Streaming boxes had so much potential. They would reinvent the cable box for the internet age and make it easier for users to find and organize and watch everything available in this age of infinite content. They were going to turn our TVs, the centerpiece of our homes, into smart gadgets that let us do almost anything. It would be game consoles. Streaming boxes were the next big thing.
Instead, streaming boxes are worthless. You will not find any product on the market that even comes close to fulfilling this vision. Instead of a thriving hardware and software category, streaming boxes have turned into increasingly cheaper commodities. At the Walgreens down the street from my house, crammed between AA batteries and bizarrely unbranded wired headphones, there’s a Roku Express HD for $30. And it’s as good a purchase as anything else. Streaming boxes suck, and they’re getting worse instead of better.
You could almost say that streaming boxes in their current form need not exist at all. By most standards, a majority of consumers in the US already own a smart TV – and if you’re in the market for a new set, you can hardly find one that doesn’t have an operating system built-in.
Of course, most of those smart TVs are slow, riddled with ads, and try to track your every move. Therefore one Good streaming box is such a good idea, at least in theory. The rest of the technological evolution has made good TV hardware and software even more important: cloud gaming is getting better, our homes are getting smarter, we even use our TVs for video chatting. Streaming boxes let you upgrade without throwing out your big screen and add new features that might not be baked into the set itself. Plus, a good box can mitigate some of the smart TV world’s worst ills. To borrow an old TV analogy, the built-in smart TV stuff is like the bunny ears of yesteryear, and we need the cable box.
But the perfect streaming box does not exist. Who is to blame for that? Everyone. But it starts with the streaming services themselves. For a streaming box to really serve its cable box purpose, it needs to index and access all of the content available on each service, allowing users to search and organize as they please. But overall, streaming services have decided it’s in their best interest to adopt a smartphone-style app model, making the app more important than the content — you don’t say, “I want to watch MythBustersmore, as much as you open the Netflix app and see what it shows you.
So many services withhold their data from aggregators and search engines, and while many companies have tried to build a universal search system, no one has even come close. (Even the most successful are usually created manually, which can give you four nearly identical results for the same movie search.) Our TV viewing is stuck in an old-fashioned Internet paradigm, where you have to navigate through an endless series of aggregators and directories to find what you search.
You can see how this plays out by looking at the home screen of every set-top box on the market. They don’t lead with content; they lead with apps. Even those who have gone to great lengths to put shows and movies at the forefront, like the new Google TV interface, still fall back on apps in the second row of the homepage. Now that many of the streaming box makers are streaming services themselves, there are also many new conflicts. Your Fire TV will absolutely shove Freevee down your throat, while Roku will never let you forget that the Roku channel exists.
There really isn’t any way or reason for companies to build additional functionality into their boxes, as each app is a universe unto itself. So if you can’t build a box that’s more than a home screen or a portal to your other stuff, what are you counting on? You charge for tiny upgrades. Want 4K streaming? That is a few tens above the basic price. Dolby Audio, Dolby Vision, faster Wi-Fi? A few tens more. A remote that doesn’t suck? $20, usually. But that only gets you so far, which is perhaps why even the most expensive, supposedly high-end streaming devices rarely cost more than about $80.
There used to be premium-priced products that provided better experiences, but those are now largely gone
This was not always the case, by the way. A long time ago, TiVo boxes were expensive but popular because they did exactly what you wanted to do – help you watch what you want, when you want – better than anything else on the market. The skip button alone was worth the lifetime subscription. The Slingbox was a similar premium gadget, but it served a specific purpose and did it well. Companies like Caavo have popped in from time to time to really elevate the experience. Even Microsoft took a big gamble on reinventing entertainment with the Xbox One…which didn’t go over very well. Over time, the industry seemed to learn that you can’t do this right, and it’s not really worth trying.
The other problem is that there is hardly anyone in the streaming device industry trying to monetize their streaming devices. You know that old Amazon saying, “we don’t make money when you buy our products, we make money when you use our products?” That mainly regulates the streaming box business. Amazon isn’t trying to monetize the Fire TV – it’s trying to get you used to Alexa and sign up for Prime. Google just wants to show you ads and might convert you to a YouTube TV or YouTube Premium subscriber. (But mostly the ads.)
Even Roku, which was initially successful because it was a hardware company that didn’t compete for advertising dollars or content spending with the streaming service, is now an advertising company with a side of hardware. Even as the company expands into other smart home devices, Roku continues to view the devices as nothing more than a loss leader. “As with our TV streaming model, we plan to scale out our devices and then monetize them through smart home services,” Roku CEO Anthony Wood wrote in a letter to investors last year.
How do you build scale with your devices? Sell them as cheaply as possible, which is good if your goal is to buy something that plays videos on television. It’s easier and cheaper than ever! But if you want the streaming box we’ve been promised, the race to the bottom makes everything worse. As Roku, Google, and Amazon have focused on making their software work on cheap sticks and built into cheap TVs, they’ve made the experience worse even on their seemingly high-end devices. I swear, every day my apps open a little slower.
There are two more or less exceptions to the rule here: Apple and Nvidia. Apple’s ambitions for the Apple TV appear to be right as it pushed to make the TV app the evolved TV guide we’ve been waiting for, adding some gaming and smart home controls to the device. It has become more powerful over time and even slightly cheaper. As my colleague Chris Welch mentioned, this is probably the best overall streaming box you can buy. If nothing else, at least it’s fast. But the task of fixing the guide was Sisyphean to Apple, and the rock never makes it up that hill. As it stands, the Apple TV interface is perhaps most “just a grid of app icons”. And as the company continues to invest in shows and movies for Apple TV Plus and its wider service business, it also looks like the Apple TV will become the same as any other Apple product: just a way to sell you more Apple products.
If you own an Nvidia Shield right now, you’re probably yelling at your screen: WHAT ABOUT THE SHIELD? THE SHIELD IS AMAZING. And you are not wrong. In a funny way, the Shield is the exception that proves the rule: three years after the last update, Nvidia’s Android TV-powered box, which was originally built largely to prove that a powerful streaming box is actually a good idea that should exist, is still one of the most powerful and functional streaming boxes on the market. It supports cloud gaming, most advanced streaming features, updated apps, all the bells and whistles you could want. Like the Apple TV, it’s mostly crippled by the fact that no one wants the software to work the way it should. And it’s never been clear whether Nvidia cares much about the Shield at all; it is rarely updated and rarely referenced by the company.
I hate to be a downer, but all evidence points to this situation getting worse instead of better. With every streaming service trying to be a destination, every streaming app trying to be everything to all viewers. You can now subscribe to streaming services within other services! You can play games on the Netflix app, Apple has built an entirely new service to show you MLS games, and YouTube is systematically trying to eat up every other streaming service. Some streaming apps are still downright awful – looking at you, HBO Max – but others are getting better and more ambitious.
All evidence says this will get worse before it gets better
As in many parts of the tech industry, what matters most is the software. Of course, the quality of the shows and movies is much more important than how fast they load. But the state of the set-top box world is as the industry agreed that “software is king” and then immediately threw the iPhones, Galaxies and Pixels off the market, leaving us to choose between Tracfone, Blu, Motorola and nothing else . Cheap devices are important and worth having, and it’s great that they keep getting better. But it’s a shame that the idea of a “high-end” streaming box just doesn’t exist. We use these devices for hours a day, they are central to our home and they should serve a much bigger purpose than slowly buffering a video.
If Apple can finally crack the streaming guide, if Nvidia can prove it really cares, or if Roku or Amazon or Google decide it’s worth building a true flagship streaming box, I’ll gladly foot the bill . Until then, I will continue to hate my set-top boxes. But I think I’m stuck with them.