Open Access: Top-Rated Streaming Audio/Video Gear

The latest streaming-video set-top boxes provide access to more apps, channels and games than ever before. Meanwhile, Google’s Chromecast Audio is a game-changer when it comes to the cost of streaming audio through your Wi-Fi connection.

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Not so long ago, industry analysts told us that they expected dedicated set-top boxes (STBs) for streaming video to fade away by 2018. The consensus was that standalone STBs would become less desirable as prices fell for Blu-ray Disc players, computers, high-definition TVs, smartphones and video-game consoles that included streaming functionality.

Here we are in 2016, and even though four manufacturers—Linksys, Sony, Vizio and Western Digital—stopped making STBs in the past 2 years, the market for STBs shows no signs of fading. In fact, more consumers use STBs than ever before, according to a November 2015 study by Parks Associates, which is a market-research company. The study found that 20 percent of U.S. households use a streaming STB to watch movies and TV shows, compared with 12 percent in 2014.

“I was one of those in the camp that was thinking that the need for [STBs] would diminish,” says Paul Erickson, who is a senior analyst with research company IHS. “You look at smart TVs today, and they simply don’t have access to as much content as [STBs].”

We found that STBs still are the easiest devices to operate as far as streaming video to an HDTV that isn’t connected to the Internet. The latest STBs also provide more  streaming channels and games than ever before. The best part is that, although the average price for an STB still hovers around $100, you now can buy models for as little as $35, compared with $50 before.

GEAR EVOLUTION. In 2013, most manufacturers removed the mechanical hard drive from their STBs. Today, Nvidia’s Shield Pro ($299) is the only STB that includes a mechanical hard drive for storing apps, games, photos and videos. (We found that the Shield Pro’s 500GB of space provides more than enough room for everything that we want to store.)

All other STBs now include flash-memory hard drives, typically 8–16GB. For consumers who plan to use their STB exclusively for movies and other streaming video, 8–16GB is a good starting point. However, if you install four games on your STB, you’ll find that you won’t have much room for apps, images and videos. (Apps vary in size from as little as a few megabytes to a few hundred megabytes. Games are much larger, and the most complex games exceed 5GB.)

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That said, most STBs (starting at $50) allow you to expand storage through a microSD card and USB flash drive. However, you won’t find expandable-storage options on streaming sticks, which are flash-drive-size devices (starting at $35) that plug into an HDTV’s HDMI port, because the devices are too small to allow for a port.  

The capability to expand storage is important, because more streaming channels (also known as apps) are available on STBs than ever before. Roku continues to lead the way, with at least 2,500 streaming channels now available. That’s at least twice as many as what Roku’s STB included 3 years ago.

Roger Entner of research company Recon Analytics tells us that the reason behind the rapid increase in streaming channels is that all STB manufacturers now have open platforms, which allow content owners and developers to create channels. Previously, Netgear and Roku were the only makers of STBs that allowed third-party developers to build streaming channels for their platforms.

As you might guess, of the thousands of streaming channels that are available on STBs, most are niche. For instance, Roku includes a channel that’s called Blind Cat Rescue, which shows only footage of blind cats at a cat sanctuary in St. Pauls, N.C. However, we found that all manufacturers have an approval process before they’ll allow streaming channels into their respective stores, and that limits the number somewhat.

Most cable-TV channels now provide access to their content through STB streaming channels. In 2015, HBO started to offer a streaming-only package that allows access to the channel’s entire catalog for a monthly fee of $15. However, most channels allow their content to be streamed for free without the requirement of an active cable subscription.

The latest STBs also include more games than ever before in their app stores. Most STBs lack heavy-duty gaming processors, so the games that you’ll find are similar to the games that you’ll find for your smartphone (think: Angry Birds). However, Nvidia’s Shield was designed with gaming in mind and includes the same type of powerful processor and graphics cards that you’ll find in a home computer. Consequently, the Shield allows you to stream many of the most popular computer games to an HDTV.

Brett Sappington of Parks Associates tells us that we can expect to see STB manufacturers expand their content. In November 2015, Time Warner Cable introduced a Roku app that allows Time Warner subscribers in New York City to watch its cable lineup. In other words, Time Warner subscribers in New York no longer have to rent a separate box from Time Warner, and Time Warner no longer has to send a worker to install and troubleshoot the box. Sappington expects Time Warner to expand its app to subscribers across the country eventually. (Time Warner hasn’t said when it plans to do so.) Experts also tell us that other cable-TV companies will build similar apps, but as of press time, we didn’t find any company that plans to do so.

In other words, it appears as though STBs won’t be fading away after all.

Cameron Summerson has covered consumer electronics for 9 years. He is a senior editor at Android Police, which covers consumer electronics.

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