Streaming TV Boxes

So here’s a question. You live in the UK, and you want to buy a cheap streaming box to pop under your TV and get all the main channels. Perhaps you don’t have a smart TV, or it’s not smart enough and doesn’t have the features you really want. There’s a plethora of devices hitting the market. Which should you get?

For the sake of this piece, I’m going to suggest that you’re particularly interested in having access to:

– BBC iPlayer
– Netflix
– Amazon
– Now TV

That’s not a complete list by any means, but a device that worked with all of those services would be really useful and I would suspect cover most people’s bases. iPlayer is free for licence fee payers. Netflix and Now TV let you subscribe for short periods of time – binge House of Cards or watch Super Sunday on Sky Sports. And Amazon bundles Instant Video with Prime, or will sell you films on a pay-per-view basis.

Well there’s a problem, because there’s not actually a box or stick that natively supports all of those devices (at time of writing). There are workarounds involving laptops, tablets or phones. But I’m after something that natively streams from all four services.

I spent a bit of time and came up with this table. You’ll note that I’ve actually looked at a wider number of apps/services. You’ll also note that it’s not all black and white.

DevicePrice (RRP)WiFiEthernetBBC iPlayerITV Player4ODDemand 5NetflixAmazonNow TVPlexYouTube
Now TV£19.99Single BandNYYYYNNYY (hack)Y
Amazon Fire TV£79.99Dual BandYYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Amazon Stick£35.00Dual BandNYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Chromecast£30.00Single BandNYN*N*N*YN*YYY
Nexus Player£79.99Dual BandNY*NNN*YN*YYY
Roku 3£99.99Dual BandYYYYNYNYYY
Apple TV£59.00Dual BandYN*N*NN*YN*YN (partial hack)Y

* You can access services using screen-sharing technology either using AirPlay Mirroring or by Casting a tab in Google Chrome. However this can mean slower response times and reduced battery life. It also means having access to third party devices within the same ecosystem.

Obviously, if you live within a single ecosystem such as iTunes or Google Play, then devices within those ecosystems work well. But I’m going to assume that not every TV show or film you want to watch is in iTunes or Google Play. You’re going to need a variety of options.

Perhaps the closest any of these devices gets to meeting my not-unreasonable needs is the most expensive – the Roku 3. But it fails the Amazon hurdle – I have Amazon Prime, why wouldn’t I want access to that?

Now TV is great and very cheap – the price quoted here will come bundled with some limited vouchers for films or entertainment (watch all of Game of Thrones for example). It’s actually a Roku box built to Sky’s specifications. But Sky, who owns Now TV, isn’t interested in supporting rivals Netflix or Amazon. There is hack which allows you to get into the box’s development mode and install things like Plex. You really can’t complain about the price – they even bundle an HDMI cable. Note that they will make you register with a credit card for their services, but you can cancel these afterwards.

Amazon’s Fire TV would be a good bet, but it fails on Now TV. That might just be a question of Sky not having produced an app for it yet. Were they to do that it might become the winner! However, other UK channels have been slow supporting it. iPlayer was late to the party but is there now. However for ITV Player you have to hack around and use the Scottish STV player. On launching it, the first thing it asks is for a postcode – give it a fake Scottish one or you won’t get access. There’s no bespoke YouTube app which is poor, and the Vimeo app that is there is a bit rubbish compared with the same offering on Now TV.

The real question must be why you would buy it ahead of the upcoming much cheaper Amazon Stick which is half the price. Indeed it was available for a couple of days for just £20 as part of a limited deal. Well the included remote doesn’t have voice search, and it has less memory and a lower-powered processor. But it looks like a bargain if they can get those other services working.

Chromecast works in a slightly different way to the rest of this set in that it requires an Android device (phone or tablet) to properly use. Some apps have Chromecast built in – meaning that throwing programming to your TV is easy, and the data actually streams direct and not via your device saving you battery power. For non-optimised apps, it’s possible to cast your entire tab. But that’s not a great experience. While I’d be happy to do it for a presentation or something, I wouldn’t use it to watch Bosch on Amazon Prime video. Chromecast works really well with the Google ecosystem of course, and things like Google Play Music work wonderfully.

Apple TV also talks wonderfully to Apple devices. But it’s nobbled by the lack of British apps. There’s no iPlayer which is critical, and nor is there Amazon. You can use AirPlay Mirroring, but that requires another device, and is sub-optimal. But it’s perfect for iTunes of course, and even on a PC, you can fire off music or video to it directly. But if you’re about to buy one, you should know that there’s a much updated model due later this year. (I did laugh recently when someone moaned that the recently announced HBO Now app was US only. Er, well Now TV has a native app, and you can watch nearly everything from HBO via that for less than HBO Now will cost a month.)

The upcoming Nexus player would seem to have the same set of apps as Chromecast, but removes the requirement for an Android device to control it – you get a remote. And like some of the other pricier boxes, has an ethernet port in case WiFi near your television isn’t what you’d want it to be.

The Roku 3 is the most expensive device here, and I included it just to compare it with the rest. There are cheaper Roku options though. It is fully featured but bizarrely fails the Amazon test as mentioned.

For me personally, none of these devices actually meets my needs as I’ve alluded to. I’ve managed to accumulate three of them over time, usually taking advantage of special offers. I have them all attached – via an HDMI switch – to my smaller TV.

Now TV does well with UK channels like ITV Player and 4OD (soon to be All4 for reasons that still escape me), where others fail, and it curiously has the best app for Vimeo. Amazon Fire TV is beautifully made device, and voice search works well. The games are all rubbish and all seem to be “freemium” – stick to mobile or consoles. But it works great with Netflix as well as its own Amazon service. It talks nicely to my Plex server too. And I have some music on their cloud courtesy of CDs and downloads I’ve bought over the years. But most of my music is on Google, so Chromecast wins there. It also has the best YouTube functionality, and it’s very portable. Throw one in your bag when you’re travelling (although Amazon’s newly announced hotel-friendly WiFi signing in update sounds very useful practically for travel).

What this does all show is that however good the hardware is, and however cheap you make it, it’s really about who you’ve done deals with. I think this is the difficulty that largely American tech firms have in the UK. Have they made enough effort to get services on board? Apple would probably have shifted a lot more Apple TVs if they’d ever properly integrated BBC iPlayer into it. But they haven’t.

Depending on your use case, different boxes might work for you. I’ve completely ignored games here for example. And as I’ve mentioned, where you keep your music might make a difference to you (I have my music duplicated locally on iTunes and in the cloud with Google Music. I use the latter almost exclusively). I’ve not talked about Spotify or Sonos for example. Or your TV, games console or BluRay player might do the trick, and you don’t need one of these boxes. But keep an eye out for special offers as nearly all of these devices have been sold at lower prices than presented here.

Installing Plex Media Server

Note: Just to be clear – I’ve installed Plex on a DS210j and not a DS214se.

This is going to be a bit dry, but it may or may not help others.

I now have a couple of Synology NAS drives. I first bought a DS210j about two or three years ago when I started to get a bit more concerned about how well backed up my data is. In particular I was worried about music, video and mostly photos.

Since getting my first NAS, I was pretty happy. There are 2 x 2TB drives in a RAID array to give me redundancy. I also instigated a regular “offsite backup” another simple Seagate external drive which I kept at work in my desk draw, regularly bringing home to ensure that the NAS was backed up in another location (sadly a former colleague once had his hard drive stolen in a house break-in even though the value of the hard drive was probably quite low).

But even being fairly ruthless over what photos I keep, my NAS was getting dangerously close, so earlier this week I decided to invest in an additional Synology DS214se. It’s the cheapest drive they make, but I don’t need it to do a great deal. Mostly it’s going to be storing photos. I installed a couple of WD Red 3TB drives, again in a RAID array, and I was away.

The first thing I wanted to do was spread the load. That means moving photos to the new drive and leaving everything else on the old one (I say “everything” but clearly I have a whole pile of other hard drives in cases and loose. But the important stuff is on the NAS drives). But the photos alone that I wanted to move came to 1.1TB.

The first thing to realise is that it’s not wise to do a move of this size via a PC. Something will break. I’ve just rarely had a good experience of a large file move in Windows. So I used the Synology Filestation app and set up a copy direct.

All you need to know is that it took about 48 hours – so not fast. But it did the job first time with no errors. In Lightroom – my photo software of choice – I just re-pointed the top level directory to the new drive location and all was fine.

The other thing I wanted to do was install Plex. For various reasons, I’ve always shied away of using some kind of media centre software. I did once play with Microsoft Home Media Center on a cheap PC, but it was all a mess, and I went no further.

But I liked the idea of installing some software on a NAS drive – removing the need to leave a PC on. And I knew that there was a Synology app for Plex.

My first disappointment was to learn that it’s not supported on the “cheap” DS214se. Seemingly it’s because the specs of the processor on-board aren’t high enough. But it actually seems more powerful than my older DS210j. However, it actually suited me to use the older drive anyway.

The next problem was by far the biggest. I just couldn’t get Plex running. I repeatedly tried the official version via Synology. But in spite of installing, it just repeatedly gave the error message: “Failed to run the package service.”

I went through dozens of both Plex and Synology forums searching for a solution. I removed and reinstalled. I rebooted the NAS. I deleted other apps (that I wasn’t using) that might have been a problem. But nothing. I installed a direct Plex build. I used SSH to connect directly to the NAS and look to see if there was a problem there. Still no joy.

In the end I finally stumbled across the problem. For whatever reason, the Plex installer was not creating a “Plex” Shared Folder. Simply manually creating a new folder – “Plex” without quotes – did it. And it ran perfectly.

The reason I chose Plex is because there are plenty of apps for it on devices I own. The first one I actually got working properly was on my Sky Now box. This is a device that Sky were selling for £10. A complete bargain for iPlayer alone. It’s basically a rebadged Roku box. But Sky has limited the number of apps you can install – clearly they want you to use their Sky Now service. In truth Sky Now is unnecessary for me because I subscribe to Sky anyway, and have access to those sports and film services.

Anyway, if you switch on Developer Mode, you can install Plex via a PC.

Then I installed the Samsung Smart TV app, and that worked pretty seamlessly too. Just for fun, I also installed the Android app, and that happily works with my Chromecast. Lots of ways then to use the service.

The only thing I had to watch was that Plex took a bit of a while to sort itself out when I added programming to it. And sometimes the Samsung app can take a while to find graphics and metadata.

However playing back a variety of files hasn’t been a problem, and it’s certainly easier than my old method which involved lots of USB sticks. In particular, I’ve suffered no transcoding issues with any of my devices regardless of file resolution. I suspect that Plex does push my DS210j quite a bit, but it will certainly suffice.

(Incidentally, what got me thinking about this was a friend in the US who has bought an Amazon Fire TV which he’s got Plex on. The device – not yet on sale in the UK – is quite smart, although were it not for the fact that Amazon Prime Instant Video isn’t on UK Roku boxes, I’d say they’d serve you fine.)