Remember back in the day when if you wanted to see something on cable television, you had to, you know, get cable?
In today’s hyper-advanced, corner-cutting culture, people are now finding other ways to get cable programming without paying large subscriber sums to the dark overlords who run cable companies. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and iTunes are the major spots online where people can stream videos of their favorite shows or movies on their laptops or mobile devices, while HBO, Showtime and other cable channels offer online programming to folks with cable-subscription passwords.
But there are purists and old fogies who still prefer their broadcast entertainment to actually emit from a TV screen. These people are likely to have digital media players that come equipped with streaming video apps, like video game consoles or Blu-Ray players, in their possession. But there are also smaller, more inexpensive players on the market that people can snap up.
Leading the charge is Roku, the set-top box that’s been streaming videos into people’s homes since 2008. With its wide variety of channels (around 2,000), the streamer is popular. According to data from consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the number of boxes Roku sold doubled to 10 million between April 2013 and September 2014.
But there are even cheaper players out there looking to do battle with the mighty Roku. Its biggest competitor is Apple TV, which I own. This player has a lot of the same major and minor apps as Roku. (Of course, for your movie/music downloading needs, Apple TV has iTunes instead of Amazon – they still gotta keep it in the family.) Not to mention that it has AirPlay mirroring, an endlessly entertaining feature where the screen from your iPhone, iPad or Mac computer can also be displayed on your TV screen, showing whatever is on your device.
We also shouldn’t forget Google Chromecast, which is a small stick you can slip into your TV’s HDMI slot, or Amazon Fire TV, which comes in both stick and box form. A pal of mine, Raleigh landscaper Tom Mekus, has a Chromecast stick and it also has a screen-mirroring feature, known as “tabcasting.” “We can throw it from the iPhone or computer or iPad,” he told me. “We had everything to do it, and it only costs 20 bucks.”
These players continue to outdo each other by upgrading their products. Apple TV recently cut its price 30 percent so people can take in their most exclusive offering, the HBO NOW app, where people can watch HBO programming without needing a cable subscription. And word has it that Apple will unveil an updated Apple TV in June, complete with a redesigned remote. (The remote certainly needs an overhaul – it’s the size of a stick of a gum.) Not to be outdone, Roku announced last month that its second- and third-generation players have been updated, featuring a new voice search feature and a feed that lets users see prices and release dates of upcoming movies, along with when they will be available for streaming. Or you can just wait and buy the Roku 4 stick, scheduled to drop this fall.
There is a a possibility these players may become as obsolete as those clunky cable boxes. Television manufacturers are increasingly making “smart TVs,” complete with all your favorite streaming video apps. Roku is even beginning to get into the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em mode by pairing up with flat-screen makers Sharp and Insignia, making sure its boxes are built into the TVs in the coming future.
When it comes down to it, more and more people want affordable, immediate ways to watch TV without giving a pound of flesh or their firstborn child to Time Warner Cable. As someone who remembers when cable wasn’t too rich for my blood – I can still recall the clunky, beige box that sat atop my pre-cable-ready TV set – having a device that’s small enough to hold in your hand and yet can still play whatever TV show or movie you’d like through reasonably priced streaming services makes cable seem an unnecessary evil.
Streaming video players, whether it’s a hockey puck-size box or a smart TV that nearly takes up a wall of your house, are becoming the must-have items for people’s home entertainment centers – and we’re glad they’re around. “It’s awesome – it’s an entirely new thing,” says my boy Mekus. “It’s like broadcast whenever you want it.”