Changing TV-watching habits have seen the sales of media streamers soar in recent years. These devices from Apple, Amazon and Google are set to become even hotter tickets this year as a result of the recent global expansion of video-streaming giant Netflix.
Global sales of stand-alone media streamers are estimated to have grown a solid 30 per cent to 41 million units last year, according to preliminary figures from market research firm Strategy Analytics.
These media streamers are set-top boxes or dongles that stream over-the-top (OTT) content, such as music and videos, to television sets over the Internet or a home network. Many of the OTT services available on media streamers are based in the United States and do not work in Singapore.
But The Straits Times understands that many users here subscribe to a virtual private network (VPN) service to bypass geographical restrictions.
Analysts expect the sale of media streamers to get an extra boost from Netflix's recent expansion into more than 130 countries, including Singapore.
Strategy Analytics director David Watkins said: "The greatest boost is expected in markets where broadband penetration is more advanced, and in territories where local language content deals have been already struck." He noted that there are fewer barriers to adoption of Netflix in Singapore than in other Asian markets.
Popular media streamers include the Apple TV and the Google Chromecast. At the end of last November, the Google Chromecast had 35 per cent of the global market, with the Apple TV at 20 per cent, said Strategy Analytics.
Mr Aaron Koh, 39, has been using the Google Chromecast for the past six months to stream content from video-streaming service Hulu, which is based in the United States, with the aid of a VPN service.
The marketing manager cancelled his cable subscription two years ago because he did not see the need to have all the channels "that do not let you choose the programmes you want to watch".
CUTTING THE CORD
He is part of the growing group of so-called "cord-cutters". This trend is especially evident in the US, where many have cut their cable subscriptions in favour of OTT services.
A study by Pew Research Centre last year found that 15 per cent of American adults have cancelled their pay-TV subscription in recent years.
More pertinently, 16 per cent of young American adults aged 18 to 29 have never had a pay-TV subscription. Instead, they access OTT content via a variety of devices, including smartphone, media streamer and smart TV.
In Singapore, this trend does not appear to be prevalent yet. Cable TV operator StarHub's earnings report for the third quarter of 2015 shows that it has, in fact, increased its cable customer base by around 3,000 households from the previous year.
A likely reason could be the strong demand by local consumers for live sports, a content genre which is still not widely available from OTT providers.
But local media-streaming fans have never had it so good as they can pick from an inexpensive Android set-top box to a high-end smart TV to watch content from new entrants like Netflix and Viu.
The Straits Times' verdict on four of the latest media streamers
1. Nvidia Shield Android TV
The Nvidia Shield Android TV is closer to being a full-fledged game console than a media streamer.
For one thing, the Shield, like the Apple TV, can run games that have been optimised for the big screen. Nvidia even bundles a game controller with the Shield, in addition to the usual remote control.
The Shield is powered by Android TV. Designed for TV sets, this Android variant has large, readable tiles instead of app icons. The interface works well with both the remote and the game controller.
2. ViewQwest TV 4K
The ViewQwest TV 4K streaming media player was touted as a game-changer at its launch.
Produced by local Internet service provider ViewQwest, this media streamer comes integrated with ViewQwest's Freedom VPN service that lets users bypass geographical locks on streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.
Previously, Freedom VPN was available only to ViewQwest subscribers. But now that it comes bundled with the media streamer, you do not have to subscribe to ViewQwest for Freedom VPN, opening the service to subscribers of other broadband providers.
3. Roku 4
The Roku 4 is the media streamer to get if all you want to do is to watch the TV and movies.
Unlike the Apple TV or Nvidia Shield, the Roku 4 is not for gaming, even for casual titles. Unless, that is, you fancy playing Tetris, Snake and puzzle games on your TV.
Another caveat: the Roku 4 is about as good as a paperweight if you do not subscribe to a VPN service. Most of the apps available for the Roku are geographically locked to the US and a VPN is required to get the most out of it.
4. Apple TV (4th Generation)
Now into its fourth generation, the new Apple TV has its own operating system with the tvOS. It comes with its own App Store, so native apps can be installed in the device. The user interface is also as user-friendly as it is with iOS.
There is also a new remote control, which comes with a built-in accelerometer and gyroscope. The remote supports the Siri voice-recognition technology, but the feature is available only in the United States and seven other countries.
Singapore is not among them but you can still use the feature by switching to the US iTunes store.