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Streaming movies (and music) – It’s coming and finally you’ll be in charge of what you watch

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Streaming movies (and music) – It’s coming and finally you’ll be in charge of what you watch

Winter’s coming. It’s perfect weather to huddle up and wacth a good DVD with your significant other. Instead of piling on thick jackets and heading out to brave those cold (and rainy if you’re Cape Town) conditions to go and choose your movie, wouldn’t it be great if the DVD store was right there on your TV. A catalogue of movies and documentaries, split by genres (comedy, action romance etc.) and also a search option to find that movie you missed while it was on circuit. As soon as you find the perfect movie, one click of the remote button and, after a brief pause, it starts playing. Oh, and if you want some tea or a “comfort break”, you can pause it at any time and resume once you are settled back in place.

Nice idea right? Well sorry for you, right now you’re mostly lumped with choosing whatever the local TV broadcasters are serving up, or taking that icy trip down to the DVD store. However, the good news is that this is likely to change in the next year or two.

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I was introduced to an amazing device called the Roku (www.roku.com). This little gadget is about the size of 3 CD cases on top of each other and it sits somewhere near enough to you TV so you can connect the two together. The Roku then gets hold of its content (movies, music etc.) by connecting wirelessly to your Internet connection.

 

Roku streamer

Roku streamer

The Roku cost between US$60 (~R420) and US$100 (~700) to buy. There are no extra Roku costs thereafter. Once plugged-in, you get access to a whole bunch of channels. These include movie channels, music channels, sports channels and specialty channels such as NASA TV,C-Net (for techies) and TED (if you haven’t ever looked at http://www.ted.com, you really really should). Many of these channels are free to watch (of course you’re using Internet bandwidth but I’ll get to that later), but the most popular channels, mostly movie channels, have either a monthly cost or per-view cost.

So when you want to watch something, you switch on the Roku and it shows you your list of channels. You then select the channel and the item you want to view, and it starts playing. What is actually happening is that the Roku unit is receiving a stream of data over your internet line, and converts it into a video signal on your TV. This is very similar to what your satellite decoder does except it’s now happening over your Internet line.

The most popular channel on the Roku is Netflix. Netflix is the world’s largest movie streaming company in the world and they have thousands of movies, documentaries and TV shows on offer. To subscribe to Netflix costs US$7.99 (~R56) per month and you can watch as many movies as you like for that price! And yes, this is completely legal. Here’s an example of the Netflix catalogue on the Roku.

netflix

So you navigate around the screen using your remote until you find something you want to watch, press play, and it starts. Nothing could be easier. It is absolutely fantastic. In the image above you can get an idea of just some of their selection including TV series, more serious movies and loads of stuff for kids. So now you decide what and when you’re going to see a particular movie – it’s no longer up to the program manager at some TV station who decides. And there are no adverts to bother you as well!

Netflix doesn’t have the very latest movies (due to their licencing conditions) but typically their movie offerings start about a year ofter the movie has come off-circuit in the USA. They also don’t have all movies, again depending on their licence conditions – but then again they have many movies one normally wouldn’t come across. For example, I got to watch all 3 of the mass best-seller “Girl with Dragon Tattoo” movies on Netflix before it even came out on circuit in the USA. I’ve also see some absolutely outstanding documentaries on a wide range of subjects. A final note on Netflix is that they let you rate each move you’ve watched (or seen elsewhere) and they use those rating to recommend other movies for you. It works very well indeed.

Apart from Netflix, there are a few other excellent movie channels on the Roku. Amazon-on-Demand is one of them where you can stream movies that are much more recent that Netflix’s collection. On Amazon, you can either rent a movie for around US$3.99 (~R28) for two days, or you can buy the movie for around US$14.99 (~R105) and watch it whenever you want. These movies become available on the Amazon channel about a week after the DVD is released in the USA. There’s also the Hulu channel, which is another subscription channel, that shows the very latest TV series (Grey’s Anatomy, Modern Family, House etc.) as they become available in the USA.

So, clearly, I very taken with the Roku and the channels they offer. This type of technology is a game-changer and, just like CDs, the days of DVDs and even fixed TV channels are numbered. Of course I accept that certain live channels like sport and news will still be around for a long time, but I should also mention that the Roku has dedicated channels for baseball, ice hockey and cricket as well. Put soccer and rugby on there and things get very interesting.

So what’s the bad news? Well there are a few roadblocks in the way for those not in the USA.

You need to be in the USA to access the big channels like Netflix, Amazon and Pandora (because of licencing restrictions). There are ways around this by making it ‘look’ like your Roku is sitting in the USA, but you need a skilled techie to set this up for you.

The subscription and pay-per-view services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu require a USA-based credit or debit card. This is clearly far more complex to solve if you don’t have one, but even if you can’t get these channels you can still enjoy many others that are free. My absolute favourite is Pandora, which is a music station that plays music it predicts you’ll like based on basic selections you make. It is really accurate and a pleasure to listen to.

Streaming movies over the Internet eats a lot of bandwidth. This is correct and that’s why I’ve moved to an uncapped Internet account. I accept this all costs money but I predict these costs will drop over time and more and more people will be able to afford it. Just to give you an idea, in my house we use about 40GB of Internet bandwidth a month. That covers a few movies and documentaries, as well as two kids who love their Internet gaming and are constantly downloading large updates for their games.

Roku is certainly not the only streaming gadget out there. Apple has their Apple TV streamer (but then you’re locked into their iTunes system for buying things and they don’t offer South Africa too much) and several of the TV manufacturers are staring to offer this kind of capability within their TVs’ menu system (Samsung has Internet@TV and Sony has their LOVEFiLM). Google has lso been threatening to bring out a Google TV streamer as well in the near future. The movie streaming channel Vudu is available on PS3s and on some Internet enabled DVD players and TV as well.

And finally (regarding streaming), this discussion wouldn’t be complete without talking about streaming music as well. While Internet radio streaming has been around for years – both on PC’s and now on smartphones and dedicated devices (I love my Logitech Squeezebox Radio), the very latest trend is for so-called cloud-based music. Here, you buy your music and store it in a ‘cloud’ somewhere on the Internet. This just means that the song files are stored on a hard drive somewhere (you don’t care where) but the big thing is that you access your music whenever you want and on any device you want. So you might have just bought the latest Rihanna hit song. You can now save it in, say Amazon’s Music Cloud. Once you’ve saved it there, you can play it anytime you like on your phone, PC, tablet etc – any device that can access the Amazon music cloud.

The technology is great because now you don’t have to worry about copying your music between gadgets. But, again, you’ll need an Internet connection at all times to use it. But the fight is on between music cloud providers. Amazon was first out of the blocks with their music cloud offering, with Google and Apple following shortly. I have no doubt this will become the standard.

Cliff’s Take

Letting you choose what movie or music you want to watch from the comfort of your armchair provides the ultimate in personal choice. I adore my Roku. Since I set it up, it has become rare for me to watch a movie on TV – although I still watch my sport and news on TV. For now.

The TV station owners (and advertisers) must be getting nervous. They should be.

March 1st, 2012|