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Product Review

Streaming gaining popularity, but satisfaction lags

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Millions of Americans now watch video that’s delivered to their screen over the Internet.

In a recent survey, 52 percent of more than 15,000 ConsumerReports.org subscribers said they had used a streaming video service in the previous month, compared with 47 percent who saw a movie at a theater; 43 percent who rented a DVD or Blu-ray disc; and 32 percent who used their cable provider’s video-on-demand service. Most didn’t drop TV service, but use streaming as a supplement to regular TV rather than as a replacement.

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The overwhelming majority of streaming viewers — 81 percent — used Netflix. The rest of the services covered in the survey were used by only 2 to 14 percent of respondents.

But Netflix didn’t earn especially high scores for satisfaction from users surveyed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The biggest gripe with Netflix’s streaming service was its limited selection of movies, especially the latest releases.

This is a common problem with all-you-can-watch streaming services, a category that includes Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Fewer than 1 in 5 survey respondents said that they were highly satisfied with the choice of titles from those services.

Netflix’s disc business was judged better than its streaming operation, even though Netflix says it’s focusing on streaming and putting limited resources into its disc business. In line with that strategy, it discontinued joint streaming and disc subscriptions in 2011 and started charging a separate fee for each service. That prompted many subscribers to drop one of the two plans.

Among Consumer Report’s survey respondents who had joint Netflix subscriptions, more than twice as many abandoned discs as gave up streaming.

That shift shows up in Netflix’s subscription numbers. Earlier this year, it announced that it had 23.4 million streaming subscribers and 10.1 million subscribers to its disc-by-mail plan.

Consumer Reports recommends weighing a number of things when deciding which service best meets your needs. Streaming definitely has room for improvement. Satisfaction scores for streaming- video services were lower than for most other services Consumer Reports has rated during the past few years.

Also consider the types of equipment you use to get streaming video to your TV. Don’t overlook Internet-connected set-top boxes, which were among the most satisfying options for users.

What you need to stream Internet video

To use a streaming video service, you’ll need a device that can access the Internet. You might already own one. Widely sold gaming systems Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation have the ability to stream Internet video. So do many Blu-ray players introduced over the past year or so.

Buying a new TV? Consider one with built-in streaming capability, which is standard on many new models. You don’t need to spend a lot: Relatively low-cost TVs with streaming capability that Consumer Reports recommends include the LG 42PM4700, $650, a 42-inch plasma.

If you’re keeping your current TV or buying a new one without streaming, think about adding a set-top box such as an ­Apple TV or a Roku, each of which costs $100 or less. About 1 in 4 respondents used a set-top box, and most were highly satisfied with the device.

Wi-Fi is standard with set-top boxes and gaming consoles, a plus if your TV isn’t near the modem or router. Wireless capability is less common on TVs and Blu-ray players, though more new models have it.

You can count on getting Netflix with any streaming device, but other video services are hit or miss. Note that the device manufacturer can change the lineup of services at any time via a software update.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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