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Getting Streaming Media Devices

Learn how to cut the cable and satellite cord and view your favorite programs with a streaming media player.

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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

In this chapter, you learn how to cut the cable and satellite cord and view your favorite programs with a streaming media player.

arrow.jpg Understanding Internet Streaming Video

arrow.jpg Watching Amazon Fire TV

arrow.jpg Watching Apple TV

arrow.jpg Watching Google Chromecast

arrow.jpg Watching Roku

arrow.jpg Comparing Streaming Media Players

arrow.jpg Optimizing Streaming Media Playback

Cable and satellite TV are so yesterday. Today there’s a new way to watch your favorite programming, called streaming video, and you get it over the Internet—via a small stick or set-top box called a streaming media player.

With a streaming media player and an Internet connection, you have access to practically any channel, network, or program available on cable, satellite, or antenna TV. It’s the perfect way to “cut the cord” and reduce or eliminate your monthly cable or satellite bill!

Understanding Internet Streaming Video

As you’ve learned, local television stations broadcast their programming via radio waves over the air. Cable systems transmit their hundreds of stations over a coaxial or fiber optic cable to your home. And satellite systems transmit their programming by bouncing it off a satellite orbiting tens of thousands of miles in space.

Streaming video services, however, use the Internet to deliver their programming. By connecting a streaming media player to the Internet and your TV, you gain access to hundreds of streaming services—in full HD. Many of these streaming services are free; others require a monthly subscription.

Welcome to the World of Streaming Video

Streaming video, sometimes called IPTV (that’s short for Internet Protocol television), sends video programming over the Internet as a stream of digital data. When you choose to watch a streaming program, playback starts almost immediately and continues until the program is done; there are no files to download or store on a computer or hard drive. The streaming playback can be paused, stopped, fast forwarded, and rewound, same as you would do with a program on a DVD or Blu-ray disc. You control what you watch; it just happens to come to you via the same connection that brings your other Internet content.

The technical wizardry behind all this is similar to that behind your cable or satellite company’s on-demand video. All the programming offered by a given streaming video service is stored in digital data files somewhere in the great big Internet cloud. When you select to watch a given program, it is streamed from the video service’s servers across the Internet to the Internet modem in your home. From there the signal goes to your Wi-Fi router and is transmitted wirelessly to your Smart TV or the streaming media player connected to your TV. The media player plays the selected program and you view it on your TV, controlling playback with your media player’s remote control. It’s that sophisticated and that simple.

Discovering Streaming Media Players

A streaming media player is a standalone device that connects to your TV, typically via HDMI. Some media players are small set-top boxes; these connect to your TV’s HDMI input via an HDMI cable. Others are in so-called “stick” format; they look like USB memory sticks and connect directly to your TV’s HDMI input.

Either type of streaming media player—set-up box or stick—needs to connect to a power source and to the Internet. For power, just plug the unit’s power cable into a wall socket. For the internet, all have built-in Wi-Fi capability so they can connect via your home wireless network; a select few also have Ethernet ports so they can connect via a wired connection, too.

Streaming media players are available from four major suppliers: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Roku. These companies offer a variety of models in different form factors, with different capabilities, at various price points. The lowest-priced streaming media players today sell for under $30 USD; the highest-priced ones get closer to $200 USD. I’ll go into the pros and cons and pricing later.

In addition to these freestanding streaming media players, streaming media playback is built into many of today’s so-called “Smart” TVs. Some of these Smart TVs have their own proprietary menus and operation; others offer the same look and feel as the freestanding players—in particular, the Amazon and Roku systems.

How Streaming Media Players Work

All streaming media players and smart TVs offering streaming content work in pretty much the same fashion. You start by connecting the player to your TV, typically via HDMI. Then you connect the player to a power source and to your wireless home network. This is typically made easy by a step-by-step setup routine; just follow the onscreen instructions and you’ll be done in a few minutes.

You then have to select which streaming services you want to view on the streaming media player. Individual streaming services are available as “apps” in that device’s app store. (Roku calls these services “channels,” and its app store a Channel Store.) Select which apps/services you want to access, and tiles for those apps appear on the device’s home screen.

To watch a specific streaming service, select that service’s tile on your player’s home screen. The app for that service launches, and you can browse or search for something to watch on that service. Click to select a specific episode or movie, and playback starts on your TV screen.

You can use your player’s remote control (or, in some cases, the player’s smartphone app) to control playback. Press the Pause button to pause playback; press Play to resume playback. Press the Fast Forward (or right arrow) button to skip forward through a program; press the Rewind (or left arrow) button to skip backward to rewatch a program. Viewing progress is typically noted via an on-screen “scrubber” or slider control. In many cases, you can press the Enter or Info button to view more information about the current program.


The remote control unit for Amazon’s Fire TV players.

What’s Available on Streaming Video

Just about every channel available on cable or satellite is available on streaming video. There are even streaming services that offer access to your local over-the-air (OTA) broadcast channels!

Most cable networks offer streaming apps that play on most streaming media devices. Many networks are available as part of streaming services that offer multiple channels in a single interface. And many network shows, old and new, are available as individual programs on one or more streaming services, such as Hulu and Netflix.

Many streaming services also offer first-run and older movies. Newer movies might cost money to view; older movies might be offered for free or included as part of a general subscription price.

Streaming video services also offer a significant amount of original programming. Netflix, for example, offers both original series, such as Fuller House, House of Cards, Stranger Things, and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and original movies, including the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Little Prince, and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and other streaming services are equally invested in original programming of all types.

How much does all this cost? Many streaming video services are free of charge, supported by their advertisers. Other services have a low monthly subscription fee, anywhere from a few dollars per month to $15 USD or so. More inclusive services that stream multiple channels of live TV and cable programming can cost up to $80 USD or so a month. So the amount you spend depends on which streaming services you watch and subscribe to. (That’s in addition to the purchase price of the streaming media player and your monthly Internet service, or course.)

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