TV viewers are picking up so-called streaming media
boxes in the hope of fulfilling a simple wish: Let me
watch what I want when I want.
the devices, some as small as a thumb drive, link the TV
to the Internet so users can watch Netflix or Hulu on
the bigger screen, giving them a far wider choice of
programming than cable or satellite services can.
that’s where it can be confusing and frustrating:
Every box, including Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV,
has its own set of apps that feature different libraries
of shows and movies. Amazon Fire TV, for example, lacks
HBO Go, which allows for on-demand viewing of HBO shows.
although streaming apps such as Netflix and Hulu have
vast libraries, some TV networks and studios limit
availability of their content depending on whether the
user is a cable or satellite subscriber. That means
streaming media boxes won’t help viewers ditch cable
or satellite television subscriptions because many
networks’ apps require that users also have a pay-TV
can get even more confusing if you’re shopping for a
device: There are now 50 streaming media boxes and 12
smaller-size sticks on the market, according to Mike
Paxton, analyst at research firm SNL Kagan.
the disarray and the emergence of the so-called smart
TV, ownership of streaming media devices is rising and
competition among manufacturers is intensifying.
boxes including Apple TV and Roku started seeing wide
adoption a couple of years ago, many analysts guessed
they were merely a stopgap measure until everybody
bought a TV set that could connect directly to the
Internet. But adoption of smart TVs has fallen short of
the number of U.S. adults with high-definition TV has
jumped 25 percentage points to 78 percent during the
last four years, the tally of smart-television-owning
adults has ticked up only 14 percentage points to 21
percent, according to media consulting firm Frank N.
Magid Associates Inc. Meanwhile, the number of consumers
with streaming devices is growing rapidly and is already
on par with smart TVs at 21 percent.
key reason: Prices for smart TVs have remained high
while some streaming media devices cost $30 on sale.
you can just connect a media box to a dumb screen, I don’t
think TV manufacturers have convinced consumers that the
value proposition is there for a smart TV," Paxton
attribute the popularity of streaming media boxes to one
company: Netflix Inc. Two in three people buying a
streaming media box just to access Netflix through a
television, Paxton said. Every time the streaming
service launches service in a new country, box sales
pick up there.
despite the growth in people watching video on their
smartphones. With better cellular data plans and more
Wi-Fi availability, the amount of time people spend
watching full-length TV content on smartphones and
tablets tripled in the last year, according to Magid
home, though, many people still find that the most
comfortable and enjoyable way to watch video is in front
of a TV — now more than ever with a streaming media
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the top of the charts are Apple TV and Roku boxes.
Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast are far behind but
growing. Fewer households are using gaming consoles such
as Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4 to connect
televisions to the Web. Some DVD players and DVRs can
also stream online content to televisions, but these
devices typically cost more, are physically larger or
have fewer apps.
no means do streaming media boxes provide an experience
that’s as frustration-free as turning on the
television and flipping to a familiar channel.
them up is a clunky process. Without a physical
keyboard, usernames and passwords have to be entered
through clicks on remote controls or gaming controllers.
To activate some apps, a second Internet-connected
device is required. Except for sticks such as Google’s
Chromecast, streaming media devices can connect to
Internet modems via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable.
remotes for these boxes would also add to the tabletop
collection, and they lack one feature that would prove
handy — volume control.
the boxes are set up, users download or sync apps to
them. The apps serve as the access points to movies,
television shows, online videos, podcasts, games and
music. Some boxes even have apps to check Facebook or
a wide variety of content is the goal, Roku and Google
Chromecast do well. If buying purely based on cost,
Chromecast would be best. If access to video games is
critical, go with the Xbox One.
Apple iTunes buyers or iPad/iPhone users are best off
with Apple TV. Amazon Prime subscribers should go with
the Amazon Fire TV. People with large libraries of
downloaded content from various corners of the Internet
should turn to WD TV. Of course, one app they all
buyers of a streaming media box should visit the device’s
official website to make sure the two or three apps or
channels that they most use are supported.
boxes have room for improvement. Social media
integration, such as sharing content to Twitter or
Facebook, and personalized content recommendations are
surprisingly limited across the board.
the market expected to grow for at least for several
more years, analysts said, Google, Sony, Apple and
others have a significant opportunity to make the boxes
a lot of work "involved right now in finding the
right content," said Magid researcher Andrew Hare.
"The onus is on the industry to make it as easy as
channel surfing. I don’t think we’re even tapping
into how this big could change culturally how Americans