The trending topics lists were humming last week as Netflix released all 13 episodes for Season Two of its House of Cards series on Valentine’s Day. Although the first season is available on DVD, the Netflix stream is where you can watch the fresh new episodes of this US adaptation of a British original. (If you haven’t seen the US version, it stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in a sort of Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth in Washington scenerio and it can be a bit, er, dark at times.)
With apps, Netflix has built its streaming service into a variety of devices, including Smart TVs, TiVo recorders and set-top streaming boxes that connect to a television. Three of the popular options, the Roku box, the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast HDMI stick, all include Netflix — and a whole lot more.
These streamers also include plenty of other sources for movies, TV shows, news, sports, cat videos and even games. If you live in an area where you don’t get a lot of broadcast channels or the cable package is just too expensive to consider, a device that pulls in video content from the Internet broadens your TV-viewing options considerably.
Of the three, Roku’s boxes offer the most channels, or content streams, with more than 1000 to choose from. The company also creates a variety of hardware models for a wider range of television sets. These include the bare-bones $50 Roku LT that works on just about any TV set to the blue-chip $100 Roku 3 for HDTV models. In addition to Netflix, you get Hulu Plus (if you subscribe), Amazon Instant Video, HBO GO (if you subscribe through your cable provider), plus news and sports channels. There’s a kids section and a dedicated Latino channel for Spanish-language programming. The Roku 3 can also play games like Angry Birds, as if you didn’t have enough places already to play Angry Birds.
For people with a lot of investment in the iTunes ecosystem, the $100 Apple TV has its advantages. While it doesn’t have as many content channels a the Roku, it’s got a fair amount of them, including subscription biggies (Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, yadda yadda yadda), as well as PBS, YouTube, the Smithsonian Channel, several sports networks and some Disney options for the kids. Where the Apple TV comes in really handy, however, is if you have an iOS device, because you can stream your videos and music from the iTunes Store, your photos and other media to the big screen via Apple’s AirPlay technology. You can also mirror games on your iPad to the TV through the Apple TV, as well as the screen contents of late-model Mac laptops. Apple knows it doesn’t have the content channels of the Roku, but rumors have recently surfaced of a possible deal with Time Warner Cable to get programming for cable subscribers streaming through the device. (However, this deal may be sunk if the Comcast merger goes through.) Whispers of a new Apple TV model showing up as early as next month are also circulating, with a TV tuner, DVR capability and gaming powers all mentioned as possible new features.
Now, if you’re on a budget and have a tablet or smartphone, there’s the Google Chromecast. It’s not technically a set-top box that pulls down its own online video streams, but a small doo-dad that plugs into your TV’s HDMI port. With it, you play the video on your Android or iOS device – or even in the Chrome browser on your computer. But it’s $35 and a cheap way to watch content from your smaller screen all nice and fancy on your bigger screen. And the Chromecast works with several video services itself, including the aforementioned Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO GO. It’s a Google product, so of course, you get YouTube and you can stream music, movies and TV shows from the Google Play Store. There are a few other channels like the Vevo music videos, but you can also beam photos or anything else you can see in the Chrome browser to the TV. The Chromecast is the most limited of the three devices right now, but Google recently released a software development kit that will let developers go wild.
So if you’re looking for a way to stream content from the major subscription services — or just want to increase your viewing options with more than just the channels in your cable package — consider a streamer. And you’ve already binged your way through Season Two of House of Cards, rest assured. The folks at Netflix have already ordered up Season Three.