Should you buy Verizon’s Stream TV box?

(Photo: Handout)

Answer: No. Buy this instead.

The streaming TV hardware space is dominated primarily by four players: Roku, Amazon, Apple and Nvidia. Now Verizon wants in on the action.

This week, the wireless/fiber company announced a new gadget called Stream TV. The device is a streaming media box running Android TV that, like its competitors, allows users to stream internet-based video services like Hulu and YouTube.

It isn’t clear why Verizon decided to enter the streaming TV hardware market, but one hint might be buried in its retail price: The box costs $70, but it’s free for subscribers of Verizon’s 5G home internet service.

Earlier this year, Verizon said it would offer an extended free trial of cable alternative YouTube TV to customers who sign up for its 5G home internet service. That service is available in a handful of major metropolitan cities across the U.S., but the free trial is useless to customers who may stream movies through an older device like a DVD player or videogame console, which are notoriously bad at updating software apps compared to standalone streamers like Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV devices.

Stream TV, on the other hand, uses Google’s Android TV software, and apps are updated about as frequently as they are for Android’s phone and tablet operating system. Offering the streaming device to Verizon customers is probably one way the company feels it can “lock” those customers into its 5G internet service.

Disney Plus, a new streaming service that launched this week with a huge catalog of Disney, Marvel and National Geographic content, is also available on Stream TV. Verizon customers receive Disney Plus for free through a special promotion.

What’s not available on Stream TV, surprisingly, is Netflix. Verizon confirms the second most-popular online video service (second only to YouTube) isn’t supported on the device “at this time.” Some have speculated Netflix might be offered in unofficial ways by installing it through a process called “sideloading” or by casting videos from a tablet or phone to the TV.

But the added hurdle of trying to access one of the biggest commercial video services on the planet seems like it would undermine Verizon’s overall goal with the device: To help people use their next-generation wireless internet service.

The lack of Netflix is a huge omission, and why Verizon to offer Stream TV for sale without it is a huge mystery. When asked for comment, a Verizon official gave The Verge the following canned response:

“We’re always evolving the features and functionality of the product. We’ll share more updates as we have them.”

Not reassuring.

It’s hard to know who the culprit behind the no-Netflix move is here: Verizon for wanting to secure distribution partnerships similar to that of Disney and YouTube TV, for Netflix for demanding Verizon support certain standards or access to customer data in exchange for making the app available. We’ve seen disputes like this play out a few times over, with Disney initially leaving Amazon off their supported platforms for Disney Plus (Amazon was eventually added), Apple not supporting Spotify or Amazon Prime Video natively on its Apple TV devices (native apps are now available for both) and the famous Amazon-Google spat that saw Amazon yank Google’s streaming TV hardware from its online store and Google remove YouTube from Fire TV devices (the feud was settled more than a year later).

The only platform where the hardware distributor seems to play nice with content distributors is Roku: All the major apps — Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Pluto TV, Xumo, Tubi TV, etc. — are supported. Last month, Roku gained access to the Apple TV app, which allows users to access their iTunes movie and TV show library on the platform for the first time (the app launched ahead of Apple TV Plus, which is also offered).

Roku is also one of the cheapest platforms out there: It’s base devices cost $30 for HD and $50 for 4K video. Reviewers have consistently said it is the easiest platform to learn, and its mission of being content agnostic has served it well: Few apps have been dropped from Roku’s modern operating system, and almost none of the major ones have (Netflix is dropping support for older models of Roku — mainly those that have been around for almost a decade, which is not bad for a cheap piece of hardware).

Verizon customers may be tempted by the offer of “free,” but until the company promises a guarantee of Netflix and a commitment to not withholding popular apps and services from its device, customers are better off making a one-time investment in a Roku box.

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