Herewith a briefing on all things “television” which is now called streaming video, Live TV, and a bunch of other things, including confusing.
For a friend, I recently took on the task of trying to provide an overview of this new, broadband world of streaming video. She has an older-model television and generally uses it to watch DVDs rented from Netflix. (Yes, Netflix does still maintain their original DVD rental-by-mail service; as of a year ago Netflix had 2.7M customers for that service, which is available for $7.99/month; I couldn’t find a more-recent customer number for 2020.)
I started with the devices that plug into a physical television. Your phone, tablet, and game consoles can also act as a “television”, for which you need to download an app and then review the streaming services themselves, which I review below.
Now onto devices that you plug in to get streaming video on your TV set:
Roku: Roku is a device that you buy from lots of places, this one from BestBuy for $40. Once you have the device, this is how they explain how it works. You buy it, plug it in, pair it to the WiFi network, and start using it. No service charge from Roku, but they do pass through the fee the service charges if you sign up through Roku. (If you already have Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, you just need to sign into your existing account.) It is most likely that your existing TV will work with Roku.
AppleTV: This is a device that Apple makes (available from Apple, BestBuy or others). This photo shows the latest model, called Apple TV 4K. It’s 4K because it can use higher-resolution TVs to show much more detailed and colorful video. The Samsung TV we have does 4K. Yours might not. If you want to use this with your existing, older TV buy the version called Apple TV HD. Apple plugs in to you TV via USB or HDMI (but you have to buy this cable separately). Pay attention because Apple TV 4K and TV HD appear identical to each other! It is an Apple device so it also updates its software (as Apple does on iPhones, iPad, Apple Watch, Macintosh, etc.) and will become one of the devices in your Apple cloud account. It is more expensive than “stick” devices like Roku or FireTV, since it has a hard disk and is an Apple product. We use Apple TV on our TVs, because I think it offers the best selection of streaming services (more below on that topic) than Roku (since Roku doesn’t have its own streaming service and has to sell everyone else’s).
Amazon FireTV: I had one for a while. You have to buy it from Amazon, even if you’re a Prime Member. (It’s cheap.) But being a Prime Member lets you get “Prime Video” and means you get a lot of free video. But that’s true whether you use the device or not. I don’t recommend this vs
the other two. (And Google has another device called Chromecast that I don’t recommend, but that might because we’re all in for Apple devices. I think Google is terrible at managing their products and tends to disappoint over the long term, but that’s a whole other blog post! Whatever happened to Google Photos being fast and stable?)
I recommend choosing between Roku & AppleTV. Millions own either one (or both, but that’s a waste, which is why we only use one).
Now on to Streaming Services. There are a lot of them.
Netflix: Grandaddy of streaming. My friend mentioned that she still uses it to get DVDs. You can add streaming to your DVD rentals or stop using DVD and just subscribe to Netflix for streaming video. If you sign up for streaming only, I think it costs $14.99/mo. (I think because it’s been a long time since I looked! It was $12.99 until just a few months ago.) You might get a deal somewhere (Verizon and other carriers bundle it and other services with their cellular packages, plus Netflix is now built into a lot of devices including TVs.) Netflix is best for original content (stuff they’ve produced, like Breaking Bad (7 seasons) or even better the prequel Better Call Saul (5 seasons). Between the two, 12 seasons is >60 hours of watching (called binging if you watch all the episodes in a row in a short period of time). Netflix is still unique in releasing their series a whole season at a time (with 6–12 episodes per season). That’s just one show (well, two produced by the same people.) Netflix has dozens now, none of which are available anywhere else. Stranger Things! House of Cards! Peaky Blinders! Chefs Table! Longmire! Fauda! The Crown! Netflix has other, non-original content including older movies (lots of classics) and TV .
Prime Video (Amazon): Amazon was second to the game after Netflix, so they have a lot of content and an increasing amount of original content, trying to keep up with Netflix. Most recent offering, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a most excellent although the first season is the best. Jack Ryan (which I like but Valerie doesn’t). The Man In The High Castle (what if the Nazis andJapanese had won WW2, filmed San Francisco?), and so forth. They have some old classics TV, that they’ve licensed like Downton Abbey (from PBS vis BBC), 30 Rock and Third Rock From The Sun which we we are binging on pizza nights with family, mainly to watch John Lithgow’s amazing antics, but those can come and go based on the licensor creating their own service and taking the rights back.
HBO Now: HBO should be considered the granddaddy of original content since they started producing their own shows before streaming became possible. They worked through the cable TV services (that service is called HBO Go) and were relatively slow to get to streaming. You may well already get HBO through cable if you’re plugged in with a “set-top” box from the cable company. Truth is their content is consistently outstanding: Game Of Thrones! Silicon Valley! Veep! Big Little Lies! Westworld! Deadwood! And lots more, both new and old. They also have a selection of talk shows that are fun as filler when you’re tired of watching series or movies. Once you’ve watched the stuff they have already done, though, their pace of adding new content is slower than either Netflix or Prime Video, so you start to wonder whether it’s worth its own $15/month, which you have to pay anywhere including signing up directly and watching on your computer in a browser (which you can do with any of the services). But I’m loyal enough (lazy enough?) at this point to keep the subscription going.
AppleTV+: This is Apple’s new streaming service including their original content of which there is not a lot. They give it away for a year free with other purchases (usually hardware, but check to see if you can get it with something else since they released the service about 3 months ago). If not, it’s $.99/mo which reflects its value (actually overpriced).
Disney+: This is new from Disney, only two months old. You know what you get because you probably have watched all of it already (all Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, & Pixar: Moana, Iron
Man! Toy Story, Lion King! the first 8 Star Wars! (You can buy the 9th Star Wars on AppleTV+, ironically), all for $5.99/mo with 2-week free trial. The only new items are Mandalorian and Frozen 2, which are only available in Disney+. They also have a bundle with Hulu & ESPN (sports!) for $12.99/month.
Hulu: Meh, except for Handmaiden’s Tale, which is the only original content of note. I also just canceled what is called Hulu Live which gave me access to what is known as basic cable (local & regional news & sports and some of the old-style TV series, with ads!), but is now being labeled “Live TV Streaming” The problem is they have to license what the cable TV companies have been paying at the same cost. So they (and others) keep jacking the price up, now at ~$55/month. It’s not worth that price. Similar Live TV services are also available from YouTube Live ($50/mo, not the same as YouTube Premium, which lets you watch regular YouTube in a browser or app without the ads for $4.99/mo) and Sling TV (still $30/mo) and AT&T Watch TV ($15/mo, but that one is new and I’m guessing they will hike the price in the future). Here’s a guide to pricing which will likely be updated as time goes by.
Take note the 2-week free trial for some newer services, which some people use to watch one or two things for free and then cancel. (I’m not that disciplined and forget to cancel, which is not unusual. I likely should have cancelled Hulu Live when they jacked the price last December to $55.) This option is particularly useful right now for Hulu (Handmaiden’s Tale), Disney+ (Mandalorian, Frozen 2 and eventually Star Wars: The Rise of SkyWalker), Starz, AMC, etc.
I also am signed up for a free service called Reelgood, which lets you identify which streaming services you use and will then tell you which one is carrying something you want to watch. If what you want to watch isn’t available on something you already subscribe to, chances are AppleTV (basic service or AppleTV+) will have it but will charge you to rent (usually $3.99 unless it’s still in theaters) or own it (usually $19.99, or less for older content). I’ve watched The Morning Show on AppleTV+, which is an okay show but not enough to justify the service and I didn’t find anything else original that seems worthy at this time.
Go forth into the new world of streaming video! To be honest, this is the first time in a VERY long time (maybe more than 20 years?) that I’ve actually been happy watching TV. Which is a very, very good thing in this time of quarantines, sheltering at home, and working from home.