Smartphones are selling like hotcakes. Okay, they’re selling better than hotcakes, and, alongside tablets, they’re replacing everything from laptops to televisions. For many people, they’re becoming the primary way to watch video, whether it’s traditional shows, full-length movies, or bite-sized YouTube clips.
There are many ways to get content on your device, but which way is best for you? That depends largely on your circumstances. For folks with spotty Internet connections or a costly cellular plan, streaming everything may not be the best approach. On the other hand, people who don’t like manually transferring files or want to watch shows on multiple devices may not want to deal with managing local content.
However you prefer watching video, there’s a way to do so using your Android phone or tablet. Here’s how.
Put simply, streaming means watching a video while it downloads, though you usually don’t get to keep the video afterward. The experience is akin to watching TV, only with more buffering involved.
This is the direction the media industry is moving in and the most obvious way to start watching video on a phone or tablet out of the box. If you’re looking for TV shows or movies, the question has become less one of if you can find what you’re looking for, but where.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the options out there.
1. General Streaming Services
When you sign up for a video streaming service these days, you can expect to pay a monthly fee to get access to a full catalog of content. Netflix and Hulu take this approach. Amazon Video shakes this up by coming as part of an Amazon Prime subscription, which costs an annual fee and comes with a whole bunch of other perks.
Some services, like YouTube and Crackle, are free. These tend to be ad-supported (though some paid services, such as Hulu, may still show commercials too). Recently, Google introduced YouTube Red, which gets rid of ads and throws in some exclusive content in exchange for a monthly subscription.
2. Network-Specific Apps
After seeing the success Netflix and other forerunners have had, many traditional content makers are offering their own apps. You can get one for CBS, which provides some free content but wants $5.99 a month for the full selection. Premium pay-per-view networks like HBO and Showtime have also gotten into the game.
Some require a cable or satellite television subscription, such as Disney Channel, Disney Junior, ESPN, HGTV, Nickelodeon, and TBS. Many take a hybrid approach combining some free content with the need for a cable subscription. Among these are ABC, Comedy Central, and NBC. On the other hand, PBS still provides its content for free.
3. TV Subscription Companion Apps
Faced with declining TV sales and viewership, cable companies have started offering apps such as XFINITY TV GO and TWC TV that allow subscribers to take much of the content they watch on TV with them on a phone or tablet.
This option does little to appease cord cutters as they still require a monthly plan, but they’re worth checking out if you’re a content cable or satellite customer.
4. Buying & Renting
Not everything is subscription based. Google Play Movies & TV encourages you to buy shows by the season, even series that won’t finish airing for a few months. Amazon also lets people who don’t have a Prime account purchase content on demand.
5. Cable Imitators
Many people may consider the idea of a traditional TV channel to be archaic, but others love the approach. For them, a couple of options have popped up online. Pluto TV scours the Internet for free content and bundles it into continuous streams. Navigating the service feels less like flicking through a grid and more like browsing a TV guide.
Folks who don’t want to settle for “fake” channels can pay $20 a month to stream some of the channels they used to watch on cable by subscribing to Sling TV.
6. Browser-based Video
Then there’s the old-fashioned option of watching video clips directly in your browser. Many of the services above work in a browser, though there’s not much reason to try doing so this way on a phone or tablet.
However, there are sites out there that are loaded with flash video. Android no longer supports this format out of the box, but you can get those video clips working again by installing an alternative browser.
This wide range of options means you can now watch a large portion of what you want using Android, but if you want to watch everything, it won’t be cheap. No one service offers everything, and it only takes signing up for a few of them to feel like you’re paying a cable bill again. And you’re still going to need a cable subscription if you want to watch most sports games — though you can get some by signing up for Sling TV.
These aren’t the only drawbacks. You don’t own anything you watch through any of these services. True, you don’t own anything you watch on cable either, but you do own the DVDs or Blu-Ray discs you buy from the store. When you get a movie through any of the services above, you’re getting a license to view the content for only as long as the site continues to exist. If those servers shut down, you may wish you had taken the $15 you spent on a digital copy and plucked it down on a physical one instead.
You don’t have to wait for a service to shut down to lose access to content either. If Netflix loses streaming rights to a show, you can’t watch it using its apps anymore. This can be quite the unpleasant surprise when a child goes to watch his or her favorite show and finds out it’s no longer there. I was distraught when Netflix dropped Stargate a couple years back.
Playing Local Files
Watching video locally consists of downloading a file to your device and watching it in your app of choice. Typically these files come as MP4 or some other video format.
Storing your own collection comes with several advantages. For starters, you have control over the files on your computer, unless they’re locked down with DRM (though, even then, there are ways around that).
Since the video is on your computer, tablet, or smartphone, you can watch it at any time, regardless of if you have an Internet connection. You only have to download the content once, saving bandwidth compared to re-downloading every time you want to watch as you do when streaming.
You can download video in the highest quality available. Then you get to enjoy the same beautiful picture each time you play, without worrying about congested networks or buffering. And you can choose whichever video player you like most. This gives you greater control over video compared to streaming, where you’re stuck with whatever interface the service provides.
Again, there are downsides. Most TV shows and movies are not available for download DRM-free. Not legally, anyway. You can find commercial content for free on various websites, but pirating in this manner puts you on the wrong side of the law. Cracking DRM can also leave you in a legal gray area.
Then there’s the hassle of having to move files around between devices. Whether you do so by plugging in cables, transferring data over a local network, or syncing content over a cloud service, it takes more effort and organization than opening YouTube.
Taking a Hybrid Approach
For some of us, the ideal approach would be having control over our own personal library but still being able to watch our content with the same convenience offering by media streaming services. An even better experience might be having access to local and streaming content in the same place.
The most basic approach is to plug a hard drive into your router or have a designed computer make content available to other machines on your local network. Then you can stream them to other devices using a video player.
Some companies have started to release hard drives and other backup solutions with companion apps that stream content to your other devices. Options are available from the likes of SanDisk, Seagate, Toshiba, and others.
Alternatively, you can download Plex. This service is available for your PC, tablet, smartphone, smart TV, or set-top box. You can then stream video from your desktop or network-connected hard drive to all of your other devices. You can get started for free, but some features require a $4.99 monthly subscription.
With Kodi and Plex, you can watch some options such as Netflix and Hulu inside Plex thanks to community-supported add-ons.
Has an Android Device Replaced Your TV?
Watching video on a mobile device used to be a dream. Now it has become a reality that is upending the television landscape.
But that doesn’t mean embracing mobile apps has to cut down on your TV usage. Not at all. Many of these options, whether streaming from Netflix, playing a video stored on an SD card, or watching something over a local network, let you cast video to your TV using Chromecast. Alternatively, many of those set-top boxes you see in stores are based on Android, and manufacturers such as Sony have started baking the open source operating system directly into their latest smart TVs. Android doesn’t have to replace your TV. It might actually be the reason you stare at the big screen more.
Do you prefer watching shows on a phone, tablet, or TV? There are ways to stream and download video that I did not cover. What’s your favorite method? Whether you’re happy with the state of video on Android or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Image Credit: bowl with popcorn by Margarita Nikolskaya via Shutterstock