I had further proof the other day that LivingWithBeth’s readers are awesome. Someone commented on my post about cutting your cable or satellite TV bill, saying that she doesn’t understand all of the terms involved in TV streaming (Roku, Hulu, etc.). She wondered if there’s an article out that explains it all.
Your wish is my command. Here’s your ultimate guide to TV streaming terminology – everything you need to know about all of those TV streaming terms you keep hearing. If you’re already familiar with the basics, you can skip the first few paragraphs.
This post may contain affiliate links; please read my disclosure here.
What Is Streaming?
Simply put, streaming means watching or listening to something over the internet that you haven’t downloaded. You’re watching a video or listening to music as it’s being transmitted to you.
Examples of streaming include listening to music services such as Amazon Prime Music or Spotify, or watching YouTube videos. The “streaming” data downloads from the internet as you’re enjoying the music or video.
You’ve probably already streamed videos on your computer or smartphone when someone posted a video on Facebook or sent you a link to a YouTube video. A number of different streaming services will now let you stream entire movies, TV shows and even complete seasons of television shows, old and new.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs)
Internet service providers or ISPs are companies like Time Warner Cable, Verizon FIOS, Comcast and AT&T which provide internet service to customers. You need some sort of broadband (high speed) internet service in order to stream TV shows and movies.
The most common types of internet service for residential customers are cable and DSL. Cable internet is generally faster than DSL. Fiber is faster still, but you pay quite a premium for that faster service. It’s also not available to homes in all areas.
Besides being faster, cable internet has the advantage of letting you buy your own equipment – a cable modem which costs about $80 or $90 to purchase so you don’t need to rent one for around $10 a month from the cable company. DSL providers aren’t required by law to let you buy your own DSL modem.
One bad thing about cable companies (and DSL, to some extent) is that they’ll almost always try to convince you to bundle services and buy internet with cable TV and/or phone service. Don’t fall for it. Buy only what you really want, or you’ll be stuck paying a lot of money for services you didn’t really want in the first place.
You probably already have WiFi in your house if you have a cable or DSL internet connection. WiFi lets multiple devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones, use the same internet connection wirelessly, using a WiFi router or wireless access point.
Your internet provider may have set up WiFi for you, or you might have set this up on your own or had someone set it up for you. This post provides some help for you if you’re having internet connection or WiFi problems.
Most WiFi units have several wired ports to plug in nearby devices like printers and desktop computers, and I highly recommend plugging in your printers directly to the router using a network cable, even if they’re WiFi compatible. You can still access a printer using WiFi if it’s plugged into the network using a cable.
I’ll cut right to the chase here and say that if you’re going to stream TV, unless you’re a techie, you’ll need a newer HDTV – a rectangular, flat screen TV as opposed to one of those old-style, square CRT TVs that weigh a ton. Yes, those TVs are still around – I have one, in fact. They can last decades, while the TVs you buy nowadays last only a few years if you’re lucky.
It’s possible to stream on an older TV. I know of only one device currently on the market – a Roku model – that lets you do this. If you’re not tech savvy, though, you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches by using an HDTV.
HD, in case you’re wondering, stands for “high definition.” It’s a better quality of picture than what’s come to be known as SD, or standard definition. SD TV is what we were all perfectly happy watching for many years, on square television sets that lasted for many years.
To view the widest variety of available streaming TV shows and movies. you’ll want to try one or more streaming services. You’ll find programming to suit any taste, including fantastic documentary films, recent movies and TV shows as well as special interest programming and classic films and television.
Hulu lets you watch a large selection of TV shows, both classic and current, with next-day availability of shows currently on the air. Hulu offers thousands of episodes from the major networks and even some premium channels such as Showtime. However, CW has pulled all of their programming from Hulu, and CBS has yanked much of theirs.
Not all of Hulu’s programming is in HD, and their basic plan, costing $7.99, shows ads. There’s an $11.99 plan that is mostly ad-free. Amazon Prime and Netflix show no ads at all.
Netflix costs about $10 a month and offers a wide variety of movies and TV shows. In recent years, Netflix began producing its own programming, including highly acclaimed, award-winning shows that you can’t see anywhere other than Netflix.
Netflix doesn’t air any advertising. With the amount of original programming they’re pumping out, along with the constant additions of other movies and TV shows, $10 doesn’t seem like much to pay. Compared to the $100+ I used to spend every month on satellite TV, it’s a bargain.
Amazon Prime costs $99 per year, which includes free two-day shipping on most items Amazon sells, plus access to the Amazon Prime Video collection. Like Netflix, Amazon offers its own original programming as well as TV shows and movies from today and yesteryear.
Amazon’s most popular original shows have also won awards and critical acclaim. Unlike on Netflix, Amazon also offers content that’s not included with Prime and requires paying to rent or purchase the show or movie.
Some programming that’s available free on Netflix is either not available on Amazon or isn’t included with Amazon Prime. Some programming available on Amazon isn’t available at all on Netflix. If you can only afford one or the other, consider signing up for a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime to see if there’s enough content there to satisfy you.
You might find Amazon Prime to be a better deal than any other streaming service, since your $99 annual fee includes not only free two-day shipping and Amazon Prime Videos, but also Amazon Prime ad-free music streaming service and a variety of other perks. Amazon also offers their video service on a monthly basis for $8 to customers who don’t want to pony up $99 a year.
Pay per view (PPV) is another option for streaming programming. PPV is great for very recent movies. It also works well if you don’t watch enough TV to warrant subscribing to Amazon or Netflix, but you’d like a la carte access to a few shows or movies here and there.
Even if you don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can still rent or buy programming to stream from Amazon Instant Video. Hulu and Netflix don’t let you buy movies or TV shows on demand – it’s all or nothing.
In addition, FandangoNOW offers a selection of 30,000 movies and TV shows with no subscriptions so you can watch what you want, when you want, and pay for only what you watch.
Most likely, you wouldn’t want to watch programming entirely on a computer or phone. You’d prefer to watch television on an actual television. There’s where streaming TV devices come in. You can use streaming devices to watch programming on the streaming services discussed above, plus YouTube and other available channels, depending on the device you choose to buy.
Streaming devices are a lot like smartphones and tablets in that they offer various apps to perform certain tasks. The main tasks of a TV streaming device relate to watching movies and TV shows using apps such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu. When you use a streaming device, what you see on the screen looks very similar to a tablet or smart phone, with icons representing the various channels (apps) you can watch.
Roku streaming TV devices are my top pick, and I have one on each of the TVs in my house. They’re extremely popular, and for good reason. Rokus come in several different varieties, including a Streaming Stick that’ll plug right into your TV’s HDMI port without any additional cables. You can even buy TVs that have the Roku interface built right into them.
Rokus are so easy to set up that my older daughter, then age 11, set up our Roku Streaming Stick on her own, including going through most of the setup prompts on the TV. The Roku interface – what you see on the TV screen – is also super easy to navigate.
Simply use the included Roku remote control to arrow through your choices. The most popular streaming services, Netflix and Amazon, have their own buttons on the remote control so you can go right to them.
In addition to offering all of the most popular channels like Amazon, Netflix and Hulu Plus, Roku offers over 1,000 other channels, including those offering niche programming such as old movies and TV shows, plus some foreign language channels. Roku also includes voice searches on its current slate of devices.
Chromecast is a Google product that’s not nearly as user friendly as Roku and seemed to initially gear toward price-conscious buyers with some technical know-how. After Roku came out with lower cost options such as the Roku Streaming Stick, Chromecast became less of a bargain.
Chromecast doesn’t come with a remote control like Roku does. Instead, you need to use your smartphone or tablet like a remote control to bring up programming you want to watch. Personally, I prefer using an actual remote control rather than my phone.
Also, Chromecast doesn’t play ball with Amazon. There are hacks you can find online to watch Amazon videos, but Chromecast doesn’t support Amazon in a quick and easy way.
Apple TV is popular with, well, people who are big on Apple products. Like Chromecast, it doesn’t offer out-of-the box access to Amazon videos. I don’t watch a whole lot of television, but I watch Amazon way more than I watch Netflix, and we don’t subscribe to Hulu.
If you already have movies stored in iTunes that you’ll want to watch on your TV, Apple TV will let you watch them. However, you won’t be able to watch programming from Amazon Prime.
Amazon Fire TV was a bit late to the party when it comes to streaming TV devices. Its main cool feature is the Alexa voice control. You can say, for example, “Alexa, play White Rabbit Project” instead of searching Netflix for the show. It’s the same technology you’ll find in Amazon Echo devices.
Alexa makes Amazon Fire TV more focused on content than on channels. That makes it easy for beginners to find what they want without navigating through menus or apps. Simply ask for a TV show or movie by name.
Smart TVs come with the built-in ability to watch streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu. However, the Smart TV interface probably won’t be as easy to use as a Roku, unless, of course, it’s actually a Roku-integrated TV. Brands such as TCL market televisions with the same Roku interface you’d get if you bought a separate Roku streaming device.
I generally love Samsung tech products, but their Smart TV experience is absolutely horrible (sorry, Samsung). We have a Samsung Smart TV in the family room and almost never use the built-in Netflix or Amazon apps, opting for a Roku Streaming Stick there instead.
Before we had the Roku, we generally used the XBox 360, a video game controller which also lets you watch Netflix and Amazon Prime. If you already have an XBox 360 set up on a television set for the kids or grandkids to play with, you can probably use it to watch Netflix or Amazon on that TV.
Where Does Cable or Satellite TV Fit Into the Picture?
You can keep your cable or satellite TV subscription while using a streaming device such as a Roku or Fire TV. Many people, like us, eventually decide that they can do without pay TV and its monthly bill.
Streaming devices include access to some programming from pay TV channels such as Disney, and they usually require an active cable or satellite TV subscription to work.
In addition, cable and satellite providers are quickly adding apps that you can use on various streaming devices to watch their programming. How confusing is that? Pay TV providers don’t want you to cancel their services in favor of streaming devices, so they add the ability to watch their channels on streaming devices.
The big catch is that you’ll probably still have to pay to rent at least one of the cable or satellite TV company’s boxes, even if you want to watch exclusively using a streaming TV device. Personally, I don’t need cable or satellite TV no matter how it’s accessed, with or without a cable or satellite TV box.
Digital Video Recorders (DVRs)
When we had satellite TV, we had a digital video recorder (DVR). DVRs are kind of like VHS recorders except that they don’t use tapes.
DVRs are much more sophisticated than VHS technology ever was. They record TV shows and movies onto hard drives just like your computer stores information on its hard drive. A DVR actually is a type of computer.
DVRs were fantastic to have until streaming came along. There’s no need to record anything when you have a streaming device. Your programming is already there, anytime you want it.
What Did I Miss?
What else would you like to know about TV streaming? What don’t you understand about the information in this post? Did this post help you to better understand TV streaming technology?