Even though I am one of the shrinking group of people who still has a cable subscription, I watch most of my non-news content through streaming — typically on a TV, although sometimes on a computer or phone.
For years, my streaming device of choice has been Roku, which makes devices that connect to any modern TV, starting at under $25. They also license their technology to TV makers like TCL, Philips, JVC, RCA and others. I’ve been so impressed with Roku over the years that I not only bought several generations of its streaming devices, but three TCL TVs with Roku built in.
One of the things I liked about Roku was the vast number of streaming channels available — ranging from the most popular like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime to the most obscure like tiny TV stations from around the world or channels that display Yule logs.
Sadly, my love affair with Roku is starting to fade because they are no longer an open system and are now letting business decisions impact what channels I can watch. The most obvious example is HBO Max, the new streaming service from HBO that replaced the old HBO Go service that used to be on Roku and other streaming platforms. In addition to HBO content, HBO Max also includes programs and movies from DC (including Wonder Woman), Sesame Workshop, Studio Ghibli, Cartoon Network, Looney Toons and, my favorite, Turner Classic Movies. HBO and its parent company WarnerMedia are now owned by AT&T, which offers the service free as part of some of their higher-end phone plans.
Roku isn’t the only major platform without HBO Max. It’s also absent from Amazon’s Fire devices. There are reports that Roku and Amazon are in talks with HBO to add HBO Max to their platforms but — in the meantime — it’s more difficult for people to take advantage of their HBO subscriptions. HBO Max is free for anyone who already has an HBO subscription including those who get free HBO through bundling deals with phone companies and TV services. Others pay a monthly fee. NBC’s Peacock service is now on Roku but only after NBC and Roku reached an agreement. In late January, Roku pulled Fox apps from its platform until it quickly reached a distribution deal with Fox just in time for people to watch the Super Bowl.
Between my three TCL TVs and my Roku streaming devices, I have well over $1,000 invested in Roku equipment only to learn that I can’t watch one of my favorite streaming channels because of the lack of a distribution deal. Imagine how you would feel if you couldn’t use an app on your smartphone or a software program on your personal computer because of the lack of a distribution deal.
There are streaming devices that do support HBO Max, including the new AT&T TV, Apple TV, Playstation 4, Samsung TVs (2016 and later), and Xbox One. If you have a device that supports Google Chromecast (which includes late model Rokus and Roku TVs), you can stream the service to your TV via your smartphone or PC. Or you can connect your PC or phone to your TV via an HDMI port. While all of these methods work, they require at least some technical knowledge, and there can be glitches. For some reason, I am able to cast video from my Android phone to some of my Roku devices but not the 65-inch Roku TV in my living room. If your laptop has an HDMI port, you can connect it to your TV, but it’s kind of a hassle, and I often have to reboot my laptop before I can access it on the TV. Plus, I can’t control my PC with a remote like I can most streaming devices.
Fortunately, HBO Max is supported by Android TV, and it’s easy to watch on Google’s new Chromecast with Google TV device ($49). This dongle, which plugs into the HDMI port of any modern TV, comes with a remote control and a power brick and USB C connector to supply power. Unlike previous versions of Chromecast (that are still available for $29), this can be used as a stand-alone device. You no longer have to stream content from your phone.
Once connected to your TV, Google recommends that you set up the device via the Google Home app on your smartphone, and the TV displays a QR code that the phone can read so you don’t have to type in details about the device. You can also install the Chromecast without using your phone. It simply requires a bit more “typing” from the menu on the TV screen.
Once installed, you control the Chromecast via the small remote it comes with or you can still cast from your phone or PC if you prefer.
Like Roku, Google is doing deals with TV and set-top box makers to make its platform more ubiquitous. There are Android compatible TVs from TCL, Sharp, Sony and other manufacturers
And while there aren’t yet nearly as many choices as on Roku, there are already a fair amount of channels on Android TV including Netflix, Showtime, Spotify, Disney, Hulu and Amazon Prime. If Google follows the same policies as it does for its Android phones, I’m hoping it will remain open to any app that doesn’t violate its security, privacy and safety rules, and I expect to see lots more apps over time.
Before buying any device from Google, there is one thing to consider. As we were reminded this week by a Department of Justice antitrust suit against Google, the company already has its tentacles deeply embedded into our phones and computers. With the advent of Google TV, Google-owned Nest devices and so many other Google products, for better and worse, Google is becoming increasingly ubiquitous into even more aspects of our lives and that should concern us.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely which receives financial support from Google and other technology companies.
Chromecast, Google Play Movies & TV, Roku
World news – CA – Larry Magid: Google Chromecast and HBO Max