If you’re looking to stop paying cable fees for hundreds of channels you’ll never watch, you’re in luck because this is the golden age of streaming content.
Thanks to a bevy of streaming boxes and sticks, you’re no longer relegated to watching digital content on your computer screen. That’s the good news. But the features are so similar for all the competitors, so it’s tough to figure out which box or stick is right for you. Time for a smackdown among the major players: Amazon Fire TV/stick, Roku/stick, Apple TV and Chromecast.
At a glance, they’re all similar. They all play Netflix, YouTube, HuluPlus and Crackle. But there are some big differences. Let’s get this streaming stuff sorted.
You get an iPad, an iPhone, and a laptop. Suddenly, your sharing photos, music and files among devices. That’s how the Apple ecosystem lures you in and keeps you, for better or worse. So [highlight] if your life is spent staring at Apple screens, the Apple TV will likely be your best choice [/highlight] — set it up and instantly have access to all the digital music, movies and TV shows you’ve already purchased on iTunes, and buy new stuff with a click or two in the familiar menu with the familiar aluminum-clad remote. In addition to all the major streaming services, it offers lots of great channels including sports, good parental controls, and AirPlay, which makes it easy to “throw” content from your computer or mobile device to the television. I know no better way to enjoy a video you just took at the beach on your television without a transfer/upload/copy/headache. The downside of Apple TV? Exactly what you’d think: While Roku offers you access to thousands of streaming channels, Apple has made the options a bit more limited, and, of course, wants you to buy more from iTunes than you do stream from anywhere else. Available at Target for $99.
On the other side of the channel-offering spectrum, Roku has 2,000+ channels in the US and counting. You won’t run out of things to watch, with subscription channels (like Netflix, Hulu and others) as well as free channels (PBS, Vevo, Smithsonian, Crackle), and if you have cable your apps like HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Fox Now and more are all integrated into the Roku experience. Tons of sports, tons of music… I think you get the picture, there’s a lot of content to consume, and the interface is clear, and easily navigated with the remote. Roku boxes range from $49 to $99: On the lower end, you get a Roku that works with an older TV (not HDMI), and on the higher end, you get a headphone jack in the remote so you can watch movies without disturbing the rest of the house, plus expansion cards slots and motion controls for gaming and a very fast processor. And, just to make things interesting, the Roku stick plays all the content that a box does, for just $49— the processor is slower with a stick, and there’s no gaming, but it’s fantastic for wall-mounted TVs, and comes with a remote (unlike the Chromecast). With all this content, [highlight] Roku is my #1 choice for all-around value [/highlight] (you can’t beat the channel selection), and has been consistently outselling Apple TV. If you’re an Apple person, it might not be enough to sway you, but it should. w.
Google Chromecast is [highlight] a fabulous offering at the lowest price [/highlight]. It has no interface or menu— you just plug it into an HDMI port on the back of your TV, and you are then able to throw anything you’re watching on a mobile device or laptop to the television. It has no apps or streaming content of it’s own, but works with a growing number of music, TV and movie apps (again, on your device or laptop) or you can mirror content from the web through the device you’re using, but that never works quite as well as promised. It’s a bare bones solution: No remote, no interface, no apps, no parental controls. You can’t beat the price though: It’s the cheapest way to get into the streaming world, and if you have all your purchased content in the Google Play store, that might be a decision-maker for you. $35
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon went big with it’s box and stick, and it’s a great offering. The biggest selling point? Unlimited access to Amazon Prime Instant videos— 1000s of free TV shows and movies you can watch without spending an additional penny (take that, Apple TV). All that plus a competitive offering of the top movie, TV and music apps, as well as games. Superior parental controls, and [highlight] a processor that’s 3X as fast as the other boxes in our smackdown [/highlight], as well as the most unique feature— voice search. Just speak the name of a show, actor, director or genre into the remote, and results show up without you having to toggle-type through those horrible alphabet interfaces on your TV. Voice search seems trivial, but it works, and it’s so much less annoying. With a price that just slightly undercuts Apple and Roku’s high-end offerings, it’s the best value for the most features. The stick provides pretty much an identical experience, less the super-fast processor, the ability to connect by ethernet, and the voice search remote, which to me is kind of a big deal. All of that said, if you’re jonesing to watch Amazon Originals like Transparent, Amazon Fire TV is the service for you. $39-99.
Ready to call a winner? Do you have one of these, and love it? Let me know in the comments!