Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Comparing Streaming Services

Streaming may be replacing Cable TV, but it has a long way to go...

We literally "cut the cord" on all cords in our home.  The only source of data or voice or television, we get from our cell phones.  Configured as a WiFi "hotspot" I can type this on my laptop, or go on any website. I can watch Netflix or YouTube or something called "Vudu" (which I think went out of business) on our old Sharp television.

That is one problem with this streaming thing - I see the new televisions for sale in Walmart - larger sets for less money than I paid for the 48" unit we bought years ago.  They are pre-configured to access the sites of all the major streaming services - of which there are many. When our set was made, there were only three, with the NETFLIX button being most prominent on the remote.

Well, a lot has changed since then, and configuring hardware to work with only certain sites is a little short-sighted.  Websites and services change over time - quite rapidly.  But maybe in the future we'll chuck television sets faster than we do smart phones.  Actually, they cost less.  A new iPhone or Galaxy can cost over $1000, while a pretty decent television can be had for under $500. Welcome to our brave new world of disposable electronics.

I opined a few months back a better way to "stream" video might be to sign up for one service for a month, binge-watch what they have, and then cancel the service and sign up for a different one.   If you tried to sign up for every service currently streaming today, you'd have a streaming bill well over $100 a month, perhaps far more.   It simply isn't worth it.

I noted before that I am finding less and less to watch on Netflix.  We cancel the service in the summer when we are on the road and then "catch up" with it in the winter when we are home more.   But after a month or so, we've watched all we want to watch on Netflix.  So much of the "content" is soap-opera like series produced by Netflix.  Gone for good are recent releases and historically significant movies.  So, last month, I pulled the plug on Netflix a few months early.   We weren't using it - so why bother paying?

To their credit, Netflix makes this easy to do, and they don't play "negative option" games like "Oh, computer error!  We never got your request to cancel, which requires three hours on musical hold and a certified letter in triplicate!"  So that is a plus for them.   Content is a minus.

We decided to go back to the DVD service for a month or two.  If you sign up for a month, you get a month's free service, so I guess you could sign up for just one month and pay nothing, which might be what we do, as like the streaming side, it ain't what it used to be, and I am finding the well pretty dry after ordering only a few DVDs.   But again, something to try for a month and then move on to the next thing.

Since our television doesn't support other services, I found a VGA-to-HDMI adapter on eBay for about $2, delivered, plus an HDMI cable for another two bucks.  I signed up for Disney+ using Mark's old laptop (using my phone as a WiFi hotspot) and we can stream Disney.  Talk about a shallow well.  There is The Mandalorian and a bunch of Disney Princess movies and that's about it, unless you want to see the Herbie the Love Bug movies.   Oddly enough, Mark likes the Madalorian, mostly because of his gravelly sexy voice.  It was kind of a let-down to actually see his face in the last episode of the first season, and find out he is a puffy-faced guy with bad hair.   Sort of ruined the whole thing.

But again, it is another soap opera - a space opera - and I think once we've seen all 16 episodes, that will be it for Disney+.  Sorry Walt.

I have no idea yet if it is easy to cancel, so I'll update this when I learn - pretty soon.  Of the three services I have tried (Netflix, Disney+, YouTube) Disney is the worst for streaming.  Netflix has a robust streaming engine that buffers a lot of content, so it never drops out or jitters - no hourglass appearing during action scenes.  YouTube is probably second-best and Disney a distant third.  Disney doesn't seem to buffer much, so action scenes often pause and give you an hourglass on the screen.  This is an artifact of MPEG encoding - in static scenes, all you need to do is load intermediate frames, which don't require a lot of band-width.  But in action scenes, you have to load more original P-type frames, and this slows things down.   Probably not an issue if you have a standard internet service, but even then, there's internet service and internet service, and a lot of "throttling" goes on these days, particularly if you don't pay for top tier internet.

The big problem is, of course, that back in the day when it was just Netflix, and they had the STARZ contract, they had a ton of content and it was the only game in town.  Today, every television network and movie studio and "content provider" has their own channel, and you have to try them all to get any kind of content.   Like I said,  you can try them one at a time, and pay only a few dollars a month to watch.  $5.99 to $11.99 a month beats a $125-a-month cable bill, any day.

There is, of course, YouTube, which is "free" although they are pushing their own monthly membership service.  If you don't pay, you have to watch ads, which started out as 5-second annoyances, that morphed into 30-second ads you could "skip" after 5 seconds, to some videos which have minute-long un-skippable ads - and several of them.  YouTube even offers full-length movies "with ads" (lots of ads) and a lot of old-school television shows.  If you want to watch re-runs of 1970's "Match Game" or "Mannix" they have it in spades.  Car crash videos?  Car rally crash videos?  Airplane crash videos?   Travel videos?  Cooking videos?  Of course - along with knitting videos.  It is an odd mix.

I haven't signed up for the paid YouTube service, which illustrates the problem for them - hard to get people to pay for what was once free.   People will tolerate more and more ads, particularly if you increase the ad rate slowly over time.  Pandora used to have ads "once in a while" but now it seems they are every other song - and each ad is accompanied by an ad for Pandora premium.   The glory days of streaming are behind us.  Someone figured out there is money to be made here.  It will be like network television and FM radio before too long.

Of course, the ultimate "channel" is the off channel, and consuming less content is always an option - often the best one.  Watching less television, less news, less smart-phone, less "screen time" always seems to be the best option - life is better and less stressful.

Whether we will try other streaming services remains to be seen.  I am not sure I will find anything of value on CBS or NBC or ABC or FOX online - or even things from the major studios.  Quite frankly, as I get older, I find most of the content less and less entertaining.  And I think this is normal, as you get older.  Explosion movies are a young man's game.

Doing things is better than watching things.

UPDATE:  A reader mentions Amazon Prime streaming service, which I also tried and found lacking.

UPDATE:  It is possible to adjust the data rate on Disney Plus. You have to go to the user icon and then there's a pull-down menu and one of the settings allows you to select from three levels of data rate. The default rate is an astounding 4 gigabytes per hour, which would use up the data plans of most people within a few hours. It tries to stream at 4K which is ridiculous as most people can't notice the difference. I set it at the lowest setting and that got rid of the hourglass and we didn't notice any difference in the screen resolution.