- Streaming devices become non-functional over time due to outdated hardware and software. Updates end, applications and services move on to newer platforms that don’t work on old devices.
- New media codecs require hardware-level decoding for optimal performance. Devices without hardware decoding capabilities rely on software decoding, which increases CPU or GPU usage and affects battery life.
- Streaming devices can stop working due to broken networking, such as expired certificates or outdated TLS components. Other factors include demanding apps, offline servers, dropped dependencies, and company shutdowns.
Streaming devices and set-top boxes are nothing new: the first Roku was released in 2008, and the Nintendo Wii could play Netflix. However, most of those early devices are completely non-functional today, outside of playing local files or streaming from a supported local server. But why?
There are many different factors that can lead a certain streaming service or feature to drop older hardware, ranging from technical limitations to business problems, including a few problems you might not have thought about before.
We’re all used to old computers, phones, tablets, and other devices becoming outdated over time, eventually to the point of being unusable. Eventually the software updates end, then applications and services want to move onto newer platforms and technologies that don’t work on outdated hardware and software.
Streaming devices are much simpler, though — why can’t the third-generation Apple TV from 2012 play YouTube anymore, if the hardware is still capable enough to stream other video? Why did Plex drop support for the PlayStation 3 when the console can still play Blu-ray discs and graphically-impressive games?
Old Video Codecs
Video, audio, and other types of digital media are stored and transmitted using a codec, and then reconstructed on the target device (e.g. a Roku stick) by decoding the file. There have been many media codecs over the past few decades, aimed at a variety of use cases and target devices. The goal for streaming has always been a codec that can pack a decent level of detail in a file small enough to be downloaded at a reasonable speed.
Apple Video and Microsoft Video 1 were some early examples, released in 1991 and 1992, respectively. Over time, new codecs were developed that offered higher quality with better compression technology, like RealVideo and H.263.
New media codecs can significantly improve the streaming experience, but there’s a catch: they usually need hardware-level decoding to work well. If there’s no hardware decoding available, the player has to use software decoding, which increases CPU or GPU usage compared to codecs that are fully supported. In the case phones, laptops, or other portable devices, that also means worse battery life.
Let’s use an example: the AV1 video format. When it was released in 2018, tests indicated it offered more than 30% better compression than VP9 and H.264 (other common video codecs), but there wasn’t any hardware available that could play it without resource-intensive software decoding. Eventually, new desktop graphics cards and processors were released with full hardware support.
However, Qualcomm only offers AV1 decoding on a few of its most recent chips, like the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2, and Apple does not yet support AV1 on any of its products. Even though there are a lot of devices in use right now without hardware AV1 decoding, software decoding is good enough, to the point that Netflix and other services now use AV1 wherever possible.
Even though most modern hardware can handle AV1 entirely in software without too much work, other transitions from one codec to another haven’t gone as well. For example, trying to play modern YouTube videos on an old PowerPC Mac or early 2010s netbook is impossible because they don’t have enough CPU power to decode newer formats. YouTube and other services usually store the same video in a few different formats for the best possible compatibility, but at some point, support for older codecs goes away. Unfortunately, that leaves older computers, streaming boxes, game consoles, and other devices in the dust.
You can’t stream video without a functioning internet connection. Even though the protocols and technologies used for internet connections haven’t changed radically over the past decade, enough has changed to potentially cause problems.
The first component to fail can sometimes be Transport Layer Security, or TLS for short. That’s the component that verifies the ownership and information of websites and servers, using certificates and a chain of trust. However, the stored certificates and certificate authorities have an expiry date.
If they are not updated before the expiry date, usually through operating system updates, services that rely on secure connections will start failing to connect. You can see this in action if you try to use Internet Explorer on an old Windows XP or Windows Vista PC — most websites using an HTTPS connection will show warning messages or fail to load entirely.
If a streaming device isn’t being updated by the manufacturer anymore, the built-in certificates will eventually expire, likely breaking some services and applications… if they weren’t already broken.
But Wait, There’s More
There are many more ways a streaming device can eventually stop working: new apps and services are too demanding for the older hardware, servers go offline, one of the app’s dependencies drops support, the device’s company shuts down, and so on. Even though steaming services might seem simple on the, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of interconnected parts required to keep them running at the scale of Netflix, Peacock, or YouTube.
It’s not great that all the Roku Streaming Sticks, Fire TV players, and other streaming devices all eventually become landfill over time, but if we’re looking at the bright side, they usually last longer than many other mass-produced electronics. The original Google Chromecast received updates for 10 years, and Roku just ended major updates (but will still provide bug fixes) for its first 4K player from 2015. That’s longer than most people keep their phones around.
It’s not surprising the march of progress eventually leaves streaming devices in the dust. Nothing lasts forever, even that Chromecast you bought for $35 in 2014.