This is a living page so if you still have questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to post them in the comments below and I’ll add them to the post as well.
Do I need Internet service to use a streaming media player?
Yes. The purpose of streaming media players is to get the signal for your movies and TV shows from the Internet instead of from a cable or satellite provider. Some players also let you watch content saved on your computer or mobile device, but you would still need Internet access to set up the device, download software updates and more.
How fast does my Internet connection need to be for streaming movies and TV shows?
This Roku article explains what speeds are required for various types of content:
I assume the numbers apply to the other devices as well. You can test your connection’s speed at http://www.speedtest.net/.
How many gigs of data do I need to watch streaming media?
I’m using Netflix as a reference because a) they have very specific info on their site and b) I expect they’re a good proxy for other similar services.
The short version is that it depends on the quality of the content you’re streaming. From their Help page:
“Watching movies or TV shows on Netflix uses about 1 GB of data per hour for each stream of standard definition video, and up to 3 GB per hour for each stream of HD video.”
Note that these numbers apply whether you’re streaming the show to your TV, computer, or mobile device.
Read the full article for more details of the different settings Netflix offers and how to change them for your account.
Can I stream content using my cellphone’s data plan?
If your phone has a hotspot feature, you may be able to use it as the Internet connection for your streaming media player. However, it can use up a lot of data quickly (see earlier question and even if you have an unlimited data plan, make sure that includes when you use the phone as a hotspot. A lot of times, it doesn’t apply to that situation.
Also note that cell service is often not as strong, fast, or reliable as Wi-Fi, so you may have issues with buffering and picture quality.
I have a limited data plan with my Internet service provider. Does my player stream data even when I’m not using it?
This is a common question because there’s no “Off” button on the players. Unless you unplug them, they’re always on. The purpose of that is so that it can download software updates automatically but it doesn’t stream content unless you’re playing something on it.
However, it’s important to know that your player will not stop streaming just because you turn off your TV. And it depends on the channel you’re watching what will happen. Some of them will stop streaming at the end of the current program/movie you’re watching but others will automatically move to the next item in your queue.
So it’s important that you actively stop the streaming before turning off your TV. You can do this by pressing the Home button on your remote and making sure it does take you to the Home screen (sometimes a single click might not register). You can also do it by pressing the Play/Pause button, but you could accidentally hit that button again when moving the remote and wouldn’t know that the show had started playing again. Your safest bet is going to the Home screen.
Do I need cable or satellite service to use a streaming media player?
No. A streaming player takes the video signal from the Internet, so you can use it without having cable or satellite service. However, you may need cable/satellite to watch certain TV programming through your streaming player or you may need to buy a separate subscription for networks that offer that. Visit the Cutting the Cable Cord section to learn more about the available options.
How does a streaming media player work with my cable/satellite service?
If you have a cable/satellite subscription and a streaming media player, you will have two different things going into your TV: the cable from your TV provider’s box (or the wall, if you don’t use a box) and your player’s cable. Your TV remote should have a button for Input, which you use to switch between those two sources of content. The player one is probably hooked to something like HDMI 1 (or 2 or 3…). So you need to use your TV remote to select that input.
Then you’ll select something to watch from your media player, which gets its signal from your Internet router (usually wirelessly but you can also use an ethernet cable for some models).
Note: The Google Chromecast works differently in that the program signal first goes to your computer or mobile device and then it gets sent to your TV from there.
So, for example, I use Amazon Instant Video and have created a watchlist through the Amazon website on my computer. I go to the Input on my TV that is connected to my Roku, click on the Amazon channel and can see all the items in my watchlist. I can also use my remote to search for other videos available via Amazon.
Can I watch “regular TV” through a streaming player?
It depends on what you mean by “regular TV.” If you’re from my generation (-ish), “watching TV” means turning it on and going to a broadcast or basic cable channel (CBS, ABC, CNN, Bravo, etc.) or premium pay-TV channel (HBO, Showtime, etc.) and watching whatever is on that station at that time.
Streaming generally works differently, although there are starting to be options that make it more like the old-fashioned way. 🙂 Until recently, most streaming content was available on demand, i.e. you could watch them at any time as long as a) the network or a third-party content provider made them available over the Internet and b) you had access to the shows available from those providers. These options still exist, and there are various ways to get that access:
- You pay a monthly subscription (Netflix, Hulu, CBS All Access, HBO NOW) or per episode/season of a show (Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu).
- You have a cable or satellite subscription that includes the networks that have the content, in which case you’ll need to log into your cable or satellite service to access it (usually for free). Most cable networks require this, including HBO GO, FX Networks, and so on.
- The network makes the shows available for free. Which episodes are available varies from network to network. It might be the day after it airs for some shows and a week later for others. They also may only be available for a limited time period.
- You use the network’s website or app on your computer or mobile device. Some networks allow you to watch their shows on those devices but not through a streaming player, or through some streaming players but not others.
In the last couple of years, a number of streaming services have launched that provide various bundles of live programming for a monthly fee. These include Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DIRECTV NOW and Hulu also has one in the works, scheduled to launch in early 2017. These still have a ways to go to offer the same level of reliability and ease of use as cable, but they’re improving all the time.
Additionally, some TV stations also have some local programming available on their websites. Usually it’s not live although some stations do provide limited live programming (you usually need a cable or satellite subscription to access the live feed). In that case you may be able to watch them on your TV using PlayOn software that lets you stream almost any web video to your TV with a compatible player or by mirroring your computer or mobile device screen.
Finally, you can still watch shows live from the free broadcast networks using an antenna without a streaming player at all, as long as you don’t live in a place where you can’t get a good signal.
As I’ve said before, it is VERY confusing and I can’t blame anybody for not being able to make sense of it, but I am trying to do my best to make it a little clearer! 🙂
So if I have a streaming media player and an antenna, can I cancel my cable/satellite service?
It depends entirely on what you like to watch. If you cancel your cable or satellite service, you’ll probably lose access to at least some programming, although the new streaming bundle services I mentioned in the previous section are starting to fill in the gaps.
One thing to keep in mind is if you live in an area where you can’t get high-bandwidth Internet service at a reasonable cost, you may find streaming is actually more expensive than your cable service.
Do I need a Smart TV to use a streaming media player?
No. A Smart TV is one that can connect to the Internet directly to access content from it. Since that’s what a streaming media player does, you could say it turns a regular TV into a Smart TV. More info. >>
Yes, you can use an HDMI switcher to plug multiple HDMI devices into a single port on your TV. This is the one I have, but there are many other models available: http://amzn.to/1nVNYb0.
Can I connect multiple streaming players to the same TV?
Yes. All you need to do is plug each player into a different port and then use your TV remote to switch to the input for the one you want to watch.
I have multiple TVs. Do I need a separate player for each one?
As is the case with many technology-related questions, the answer is: It depends. The basic concept here is that all the “magic” behind the player comes from the connections that have been set up between the device, your account with the device manufacturer (Roku, Apple, Amazon, Google), and any accounts you have with content providers (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, etc.). Your TV simply acts like a big computer monitor that takes the signal coming out of the device and plays it through its screen and speakers. This means two things related to the original question.
First, a device must be physically attached to your TV to be able to watch streaming content through it. You can’t access the signal from a device connected to a different TV. Second, if you have multiple TVs in your home but you only ever watch one at a time, you can simply move your device from one TV to another. All of your settings will still be intact. However, if you want to use the device with more than one TV at the same time, then you need a separate box or stick for each TV. More info. >>
Can I use a streaming media player with an older TV?
Whether a TV can work with a streaming media player depends on what kind of connection ports it has. If it has an HDMI port, then it will work with most players. If it doesn’t have an HDMI port but it has RCA ports (red/white/yellow), then you have a couple of options:
- Use an HDMI to RCA converter between your HDMI device and your TV. Here is one example at Amazon: http://amzn.to/1PhGtV6.
- Get a Roku 1 streaming player, which works has both RCA and HDMI ports. You can learn more in this post about the different Roku models: Roku: What Is It and How Does It Work?.
The quality will probably be better with the Roku than with a converter.
How do I switch back to regular TV?
Your TV remote should have a button on it marked Input. When you click that, you will see all the different input ports on your TV, e.g. HDMI 1, A/V, etc. Use the remote keys to select the port that your cable or satellite box is attached to (or the TV port if you have cable going straight from the wall into your TV).
Note: If you use the remote for your digital box to turn your TV on and off, that is NOT the one that will have the Input button. You need the remote that came with your TV. If you no longer have that, there should be a button somewhere on the TV itself to let you change the input. On my Panasonic model, it’s on the right-hand side of the TV.
If I buy a Roku/Fire TV/Apple TV/Google Chromecast, is that a one-time cost or do I have to pay annually?
The devices themselves are a one-time cost. However, you may need to pay for the content you want to watch through it.
If I buy a streaming media player, why do I need to pay to watch videos?
The purpose of a streaming media player is to let you can watch things on your TV that normally you would only be able to watch on your computer or mobile device. But it doesn’t give you free access to that content.
For example, you may already have a Netflix subscription so you can watch movies on your tablet. With a streaming player, you can watch their movies and other programs on your TV, with its larger screen and better sound system, but you still need to pay for the Netflix subscription.
It’s like you can buy a television but you still need to pay to watch shows on it, either through a cable or satellite subscription or through advertising on broadcast networks if you use an antenna.
There is some free content available to watch with streaming players—for example, Crackle offers advertising-supported programming and if you’re an Amazon Prime member, they make a subset of their video library available for free. However, the most popular content providers with the most recent movies and TV shows generally require you to pay for a monthly subscription, like Netflix and Hulu, or on a per-use basis, like Amazon Video.
What are the costs of the various streaming services you can use with your streaming media player?
Each of the services have different costs and pricing structures. For example, with Netflix and Hulu Plus you pay a monthly fee starting at $7.99 for unlimited content. Amazon Instant Video charges you for each title you watch, but you pay different prices to rent something vs. buying it and extra for HD versions. They also have thousands of titles you can watch for free if you are an Amazon Prime member. HBO GO is free if you subscribe to HBO through your cable company AND if it permits you to watch HBO GO through your streaming media player. HBO also has a standalone streaming service, HBO NOW, that costs $15/month for people who don’t have cable service.
There are many other sources of content, called channels or apps, available as well. Some have costs, but there are lots of free ones like PBS, Lifetime, WatchESPN, etc, depending on the player you’re using. So you really need to determine which services interest you and visit their website to see what the price is.
Can I watch videos saved on my computer, phone, tablet, or external hard drive on TV using a streaming media player?
Yes, there are several different methods for watching your personal media collection on your TV.
Does my computer have to be on to use the Roku/Fire TV/Apple TV/Chromecast?
No, your computer does not need to be on. These players stream the content directly from the Internet signal coming from your router. With the Chromecast, you do need to first access an app either from your computer or a mobile device first and then send that content to your TV.
Can I use a streaming media player outside the United States?
I can’t provide specifics on what works or doesn’t work in other countries because I have no way to test them and there are so many variables involved. But here’s a post that talks about the general concepts of using streaming players and accessing content in other countries.
Can I record streaming videos with my DVR?
No, you can’t use a DVR to record streaming videos. However there is software you can purchase called PlayOn that lets you record them.
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