Streaming boxes had so much potential. They were going to reinvent the cable box for the internet age and make it easier for users to find and organize and watch everything available in this era of infinite content. They were going to turn our TVs, the hub of our homes, into smart gadgets through which we could do almost anything. They were going to be game consoles. Streaming boxes were the next big thing.
Instead, well, streaming boxes suck. You can’t find a single product on the market that comes even remotely close to satisfying this vision. Instead of a thriving hardware and software category, streaming boxes have turned into ever-cheaper commodity items. At the Walgreens down the street from my house, crammed in between AA batteries and bizarrely unbranded wired headphones, sits a Roku Express HD for $30. And it’s as good a buy as anything else. Streaming boxes are bad, and they’re getting worse instead of better.
You could almost argue that in their current form, streaming boxes don’t need to exist at all. By most measures, 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 barely find one that doesn’t have some operating system built in.
Of course, most of those smart TVs are slow, riddled with ads, and try to track your every move. That’s why a good streaming box is such a good idea, at least in theory. The rest of tech’s evolution has made good TV hardware and software even more important — cloud gaming is improving all the time, our homes are getting smarter, we’re even using our TVs to video chat. Streaming boxes let you upgrade without throwing out your big screen and add new features that might not come baked into the set itself. Plus, a good box could mitigate some of the worst ills of the smart TV world. To borrow an old-TV analogy: the built-in smart TV stuff is like the rabbit ears of old, and we need the cable box.
But the perfect streaming box doesn’t exist. Who’s to blame for that? Everybody. But it starts with the streaming services themselves. For a streaming box to truly serve its cable-box purpose, it would need to index and access all the content available on every service, so users could search and organize as they like. But by and large, 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 MythBusters” anymore, so much as you open up the Netflix app and see what it shows you.
Many services thus withhold their data from aggregators and search engines, and so while many companies have tried to build a universal search system, nobody’s gotten even close. (Even the most successful ones are mostly manually created, which is why you might get four near-identical results for the same movie search.) Our TV viewing is stuck in an old-internet paradigm, where you have to navigate through an endless series of aggregators and folders to find what you’re looking for.
You can see how this plays out by looking at the homescreen of any set-top box on the market. They don’t lead with content; they lead with apps. Even the ones that have tried hard to bring shows and movies to the forefront, like the new Google TV interface, still fall back to apps on the second row of the homepage. Now that many of the streaming box makers are themselves streaming services, new conflicts abound as well. Your Fire TV is going to absolutely shove Freevee down your throat, while Roku will never let you forget the Roku Channel exists.
There’s really no way or reason for companies to build extra functionality into their boxes because every app is a universe unto itself. So if you can’t build a box that’s more than a homescreen or a portal to your other stuff, what do you charge for? You charge for teeny tiny upgrades. Want 4K streaming? That’s a few bucks over the base price. Dolby Audio, Dolby Vision, faster Wi-Fi? A few bucks 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 run more than about $80.
There used to be premium-priced products that provided better experiences, but they are largely gone now
This wasn’t always the case, by the way. Way back when, TiVo boxes were expensive but popular because they did exactly the thing 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 similarly premium gadget, but it served a specific purpose and did it well. Companies like Caavo have periodically come along trying to truly upgrade the experience. Even Microsoft made a big bet on reinventing entertainment with the Xbox One… which didn’t go so well. Over time, the industry seemed to learn that you can’t do this well, and it’s not really worth trying.
The other problem is that there’s almost nobody in the streaming devices business actually trying to make money from their streaming devices. You know that old Amazon adage, “we don’t make money when you buy our products, we make money when you use our products?” That mostly governs the streaming box business, too. Amazon’s not trying to make money from the Fire TV — it’s trying to get you used to Alexa and signed up for Prime. Google just wants to show you ads and maybe convert you to a YouTube TV or YouTube Premium subscriber. (But mostly the ads.)
Even Roku, which was initially successful precisely because it was a hardware business that didn’t compete for ad dollars or content spend 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 see the devices as nothing more than a loss leader. “Similar to our TV streaming model, we plan to build scale with our devices and then monetize 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 cheap as possible, which is good, if your goal is to buy a thing that plays videos on television. That’s easier and cheaper than ever! But if you want the streaming box we were 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 ostensibly high-end devices. I swear, every day, my apps open a little slower.
There are two kinda-sorta exceptions to the rule here: Apple and Nvidia. Apple’s ambitions for the Apple TV seem to be the right ones, as it pushed to turn the TV app into the evolved TV Guide we’ve been waiting for and added some gaming and smart-home controls to the device. It’s gotten more powerful over time and even slightly cheaper. Like my colleague Chris Welch said, it’s probably the best overall streaming box you can buy. If nothing else, at least it’s fast. But the task of fixing the guide has been Sisyphean for Apple, and the rock is never getting up that hill. As it stands now, the Apple TV interface is maybe the most “just a grid of app icons” of all. And as the company continues to invest in shows and movies for Apple TV Plus and its services business more broadly, it also seems like the Apple TV is turning into the same thing as every other Apple product: just a way to sell you more Apple products.
By now, if you own an Nvidia Shield, you’re probably shouting at your screen, WHAT ABOUT THE SHIELD? THE SHIELD IS AMAZING. And you’re not wrong. In a funny way, the Shield is the exception that proves the rule: three years after its last update, Nvidia’s Android TV-powered box, which it 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 high-end streaming features, updated apps, all the bells and whistles you’d want. Like the Apple TV, it is hamstrung mostly by the fact that nobody wants the software to work the way it should. And it has never been clear whether Nvidia cares much about the Shield anyway; it’s infrequently 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. Now that every streaming service is trying to be a destination, every streaming app is trying to be all things to all viewers. You can subscribe to streaming services inside of other services now! You can play games in the Netflix app, Apple’s built an entirely new service to show you MLS games, and YouTube is systematically trying to eat every other streaming service. Some streaming apps are still downright horrible — looking at you, HBO Max — but others are getting better and more ambitious all the time.
All evidence says this is going to get worse before it gets better
Like in many parts of the tech industry, the software is the most important thing. The quality of the shows and movies obviously matters much more than how quickly they load. But the state of the set-top box world is like the industry agreed “software is king” and then immediately threw the iPhones, Galaxies, and Pixels out of the market, leaving us to choose among Tracfone, Blu, Motorola, and nothing else. Inexpensive devices are important and worthwhile, and it’s great that they continue to improve. But it’s a shame that the idea of a “high-end” streaming box simply doesn’t exist. We use these devices for hours a day, they’re central to our homes, and they ought to serve a much greater 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 decides it’s worth building a truly flagship streaming box, I’ll happily pony up for it. Until then, I’ll keep hating my set-top boxes. But I think I’m stuck with them.