I know someone who wants to cut off their cable TV. One way I think this could work is with access to Netflix. A problem is how to access Netflix.
They could view it on an iPad, but that is not as nice as being able to use a larger screen.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your opinion of 'smart' TVs) this person's TV does not have Netflix capability built in. An external device connected to the television is what we need.
The question is what device?
- Must be able to access Netflix
- Must have a remote (not a keyboard, not a tablet app). For familiarity and ease of use.
- Ideally it should be able to play files from a USB drive. An alternative may be to have a separate device to do this, and another device for Netflix.
Desktop, laptop, nettop, etc
If this were for me, I would probably use a full computer running GNU/Linux. This method would require interaction with the computer with a keyboard or mouse I think. For Netflix, anyway. Ideally we could put something like XBMC on a computer, but XBMC does not support Netflix as far as I know.
This option is out unless I see a way to have a nice interface to Netflix.
This is a USB stick looking device. It plugs into the HDMI port of a TV.
Initially I rejected this due to being unavailable in Canada. While I could purchase one online or in the US there is the likelihood of blocking due to use in Canada.
However I noticed today that Google has recently (last month) made this available for Canada.
A couple aspects of this device are problematic:
- It has no remote. It requires something like a tablet or phone to interact with it through an app. The interface for the app could be simple, but it would be different enough from a remote that it could be irritating.
- I'm suspicious about its ability to play files from a local drive. It may not support them at all. Even if it does, there is the problem of how exactly can we have it read the files? There is no desktop to be a file server. The mobile devices would have to host the files and this makes having much content available an issue due to the limited storage on these devices.
In summary, this is not optimal!
This seems like a reasonable option because it would have a remote, and it would have access to Netflix. Potentially I could even connect a USB hard drive directly to it for the extra content requirement.
However because I don't know for sure it can play media from files, and this being Apple, I expect it would be a fight. Usually Apple really wants to force you to do things their way, and to get your content from them. I don't want to run into an issue where something that should be easy to do is a battle.
I'm taking this device out.
Roku streaming stick
Roku recently launched an HDMI stick like the Chromecast. It is available in Canada too.
This has a remote which solves one of the problems I have with the Chromecast.
As well I happen to know that other Rokus provide the ability to play files from USB drives.
Unfortunately the issue of how to get the files available this device remains: There is no file server to host the files to play. There is no USB port on this (unsurprisingly).
If I want to be able to play Netflix on it (and forget about downloaded files), then this device would suit I think. However I'm cheating a bit and trying to make the device do two jobs.
I'll have to say this device is not the best option either then.
I have some experience with an older Roku of this variety (Roku 2 XS). It can both play Netflix and play files from USB drives.
It also has a simple little remote.
There are some cons though:
- You have to sign up for an account with Roku and give them a credit card. Presumably this is because they want you to be buying things through their store, but it's an irritation if you have no intention of doing so. It's also a risk to give out your credit card, and I am paranoid about someone being able to make purchases.
- The interface for playing from the USB drive is clunky. The device is not really intended to be used for this I suppose.
- The device supports only a limited number of formats and codecs. In practice this means you will risk either have no picture/sound unless you check each file carefully, and will end up transcoding files which has many costs: Time cost, storage cost, power cost, and quality loss.
Despite the above it does meet my requirements. Assuming the Roku 3 can do at least what the Roku 2 XS can do, it should suit.
I plan on looking into the Roku 3 further to try to figure out if it has the capabilities of the older Rokus.
Another point that comes to mind is whether I should just break down and get a second device for playing from USB drives. A device that can run XBMC. Perhaps a Rasperry Pi, though in the past when I tried XBMC on a Pi it was barely able to play SD quality files. Though it is supposedly able to play 1080p I expect it depends on how the files are encoded and maybe on how you tweak the Pi settings.
If I found a good device that could run XBMC (and a remote, or rely on being able to use a tablet as the remote), then in theory either the Chromecast or the Roku stick would work for Netflix, and it would also have the benefit that the interface for USB drive files would be nice (being XBMC, which I happen to like).
A downside would be an additional remote, and an additional device. As well, the remote would most likely be a tablet to avoid having to buy even more devices.
We ended up getting a Roku 3 which has worked great for Netflix. It turned out that the USB drive option was not as critical given the selection on Netflix. In fact I think the connected USB drive has not been used once! In hindsight I could have gone with a Roku stick. Oh well.