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If you're new to streaming TV, here's your guide

If you're new to streaming TV, here's your guide

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Netflix

A typical (but not current) menu for Netflix, as delivered by a Roku streaming device.

Everybody does it. All over St. Louis — and the world — people are streaming hot shows on Netflix, catching up on series on Hulu and discovering new favorites on Amazon.

Everybody except, possibly, you?

Almost certainly, you’ve read about “Orange Is the New Black” and “House of Cards” and wished, when everyone was talking about them, that you could sample them. Chances are, you heard the fuss about an adaptation of Stephen King’s “11.22.63,” only to ask “what channel is that on?” and learn it wasn’t actually on television.

Maybe this isn’t you. Maybe you’ve had Netflix for years, have since added other streaming networks and talk about your Rokus and Chromecasts as casually as everyone once referred to rabbit ears. In the first quarter of this year, Nielsen reports, half of U.S. households had access to streaming video, a jump of nearly 10 percent in two years. But that also means half are still high and dry.

If you’re an expert at streaming, this article isn’t for you. The intent is to help newcomers dip a toe into streaming without fear or frustration. It will cover the most basic of basics: What you need to stream, how to manage your device and what services are available. We’ll explain terms and compare costs and programming. Here goes.

Why stream?

A reader asked recently why I write about shows on Netflix and other streaming networks rather than regular TV. I explained that although I try to balance my coverage, some of the most interesting original programming today is not on conventional television, broadcast or cable, but on networks reached on demand, over the internet.

To build subscribers (it currently has an estimated 46 million in the United States), Netflix, originally a DVD-by-mail business, began creating original programming about five years ago, starting a trend that has built and spread.

But original comedies, dramas and specials represent just a fraction of the programs available on streaming services. (The biggest are Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, but there are many more.)

All the services have hundreds of movies, television series from around the world, documentaries, comedy specials and full seasons of TV series both classic and current, available whenever you like, to watch one episode or a dozen.

But how?

To stream TV, you need two things:

• High-speed internet.

• A streaming device.

First, there’s the internet. Yours is probably fast enough unless you’re still using dial-up AOL. Netflix says 1.5 Mbps is necessary for streaming, with 5 Mbps providing a better result. Check your provider, or bill, if you’re not sure of your speed.

Your internet can be wired or wireless, but if you want to stream in a room away from the router (the box with flashing lights that delivers your internet), it should be wireless. Odds are, you have Wi-Fi already.

Second, there’s the streaming device, which hooks into your TV set and connects to your Wi-Fi (or plugs into the router itself) to provide the signal.

This is something you might already have as well. Smart TVs are smart because they have built-in streaming. Most Blu-ray players also stream (in addition to playing DVDs). Most newer video game systems also function as streaming devices.

Of course, you’ll also need a TV set, and you need one with HDMI ports. HDMI is today’s standard connector between devices and high-definition TVs. It has been around since 2004, so most sets now have it. If your old, square TV doesn’t have any HDMI ports, it might be time for a new set. There are work-arounds, but that’s above our level of expertise here.

Don't have any streaming devices?

Good. This is actually easier, because you have a wide variety of devices from which to choose.

You could buy a Blu-ray player to replace your old DVD player and be all set. Blu-ray players from Sony, Samsung, LG and others also function as streaming devices. Check on the box to make sure the player streams the services you want, and choose one with Wi-Fi if you’re opting for that. Price: generally $100 or less.

Roku 2

The Roku 2 is one of the devices cord-cutters use to stream shows to their TV sets. (File photo)

If you want to add a stand-alone streaming device, the most versatile is the Roku, which was introduced in 2008 to stream Netflix. Now in its third generation, Roku promises more than 2,000 channels, including all the biggies and smaller ones like Acorn TV, which isn’t available on every player. (Price: Under $100.)

Roku is small, just palm-size, but it’s still another box. You could choose a streaming stick, which plugs into your TV set. A stick may also be good for streaming when you travel. Roku has a streaming stick (under $50), and Amazon’s Fire Stick ($50) has a voice-activated remote. Amazon Fire TV also comes as a separate box ($100).

Apple users can consider Apple TV (a box, $150-$199), which puts Siri on its remote and works with iTunes, in addition to sending content from your Apple device to your TV. But Apple TV isn’t compatible with rival Amazon. Google’s Chromecast ($35) is the cheapest option for a stick, but it works differently, “casting” anything you play via Google Chrome on your computer to your TV screen.

Advice for newbies: Choose a box (or Blu-ray), not a stick. They are somewhat easier to manage. If you need help choosing, a full-service electronics store has sales people who can talk you through the options.

Now how do I make it work?

First, check your TV set for an available HDMI port. (See the previous discussion of HDMI.)

You also need an HDMI cable. Almost no device comes with one. Buy a cheap one, though: They are as good as the overpriced cables. (Sticks don’t need a cable; they plug into the TV.)

Unpack your device. Plug the HDMI cable into it and then into the TV. Plug the power cord into the device and then into the outlet on a power strip. Put the batteries in the remote control and follow the instructions that appear on your TV screen.

You’ll also need to create an account for whatever device you chose (Roku, for example). A credit card may be required, but it won’t be charged unless you order new services or movies.

OK, I’m hooked up — now what?

You’ll probably want to subscribe to a service such as Netflix. There are many free things to stream on the internet, including Crackle (which has Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”) and videos on YouTube. But if you’re doing all this, you’ll almost certainly want at least one streaming network, which you can also watch on smart phones, tablets and computers.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the big ones.

Netflix

Costs • $9.99 a month (standard plan)

Streams on • Almost all devices.

Strongest for • Original comedies and dramas like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Bloodline” and “House of Cards” and movies, including some recent releases. Netflix also has complete runs of older series like “The West Wing,” “Parenthood,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Gilmore Girls,” being revived for a limited Netflix run.

Hulu

Costs • $7.99 a month (regular plan); $11.99 a month (commercial free)

Streams on • Almost all devices.

Strongest for • Many current series from the broadcast networks (NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and the CW) and quirky original comedies (“Casual,” “Difficult People” and the revived “Mindy Project”), plus originals like “11.22.63” and “The Path.”

Amazon Prime

Costs • $99 a year including other benefits, streaming music and free two-day shipping.

Streams on • Most devices (except Apple TV).

Strongest for • Children’s shows, original dramas (“Bosch,” “The Man in the High Castle” and comedies “Transparent”), imports (British comedy “Catastrophe”) and cable shows including “Justified,” “Orphan Black” and “The Americans.” Amazon also has six seasons of “Downton Abbey,” five seasons of “Doctor Who” and past seasons of many classic HBO series, including “The Sopranos.”

Crackle

Costs • Free

Streams on • Most devices

Strongest for • Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” put Crackle on the map, but the free service also has worthy originals like “Chosen” and “Cleaners,” plus feature films, anime and older TV shows, notably “Firefly.”

Acorn TV

Costs • $4.99 a month

Streams on • Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku and Samsung smart TVs; can also be added through Amazon.

Strongest for • British drama, plus series from other English-speaking countries. “A Place to Call Home,” from Australia, is one of the most popular.

• Other streaming channels provide access to premium cable without a cable subscription. Those include HBO Now ($14.99 a month), Showtime ($11 a month, or $9 as an add-on to Hulu) and, most recently, Starz ($8.99 a month).

Any more tips?

• Don’t forget the HDMI cable.

• Follow the instructions that come with your streaming device, and if you manage to freeze the whole thing (as I did with a new Roku), unplug the power cord and start over.

• Remember that to watch, you’ll need to switch the input on your TV. Look for the “input” button on the TV remote.

• Try streaming services free before deciding which you want. Each offers a free trial. (Be sure to cancel if you decide you don’t want it.)

• When you’ve subscribed, set up your account on the computer and also create a “queue,” or “watch list.” There are thousands of offerings, and it’s far easier to browse and make choices on a computer rather than on the device itself.

• Still baffled? Get a kid to help you.

Everybody’s heading in same direction

Why stream now? Because you will eventually, experts agree. We asked Titus Bicknell, chief digital officer for Acorn TV, a streaming network devoted to TV from Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, for some insight. He responded via email.

With Nielsen reporting that in the first quarter of this year, 50 percent of U.S. households had streaming devices, Bicknell said he thought that number would be 100 percent in five years.

Eventually, all content (whether real time, like live TV, or on demand), will be delivered via the internet, he said. At that point, “consumers will not think about whether their device is a streaming device or not.”

Bicknell said the question isn’t “to stream or not to stream. We shall all be streaming shortly. The key will be where you find the content you want to watch, and if your interests are not met by mainstream broadcasting, then you will get to grips with streaming as a means to an end.”

Asked what he thought was holding people back from streaming, Bicknell said simply, “Too many remotes,” adding that “we tolerate an absurd level of complexity to consume content.”

A challenge for Acorn TV, he acknowledged, is that the demographic drawn to “Masterpiece”-like British drama tends to be older.

Still, he said, “They bravely tackle the technical hurdles and vagaries of streaming” to get the shows they want. “Some enlist the help of friends, children or even grandchildren to gain access, but we see enormous improvements across the industry to simplify and improve user interface and user experience and therefore remove barriers to entry for the consumer.”

It’s a diverse world

When we asked staffers and readers via STLtoday.com how they stream TV, here are some of the answers we got.

• For most of my streaming, I use my Xbox 360 (which I rarely use to play games). Otherwise I use my laptop. — Noah

• I’m just getting started. I’ve had a Roku for two or three years and have used it a lot. I just bought a second one. I plan on free trials before deciding on which will work the best for me. — Robin

• I have two Vizio smart TVs and I stream on those. I also stream on my laptop. Sometimes I go to PBS’ website and stream from there on my laptop. — Lindy

• In the living room, I have a Samsung TV and Sony Blu-ray player as well as an Xbox and Google Chromecast 2. All devices are connected via HDMI to a newer Sony A/V receiver so one remote can be used. In a second room, I also have a smaller Toshiba TV connected to an original Chromecast. — Joel

• I’m sort of a neophyte at streaming. In my family room is a Samsung HDTV. I have a Sony PlayStation that is also a Blu-ray player and streamer. In the finished basement, I have a Samsung smart TV and a Sony PlayStation. I own a Roku 2 that I use when traveling so I can stream while away from home. The Roku is easy to connect and easy to use as long as the TV where you’re staying has the right (HDMI) inputs. — Marty

• I use a Google Chromecast plugged into the HDMI slot on the back of my TV. I cast from my iPhone, using the HBO GO app and the Netflix app to the television. I can also cast from my laptop computer, the HBO GO site and the Netflix site.— Hillary

• We’ve had two Roku players for several years; no smart TV. We use the Rokus for Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and Acorn TV (British TV). We recently upgraded our living room player to a Roku streaming stick. I also stream on my iPad or Kindle Fire tablet. — Linda P.

• We have several TVs around the house and use Rokus on all but one of them. If someone is new to streaming, the Roku is the best option. It is platform agnostic, which means every streaming service plays on it and will in the future. It sports a simple setup, and there are many free streaming channels on it. — Patrick

Stay tuned in

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Gail Pennington is the television critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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