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Streaming Media: An Overview

In 2011, I bought my first streaming media player—a Roku 2XS. Someone I recommended I get a Roku a few months earlier, but it took me a while to do so because I didn’t really understand what a Roku was or why I would want one. And even once I got it, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it and how to do it. But once I finally figured it out, I loved it!

That experience prompted me to write a Roku explainer for others who might also be confused about it. It quickly became one of my most popular posts, so I wrote a few more about other brands of streaming players—Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast.

Over time I started adding more related posts on streaming content providers, screen mirroring from mobile devices, frequently asked questions and so on. Today you can find all these posts and more at

This post is meant to explain the basic concepts of streaming media, which can help when you’re reading any of the other ones.

What is streaming media?

Historically, the way most people watched TV was through cable, satellite, and telecom providers like Comcast, Time Warner, DirectTV, and Verizon FIOS. The signal comes into your house via a cable to a special box, which then gets connected to your TV. A basic box delivers the TV signal and other information like an on-screen program guide. A DVR box provides additional features like recording shows, pausing live TV, and more.

NOTE: For the rest of this post I’ll use the word “cable” to refer to all the different types of TV service providers.

The biggest problem with that model was that you were limited to the shows and movies that the cable companies provided—both what you could watch and when you could watch it. While most of them now have a decent selection of on-demand programming as well, you’re still restricted to what the company decides to make available.

Then along came videotapes, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs. Now you had a lot more options of what to watch at your convenience. The problem with these, of course, was the time it took to get the tapes/discs, whether you went to a store for them or, once Netflix appeared, you had them mailed to you.

Once access to the Internet became much more widespread, video technology improved, and the costs of sending large packets of data over the Internet became affordable, it became possible to send TV shows and movies that way: what we now call streaming media. And it’s not just TV programming anymore. Many different types of content can be streamed now, including webinars, music, podcasts, games, etc.—live and on-demand.

What is a streaming media player?

At first you could only stream all this content on devices like computers, tablets, and smartphones that already had Internet connections built into them. But since those have much smaller screens than your TV, it didn’t provide the best experience for watching videos. (Depending on your device and TV, you might be able to use cables to physically connect them so the TV acts like a projector.)

Streaming media players like the Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast act as a bridge between the Internet and your TV. Depending on the device, you connect it to your Internet router via Wi-Fi or Ethernet cable and to your TV via HDMI or A/V cables (yellow/red/white connectors). So movies and TV shows that you could previously only watch on your computer or mobile device can now be watched on your TV, with its bigger screen and better sound system.

NOTE: There are many different types of devices now that can stream content to your TV, including set-top boxes, Blu-ray players, home theater systems, and gaming consoles. And Smart TVs can connect directly to the Internet without any of these devices. However, at the moment the dedicated streaming players generally have a better selection of supported content providers and are more reliable and easier to use than the other options.

That sounds simple enough, right?

While the basic principle of what streaming media is and how it works IS pretty easy to understand, the practical application of it is a lot more confusing because the manufacturers of the devices that you attach to your TV don’t own the content that goes through them.

Each manufacturer has to negotiate with the various providers for rights to stream their media and the different devices support different providers. For example, while all of The Big Four support Netflix, Hulu, and HBO GO, the Roku doesn’t have iTunes content. The Apple TV does (d’uh!); however, neither it nor the Chromecast support Amazon Video. Meanwhile, Amazon Fire TV doesn’t support either iTunes or Google Play content.

Note: Which content providers work with which devices is constantly changing, so the paragraph above may become inaccurate at any time.

And those are just the main premium content providers. Each device supports hundreds of other providers, but not all the same ones. So before you pick a device, you want to make sure it offers the content you want to watch.

So if I have a streaming media player, can I get rid of my cable/satellite service?

This is one of the biggest questions people have when it comes to streaming devices. The answer depends on what it is you want to watch.

Streaming media players do not provide most local or live programming—at least, not in their entirety. For example, you’re not likely to be able to get your local morning news show unless your local station provides its own stream. And even for a national program like The Today Show, you may be able to see some of their segments through your player, but probably not the entire program.

An even bigger problem is that some TV networks only allow you to stream their content if you have a cable subscription and your package includes that network. This is because most networks still get most of their revenue from cable companies, so the latter have a lot of negotiating power, i.e. they can say “if you let people buy streaming programming directly from you, we’re not going to include your network in our packages.” This is why it took so long for HBO to release a standalone streaming service (HBO NOW).

The industry is changing rapidly but, for the time being, if you want to cancel your cable service, you should check first to make sure that your favorite programs will still be available, either through the networks’ own streaming services or through third-party providers like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Sling TV, Playstation Vue, etc.

For more details about how to access TV programs without a cable/satellite subscription, check out T4L’s Cutting the Cable Cord section.

You may also be interested in:

Streaming Media: News, Views, and How-Tos

Elizabeth Kricfalusi

View Comments

  • It sounds expensive and complicated to align several different services and products. I have subscription fatigue and really don't like having multiple subscription services sucking at my bank account. Do you have a quick and easy and convenient (i.e., without my having to wade through months worth of "cutting the cord" articles) comparison of costs and services?

    I also don't watch a huge amount of tv, but occasionally want to see something that isn't on cable. My current method is to go to a local video store (an independent one that still stocks a large inventory) and rent a box and play DVDs.

    • Hey Paul.

      You're right -- it is a complicated mess! But assuming you have an HDTV (one with an HDMI port), I would recommend you start by getting an Amazon Fire TV Stick, which I think provides the best value for the money, and rent or buy videos from Amazon Instant Video. There's no subscription required for the latter (you do need an Amazon account) and you can just pay for the movies and TV shows when you're ready to watch them. (Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate, which means if you use one of my links and end up buying something from them, I will get a small commission for the referral. But I really do think this is a great combo for people who don't want to spend hours wading through all the other options out there.)

      The reason I'm recommending Amazon over Netflix is because Netflix doesn't have current seasons of most shows, plus you have to pay a monthly subscription fee, which you've said you're not interested in. You could also get an annual Amazon Prime subscription, if you don't already have one, which offers thousands of titles to watch for free, although you can always pay to watch those titles without Prime. Another benefit of Amazon is that they have a lot of individual HBO shows if you don't have HBO as part of your cable subscription and don't want to subscribe to their standalone streaming service, HBO NOW. (If you do have it through your cable package, you can watch HBO's on-demand service, HBO GO, through the stick at not extra charge.)

      I would bet that this combo would get you at least 90% of what you're looking for and if you find there's something you can't find, you can look into adding on another service or continuing to rent DVDs from your local store.

      This is a great question and I'm going to make this comment "sticky" to keep it at the top because I imagine a lot of other people feel the same way you do about the whole topic.

      I hope that helps!

      - Elizabeth

  • I have about had it with DISH. They just dropped my only local ABC affiliate. Is there a site that will show in spreadsheet comparison format which channels each of the streaming media devices supports? I have a list of the channels I want, but am looking for a fast/easy way to compare. Thanks.

    • Hi Peggy.

      Ugh, how frustrating. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of that kind of comparison tool. I've been trying to think of what I might be able to put together, but it's more difficult than you would think for numerous reasons.

      - Elizabeth

    • It all depends on what content you want to watch. If your TV has access to all the Internet services you want, then you wouldn't need a Roku or other streaming device.

      - Elizabeth

  • what I am gathering a person must have a internet connection to use the roku to stream? I only have my I phone 5 that I use as a hot spot for my laptop witch i can get LTE and 4g connection. Is there any use for me to buy a streaming device?

    • Hi Debbie.

      You're correct that you do need to be connected to the Internet to use a streaming device.

      You can use your phone's hotspot to connect. However, your phone carrier’s download speed will determine the quality of the video. I had no problem with mine but that may not always be the case. And the even bigger issue is that video content uses a LOT of data. I watched a 2-minute YouTube video and about 30 seconds of a Colbert Report video and used almost 30 MB of data. My monthly limit is 500 MB, so it wouldn’t take me long to use that up.

      So if you already stream movies onto your phone and it’s not causing you a problem, you should be able to do it through the Roku onto your TV. However, if you’re not used to streaming videos on your phone, you may get a shock when you see how quickly you’re using up your data plan with your cellphone carrier.

      I hope that helps.

      - Elizabeth

  • Thanks for the overview. I live in an area with really slow internet (8hrs to download iOS Coyote!). I assume that I should expect similar results streaming movies if I choose to go that route, so I'm probably stuck with dvd's from Netflix instead of on-demand viewing. Is that correct?

    • Hi Shirley.

      Thanks for sharing this. I've actually been meaning to update all the posts that referenced HBO GO and hadn't had a chance to, but your comment pushed me to get it done. It's definitely great news that needs sharing!

      - Elizabeth

    • Hi Esther.

      You can use Roku to watch movies and TV programs on your TV, but it won't be the same as "watching TV," i.e. watching shows when they're normally on. And depending what you want to watch, you may need to pay for services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, etc.

      - Elizabeth

      • One point to clarify that I've painfully learned over the past two days and spent my precious vacation from work figuring out.... you can't stream content from A&E, Disney, ESPN, etc if you don't subscribe to them through your cable provider. I've attempted to reduce my cable bill to "basic" which is local channels only and mistakenly believed I could stream other content (lifetime, bravo, ESPN, children's programing, etc) but after connecting ROKU to one TV and accessing content through our Wii on another I'm learning I'm not authorized to stream content from these providers since I'm not subscribing. So my big question: What's the point?!? So what if I can get content that isn't available? I use my DVR to "tape" the show they air and watch it when I want to watch it. The only difference I can gather is streaming will let me download shows that are perhaps not airing anymore or I can binge watch shows in one sitting w/o taping a show week by week. Anyone with kids doesn't have time to binge watch anything. Guess I'm still shackled to the cable TV invoice. Frustrating....

        • Wow! Finally, you are telling OUR story! We are in our 50's and are not techies. We are tired of paying $80/month and still watch same old stuff, (that's just pretty much expanded basic)! We have broadband through the ONE cable provider in our area.

          We have an older TV that we like, and a newer TV that was a Christmas gift from the kids that has HDMI ports and usb port. I'm trying to figure out how to connect the TV to the internet to get away from dish. Trying to figure out what router or cables or streaming device works with what is SO frustrating! It is a lot of money to spend just to get it home to find out we don't have the right combo or cord or device etc.!

          I'm thinking of ordering a roku 1, but still don't know if the used netgear router I bought would work with the roku, or if I need more cables....AAAARRRGGHHH!

          • Hi M.

            I totally understand how confusing and frustrating this is!

            You should be able to use the Roku 1 with your router as long as it's a wireless router. That Roku model does not have an ethernet port to allow for a wired connection. Only the Roku 3 model has that option. You would also need an HDMI cable to connect the Roku to your TV. If you don't already have one, you'll have to buy one. They don't come with the Roku. You can also use A/V cables (yellow/red/white) as long as your TV has those ports, but you won't see the programs in HD.

            If you want to cancel your cable subscription, you should check out my series on Cutting the Cable Cord. The first post in the series is here:

            Cutting the Cable Cord: An Introduction

            I hope that helps!

            - Elizabeth

        • Hi David.

          I understand your frustration. But I expect some of these channels will be unbundling from cable in the not-too-distant future once they see how it works out for HBO, which will start offering a standalone streaming service in April 2015.

          Happy New Year!

          - Elizabeth

  • Hi Elizabeth,

    We own a duplex that's next door to our house. We have low to no local TV channel access. 10+ years ago I went with Dish TV for our house and the duplex. It includes the 3 major networks' local affiliates. A couple years later, we all needed internet. Dish didn't offer it so I went with Charter. I'm now paying a total of $265 per month for both Dish TV and Charter Internet. Dish TV programming is terrible and there's a lot of trash on these days, plus movies from the '80's and '90's. As Bruce Springsteen sings "...57 channels and nothing on"!!

    I'm currently strongly thinking about killing the Dist TV and "Bundling" with Charter at $60 minimum per residence ($180 total), plus any upgrades. It seems Charter has a lot of trash on their offerings too per their package offerings.

    My tenants (college students) tend to stream a lot of movies they said, so I kill Dish TV, and stay with Charter for high speed internet only (my current arrangement with Charter) , and buy a Roku so both tenants and us too can each watch whatever we want, whenever we want, but still hopefully have access to the 3 local channels (ABC, CBS, NBC).

    Sounds like Rokus is the way to go and get my costs down and quality choices back up?

    Get the picture??

    Thanks so much Elizabeth!


    • Hi Andy.

      Yikes! That's a lot just to watch TV. I can see why you're looking at alternatives. I'm not clear what you're planning to do with Charter. You say you'll be bundling it but then say you'll go with high-speed Internet only, so I'm not sure what you mean by bundling.

      Just realize that with Internet only, you won't have full access to the main broadcast channels. You can see a lot of popular shows from them through Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, etc. but you won't get local news shows, daytime programming, etc. Plus you won't get a lot of cable channels like CNN.

      I hope that helps and good luck getting a better deal!

      - Elizabeth

      • Hi Elizabeth, Thanks so much for your response! Sorry for the confusion. Currently I have Dish TV for expanded package TV service to our house and both units of our duplex. I also have an account with Charter for internet only for both units of our duplex and our house. The combined cost of these two is $265 monthly.

        Dish TV has a lot of junk and older movies. It seems Charter TV has better options and "On Demand" features too. So I've been planning to ditch the dish and "Bundle" with Charter by adding TV to my existing Charter internet account. So then I'd only have one vendor and cost would be about $80 per month less, but Charter TV channels and features upgrades would eat back into the savings, but at least I'd be paying one vendor and not two like I am now, and getting adult content trash via Dish HBO Series.

        However, this Noku thing has got me thinking - why get Charter's TV service too ($30 per month per unit x 3 units = $90)? Just keep / upgrade our internet with them, and each unit gets a Noku device for better selection of movies, TV series, etc. via the high speed Charter internet, which is $30 per month per unit x 3 units = $90 plus Noku monthly costs.

        So, if I bundle TV & Internet with Charter, its $60 per unit ($30 + $30) x 3 units equals $180 monthly plus any B.S. fees, etc.

        However, if i just keep the high speed internet at $30 per unit, I'm looking at $90 per month total plus Noku monthly price of $10 per month or less? I can perhaps install an antenna to get the 3 major local channels to all 3 units.

        Summary: I'm ditching the Dish TV no matter what. I'll keep or upgrade the Charter internet service ($90 for all 3 units). Therefore, for TV shows, movies, etc. should I add Charter TV (another $90 for all 3 units), OR should I pursue this Noku thing. Our duplex tenants are all college students who stream movies anyways (somehow??) via the existing Charter internet.

        Bottom-line: for TV service and selection, do I go with Charter Cable or with a Noku unit for each of our duplex units and our home (3 residences total).

        Thanks SO MUCH Elizabeth! wow this technology thing!&^^$!^&**(((!!%^)%$#@@


        • Ah, I understand now.

          Yes, it definitely makes sense to get rid of Dish since you'll get a better price bundling two products with one company than you will getting them individually from different companies (plus separate bills, etc.)

          So the outstanding question is whether you should keep Internet only with Charter or add a TV package as well. And, again, that goes to what you and your tenants watch on TV. You will definitely lose things even if you get an antenna for the major broadcast networks. But that may not matter to any of you.

          Another option is to check to see if Charter offers a lower-cost TV package. They usually start by offering packages with hundreds of channels but they often have a bare-bones option with just broadcast TV and maybe a few basic cable options. So you might be able to save money but still get those extra options. One other thing to think about is that there are some services you can't purchase unless you purchase them through your cable provider. For example, you can't get HBO GO unless you pay for HBO through your cable company. They're changing this next year with a standalone package, but the details aren't out yet as to how it will work and it doesn't change that it's not available now. So maybe there's a Charter option for basic cable + HBO service (if you want that).

          Also, make sure you're clear on how the Roku (and other streaming media players work). There is no monthly cost for any of them. You just buy the device. What you pay for are the services that deliver the content through the devices. For example, a basic Netflix streaming account is $7.99 month. With Amazon Video, you pay per use, so it might be $1.99 or $2.99 to buy a specific episode of a TV show (prices differ for high-def content) and usually you can buy an entire season for less than the individual episode cost x number of episodes.

          Because of this, you might want to consider purchasing the device for your duplex units but let the tenants buy their own services. They'll have different preferences as to what they like to watch and it sounds like they already have these accounts so it won't really cost them any extra. If they're already streaming content, they may even already have Roku or other devices so if you haven't asked them about that, you should. For example, if they already have a Roku, maybe you could provide an Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Chromecast to give them more options than what they already have.

          I know it's all very complicated, so please don't hesitate to ask any other questions you may have.

          - Elizabeth

          • P.S. Elizabeth, Kristine & I would like to send you a gift as a token of our appreciation of your outstanding help and advice, clarity, etc.!! Could you send me your company's mailing address?

            Thanks so much! Andy

          • That's very kind of you, Andy, but not necessary. If you want to do something for me, if you decide to buy a Roku, start by clicking this link. I'll get a small commission for the referral.

            If you really want to do something else, feel free to make a donation to a charity of your choice. That will make me happy!

            - Elizabeth

          • Hi Elizabeth,

            Thanks so much for helping me "Drop a rock to find out which way is down!" Great strategy! I'll pursue it and keep you posted, and contact you again with any questions and for sure the final outcome and how it works!

            Thanks so much!

            You Go Girl!!


  • Hi,

    I'm trying to decide whether to nix Comcast, who is way too expensive, and replace with Roku. First thing I need to know is whether the Internet needs to be the highest speed, such as Comcast through cable or will it work just as well with the DSL service? Also, we have a smart TV in the bedroom, as well as a Blu-Ray DVR that used to stream Netflix quite well. Now, we can't get them to work, even when using the Wizard. I don't know where to begin for help. My question is, if I get those working for the bedroom and I only need three TV's to stream over, would that mean I only need to Roku boxes? Also, do those work on older TV's?


  • I am a tech dummie who used to be up on all the latest tech stuff..... Only problem is that was 30 yrs ago. I am also trying to un "tether" from the cable Giants.....I am paying 240 a month for the bundle. Net, cable tv and land phone. Another 100 for I phone..... There has to be a better way! Help!......

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