TV & Movie Entertainment on the Road: Streaming, Downloading & Alternatives

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tv-and-movies-for-rversWhile RVers do enjoy getting out exploring our new locales, hiking in nature, and visiting with friends – when RVing is a lifestyle and not a vacation, it’s all about finding balance.

This means there’s no shame in skipping a hike to enjoy watching some television - or bailing on a museum to stream a good flick.

This is life on the road, not an endless vacation. We are RVing, not just "camping" - spending all our days playing tourist and evenings roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

There will be bad weather days, or days you’re not feeling well, or days you’re just overwhelmed exploring yet another epic location (yes, it happens) when you'd rather just Netflix and chill at home. So do it.

Unwinding after a day of work, exploring, or socializing by plopping down in front of the tube is not a crime!

The problem:

For many, one of the hardest aspects of hitting the road may be breaking their TV addiction. But affordable streaming options for RVers are out there!

For many, one of the hardest aspects of hitting the road may be the fear of breaking a TV addiction. But affordable streaming options for RVers are out there!

On the road - many of the old ways of staying entertained just don't work like you might be used to.

The cable is cut, satellite TV is hit-or-miss through the trees, over the air channels are completely unfamiliar, and online streaming can leave you fighting with flakey connections and living in fear of cellular data overages.

The overage fear is justified - nothing consumes data quicker than streaming video!

Data demands are skyrocketing ever higher as networks get faster, allowing streaming services to offer HD video and even ultra-HD video that delivers glorious pictures - but requires astronomical amounts of data to do it.

If you have a fast and unlimited residential data plan, like cable or fiber internet, then these data demands are no big deal.

But for those of us managing mobile connections with confusingly limited "unlimited" plans and constantly variable speeds, we quickly start running into problems if we’re not willing to adjust our expectations and viewing habits.

With some forms of mobile connectivity being as fast, or now even faster, than home-based cable services - you can easily blow through your quota for the month quicker than you might think possible - sometimes just by watching only a movie or two online.

But never fear - you don't have to give up your favorite shows to live life on the go.

If you learn a few tricks and the ways to avoid the worst pitfalls, there are actually still plenty of options to keep you entertained no matter where you roam!


Included in this Guide - Completely Refreshed October 2017:

Public / Free Content:

MIA-final_FullColor webMember Exclusive Content:


Streaming Fundamentals

Traditional broadcast, satellite, and cable TV sends out a signal that any number of people can tune into simultaneously. Because everyone is in sync, there is no possibility to pause or rewind without a recorder of some type in the mix. There have been multiple attempts over the years to enable broadcasting over the internet - but to date none of the technologies have really gained much traction.

Instead, streaming has caught on - personal video on demand from a hard drive in the cloud right to your screen with just a click.

The technology behind the scenes that makes this possible is near magical - and the amounts of data and resources required are astronomical.

And yet, it has become common, cheap, and easy.

But just what does it take to stream successfully - particularly on the road?

How Fast of a Connection to Stream?

Since August 2017 Verizon has been throttling video streams - capping streaming speeds at 10Mbps!

Simple answer - the faster the better, particularly if you want to watch in HD.

Here are the current speed recommendations for watching TV shows and movies through Netflix - other video services have similar needs:

  • 0.5 Megabits per second - Minimum connection speed - low-res blocky video.
  • 1.5 Megabits per second - Recommended broadband connection speed - basic quality.
  • 3.0 Megabits per second - Recommended for SD resolution, aka "DVD Quality.
  • 5.0 Megabits per second - Recommended for HD quality.
  • 25 Megabits per second - Recommended for Ultra HD / 4K quality.

Most video streaming sites can make the most of a slow connection to at least deliver low-res blocky video. But if your connection is barely fast enough - you may encounter pauses for "buffering", or lengthy delays when you jump to a new location in a show.

On the other hand - if your connection is particularly fast, you may burn through way more data than intended because most video streaming services will adapt to consume as much bandwidth as your connection will allow - and only some services allow you to dial things back and manually set a cap by picking a quality setting.

TIP: You can check your current speed reaching Netflix servers by going to Fast.com at any time. Comparing the speed you get testing here to the results from SpeedTest.net (or any other speed testing service) makes it easy to tell if your carrier is throttling the speed of video connections.

How Much Data Will I Use While Streaming?

Lots.

And if you are watching in HD or Ultra HD - LOTS!

Again using Netflix as an example, here are Netflix's estimates of how much data an hour of video will consume:

  • Lowest Resolution - 0.3 GB per hour
  • Medium (SD) Resolution - 0.7 GB per hour
  • High (HD) - 3 GB per hour
  • Ultra HD - 7 GB per hour

Netflix sets the gold standard for video compression - equivalent resolutions on other services often burn through data even faster!

TIP: Even on an unlimited plan, streaming video can quickly push you towards your "network management" threshold and the potential to be slowed down on congested towers. To avoid any risk of getting stuck in the slow-lane for the remainder of the month, one good plan is to dedicate a cellular account to "play" and streaming, and keep a separate "work" account stream-free and always under the slowdown threshold.

Campground & Public Wi-Fi Streaming

wifi-optionsMany people assume that they will be able to stream all they want over campground Wi-Fi networks, or by tapping into neighboring public Wi-Fi networks at a nearby coffee shop, store, or restaurant.

This may occasionally work out. But don't count on it.

Keep in mind, most public Wi-Fi hotspots are configured to allow guests access to email and basic web surfing.

Just one or two folks streaming videos over a shared connection can sometimes bring the network down for everyone in the RV park, and several folks online doing “normal” web surfing will often not leave enough capacity available for anyone to stream video without stuttering.

Many RV parks have gone to actively limiting how much data their guests can use daily so that everyone has a fair shot at using the resource, and many others Wi-Fi providers specifically do not allow streaming video at all.

Some even actively block it!

Even if you find a park that doesn’t specifically forbid streaming or place artificial limits on internet usage, please be a good neighbor and don’t hog all the capacity unless you know the network is up the challenge. Check in with management and your neighbors to know for sure.

Without guidance to the contrary, limit nonessential high-bandwidth usage activities to off hours – such as late at night, or mid-afternoon while everyone is at work or out sightseeing.

As unintuitive as it seems - even when there is campground Wi-Fi, cellular is very often a better option!

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Streaming Video over Cellular Data

We often hear from folks who tell us that their mobile internet needs won’t be particularly demanding because they’re not trying to work online or attend remote virtual classes - they just want to stream "a few" movies and TV shows.

Unfortunately, streaming video is one of the most bandwidth-intensive things you can do on the internet!

Consider - a 90 minute high-definition movie on Netflix can easily eat up 4.5GBs of data!

If you’re paying by the GB (as you might with legacy capped data plans) - at $15/GB, that movie would cost you $67.50!

With the potential for overage charges like that, no wonder unlimited data plans are in such demand!

Fortunately, there are now options on all of the major carriers for unlimited smartphone data - although there are generally some pretty serious limitations to understand that keep things from being simple.

For the current unlimited plan options we are tracking:

Guide: Unlimited Cellular Data Plans

But having an unlimited data plan isn't always enough.

Particularly when it comes to HD video, and especially if you want to watch on a screen larger than your phone's - things can often get complicated.

Members can read our in-depth guide to each of the carrier's quirks around streaming in the member-only portion of this guide below.

Streaming to the Big Screen

Using HDMI-out from an iPad or other device lets you share your streaming content on any big screen - including using a projector to host an outdoor movie night!

Using HDMI-out from an iPad or other device lets you share your streaming content on any big screen - including using a projector to host an outdoor movie night!

When it comes to movie night - bigger is better.

After all - who wants to watch blockbusters like Terminator on a tablet, or epic shows like Game of Thrones on a phone?

But a lot of the best options for streaming via cellular unlimited data plans are limited to "on device data" - meaning that you can't just create a hotspot and share the connection with your Roku, Apple TV, etc.

Doing so will blow through your tethering data limits in a heartbeat!

A great way around this is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the big screen directly.

A lot of RVers actually dedicate a tablet or smartphone to be the streaming heart of their entertainment center, permanently wired to their TV.

The overall experience may be nowhere near as nice as directly using an Apple TV or Roku, but at least you can watch all you want without running into limits placed on tethering data.

There are several ways to do this, and several important gotchas to be on guard against.

Hard-Wired HDMI

The simplest way to get your video up on a big screen is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the screen directly via a hard-wired HDMI video cable.

Apple iOS:

Apple's HDMI adapter is essential, but delicate. Be careful not to bend it too vigorously or you will need to replace it every year or so when it gets flakey.

With Apple iOS devices it is easy - Apple's Lightning Digital AV Adapter works with all current iPhones and iPads and is directly supported by many apps to give you dedicated video output over HDMI, all while enabling a separate view of the control panel on your phone or tablet.

Apps that are not designed for HDMI output instead run in screen-mirroring mode, displaying exactly what is on your device on the connected screen.

Only apps that have put in specific explicit blocks on screen output will fail to work with the Apple HDMI adapter.

TIP: Do not be tempted by discount knock-off adapters - they will usually not work for any copy-protected content, which means almost all video streaming services are incompatible. Stick with the adapter made by Apple to be safe.

Android:

In the Android world - HDMI output compatibility is a very hit or miss, and there are multiple incompatible output adapter standards. You will need to do your homework to find out what is compatible with your particular device - if there is even an option at all.

Mobile High-Definition Link - If your Android device has a Micro-USB charging port, check the specs for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) compatibility. MHL allows for affordable Micro-USB to HDMI interface cables to be used. For many older Samsung phones - the official Samsung HDMI adapter is a solid way to go. There are also very highly rated options that integrate the MHL adapter into a long HDMI cable, perfect for leaving your phone accessible while plugged into the TV. Newer devices and adapters with MHL 3.0 support allow for up to 4K output resolution. One example MHL 3.0 device is this official Samsung MHL 3.0 adapter.

SlimPort (MicroUSB) - SlimPort is an alternative competing standard to MHL for connecting to HDMI. It was first used on the Google Nexus 4, and became very common on LG devices as well as with some other manufacturers. If your device is SlimPort compatible, the Analogix SlimPort Micro-USB to 4K HDMI Adapter has a pretty good reputation, or the Slimport Nano Console can act as a docking station for your phone with its own wireless remote control.

USB-C to HDMI - Some Android devices that have moved to USB-C charging connectors which also support HDMI output adapters. The Samsung USB-C to HDMI Adapter reportedly works great with the Galaxy S8, and the SlimPort USB-C to HDMI Adapter is a cheaper alternative.

WARNING: Many Android phones (including the Google Pixel line and the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7) have dropped all support for wired HDMI output. Make sure to check to determine what is compatible with your particular hardware. Also be sure your selected output option provides for a way to charge your device while streaming, otherwise you might end up with a dead phone battery right at the worst possible cliffhanger moment.

Here's a quick video going over some of the wired-output options:

AirPlay & Chromecast Casting

Google's Chromecast is a great way to make any TV smarter, but it has limitations for use while mobile.

Plugging in a cable is awkward.

We live in a wireless world, so why not use Apple's AirPlay to send video from your iPhone to your Apple TV? Or Google's Chromecast to display your Android's video stream?

Simple and easy, right? But be careful - there is a catch!

AirPlay and Chromecast are capable of displaying video from your mobile device to a connected screen, but whenever possible they try to be smart - and instead of playing back the streaming video on your phone, your phone just hands over a link and the Apple TV or Chromecast does the actual streaming playback over Wi-Fi.

This means that even though you may have started the playback on your mobile device - the data being used is actually very likely tethering data over Wi-Fi!

Unless you have unlimited Wi-Fi hotspot data, it is best to avoid using AirPlay or Chromecast for streaming videos.

Miracast Screen Mirroring: Cordless HDMI

It seems that every Android manufacturer has branded Miracast differently, so you may have to hunt for the option to enable it. Here is Roku's guide to options to look for.

One alternative to using a wired HDMI adapter for some Android devices (and Windows laptops) is to use a technology called Miracast, which is essentially a "wireless HDMI" signal for screen mirroring, broadcasting exactly what is on your mobile device screen to your TV over an automatically configured peer-to-peer Wi-Fi channel.

If you are using Miracast - you ARE using on-device data, and not tethering data. This is a great way to avoid tethering data limits.

Some recent smart TVs have Miracast Screen Mirroring receivers built in - or you can plug in a generic Miracast receiver into an HDMI port on the back of any TV.

If you have a TV that does not have Miracast reception built in, the Amazon Fire TV Stick supports Miracast, as does the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter. Amazon is full of other off-brand alternative Miracast dongles, for as little as $15.

All the latest Roku devices also have Miracast built too.

To mirror your screen to a Miracast receiver, a transmitter needs to be built into your mobile device. Many recent Android phones and Windows laptops have added this support, though no Apple devices have or are likely to.

To enable the screen mirroring broadcast, just go to the Android Display Settings, and find what the (sometimes hidden) setting to turn it on. Any nearby powered-on Miracast receivers will then be presented as an option.

But Miracast support is still very hit-of-miss, and even recent flagships like the Google Nexus and Pixel lines lack any Miracast support. Check compatibility carefully to see if Miracast is enabled, though it may just be referred to only as "wireless screen mirroring" in the specifications.

TIP / WARNING: Miracast is poorly implemented by many devices, and while some people love the quality and experience many others have reported substantial dropouts and glitches and compatibility issues. For best results, it helps to match the brand of transmitter and receiver - for example, using a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to cast to a Samsung TV.

Video Output Incompatibilities & Issues

Verizon's exclusive deal with the NFL means that only Verizon phones can stream NFL games live via the NFL Mobile app, and they are blocked from output to any larger screen.

Using these tips you can make a spare tablet or old smartphone essentially a dedicated "brain" and remote control for your big screen, all without worrying about exceeding any tethering data limits.

But there are some issues you may run across:

  • Screen Mirroring & Aspect Ratios - Some streaming apps actually detect your TV, and treat it as a second screen - running at its native resolution and aspect ratio. But other apps run in "screen mirroring" mode, displaying onto the TV exactly what is on your phone or tablet's screen. This can lead to annoying black bars framing the video since phones and tablets tend not to match the 16x9 ratio of an HDTV screen. Using your TV's "zoom" feature can help compensate for this, and sometimes a phone in landscape orientation may have a better default aspect ratio than a tablet.
  • Blocked Output - Some apps actively detect and block output to a larger screen, usually due to licensing restrictions. The classic example is NFL Mobile, which is licensed only for small-screen viewing. But other apps actively block video output as well - the latest example being Hulu's most recent update. Do your homework and conduct some experiments to determine which apps have issues on your devices. Some blocks make no sense at all - for example the DirecTV Now app works great via HDMI output, but the DirecTV app (for satellite subscribers) does not.
  • Geo-Restrictions & Blackouts - Some programming is licensed by territory, and streaming apps try to enforce this by using your device's GPS to make sure you are in an authorized zone. Local TV channels and sporting events in particular may end up blocked if you are in the wrong place, or if you can not get a valid GPS fix.
  • Cellular Resolution Limits - Some streaming apps behave differently when connected directly over cellular than when connected to Wi-Fi, and on a cellular connection they lower their streaming resolution "to save you data" even if you are on an unlimited connection. Other apps always run at their maximum resolution mode, or give you settings (ie. Netlfix) to allow you to go all out and take advantage of the highest possible resolution.

Alternatives to Streaming

Redbox can be a wonderful alternative to streaming. You can even pick up a movie in one state, and return it in the next!

Sometimes streaming on the go just isn't worth the hassle.

Instead of streaming content, here are some ideas for getting your media fix elsewhere while traveling:

  • Download content offline - Several video streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Starz and YouTube Red) allow customers to download select content to their mobile devices for viewing later. It can be handy to grab a few shows while you have access to fast & abundant bandwidth to watch later when you don't.
  • Rent DVDs & Blu-raysNetflix isn’t just for streaming! The original discs-by-mail service actually works amazingly well for RVers who stop in places for at least a few days at a time, as you can update your shipping address frequently. If you’re going to be staying for a few days in a location that has mail delivery, that’s generally enough time to ship your current disc back and get a new one shipped to you. Netflix stocks a very wide selection of discs – including TV series and documentaries. RedBox kiosks are also very handy for renting new releases on disc for the evening, and they’re located all over the place – Walmarts, 7-11s, drugstores, and more. You can rent a disk at one kiosk and return it to another down the road – all while only paying a low nightly fee, no membership required.
  • Rip content to hard drive – While it’s illegal to rip content to distribute, making a backup of it for your own personal use is in a legal gray area. Many keep a legally obtained DVD collection in storage, but keep ripped backup copies stored on a portable hard drive. This gives ample content to watch when on the go, without taking up valuable physical storage space.
  • Buy TV series on disc – For series that we follow but don’t care if we’re watching the current season as it is aired, we’ll buy the full seasons on DVD/Blu-ray. Generally we buy used off of Amazon, and when we’re done, we’ll sell them back online on Amazon or eBay. You can also take them to pawn shops or used-media resellers, and turn them in for a little cash. Or, one our favorite methods - exchange with fellow RVers for a series they have. Note: You’ll have to avoid spoilers for the current season from your family and friends on Facebook and Twitter!
  • Tuner & DVR setup – There are TV tuners that can attach to an external TV antenna and can pick up local stations on your computer. They come with software to turn your hard drive into a digital video recorder (DVR) so you can record content at specified times. This is an easy way to multi-task your computer setup, without investing in TVs, antennas, and separate DVR equipment. Some examples include: WinTV-HVR and HDHomeRun. Or many people like a dedicated DVR for the job - the TiVo Roamio has gotten particularly good reviews.
  • Public TV / movie viewing – Instead of trying to stream live events or major premieres of TV shows or sporting events, check around for local pubs that might be hosting a viewing event. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a major event with a group of fellow fans, and share a brew while you’re at it! Or how about an old fashioned movie night date at the theatre to get the full effect? Did you know some movie theaters will even give you permission to park overnight in their lot in your RV?
  • Over the Air antennas -  Many RVs come with a TV antenna built in that can pick up local stations wherever you roam. This is to referred to as OTA or Over the Air. You may find that this is good enough for keeping on top of local news, your favorite broadcast TV shows, and weather alerts. However, you will find a lot of variability in broadcast quality and variety, depending on how close you are to major towns and how strong of an antenna you have. You can also purchase a wide variety of TV antennas to mount on your roof or even up a flagpole.
  • Satellite TV - Satellite has the advantage that if you can point your dish setup to the southern sky, you can watch television from wherever you are, you can get premium stations, and your channel numbering stays pretty consistent as you change locations. Both Dish Network and DirecTV have options that you can take with you on the road – which will work better for you depends upon your desired offerings for channel packages, pricing, access to local channels and contract terms. (Note - Satellite TV does not also provide Satellite Internet Service - this is a different type of technology.)

If you have any sort of limited data plan - keep in mind that the cost of paying by the GB to watch a movie might be less expensive and/or easier than going out to a movie or bringing in a rental disc (once you factor in time and fuel).

And sometimes it’s just worth using up spare bandwidth at the end of the month to treat yourself to some streamed content.

The rest of this the details of this guide (which is over 13,000 words long) are exclusive for our premium members - with further information on popular streaming services, optimizing streaming for mobile bandwidth, downloading content in advance, and international options. 


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