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Streaming Devices Guide — How To Choose The Right One For You

By Jeremy Evans / March 2, 2017 / Tags: ,

Here’s a rundown of today’s top streaming devices — and how to decide which one you should get.

Compare media streaming devices

With cable or satellite, you hook your TV up to the equipment your provider gives you. But when you cut the cord and start streaming content from the internet, how can you watch it on your nice big TV screen instead of being restricted to a computer or mobile? The answer is with a streaming device.

A streaming device (also called a streaming media device, media player, or streaming media player) is what connects your television or home theater to the internet and allows you to stream video and music content from various services. These are small, simple, affordable devices. Most have built-in WiFi connections, and come with their own dedicated remotes. Streaming devices also tend to come loaded with a massive library of apps to make it extremely simple to watch all your streaming services and popular channels on your TV screen — stuff like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, Sling TV, YouTube, HBO, Showtime, Vudu, Crackle, CBS, NBC, ESPN, and much more.

⊕ A streaming device lets you watch content on the internet–like TV shows, movies, and live sports–on your TV screen.

To use most streaming devices, you’ll need a high-definition (HD) TV, an HDMI port on your TV, and a broadband internet connection. When you’re up and running, you’ll probably also want to subscribe to some streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime for access to TV shows and movies. (There’s a complete discussion of both video-on-demand and live TV streaming services in my Streaming Services Guide.) Even if you don’t get any subscription services, you’ll probably be surprised how much free TV there is to watch with the apps on today’s streaming devices.

Needless to say, before you consider investing in a streaming device, you should check to make sure your current entertainment devices can’t fill the same role. For example, your Smart TV, gaming console, or Blu-ray player might already let you stream content from the internet. Most Smart TVs now come with a Netflix and YouTube apps. The only downside is that Smart TVs don’t have the power streaming devices do, and thus tend to be slow. Depending on your patience level, you might be able to get by.

That stated, when it comes to cost, power, and flexibility it’s tough to beat today’s top streaming devices. There are four major players: Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast. Nvidia Android TV is also a compelling product, but this is more for people who use Kodi to stream TV.

Before you delve into the details of each device, you can hone in on which device is the best one for you by answering a few key questions.

Are You Already Loyal To A Brand?

If you’re already ensconced in either the Apple or Amazon ecosystem, choosing a streaming device will be easy.

Are you an ‘Apple person?’ Do you use a Mac, iPhone, and/or iPad? Do you have tons of content you’ve bought on iTunes? Do you like having all your Apple devices and content synced up? Then the Apple TV is for you. If you’re not an Apple person, the Apple TV is not worth the extra money. Here’s my Apple TV review.

Are you an ‘Amazon person?’ Do you frequently shop on Amazon.com? Do you have a Kindle or Echo? Are you an Amazon Prime member? Then the Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick is probably your best choice. See below for whether to get the Amazon stick or box. Then read this Amazon Fire TV review or Fire TV Stick review.

If you’re not either an Apple or Amazon person, then it’s very hard to beat the Roku Streaming Stick or one of the Roku boxes as the best device for you. Below you’ll see how to choose between a stick and a box. Then check out my Roku review.

I haven’t mentioned Chromecast here, because this device is more of an add-on in my view. Learn more about Chromecast.

Stick Or Box?

You’ll instantly see two distinct choices as you browse streaming products:

1. Streaming Sticks (aka HDMI sticks), which work like a USB stick for your TV
2. Streaming Media Boxes, which operate much like a cable provider’s box

To the untrained eye, it may look inconsequential which one you get. After all, they’re just two different shapes of the same basic thing. But there are some things to consider when choosing between a streaming stick and a streaming box. Getting an idea at this stage which version you want will make your ultimate choice, picking the precise brand and model, a lot easier.

So let’s sort out the stick vs. box question. First, understand that a streaming stick serves only one purpose: to stream content from the internet onto your TV. You plug it into your TV, connect to your home WiFi network, and start watching stuff. The available apps and content options are the same as with a box — videos, live TV, streaming services, and music.

A streaming box, though, can do some other things too — like gaming, connecting to chat services, and streaming content from your computer.

If you want to do more with your streaming device than just stream content, you’ll probably prefer a box over a stick. But if you just want to watch TV, sports, and movies, then the Roku Stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick will do nicely.

What’s Your Budget?

For most buyers, the whole reason you’re considering a streaming device in the first place is because the price of cable or satellite is burning away your cash. So price is often the deciding issue.

But when you see a more expensive device, keep in mind that the higher price comes with enhanced functionality. The Nvidia Shield–at $169–is one of the most expensive streaming boxes, but it has special features for gamers, along with 4k capability and other streaming apps like Kodi. The Apple TV box is also pricey, but it has the most storage of any device, and allows for more interaction and integration with other Apple devices.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum, the Roku Stick and Amazon Fire Stick are more affordable at about $50 each. But neither does much more than stream content from the internet.

Once again, remember to take into account that with a streaming device you’re probably also going to purchase a subscription streaming service (or two). As I’ve outlined in my Streaming Services Guide, these services vary when it comes price, content, and live TV streaming.

Do You Want Gaming?

All the major streaming boxes on the market now include gaming capabilities. Even so, don’t expect them to deliver the same gaming experience as a PS4 or Xbox One.

Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, for instance, are comparable when it comes to gaming, and both are compatible with the latest game controllers. The Roku boxes, on the other hand, are more for simple games and puzzles like Tetris. Neither of the streaming sticks have gaming capability.

How Good Is Your Internet Connection?

WiFi is everywhere. Unfortunately, WiFi isn’t always reliable — especially at home. Depending on your geographical area, you may experience frustrating WiFi dropouts from time to time. Streaming sticks rely on WiFi, while streaming boxes have Ethernet ports for a direct connection to your internet modem.

Thus, your satisfaction with your streaming stick will depend on the reliability and strength of your WiFi connection. If you have spotty WiFI, you’ll probably want a streaming box to avoid annoying interruptions from dropped connections.

Do You Want Computer Connectivity?

For some people, it’s important to be able to connect their streaming device to their computer. For example, you may have a gallery of photos or videos currently stored on your computer/mobile that you’d like to display on your TV screen. Or, you might want to access your music files and pipe them through your home theater speakers using your streaming device.

Chromecast and Apple TV both do an excellent job of allowing you to connect directly to your computer system. Chromecast bridges your TV and computing devices via your smartphone. Apple TV, on the other hand, uses its AirPort system to connect to your other Apple devices, like a MacBook or iPhone. The direct connection between the streaming device and your computer storage makes it easy to transfer files, including any TV episodes, movies, or music you may have purchased or downloaded.

Roku boxes will also let you wirelessly connect to your computer network to access your files. Plus, they come with a USB port so you can download content to a portable memory stick and then play it with the Roku. As of the date of this post, Roku has not announced any plan add these features to the Roku stick.

Do You Want 4K & Private Listening?

Just two more factors to consider. One, 4k support only comes on the boxes, not either of the sticks. (Note that you still need a 4K TV, and for the content you’re watching to be in 4K, and there’s very little 4K content out there.)

Two, the Roku box comes with headphones that plug into the remote for private listening. The Roku stick doesn’t. Private listening can be very handy if you share your house with anyone.

Streaming Devices Wrap Up

You should now have an idea of 1) Whether you want a box or a stick, and 2) If there’s a particular brand you’re leaning toward. Now that you’ve honed in on the right device for you, you can dig deeper into the features of each. To help you navigate the maze of shopping for a streaming device, we’ve put together thorough reviews for each of the Big Four (Apple, Amazon, Roku, Chromecast). These reviews move beyond the introductory level to delve into the features of each device and highlight strengths and weaknesses.

What you will not find in my reviews is a 5,000-word manifesto covering every minute aspect of a device in excruciating detail. These reviews are for the average consumer who is new to the wonderful world of streaming/cord-cutting and wants to make a reasoned decision on which device to buy. Tech-geeks concerned with things that aren’t of interest to the casual streamer will need to look elsewhere for the nitty-gritty specs.

Roku Review (Stick & Boxes)

Amazon Fire TV Review

Amazon Fire TV Stick Review

Chromecast Review

Apple TV Review

 

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