this high quality video uses up appreciable internet bandwidth. Netflix says a single video stream requires about 5 Megabits per second for HD quality video (and 3 Mbps for lower SD quality).
Note this is Megabits, not Megabytes. A byte, for these purposes, is eight bits, so divide the Mbps rates by eight to get MBps (Megabytes per second) if for some reason you need to think in those terms. Most internet connections are rated in Mbps though, but we notice sometimes people confuse the two and misstate a speed in the wrong unit.
If you want to enjoy the Netflix UHD (ie 4K) video streaming, that is said to require 25 Mbps/second. That is a big jump from 5 Mbps – there are four times as many pixels, and potentially more picture information per pixel, which explains the five-fold increase.
Keep in mind also that if you have two or three people all watching video at the same time, each of them require their own stream. Two people would use 10 Mbps. Three – 15 Mbps, and so on. And if you have two or more people wanting to watch UHD streams, well, it is probably time to sign up for a faster internet service!
There is currently very little programming available in 4K/UHD quality, and of course, if you don’t have a 4K television set, there is no point in streaming the video in 4K because you’ll not see any difference in quality. In other words, there’s not a reason to start worrying about your connection speed until such time as you both have a 4K set, a 4K streaming device, and start to see some 4K content you want to watch.
But when that happens, you should upgrade to perhaps 35Mbps at a minimum – enough for a 4K stream, a regular HD stream, and some spare capacity for emails coming and going and all other ‘stuff’ that seems to always be happening. Remember you probably have multiple computers, phones and tablets all doing stuff, all the time, in the background. If you decide you want to have two 4K streams playing, it would be a struggle to fit them both within a 50 Mbps circuit and probably would be better with 55+ Mbps.
If you have the misfortune to be charged for the data you transfer on your internet connection, you should know that each hour of HD video is probably going to use – and therefore cost you – about 2.5GB of data. So a typical movie represents 4 – 5 GB of data in HD. But if you’re treating yourself to 4K, you could be using 25 GB of data or more, just to watch a single movie. Maybe buying the new 4K quality Blu-ray discs and matching players (now available on Amazon for about $160) is going to be cheaper! Is the cycle about to reset and return us back to ‘old fashioned’ physical media?
And, yes, it goes without saying that the underlying appeal of streamed video is massively weakened when you find yourself paying for every minute you are watching. Plus, don’t forget that if two or three of you are each watching different video streams on different devices at the same time, the meter starts to really spin around the charging dial, because each of you are using your own ‘stream’ of data.
Note that some ISPs have ‘unadvertised’ limits on your data use. These are obscured behind vague reference to ‘fair use policies’ and or ‘abuse of service’. As best we can tell, it seems that once you start using more than something in the 250 – 1,000 GB of data a month, you are starting to be at risk of being noticed by your ISP as being an ‘unusually high user of bandwidth’ – something that is of course increasingly a nonsense concept, when you consider that 250GB represents maybe 100 hours of video streaming – that’s only 3 hours a day on a monthly basis. Whether ISPs will raise what they claim to be ordinary/normal levels of usage, or whether they’ll express mock horror at the amount of data they are providing ‘for free’ and start to charge for ‘excessive’ use more widely remains to be seen. Which sort of brings us back to the comment above, about how the cable companies seem to have a stranglehold over our access to entertainment, whether it be via cable or the internet.
We see that Comcast’s XFINITY internet service has a plan now active in 30 states that charges $10 for each 50GB of data used over their data cap (1TB). So watch a 4K movie once and it might cost you $5 in internet costs alone. A regular HD movie is a more moderate $1 if you go over your free allowance. But let’s say you and the other people in your household end up watching 100 hours of content a month, which could potentially represent $50 or more in extra internet access costs. How is it that you pay only $10/month to Netflix for this service, but the guy in the middle who does nothing except provide the connection to your home – Comcast – gets $50 for their part of the puzzle. Depending on if you see your glass as half full or half empty, should either be appreciative of the tremendous value Netflix is providing or appalled at the rapacious charging by Comcast.
One can only wonder how it is that we have ended up with so little competition for the provision of internet service, and bemoan that our average internet speeds place us at about number 15 in the world, not number 1.
Built-In Streaming Capabilities with Your Television Set
To watch streaming video on your television, sometimes the easiest (but not necessarily best) answer is to use any capability built into the television set itself. Modern sets usually seem to include fairly extensive video streaming capabilities.
The good thing about this is it is built right into your television, and doesn’t require additional equipment, wiring, or more remotes. There is nothing complicated to connect.
The not so good thing is that often television apps are the least featured, and are unlikely to support the latest and greatest features that some of the streaming services offer. New services might include such things as, for example, support for higher definition video streams, better streaming compression functions, surround sound, 3D, possibly also things such as multiple languages and other ‘picture in picture’ type features, plus who knows what else will come along in the future.
In addition, it is common for television streaming functions to only offer a limited number of streaming channels. In total there are many thousands of different channels.
It may also be difficult to run an audio feed (particularly for surround sound) from your television to any other type of home audio receiver/amplifier.
Sometimes the only way to get additional or new features added to the television’s built in streaming function is to buy a new television, or an external streaming box.
So, using any built in service is perhaps a good way to start to experience streaming services, but check to see which features your tv set supports and be aware that the streaming services you use may be adding new features that never make it to your television.
Which brings us to the second option. Happily it is not expensive.
External Streaming Boxes
These days there are three major external devices that can be considered to bring internet video streaming to your television set. They are offered by Google, Amazon, and Roku.
Yes, Apple-fans, there’s the Apple TV device as well, but it is appreciably more expensive, doesn’t support FLAC audio, and astonishingly doesn’t support 4K video either. Oh yes, it also doesn’t support Amazon streamed video, although apparently that is due to be allowed some time in the foreseeable future. It seems Apple is yet again seeking to impose their own closed-system limitations, for their benefit not yours, and we can’t get close to viewing their TV product with any degree of enthusiasm.
Update 12 September, 2017 : Apple have announced a new TV box streaming product that will support 4K video and HDR. At last. While the unit is now comparable to other high end streaming products, the price is not – $179 or $199, so you’re paying about twice as much.
We have a five page Special Report complete review of eight different streaming box options available for our 2017 supporters. This also includes a little known but essential tip for how to best watch any sort of programming on your television, and tells you of the must-have feature to look for on any streaming device. If you’ve contributed $10 or more this year, please let us know and we’ll send you the report immediately. Otherwise, if you’d like a copy, please may we encourage you to send in some support and we’ll again of course be pleased to send this report to you. If you wish it, we also have our 37 page report on Internet Access When Traveling available for supporters, feel free to ask for a copy of that too.
If it is not convenient to support us, then in quick summary, Google and Amazon each offer two devices and Roku (this is the Roku website but their products seem to be a bit cheaper on Amazon) offer a very wide variety of different devices.
Both Google and Amazon tend to give preferential access to their own video services, and can make it difficult to use other services too, while Roku offers the broadest coverage of services/channels and so one of the six different Roku devices is probably your best choice. Our full report of course gives you more detail and clear recommendations.
These days there is more entertainment and education programming online than there is via cable networks, satellite feeds, or regular ‘over the air’ television. The best way to receive this information on your main television(s) is via a streaming box such as one of the Roku family of devices.
With pricing as low as $40 for a unit, this is something you should consider adding.