I am not entirely sure where my TV controllers are. In any room. Of either my or my parents’ house.
It no longer matters – streaming sticks or boxes, by and large, enable me to watch what I want when I want using my phone as a controller.
As late Christmas presents begin to come into view, what about one of these mysterious things?
Fundamentally, “streaming” is all about watching TV over your internet connection. That means you need fast broadband, ideally all over your home.
This means you probably need a broadband service beyond a regular connection (marketed as “fast”, “infinity” or “superfast”). It also means you may wish to buy extensions to get full speed across the property – there are “extenders” (which effectively provide another WiFi access point) or what are usually marketed as “adaptors” (which actually enable you to plug into your internet connection via a wall socket – these come in pairs, as you need one at your access point or “hub”).
Expect to pay around £15-£30 (€20-€40) for these.
The fundamental idea is that you choose what to watch what you want from your phone using an app. Boxes typically offer their own apps too (which can sometimes be controlled from your phone too). These usually rely on “catch-up” services, although live events are also possible.
On top of this, most streamers will enable you to play your own music or to look at your own photos and videos (or in some cases even read your own documents) on your widescreen TV, although exactly which do which depend on which one you buy and which phone you have.
Fundamentally, there are three ways to “smarten” your viewing – buy a smart TV itself; make the most of the box which comes with a TV subscription; or buy an additional stick or box.
One way to get around the absolute need for an extra streaming stick or box is to buy a smart TV.
These are of widely varying capability, however. They can range from allowing access to apps such as BBC iPlayer or Netflix via the TV’s own controller, right through to TVs which enable you to mirror apps like Instagram and Dropbox (for photos and videos at least) on screen and control the TV’s own apps (which can be quite vast, including exclusively on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon or Wuaki) from an app on your phone. In some cases, DVDs being played on PCs or laptops can be “cast” on to Smart TVs (notably, this is not generally the case with streaming sticks and boxes noted below).
Some Smart TVs, even very Smart TVs, are even available second hand.
Sky in the UK and Ireland typically comes with a Sky Box (although receivers from other companies do exist); TalkTalk and BT in the UK come with a YouView Box; and there are others (e.g. Virgin with TiVo). Some mixing and matching with broadband providers is possible (e.g. Virgin with a YouView Box or BT Sport on a Sky Box), but is invariably more expensive.
Peculiarly, these boxes are not yet typically WiFi-compatible, in the sense that they do not enable connections over WiFi with other devices (with some limited exceptions). They do allow remote recording (so you can scroll what is on and choose what to record even when not at home), and they now invariably come with a range of on-demand services such as (in the UK) BBC iPlayer and the recently rebranded ITV Hub. These must, however, be controlled from the relevant remote, which can be a chore not just because you have to find it (!), but also because you may have to type in search terms using numeric keyboards or on-screen cursors (though some newer controllers ship with a keyboard option).
Video channels such as YouTube or Vimeo are not typically available on this format; nor will it be possible in most cases to play videos or photos from your phone (and also not, for example, from your Google Play or iTunes account).
Streaming sticks or boxes enable you to access all the relevant on-demand services (such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Choice) and streaming services (such as Netflix, Amazon and Wuaki), as well as video channels such as YouTube or Vimeo, via an app on your phone. You then “cast” these by connecting your TV to the relevant streaming device. They therefore offer the complete viewing experience, with the possible exception of extra subscription channels (such as, in the UK, Sky Sports or BT Entertainment Pack, which cannot be “cast”). In all cases you will need a TV modern enough to have an HDMI connection (one per box/device), and ideally also a USB connection (but this is not essential).
I am personally familiar with three – I cannot speak for the likes of Amazon Fire or Roku.
Google Chromecast is the cheapest and most well known streaming stick, retailing at £30 in the UK (somewhat on the high side by international standards, but lower than anything else). It is easy to set up, although you may need to remove certain “security blocks” on your home broadband hub (by accessing its options via your PC). It is plugged into the back of your TV via HDMI, and then it needs to be powered by plugging it into a USB connection (many modern TVs ship with this; alternatively you can use an adaptor and plug it into the wall socket or even a mobile USB charger). It has no screen or desktop of its own; it is controlled entirely from your phone (or tablet or, in some circumstances, PC). It is easily connected to BBC iPlayer, Netflix, BT Sport (in the UK, with relevant extra subscription), Now TV (with relevant pre-payment), YouTube and some others; though not ITV Hub or Sky Go (or other general TV apps such as TV Catch Up), nor from most informal streaming services (with the odd, but unreliable, exception). It also enables music via Spotify or Deezer. Additionally, you can stream to it from the Internet by “mirroring” from your PC via Google Chrome (with an add-on) or from an Android phone by setting it to “mirror” – this means, for example, that Dropbox documents can be read by mirroring your phone display (in case of Android only). There are also apps such as AllCast which enable mirroring of other apps (notably Instagram, though not Facebook) even on non-Android phones. Chromecast also generally allows you to continue using the phone you are using to stream (typically even to accept calls) while casting. There is now a new Chromecast out, which streams more quickly and connects more reliably than the first – but be sure to buy the right one, however, as there is also now an audio-only version.
Apple TV is the same principle, but remarkably differently delivered. It is at an immediate disadvantage as it is more expensive and less mobile – it has to be connected not just to the TV via its HDMI (strictly speaking other connection options exist), but also to the wall socket. It is also significantly more limited if there are no iPhones or iPads in the house – some limited functions can be operated via AllCast (see previous paragraph) from any phone, and it does have a menu and controller of its own (allowing access to Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo among others), but it makes little sense in a non-Apple household. However, with an iPhone or iPad it can be connected via Control Center, either to “mirror” or to play any video; and also via Household Sharing to enable downloaded videos and music from iTunes to be played even directly from the box itself. The real advantage with Apple’s option, if you have an iPhone or iPad, is it will play almost anything – videos held on the phone, video channels such as YouTube or Vimeo, on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub (and UTV Player), 4OnDemand, more informal services such as TV Catchup and FilmTV, some extra subscription services such as BT Sport, and most notably of all videos straight off the Internet (for example via Facebook or the BBC web site). Exactly how this happens can vary – sometimes it requires mirroring, sometimes specifically not mirroring, sometimes the additional download of the Remote app to start the video, but in the end everything except SkyGo and some other specific subscription services (such as BT’s Entertainment pack) works somehow. One drawback, however, is that the device you are using to stream is effectively put out of use while casting (and, for example, incoming calls or messages and break the stream).
Android boxes are also available online, which effectively put an extra Android phone (albeit without the actual phone/messaging functions) on your screen. From there, you can download apps from Google Play or directly from Browser (in the case of free ones) and stream them. This does, however, require an independent remote in most cases; there is some limited functionality from phones and tablets with apps such as AllCast. Such boxes have the additional function that they are themselves casting devices – that is to say, for example, a YouTube video could be set up to play on the box but then itself cast to a TV elsewhere in the home. Whether this has any use beyond the mild amusement of knowing you can do it is questionable! Such boxes are relatively expensive, however, and are really only for proper streaming technology addicts.
Direct Connection to PC/laptop
It should not be forgotten there are other options. For example, most streaming services (BBC iPlayer, BT Sport, Netflix, YouTube and notably also SkyGo) are available on Internet Explorer and Firefox and can be brought up on a laptop browser and then simply plugged into a modern TV via HDMI. This involves an extra wire (and potentially wall socket if charging) and takes the laptop out of use and limits remote controlling capability, but it allows any service to be played (including, remember, DVDs). Notably, this option is now typically possible in modern hotels which have TVs with HDMI connections (allowing, for example, Sky Sports to be watched, assuming you have a subscription, on the TV in your room – just remember to pack your HDMI cable with your toothbrush).
Exactly what the best option for you is depends on exactly what TV subscriptions you have, what your needs are across the house, and what phones/tablets you already possess.
Generally, Google Chromecast is a very good option to make a non-smart TV “smart”. Its particular advantages are its mobility and value. Other sticks, such as Roku and Amazon Fire, will have the advantage of allowing extra apps and services to be used (as well as their own standalone menu screen). Apple TV makes sense only if you are a predominantly Apple household, but does allow a wider range of apps to be played. They are not massively expensive – there may be a case, particularly if you have no already-Smart TVs, for buying more than one.
For all that, it is worth noting that a plain old HDMI cable and a laptop is already a good combination for watching streaming, on-demand and subscription services, provided you can do without your laptop for the duration of the programme!
Fundamentally, it bears emphasising this only really has any value if you have a strong and fast broadband connection across your home.
Happy shopping! You left it a bit late, mind…