Millions of Americans now watch video that's delivered to their TV screens over the Internet.
Fifty-two percent of the 15,277 ConsumerReports.org subscribers polled said they used a streaming video service in the previous month, compared to 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 for it.
The overwhelming majority of streaming viewers - 81 percent - used the company that accounts for most of the action in video streaming: Netflix. The rest of the services covered in the survey were used by only 2 percent to 14 percent of respondents.
But Netflix didn't earn especially high scores for satisfaction from the 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 also includes Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Fewer than one in five survey respondents said that they were highly satisfied with the choice of titles from those services. However, the selection of titles available on pay-per-view streaming services such as Amazon Instant Video, iTunes and Vudu received high marks from more than 60 percent of users.
The fact that Netflix's disc business was judged better than its streaming operation is ironic because Netflix says it's focusing on streaming and putting limited resources into its "fading" 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 CR'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.
CR recommends weighing a number of things when deciding which service best meets your needs. Streaming definitely has room for improvement. In CR's survey, satisfaction scores for streaming-video services were lower than for most other services it has rated during the past few years.
Also consider the types of equipment you can 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.
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.
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.