As consumers turn more and more to their TV sets to enjoy streaming movies, programs, videos and music from the Internet, the gadgets that wirelessly link the TV with content sources ranging from Netflix and YouTube to Pandora and Spotify have become increasingly elaborate.
The best-known Internet-to-TV device has long been the Roku player. But Roku has lots of competition now, and that competition is heating up. In recent months, several new streaming-media players have reached the market, including Roku’s latest (the Roku 4), an updated Apple TV and products from other heavy hitters including Google and Amazon. All the devices offer impressive new features that can help you reduce your dependence on cable/satellite TV, which averages an estimated cost of $123 per month (that’s $1,476 a year)…but the choices can be confusing.
Here’s how to choose the best new streaming-media system for you…
Roku is the most popular streaming-media player, and for most people, it is the best choice. For starters, Roku offers the most content, with more than 2,500 “channels” to choose among. (You also might see streaming-media player channels referred to as apps.) In addition to popular channels/apps such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Major League Baseball’s MLB.TV and HBO Go, there are many more obscure offerings. Their content ranges from unusual sports…to independent movies…to cooking videos…to foreign soap operas. (Popular channels often require a subscription, but many obscure ones are free.)
Roku is easy to set up and use…it’s relatively glitch-free…and it always seems to be ahead of the pack when it comes to adding convenient features. For example, one recently added feature is “Hotel & Dorm Connect,” which makes it easier to connect a Roku to a wireless network if you are traveling.
But which Roku? There are five models, with prices ranging from $49.99 to $129.99. All offer the same extensive list of channels, but it may be worth paying up for the Roku 3 ($99.99) or Roku 4 ($129.99). These provide very fast processors, which will save you a few seconds of wait time compared with lesser models when you try to find or play a program, and voice search, which lets you say what program you’re trying to find rather than typing it with a cursor on an onscreen keyboard. Roku’s voice-recognition technology is fairly effective—as many companies are doing now, they built the microphone into the remote, which can be held close to your mouth when speaking, minimizing misunderstandings.
The Roku 3 and Roku 4 also feature a headphone jack in the remote, so you can conveniently watch TV without disturbing other people. The main difference between the two models is that the Roku 4 can play ultra-high-definition 4K content—a plus only if you have a 4K HDTV or are likely to get one in the next few years (which is more likely than you might think—4K HDTV prices are falling fast).
Exceptions: If your priority is to have a streaming-media player that is small and ultra-portable—or one that attaches unobtrusively to a wall-mounted TV—the thumb-drive-size Roku Streaming Stick ($49.99) could be a reasonable choice, despite its slower speeds. If you have an older TV that lacks an HDMI port, the Roku 1 ($49.99) is the only Roku option that will work. Roku.com
Apple’s recently updated Apple TV, with versions costing $149 and $199, may be the best choice if you use an Apple smartphone, tablet or computer. The new Apple TV doesn’t offer as many channels/apps as Roku, it’s more expensive and it does not stream 4K content…but it features AirPlay, which lets you seamlessly and wirelessly stream content to your TV from an iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch or Apple computer. It excels at streaming content stored in Apple’s iTunes, too. And it offers access to reasonably priced game apps designed specifically for this device.
The remote control features a touch surface—you can swipe with your thumb rather than push buttons—as well as Siri voice control.
Example: You can say, “Siri, find me a John Wayne movie” or “What’s the score of the Blue Jays game?” And if you miss a bit of movie dialogue, you can ask Siri, “What did she just say?” and Siri will “rewind” a few seconds and turn on closed-captioning temporarily.
The cost of the new version depends on the amount of digital storage included—more storage means that you can download more games and other apps. The older “third generation” Apple TV was still available as of October and was significantly cheaper than the new one—$69 versus at least $149—but its technology is several years old…it’s slow by today’s standards…it has a less elegant user interface and operating system…and it lacks advanced features such as Siri voice control. Apple.com/tv
Amazon, Google and WD TV
Other streaming-media players that might be worth considering…
Amazon Fire TV/Fire TV Stick is a reasonable choice if you subscribe to the Amazon Prime service and mainly want a streaming-media player to access Amazon Instant Video content. Most streaming-media players can access this Amazon content, but Amazon’s own device does so seamlessly. It features voice search plus access to lots of apps/channels, but it lags behind Roku and Apple TV when it comes to overall ease of use and customer satisfaction. The Fire TV box ($99.99) can stream 4K content and has a faster processor than the small, ultra-portable Fire TV Stick ($39.99 or $49.99 with a voice-control remote). Amazon.com
Google Chromecast at $35, was recently updated with slightly faster speeds and a new look. It is now a colorful disc that hangs from the back of your TV. It is an easy and a very affordable option if your main goal is to take content that you have on your Android or iOS phone or tablet or computer and view it on your TV screen. Chromecast does not offer the wide range of apps/channels that the devices listed above do. Google.com/chromecast
WD TV Media Player is a good choice if you have an extensive archive of downloaded content in relatively obscure formats. Maybe you copied many DVDs onto your computer’s hard drive, for example, and are looking for a way to play that collection of movies on your TV. While many streaming-media players can help you transfer content from a digital device to your TV screen, this $100 choice stands out for its ability to play almost any file format, even formats such as AVI, AVC, MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 that other players such as Roku and Apple TV do not support well, if at all. WDC.com