Streaming Audio/Video Gear: Making the Right Connections

Stand-alone streaming-video set-top boxes (STBs) are less expensive and deliver more features than ever before. However, with so many other products that stream audio/video these days, experts tell us that dedicated STBs likely will disappear over the next 5 years.

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Today, if your Blu-ray Disc player, high-definition TV, smartphone or video-game console comes with the capability to connect to the Internet, it’s guaranteed that it also has built-in streaming functionality. All of the latest models of these products come with their own suites of streaming-video services or at least allow you to download applications that make streaming easy.

However, dedicated set-top boxes (STBs) remain the easiest and least expensive way to stream video from the Internet or a home computer to an HDTV that isn’t connected to the Internet. What’s even better is that although the average price for an STB still hovers around $100, you now can buy models for as little as $50—a price that didn’t exist 3 years ago. Plus, even many of the lowest priced STBs come with the capability to stream 1080p video and play 5.1 surround sound.

Most STB manufacturers are trying to make their devices more relevant in an increasingly streaming-compatible world by adding content and making them easier to use. In November 2012, D-Link went so far as to replace its Boxee Box STB with the Boxee TV STB, which is a multifunction streaming device and digital video recorder (DVR) that allows you to save broadcast TV programs in the cloud for $15 per month. You then can view them any time on your computer, smartphone or TV. D-Link believes that adding DVR functionality will make its device more valuable against competition from the increasingly less expensive Blu-ray players, TVs, smartphones and video-game consoles that now include streaming functionality.

Boxee’s shift didn’t surprise the six industry analysts with whom we spoke. In fact, the analysts expect STBs to fall by the wayside over the next 5 years. Multifunction streaming TVs and other devices will continue to get less expensive and to expand their functionality.

Anthony Wood, who is the founder and president of STB manufacturer Roku, dismisses predictions of the industry’s demise. He pins that optimism on the premise that nonconnected TVs, Blu-ray players and gaming consoles will remain in use, perhaps particularly in rooms other than the living room.
We found that multifunction streaming TVs, Blu-ray players and gaming consoles provide the same video quality as STBs do. The problem, for the time being, is that most of these multifunction streaming devices are limited in the number of streaming-video services that they offer and are difficult to set up and to use. In other words, if you know what streaming services that you want and you want a streaming device that’s easy to operate, it still makes sense to buy an STB.

FAR MORE CHANNELS. The total number of available streaming channels on an STB has expanded in the past 3 years. When we last looked at STBs, Roku led all manufacturers with 13 channels. Although most STBs still have no more than 10 channels (the same as 3 years ago), all Netgear STBs now carry 89 channels. All Roku STBs carry 700 channels.

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Those numbers are large, because Netgear and Roku are the only two makers of STBs that have open platforms, which allow content owners and developers to create their own channels. In other words, in addition to major streaming-video services, you also have access to niche channels, such as Crunchyroll (available on Roku), which is dedicated to Japanese anime movies.

(You should keep in mind that some of the channels are free, but others require a paid subscription to watch via an STB.)

In January 2013, Roku and Time Warner Cable announced an agreement that will allow Time Warner Cable subscribers to stream their live cable-TV channels through any Roku STB by using the TWC TV app. This means that Time Warner subscribers can use a Roku STB, instead of a cable-TV box, to watch their subscription packages. It’s the first such deal between a cable company and an STB-maker.

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