TV on the Net
by Steve Kelley, CVRT
Cut the cord! Television viewing has changed dramatically in the last several years. The traditional “tube” that sat in a common area of the home with a rabbit ear antenna or a cable connection has given way to a wide variety of hardware and software options that provide television content, like serial TV shows, movies, etc. without the need to be connected to a cable provider or antenna. Programming is instead, delivered or “streamed” across the Internet. Some of these options may enhance TV viewing for consumers with low vision.
I first became intrigued with these new television products at a client’s home when he demonstrated how he was using his Android smartphone on a large screen TV to eliminate cable costs. He used a Chromecast device, connected to the TV, that communicated wirelessly with his smartphone, so that whatever was on the phone’s screen was “mirrored” to the television screen. This client was using Chromecast to “cast” TV shows and movies, which were streamed from the Internet on his phone to the larger television screen. What interested me even more than the TV viewing was that he was also projecting his email, texts, and web browser onto the large screen TV to read them more easily! In fact, he also had a wireless keyboard connected to the phone, so it resembled a large screen computer setup more than a TV with email on the screen.
Chromecast is just one example of several products that are redefining what it means to interact with TV. Before looking at the others, let’s take a look at how television has changed.
High speed Internet service delivered through an Ethernet cable, WiFi, or cellular, enables programming to be “streamed” over the Internet to computers, tablets, smartphones, and smart televisions. There is another piece of hardware that can be connected to HDMI screens or televisions which enables streaming Internet content to be played on the TV. The term, “cutting the cord,” refers to unsubscribing to cable television and relying instead on the programming available from one of these devices. The irony, of course, is that in many areas of the country the major high-speed Internet service providers are the cable companies!
Four of the most popular streaming television products are the Chromecast mentioned above from Google, Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon’s Fire TV. At the most basic level each streaming device does much the same. Each connects to the HDMI port on the television (so these will not work with older TVs), and connects to the local Internet service through a WiFi connection. Both the Apple TV and one of the Roku players will permit an Ethernet or wired connection to the Internet. Each service then provides access to programming applications that stream video and audio content to the screen.
For example, each provides access to Netflix, a very popular subscription-based service that permits viewers to select and watch movies on demand. Hulu is another service that is subscription-based that offers a wider variety of traditional television programming. There are also many selections at no charge, such as PBS programming, YouTube, NBC News, etc. So regardless of the service, viewers have a variety of programming options, both subscription based, and at no cost. There is no fee for service to use either of the four streaming devices, and it is not mandatory to purchase any of the subscription-based services, so if all you really want to watch is PBS and a news channel or two, you might be satisfied with any one of the four streaming devices.
Apple TV and Fire TV
Both the Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV are accessible and include text-to-speech to enable complete access to the menus. The latest version of the Apple TV is accessible right out of the box, and provides both screen magnifier, and VoiceOver, the same text-to-speech screen reader used on their idevices and Mac computers. Fire TV uses Amazon’s VoiceView version of the Talkback screen reader used on most Android devices. VoiceView is available on Fire TV devices capable of updating to the most recent software version. Screen reader users may find more overall access to applications on the Apple TV versus the Fire TV. See Bill Holton’s AccessWorld article, “The Fire TV with VoiceView from Amazon: An Accessibility Review,” in which he reports that “few of these third-party apps have been optimized to work with VoiceView,” and describes installing apps that ultimately didn’t work with the screen reader.
Roku, as of this post, is rolling out an update to their software on many devices, which will include a new screen reader, called “Audio Guide.” “Audio Guide” is slated to be installed on many Roku models, including the least expensive version, the $30 Roku Express. Until the 7.5 software update is available, however, the Roku remains inaccessible to users requiring a screen reader.
Google’s Chromecast is a bit different from the other streaming devices in the sense that it works with the Google Home app, running on a tablet or smartphone. It is not accessible out-of-the-box on the TV side, so sighted assistance will be necessary during initial setup, but it is then as accessible as the device being used to control it. So, for example, if you are using an Android smartphone to connect to Chromecast, Talkback and screen magnification on the phone will enable you greater access to the TV. If “screen mirroring” is selected from the Google Home app menu, then whatever is on the phone screen is projected to the TV screen, including magnification, a very handy feature. Unlike the Roku, Fire TV , and Apple TV, the Chromecast does not come with a separate remote, and a tablet or phone is used as the remote.
Like the Chromecast screen mirroring mentioned above, the Apple world includes AirPlay, which allows mirroring the screen of one device onto another. So, for example, a picture on an iPhone could be projected to the larger screen on the Apple TV using AirPlay.
The accessibility tangent is that both ChromeCast and AirPlay on the AppleTV allow anything on the tablet or phone screen to be magnified on the TV screen, and both have a built-in screen magnifier. In addition to making emails or an electronic document larger in a very practical way, the cameras on a tablet or smartphone mirrored to the larger screen TV make a useable video magnifier. This setup certainly will not have all the nice features of a dedicated DeVinci video magnifier, for example, but it may make it easier to read a pill bottle or a piece of mail in a pinch!
How Do You Choose?
What features are most important to you? If accessibility is what you want most, the Apple TV is certainly at the top of the list and offers the most seamless integration of both magnifier and screen reader. In addition, users are more likely to find accessibility in the apps available for the Apple TV than the Fire TV, if for no other reason than that VoiceView is a new feature. If you are most familiar with the accessibility features on Android devices, you may find the Chromecast is a good, accessible alternative. At this time, the Roku is not an option, but when the Audio Guide does come with the new software update, it may be!
Although each of the streaming devices offers some common and popular applications, like Netflix, the Roku and Chromecast offer a greater overall variety of choices. Roku has a great selection of educational and lifestyle programming, and Chromecast will play whatever is available on your Android smartphone or tablet. It has only been with the most recent version of the Apple TV 4th Generation that apps are available to download — prior to this, the AppleTV came with a fixed set of programming options. In this area, the Apple TV is playing a bit of catch up, but doing it quickly.
Before buying, give some thought to the type of programming you’re most interested in. One of the most comprehensive streaming comparison charts for programming is on “TechHive” [Please note: these charts are images so will not be accessible with a screen reader]. Also consider what digital world you are most comfortable in or if you have a specific preference. For example, if you are an Apple user and have a lot of content purchased through iTunes, you may find that outside of Apple TV, you may have to use some workarounds to get that content to play on Fire TV. Up until very recently, you were unable to play Amazon programming on the Apple TV unless you played it on your tablet or phone and mirrored it on the TV. Take the time to investigate whether your favorite programming is supported on the device you’re considering.
Consumers can jump into the world of streaming TV for as little as $29.99 on the Roku Express and spend as much as $199 for an Apple TV with 64 GB of memory.
Amazon Fire TV: $39.99 (Fire TV Stick)– $129.99 (Fire TV Gaming Edition)
Chromecast: $35 – $69 (Chromecast Ultra)
Roku: $29 (Express) – $129 (Ultra Streaming Media Player)
AppleTV 4th Gen: $149.99 (32 GB) – $199.99 (64 GB)
Ultimately, whichever streaming product is accessible to you, plays the programming you’re interested in, and fits within your budget is up to you. While accessibility of the Fire TV is relatively new, and not as robust as the Apple TV, the $39.99 Fire TV stick offers a great variety of programming for those in the Amazon world. The Apple TV, although at the upper end of the cost spectrum, offers great accessibility, both magnifier and screen reader, and a growing list of content apps.
As a side note, the Apple TV 3rd Generation is still available at this time for $69 with VoiceOver for accessibility. The Apple TV 3rd Gen comes with a fixed set of apps pre-installed which does limit the content selection compared to the other streaming devices. For anyone on a tight budget wanting good accessibility and content with a basic set of programming, this is a great option.
If you are undecided, stay tuned for the accessibility update coming to the Roku. When it arrives, the Roku Express at $29.99, with the text to speech Audio Guide, will be hard to beat as an entry-level streaming device.
Now, go ahead…Cut the cord!