I’ve only ever had one Roku. It’s a Roku 2 XS that’s sat faithfully next to my TV for four years. It works without error, it’s barely the size of a chocolate chip cookie, and it’s black plastic against a black plastic TV stand. I can’t say I give it much thought.
But now I probably have to. Apple’s annual “gaze into the beauty of our new product line” event is set for September 9, and among the rumored announcements is a new Apple TV streaming box. An extremely souped-up Apple TV box. One that can finally give Netflix’s Roku a run for its money, if all those rumored specs and features are as legit as they sound. Compound that with Netflix phasing out its older boxes (my well-worn Roku’s still safe, for now) and we’re getting a hard shove into the streaming future.
And so is everyone else. That threat of Apple TV’s been a thumbtack in the heel of every other streaming service- in the past few days, Hulu and Amazon have been rolling out a slew of new features to keep themselves abreast of Apple (and maybe curry favor with all the users who’ll only be paying for one streaming subscription on their new Apple TV 4).
We should probably stay abreast too. So here’s a guide to all the streaming carrots currently dangling in front of us.
Apple TV 4: Again, we can’t be 100% sure of what’s in Apple’s shiny new streaming box until next Wednesday. But we do have reams upon reams of reasonable rumors backed up with official-sounding sources.
Those sources claim Apple’s hollowed out the Apple TV and replaced it with a new set of ultrafast guts; redesigned the remote (currently a thin piece of bare plastic) into something longer and heftier, with a microphone and a touchscreen and Wii-like motion capabilities; included Siri capability so that sturdy new remote is now entirely unnecessary. Oh, and a Universal Search function that would allow users to sift through the entire box’s content at once, instead of app-by-app. Punch in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and the box draws up a list of every app featuring that nasty little self-exenterating fox .
Commercial Free: Hulu’s always had commercials. This rankles quite a few Hulu users. Honestly, I barely notice, so long as the ads are under a minute in total (although watching Hannibal episodes on NBC’s site requires three-minute, grind-to-a-halt blocks of advertising, and a part of me wanted to headbutt my laptop screen).
Hulu finally admitted that users don’t want ads and introduced a “No Commercials” tier to their paid service. It’s $11.99 a month, which is a sharp 50% increase from the “Limited Commercials” tier at $7.99 a month. Compare that to Netflix’s $8.99 and Amazon Prime’s $99 per year (that’s $8.25 a month, not including what you might save with the free shipping) and it’s the most expensive streamer by far.
Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that “No Commercials” still has commercials. A paragraph of fine print on Hulu’s sign-up page spells out that certain shows- Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Once Upon A Time (their most-viewed shows, I’m assuming) will run a “short commercial” (between 15 and 30 seconds) before and after the episode plays.
Hulu CEO Mike Hopkins is assuming that a “solid majority” of Hulu subscribers will balk at the price point and stick to “Limited Commercials.” Doesn’t surprise me in the least.
Epix: On Sunday, Netflix announced they’d no longer be streaming movies from the pay-channel Epix. Hulu announced that they would be streaming Epix movies just a few hours later. Epix isn’t exactly a household name. But their movies are. The Hunger Games, Transformers, Star Trek (of the Chris Pine and William Shatner varieties). Big stuff; blockbusters people would want to stream on a regular basis. Right now they’re touting the arrival of Interstellar and Selma in September.
It’s a boost Hulu, for sure. But like that “No Commercials” thing, it doesn’t boost Hulu above anyone else. Just side-by-side, kinda. Epix was only exclusive with Netflix until 2012, when they struck a deal with Amazon. So Amazon’s just as viable a place for your next Transformers/Selma double feature.
Offline Viewing: Finally, an exclusive. Amazon just rolled out a feature offered by zero other streaming services- the ability download content and watch it wherever you feel like, unburdened by everyone else’s pathetic tether to a wi-fi signal. It’d be perfect for travel- the 21st century road-trip equivalent of renting a couple tapes for the tiny TV/VCR combo that ran off a car’s cigarette lighter and could be strapped into the backseat with bungee cords (a real thing my family did in the ‘90s). Enjoy it anywhere.
Amazon’s save-it-for-later policy does have a couple limitations. Only a portion of Amazon’s streaming library is available to un-stream, although Amazon’s press release boasts that what’s avalable is what people would actually want to watch- Transparent, a cluster of popular TV shows (The Wire, Hannibal and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to name three) and all those big-name movies on loan from Epix. Oh, and it’ll only work on iPads, iPhones, Androids and Amazon’s Fire gadgets. Laptops are strictly prohibited.
New Fire TV (Maybe?): Try to buy a Fire TV box from Amazon, and you’ll be greeted with this vague message of warning. “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock,” their site’s proclaimed for the last two weeks. That “if” is an odd duck. The Fire TV’s been out for over a year and it’s not exactly flying off the shelves, so that “if” might imply Amazon’s done with the old Fire TV, and there’s a hot new model prepped for a surprise reveal. At least that’s what people say.
I find it fascinating that everyone Hulu and Amazon are scrambling to distinguish themselves against the threat of Apple, when it’s not really Apple they should be worrying about. Isn’t Netflix the real titan here? Netflix is the service that, as of last year, is gobbling up 57.5% of the entire streaming market. And the service people watch for longer- the average user clocks in eight hours per week, on average (Hulu ranks in second with just over half that). And the service that moves more physical boxes than any other competitor.
And all these hyped-up features the Apple TV may or may not tout have been standard-issue Netflix features for years. Netflix added a universal search feature in 2012. Motion-controller remotes and voice-activated searching are also available to anyone who bought a Roku in the last year or two (even my lonely little Roku came with a motion-sensitive remote and a free copy of Angry Birds).
Every time a runner-up comes out with a new hit idea, Netflix just balks and goes back to what they were doing before. Amazon’s nifty new offline downloads? It’ll be obsolete before you know it, says a Netflix representative, “with internet speeds climbing and Wi-Fi available in more and more places.”
The loss of Epix? Shrug. Netflix saved a billion dollars over the course of five years by not renewing with the service. The rumor that original programming might be brewing at Apple? “HBO is doing shows, FX are doing shows… so the fact that additional tech companies may be doing shows, that’s really not that big a deal,” was the most recent mic-drop from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. That Apple TV 4’s also rumored to come with a $149.99 price tag- 50 bucks above the equivalent Roku. We won’t really know until if Apple can prove itself a worthy competitor until the box’s expected October release date. If you see a marathon lines crawling out the door of your local Apple Store, that’s probably a good sign.
Related Topics: Hulu