Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Amazon Releases Cloud Player for iPhone and iPod Touch

Amazon Cloud Player

Amazon's cloud mp3 player just got a lot more useful. Amazon released its cloud player app for the iPhone and iPod touch today allowing you to stream your uploaded music library to your mobile iDevice.

I've had a chance to play around with it a bit and its a well done interface overall. You have the option of streaming music from the cloud as well as downloading music to your device for offline play. There are tabs that organize your music by playlist, artist, album, songs, and genre. You also have the ability to create new playlists. The app has settings that allow you to auto-download amazon mp3 purchases and stream only on wifi to save on data usage. Songs started playing very quickly, avoiding the hanging issue that I often find with iTunes match.

Looks like another great option for cloud music streaming, especially for those of you that have your own large music collections.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Ultimate Guide to Streaming Audio and Video Media

(This post is a work in progress and will be updated regularly)

Streaming media has been around for many years now, but this niche market is just beginning to catch fire with average consumers. I expect demand to for streaming media to explode over the next few years. The battle is on for control of your living room and some of the worlds largest companies are gearing up for the fight.

This article will take inventory of the major streaming video content providers, look at the top streaming media devices, examine the strengths and weaknesses of both, and speculate on what the future holds for streaming media. None of these systems will fulfill a "cord cutter's" ultimate fantasy, however these devices do some things very well and are a welcome addition anyone's entertainment center.

Basic requirements for streaming media:

  • Broadband internet connection - the faster the better. Try to get at least 15mbps for an optimal experience. A 15mbps connection should allow you to stream an HD movie within seconds. 
  • Wireless router - Most of these systems contain built in WIFI connections. You can also run a cable but the wifi connection is ideal and much cleaner. 
  • Streaming media device listed below.
  • Subscription media service or an account with an a-la-carte service provider such as iTunes.

Streaming media content providers:

#1 Netflix - When it comes to streaming media, Netflix is top-dog. They offer the largest collection of movie and television content for a very reasonable subscription price of $7.99 a month. Their back catalog of television shows is especially impressive, but if you want new movies or Tv shows, look elsewhere. Netflix consistently improves its content discovery capabilities and recommends new content based upon your viewing habits. Offers the largest selection of compatible streaming devices. Upcoming: Netflix is beginning to produce its own original television shows. 

Compatible devices - Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo Wii, Apple TV, Roku, Smart TV's (LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, etc.), Select blu-ray players, Android smart phones and tablets, PC's and Macs, Kindle Fire, Nook, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad.

#2 Itunes - Rent or buy the newest music, movies and TV shows as well as an impressive back catalog of content. iCloud allows you to stream your content to any apple i-device or mac computer at no extra charge. The downside is that all of this content comes at a cost.  Everything is purchased a-la-carte with no subscription option. Upcoming: iCloud service still has kinks to work out, but Apple has its eye on reinventing yet another industry with its Apple TV device.

Compatible devices - Apple TV, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Macs, PC's, Sonos (audio only)

#3 Pandora - Popular music streaming service creates radio stations based on your favorite artists or songs. Free with ads or $35 for a year of ad-free service.

Compatible devices - Mac's, PC's, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV (via airplay), Android devices, Blackberry, Roku, select blu-rays, sonos (audio only), select smart TV's, Directv

#4 Amazon Prime Video - Included with a $79 annual Amazon Prime membership. A growing selection of movies and television shows that is trying to catch up with Netflix. Older content is included with unlimited streaming, but newer content must be purchased a-la-carte If you already have Amazon prime for the free shipping then its a great added benefit. Upcoming: Continues to add new content to differentiate itself from Netflix, now offers a netflix style watchlist.

Compatible devices - Xbox, Playstation 3, Roku, Smart TV's (LG, Samsung, Sony, etc.), Select blu-ray players, Android smart phones and tablets, PC's and Macs, Kindle Fire, Nook, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad.

#5 Hulu - $7.99 a month membership gives you unlimited access to the latest television shows. Includes most major networks but not CBS.

Compatible devices:   Xbox, Playstation, Nintendo Wii,  Roku, Smart TV's (LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, etc.), Select blu-ray players, Android smart phones and tablets, PC's and Macs, Kindle Fire, Nook, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Nintendo 3DS

#6 Spotify - Playlist based music streaming service with tiered subscription levels. For $9.99 stream unlimited to any PC or mobile device. Save playlists and easily share with friends over Facebook. Upcoming: New app service continues to add value to the platform by offerring additional ways to discover and share music.

Compatible devices - Mac's, PC's, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV (via airplay), Android devices, Blackberry, sonos.

#7 Watch ESPN - Live sports streamed to media devices and mobile devices. The downside is that it requires a separate cable or internet subscription to work. Not offerred as a standalone service. Upcoming: New partnership with xbox to stream live sports.

Compatible Devices - Mac's, PC's, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch,  Android devices, Xbox 360.

#8 YouTube - Millions of user uploaded videos. Now offers movie rentals as well as unique live event broadcasts.

Compatible devices - Mac's, PC's, iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV, Android devices, Xbox 360, playstation 3, Nintendo, Wii, Smart TV's (LG, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, etc.), select blu-ray players.

#9 MLB TV - Watch every out-of-market MLB game starting at $19.99 a month. However, don't count on watching your hometown team play. Local events are blacked out, reducing the potential value of this service. Streaming now available on xbox 360 and apple TV.

Compatible devices - Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Roku, Smart TV's (LG, Samsung, Panasonic, etc.), Apple TV, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android devices.

#10 NBA League Pass- Offers a similar streaming service as MLB with the same local blackout restrictions.

Compatible devices - Xbox 360, Roku, Apple TV, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android devices, Mac's, PC's

#11 NHL Game Center - Ditto

Compatible devices - Xbox 360, Roku, Apple TV, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android devices, Mac's, PC's

#12 NFL Sunday Ticket (via directv) NFL sunday ticket is only available via directv and contains the same local blackout restrictions as MLB, NBA, and NHL. Streaming is only available via Playstation 3 for non-directv customers.

Compatible devices - Playstation 3, Directv subscribers only - Macs, PC's, iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, Android devices

#13 Google Play - Googles answer to itunes for PC's or mobile android devices. Offers a-la-carte purchasing or rental of movies, tv, and music content.

Compatible devices - PC's, Mac's, Android devices

#14 Zune (Xbox Music) - Offers a subscription music service for unlimited streaming or a-la-carte purchase or rental of television shows and movies for the Xbox 360 and windows mobile devices.

Compatible devices - PC's, Xbox 360, Windows phones

Streaming media devices:

#1 Xbox - I've listed xbox as #1 because it already resides in millions and millions of living rooms. Many of you may have a state of the art media streaming device and not even know it. Yes, the xbox started primarily as a game system, but it continues to evolve into a full-blown streaming media center. With the latest fall update, Xbox launched its app store that includes streaming video apps such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, HBO Go, ESPN, and MLB. They recently announced live streaming ESPN content as well as partnerships with the NBA and NHL. The Xbox, Zune video store also allows you to rent or buy the latest movies and tv shows and stream them in HD.

Requires Xbox live gold membership of $59.99 a year.

Upcoming: Xbox continues to push its streaming content services and recently announced new partnerships including 24/7 live ESPN, the NBA, NHL, Amazon Prime Video, Nickelodeon, Paramount and Univision. The ability to stream live tv is the holy grail of online streaming. Xbox seems to be heading in the right direction with the new ESPN partnership.

#2 Apple TV - This "hobby device" for Apple is rumored to be involved in Apple's strategy to reinvent the TV industry. Apple Tv is now integrated with iCloud so that you can easily stream all of your purchased iTunes music, movies and tv shows. You can also stream purchased content directly from your computer running iTunes. You can also purchase or rent movies and tv shows directly from the Apple Tv interface. With a good internet connection, content begins streaming in 1080p within seconds. Apple TV also features a selection of integrated apps including netflix, mlb, nba, nhl, and youtube.

Airplay is a somewhat unknown but powerful feature that allows you to beam content from your iphone, ipod touch, ipad or itunes directly to the apple TV, eliminating the need for video cables. It works for many apps but not all apps allow you to stream video. The iPad has a unique screen mirroring feature that allows you to project your entire iPad screen through your Apple TV. This screen mirroring also has additional functionality when used with certain games, allowing you to see one image on a screen and a different image on your iPad. Airplay is also an inexpensive way to create a whole house music streaming system, giving you the ability to send music to multiple Apple Tv's throughout your house simultaneously using iTunes. You can also easily stream music from an app such as spotify directly to Apple TV, giving you the ability to easily move music from your iPhone to a larger stereo sound system.

Apple Tv currently retails for $99.

Upcoming: Apple is expected to unveil a new app store for the Apple Tv in the next week, adding even more available content for the little black hockey puck streamer.

#3 Roku - Roku is another little black box streamer retailing for under $100....the basic player starts at $49. Roku offers a wide range on content including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Pandora, Crackle, NHL, NBA, MLB, UFC, Disney, CNBC, and Fox News. Roku probably offers the most choice out of any of the streaming media boxes, however, Xbox 360 is closing in fast.

The interface is not as elegant as Apple TV, but it gets the job done. Roku also has quite a few music streaming options including Pandora, MOG, Rdio, Mp3 tunes, and tune-in radio.

Apple and Google Play smartphone apps give you an additional way to control the roku remotely. And at 3" square, its easy to tuck this device away for a clean looking system.

#4 Playstation 3 - Playstation 3 is the other major game console that has made the leap to become a streaming media console. The PS3 offers a wide range of content including Netflix, Amazon Video, Sony's music and video unlimited service, MLB Tv, NHL,  and Hulu plus.

The main differentiator for the PS3 right now is access to directv's NFL Sunday ticket, which no other media streaming box currently offers.

#5 PC and Mac - Yes, its still possible to hook up a PC or Mac to a TV. But with all of the inexpensive and powerful options available, why would you still want to? Perhaps to play protected flash content that is not available on the above devices? Beyond that, its getting harder and harder to find a reason to hook up a powerful pc to an HDTV. Overall, this is becoming an increasingly less attractive option and an inelegant solution to streaming media.

#6 Samsung and LG  Samsung and LG have streaming content available in both of their smart tv sets. These Tv's are more expensive than your basic entry level TV, however they do often have built in wifi along with the smart Tv features. The advantage to these is that their is no extra box that needs to be added to access content such as Netflix. However, so far the app stores for these sets tend to be somewhat limited in available content. But, for netflix lovers, this can be a perfectly acceptable option.

#7 Sonos (Music only) Sonos is a fantastic music-only streaming system that allows you to create a whole-house streaming music system and control it using a sonos controller or a free smartphone app.