Streaming Media Devices: Which One Should You Get?
What Are Streaming Media Players?
These boxes let you watch video from the Internet on your TV. For example, you can watch Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube on your TV using one of these devices. All of these devices require that you have Internet access at your home. Most require Wi-Fi as well.
Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and Apple TV, have built-in “apps” that give you content from mostly paid services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling TV, etc. There are also some channels offering free video like Crackle and YouTube. Think of it like having a video rental store in your home.
Google Chromecast doesn’t have “apps”. Instead, it will mirror whatever is on your computer’s Chrome browser onto your TV screen, letting you view websites on your TV. But you have to have your computer (or whatever you are mirroring to the TV) nearby. There are pros and cons to this.
None of these are a direct replacement for cable TV, but when used along with an antenna, can go a long way to replace cable, especially if you’re willing to pay a little for an Internet streaming service like Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, etc.
Please also note that these boxes don’t record. If you want recording capability, check out my page on DVRs that you can use with an antenna.
The Quick Answer – Roku (For Most People)
These are all good boxes, but my current recommendation for most peolple is Roku. It has the most channels, a handy voice search feature, and headphone output on the remote. Amazon Fire TV is also good but is a bit more expensive. Apple TV was just updated and is the only way to access your iTunes library on a set top box, so Apple fans may want it. Chromecast is good for more geeky folks who don’t mind using their computer with their TVs.
Note that some “smart” TVs have streaming functionality built-in, so look for that before you buy one of these devices. It’s like getting one of these boxes included in the TV. Also, if you have an XBox 360, Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii, you can subscribe to Netflix. If you have an XBox, you’ll need a XBox Live Gold account to do so.
Roku – Lots of Channels, Works on Older TVs, My Pick!
The Roku is the veteran streaming TV box, with the most “channels”, and many people swear by it. If you have an older TV with no HDMI input, Roku is one of the few brands that offers versions that work with old tube TVs (Roku Express+ has composite video output for older TVs; the other Roku models do not).
With the Roku player, you can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu, and many other pay services.
Many people ask me if Roku is a direct replacement for cable TV or an antenna. The answer is “no”. There are lots of free “channels” on Roku, but the most popular ones like Netflix or Hulu require payment. Out of the box, you can’t simply stream all of the network stations on your Roku like you would with cable TV or an antenna (without adding other stuff). It’s a convenient and easy way to watch content from the Internet on your TV.
Roku now has voice search, just like Amazon Fire TV. Since it has more channels, Roku is now my number one set-top box recommendation!
Read my full review of Roku or choose one of the models below:
Get a Roku if you want the most apps or if you have a tube TV.
This is an independent review site that receives compensation from the retailer or manufacturer (at no extra cost to you) when you purchase through the affiliate links on this site. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I test and/or research each product or service thoroughly before endorsing it.
Chromecast – Mirrors Your Phone or Computer to Your TV
Unlike Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku, Chromecast lets you watch almost anything that you can see in your computer’s Chrome browser on your TV screen. You are not limited to “apps”.
But, this requires a computer or laptop to be near your TV, but it opens up your TV to almost unlimited content from free websites as well as paid services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and so forth. Chromecast will also work with some Android phones if you install an app (however, some video streaming sites block content on phones so you might not be able to get quite as much content).
Chromecast plugs into your TV’s HDMI input, so you will need a modern TV. You can read my full review here.
Chromecast is great if you are tech-savvy and have a computer near your TV, and you don’t mind using your computer to watch TV. It gives you access to the most content, because you can project whatever is in your browser onto your TV. But, if you don’t want to mess with a computer when you watch TV, go with one of the other boxes on this page. Click the image below to buy it now.
Get a Chromecast if you want to view websites on your TV, and you don’t mind having to use your phone or computer near your TV.
In some ways, the Amazon Fire TV might be the easiest-to-use out of all of the set-top boxes. It comes already set up with your Amazon account (so you don’t have to enter your password), and has a voice search feature so you don’t have to use the cumbersome letter picker to search (note Roku has this feature now as well).
It has all of the standard pay channels like Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, plus channels with free video such as Crackle. However, due to the rocky relationship between Amazon and Google, there is no official YouTube app. But, there is an easy workaround, which is to use Firefox for Fire TV to access YouTube. It works nearly as well as the app. Read my full review of the Amazon Fire TV here.
There is a less-expensive “little brother” to the Amazon Fire TV called the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Like the Chromecast, it’s a small stick tht you plug into your TV’s HDMI port. The main things you lose are 4K/HDR support, some processing power (it’s a bit slower), and some of the higher-end games. If your TV is not 4K (and only the newer ones are), then you’re fine with the cheaper Stick.
Apple TV – Watch iTunes or Mirror Your Apple Device
Apple TV is the easiest way to watch iTunes video. The other boxes can’t do iTunes, or you have to jump through hoops to do so. The video purchase and rental costs on iTunes are a bit higher than Amazon.
One of the coolest features of Apple TV is the ability mirror content wirelessly from your iPad/iPhone/Mac to the Apple TV box to your TV with the press of a button. This is pretty awesome – almost true Internet access on your TV (some sites are blocked). This might be the deciding factor for some Apple device owners. For more info, read my complete review of Apple TV of click the image below to get it at Best Buy:
Get an Apple TV if you have videos on iTunes and/or you want to mirror your iPhone, iPad, or Mac to your TV.
Unlike Apple TV and Roku, TiVo Bolt allows you to record 75 hours of broadcast shows right in the box. You hook your antenna right up to it. In addition, you can watch shows from Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (for additional charge, of course), not to mention YouTube. TiVo also has one of the best user-interfaces around, in my opinion.
All of this is great until we get to the cost of TiVo: $14.99/month or $499 for lifetime service. That is where they lose me. I am a cheapskate and hate paying $150 for the base unit plus $15 monthly fee. There is a one-time fee option as well, currently $550 for the service only (not the hardware).
Your Smart TV / DVD Player / Game Console
Many TVs and DVD players are now being sold with Internet capability, so that you can get Netflix, Hulu, etc. on them without additional hardware. Check your manuals to see if your devices have this capability before buying a separate box.
Furthermore, all modern gaming consoles such as Playstation and Xbox have these capabilities as well. Try these features before buying another box.
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If you have a question about this article, leave a comment below. I personally read and answer each one. If you want advice on TV reception, leave your zip code. I'd also love to hear how you're saving money on TV. Tell me your story! - Brian