Navigating the Stream: New Streaming Sources

Assessing the Latest Versions of Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV
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In our business, new products and services arrive all the time. Some are completely novel concepts featuring new technologies and ideas, while others, such as Google Chromecast 2, Roku 4, and the new Apple TV, are next-generation versions of products already in the market that may offer only incremental improvements. When replacing something that is already in a system in a previous version or was rejected previously for whatever reason by a client, it’s important to know the pros and cons of these updated technologies. I’ve had the chance to study all three products and make assessments that I hope will serve you well with your clients’ questions.

A new streaming product is often a replacement for something already in the market rather than something totally new. Thus, you may either be replacing something already in a system or perhaps trying to sell a product or concept that, when first presented to a prospect, was rejected for whatever reason.

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The new Chromecast “stick streamers” at the left and right side here have a unique round form factor that is wider than the (left to right) Roku Streaming Stick, original Chromecast and Amazon FireTV Stick. Note the built-in, longer HDMI cable on the new Chromecast while the others come with an adapter.

To close out the year we are concentrating on those two questions as they apply to new versions of three of the leading streaming brands that have introduced new models this fall. Think of this report not just to gauge if and how you present these new products to clients, but perhaps as part of the decision as to whether you might want to gift them to friends and family or perhaps even buy one as a present for yourself.

For starters, among the many product introductions we’ve reported on in 2015 were the new Chromecast models from Google. Looking at the new “Chromecast 2” and “Chromecast Audio” devices it is natural to ask why they are needed, what they bring to the party, and when a current model is already installed, is there a need to replace it with the new one. Here, it’s a trick question.

I say that because beyond the addition of a slightly faster processor, the inclusion of dual-band 802.11ac wireless and new ID, the new model is very close in functionality to the original version. Yes, the inclusion of a pigtail-length cable from the unit to the HDMI connector eliminates the need to use the previously supplied extender. Yes, the product has a new round shape and comes in yellow and red as well as black. And yes, the dual-band, “ac” version of Wi-Fi is helpful in crowded RF environments. But that’s about it. The true value here comes from the changes made to the Chromecast app and the continued addition of new Chromecast-compatible apps. Because the app is the same for both models, the app-based advancements are available to both new and existing Chromecast users. In some situations, having the dual-band Wi-Fi may deliver a needed change, but for the most part, it would be hard to recommend changing out an existing Chromecast for a new one.

Along with the new HDMI-output, video/audio Chromecast Google also introduced a new product, called Chromecast Audio. If you don’t look closely you may not see where it differs from its general purpose cousin until you see that the HDMI cable/connector has been replaced with a 3.5mm jack that can be used with either analog or digital audio for the output. Operationally, it uses the same app-based system where you use your smartphone, tablet, or PC to select the content from available Chromecast-compatible apps and to control the volume. Then, once the content is playing you can take the phone or similar device out of the room, use it for some other function, or even turn it off. Unlike with Bluetooth connected streaming or AirPlay, the Chromecast reaches out directly to the internet to bring in the streams rather than act as a repeater or content received by the mobile device or computer.

That’s fine, but because Chromecast Audio is a new device, not a replacement, we need to look at the “what does it do?” and “why do we need it?” questions. If the desired content is Chromecast compatible, then it’s a no brainer. But do they need it? That depends, particularly when viewed against the typical BT streaming product or proprietary Wi-Fi systems. From my perspective, Chromecast Audio shines when an existing device (a surround processor, audio preamp, older AVR, clock radio, or non-BT speaker) lacks streaming capability. To remedy that, you plug the Chromecast Audio into an analog audio jack, configure the Wi-Fi connection, and all is good to go. You will then have access to all the available Chromecast compatible audio services. “Available” is the most important thing to be aware of here. While it is easy to see which apps are Chromecast compatible by looking for their logo at the top right corner of an app or browser page, seeing what you can stream within them isn’t quite as obvious. It was nice to see that Spotify is Chromecast compatible, but it was disappointing see that you could only use it with the “premium” version. While using the iHeartRadio app to listen to both of the NPR stations in my area, the app worked and loaded properly, but neither our local nor out-of-area NPR stations were “streamable.” Curiously, switching to TuneIn Radio solved the problem. There, we not only received the live station streams, but were even able to select the station’s individual program or host-driven channels.

The bottom line? Both the HDMI-output video/audio version and the analog or digital output Chromecast Audio products continue as the lowest priced major-brand products in the category. Easy to use, the phone or tablet doesn’t need to be on once a stream is selected, and it offers a reasonable array of available content. Balance that against the content you might want but cannot get (e.g. Amazon Instant Video) and the inability (for now) to use the device in a hotel or similarly authenticated venue.

Turning to Roku

If Chromecast leads the pack in the “streaming dongle” market, Roku vies with arch-competitor Apple for dominance is the “hockey puck sized STB” market (albeit with Amazon FireTV also competing here just as its FireTV Stick does with Chromecast). With new models released for the fourth-quarter sales rush, we took a close look at the latest Roku 4 and “New Apple TV” (also known as Generation 4).

The first thing I did with the Roku 4 was to hook it up to a 4K display to see how the image quality compares with the set’s built-in 4K services. They both looked equally good, though the Roku brought in M-Go for content while my Vizio P-Series did not. At this time, Netflix, M-Go, Amazon, and YouTube will likely be the main 4K sources with the content unique to a set or the Roku somewhat secondary.

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Roku 4 is larger that the new Apple TV, but not as high.

Given that many of the added features of the new Roku 4 are actually resident in their new OS 7 (bringing new features such as “Follow Me” and content pricing and availability notifications), it is worth noting that for non-4K applications the current Roku 3 is still a viable choice. In particular, the “Home and Dorm Connect” feature makes any OS 7-equipped Roku model something worth packing in a backpack or luggage to easily bring the device’s incredible range of content to any HDMI-equipped TV.

Roku also has updated its remote app with a host of new features. Among them is a “button” for the Roku 4’s “remote finder” feature. Press a button on the unit’s top or click on the remote app button and the native remote will announce where it is.

Putting this all together, the 4K capability of the Roku 4 combined with an incredible range of “channels” tends to put it ahead of other 4K streamers such as the latest Amazon Fire TV and the TiVo Bolt.

Keep in mind that the Roku 4, as well as the Fire TV and TiVo Bolt, require the sink device to have HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2. Without them, you may as well stick to 1080p devices. This brings up the issue of High Dynamic Range, or HDR, which may soon become as big, or even bigger draw to install new 4K sets as the 2160p resolution. For that, the streamer needs HDMI 2.0a (in most cases) and none of the devices discussed here have that. In response to our inquiry, a Roku spokesperson indicated that HDR compatibility is a possible upgrade, but wouldn’t comment beyond that. Similarly, press reports have been silent as to Amazon’s HDR plans for the current devices even as their Amazon Instant Video service is slated to offer HDR content sooner than later. The compatibility with HDR for any of these devices is something we all need to keep an eye on.

Apple TV, Generation 4

With the $129 Roku 4 having some interesting or unique features, it is worth holding it up to the light against the new Apple TV to see where the differences are. The latest Apple TV is app-driven, which is a major advancement from the second-and third-generation models. Users can select from movie and other streaming services, mirror screens from iOS devices, and “learn-out” the codes from the RF rermote via IR for programming them into an automation system.

Indeed, the remote is one of the major changes. Its black top, built-in mic for voice command using Siri, volume up/down buttons for use with CEC-connected sets, and a non-replaceable battery charged via an included Lightning cable are the cake. The icing is that the traditional direction navigation buttons are replaced with a touchpad not unlike what you might find on a laptop. Swipe to move the on-screen selections and then press to select. Nice, but some users may find it just too hard to get used to.

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Remotes for the various Streamers: Left to right, New Apple TV, Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV Stick.

Anyone familiar with the current Apple TV model will say “just use the iPhone/iPad app,” but at this point it is not compatible with the new Apple TV. One has to believe that Apple will update the app at some point, but it hasn’t done that yet. Other than learning the codes out, a good solution for those who prefer hard button navigation is to simply use a remote for the current Apple TV. Other than not having Siri, it works just fine. Even better, the coin-cell battery is replaceable so that you don’t have to provide 5VDC in the viewing area to charge the new remote.

With the remote in hand, users will find selectable apps a step beyond the current interface. Along with the new on-screen looks has come a straight line, horizontal display for the alpha/numeric on-screen “keyboard” used for search and the content channel authentication. Siri won’t help you when entering the obligatory provider sign-in data.

While not something one would use to replace an Xbox or PlayStation, the new Apple TV offers a wide range of games where the new remote comes in handy. Whether the games Apple offers are more attractive to a user than those offered by Roku or Amazon Fire TV is a personal choice, but current betting is that they will be the best of the lot.

Where does this leave you when a choice has to be made? Those who are heavily invested in iTunes or other Apple-specific content will clearly want to gravitate to the new Apple TV despite the higher cost ($149 for 32GB memory and $199 for 64GB). There, the HDMI 1.4 and resultant lack of 4K is not likely to be a barrier. On the other hand, if the widest range of content among the non-Apple devices is desired, the Roku 4 is the clear winner with 4K as an added bonus. With Google and Amazon promoting their own content services, Roku’s lack of any skin in that game makes them the “Switzerland” of these products.

Given the scale of typical large home theaters, it is not out of the question to consider either a Roku 4 or Amazon Fire TV and a new AppleTV. The cost is likely to be a minor budget item, presuming you figure out the integration issues when mixing voice control, proprietary remotes, and different communication schemes.

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