Streaming Media Players: Which One Should You Get?
What Is a Streaming Media Player?
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 they can go a long way to replace cable, especially if you’re willing to pay 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.
My Quick Recommendation: Roku (For Most People)
These are all good boxes, but my current recommendation for most folks is Roku. It has the most channels, a handy voice search feature, and headphone output on the remote. Amazon Fire TV is also good, and a lot of folks swear by it. 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” (apps), 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 a version that works with old tube TVs (Roku Express+, be sure to get the 2018 edition; the latest version does not work with tube TVs).
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 and you can stream music, photos, and videos from your phone to your 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.
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Amazon Fire TV is one of the most popular streaming players today. It has all of the standard pay channels like Netflix, Hulu, and so forth, plus channels with free video such as Crackle and Pluto TV. However, due to the rocky relationship between Amazon and Google, for a long time the YouTube app was not available (it is supposedly coming). But, there is a workaround, which is to use Firefox for Fire TV (a web browser app) to access YouTube. Read my full review of the Amazon Fire TV here.
The regular Fire TV Stick is $39.99, but I’d recommend spending the extra ten dollars to get the Fire TV Stick 4K for just $10 more. The Fire TV Cube basically has a built-in Amazon Echo so you can control it using voice commands. If you love Alexa and you’re into the Amazon ecosystem, Fire TV might be for you.
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).
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.
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