Are you a cable cutter, or considering becoming one? With all of the paid networks these days, having a TV subscription can be really expensive if you want to watch all of the great shows you want. This is where streaming boxes can come in.
It has also never been a better time to start getting into TV series. Many networks are producing amazingly high quality dramas, including Breaking Bad from AMC, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones. Even a channel not usually known for its high-quality shows is getting on the action, with the new critical darling Mr. Robot being shown on the USA network.
And this isn’t even including all of the great TV shows being produced by streaming services, with Orange is the New Black, House of Cards and Sense8 being three Netflix productions that everyone seems to love.
Even if you don’t watch TV, a streaming TV box can also be used for movies, as well as showing any videos you have recorded onto your phone. Some people even use them just for YouTube, with YouTube parties, where people share their favorite YouTube videos with each other, being a recent and great cultural phenomena.
The only problem with the streaming TV world is that there are a great deal of devices to choose from. Really though, if you want to make sure you can access everything you want, there are only four main choices; the Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV. It can be really confusing discovering the differences between all of these devices, which is why we have written this guide to help you decide which one is the best.
Amazon Fire Stick
This little gadget only costs $40, straight from Amazon themselves. It comes with an included remote.
Installation could not be easier. The whole stick is just that; a small USB device, looking a bit like a thumb drive, that you just plug straight into a free HDMI socket on your TV. In fact, if you order it through your Amazon account, your account will already be preloaded onto it, meaning you can get started as soon as it arrives. For power, you need to plug it in, either using a USB port on your television or by plugging an included cable into the wall.
On the Amazon Fire Stick, you can get all of the top streaming networks, including Netflix and HBO Go. You can also get access to the Amazon Instant Video service, which is full of great TV shows and Movies. Although so far it hasn’t managed to provide as many great TV shows as Netflix’s original shows, it is currently gaining traction with great reviews appearing for the original Amazon show Transparent. Amazon Prime also has a streaming music service, but it is in no way as great as Spotify or Apple Music.
If you don’t have an Amazon Prime account, buying an Amazon Fire Stick also gives you 30 days of free Prime access, just to get you hooked.
One great thing about the Amazon Fire Stick is how fast it is. It uses a special technology to predict which show or movie you will start watching and will get it ready to play it for you. If you are the kind of person who will watch one episode of a Netflix show after another, this feature can really improve your watching experience.
As well as having a dedicated remote control, you can also navigate the Amazon Fire Stick through your mobile phone or tablet. Amazon offer apps for both Android and iOS, which means that, unfortunately, windows phone is missing.
One amazing feature with the phone apps is the voice search. This works in a very similar way to Siri or Google Now, with you being able to talk into your phone and get content up on your screen. For example, if you are currently watching through all of a director’s movies, you could just say “David Fincher” into your phone and your Amazon Fire stick will show you all of the David Fincher media that you can watch.
One extra feature that is missing from all the other streaming TV solutions, other than with potential plug ins, is a handy little feature called X-Ray. If you are the kind of person who is constantly checking IMDB to find out who an actor is and what else they’ve been in, or you are the kind of person who buys DVDs just for the director commentary, this feature can save you a lot of time. By pressing one button on the remote, you can see a lot of additional information about the scene you are watching.
Although the Amazon Fire Stick is a great little gadget with a lot of features, one thing to consider is that you will be largely stuck with the features that are included in it. Unlike other devices, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is very resistant about having custom apps installed on it, and is simply not as open as the Chromecast or Roku. That means that if you are the kind of person who likes downloading lots of exciting new apps, or even like making them yourself, the Fire TV Stick will not be a good choice for you.
The Google Chromecast is Google’s entry into the streaming business. It does things slightly differently to other devices, in that it actually doesn’t come with a remote. In fact, you use your phone or computer to access everything on it.
This has it’s advantages and disadvantages, in that with the Chromecast there is not an extra remote to lose. However, with the Chromecast, you will always need another device on to be able to use it properly.
Installation is exactly the same as the Amazon Fire Stick, with the device plugging into a spare HDMI, and being powered either by a television’s USB port or from a plug socket.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as plug and go as the Amazon Fire Stick, as you do need to input your WiFi information into a device from a computer or mobile phone.
One interesting thing about the Chromecast is that it rarely gets information straight from your phone or tablet. Instead, it goes to the internet and fetches the material straight from there. So if you are throwing Netflix at your TV from your phone, the Chromecast isn’t taking the movie from your phone connection but your home WiFi connection. What this does mean is that you can then go and use your device for other things without having to worry about the media that is playing.
The Chromecast supports all of the major streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go. Unfortunately, Amazon haven’t made their streaming service available for Android, but some developers may be working on a workaround for that.
And that is what is revolutionary about the Chromecast. The amount and range of apps available for it. As it is based on the Android system, developers are allowed to “hack” away at it as much they want, meaning that you can do a lot more with this device than you can with the Fire Stick and others, and you will keep receiving new features all the time as more and more developers work on things for it.
For example, you can actually play lots of games with your Chromecast, with developers constantly coming up with new ideas of how to use the device. You can, for example, play many card games, with the television screen showing where people lay down cards and each person’s phone being their hand of cards. You can also connect controllers up to the Chromecast to play more traditional games.
There are also features that have been developed by other developers that let you do some mind blowing things. Like, for example, do you want to watch something on a TV, while everyone else in your home is doing something else? Developers have made an app which allows you to stream the audio that would come from the TV to your phone, and straight into any set of headphones that you plug in. Another amazing app is, if you have a spare Android phone, you can set it up as a security camera or baby monitor and view the feed straight on your television whenever you want.
All in all, if you love tinkering, or love playing with the results of other people’s tinkering, the Chromecast is an amazing choice.
The last of the steaming stick options, just like the Amazon Fire stick, this one also comes with a remote, and of course, you have the option to use a mobile phone or tablet to control it.
The Roku stick boasts having more channels than any other streaming service. This is because, like the ChromeCast, it is a completely open platform. But the Roku has a slight advantage in this area as it has been out for longer, meaning that more developers have had time to integrate Roku support into their services.
One thing where the Roku has all the other devices (so far) beat is it’s user interface. It is one of the simplest devices to use. Because of how long various different Roku devices have been around for, the Roku company has had a lot of time to be able to work through making their interface as great as possible.
Another great feature of the Roku Streaming Stick is how you can stream your own media files. One of the problems with other devices is that they are always getting information from the internet and find it very hard to access your own movies you might have already brought. The Roku Streaming stick, however, comes with the (otherwise paid) Plex app already installed, allowing you to stream your own video files from any computer straight to the stick.
One design problem with the Roku stick that isn’t found in Amazon Fire stick or the Chromecast is if you are planning on putting the Roku into a suitcase for traveling, or need to use it anywhere with a non-standard WiFi network. Many WiFi networks, especially in hotels, will require you to log onto a web page to accept some terms and conditions before you can use the WiFi. Unfortunately, as there is no way of accessing a normal internet page on the Roku, you will be completely unable to set the device into being allowed on the WiFi network.
Another problem is that the Roku streaming stick is a lot slower to load and process content than the other devices in this article. What this means is that although you may have the best internet plan possible, it is possible that your movies and TV shows may still stutter because the Roku streaming stick simply can’t keep up with everything that is happening on the screen.
About the only other problem with the Roku is that it might stick out design wise. Unlike common black and silver electronics, Roku do insist on branding all of their items with a horrible bright purple shade that isn’t pleasing to look at. This design extends not only to the stick but also the remote, with purple highlights surrounding the whole thing, including with a little cloth label at the very bottom of the device.
The Apple TV sits in a very odd place with other Apple products. Apple TV was meant to be Apple’s “fun” project, set onto the market without an expectation of making any profit, but it has repeatedly turned out that Apple make a lot of money on the device.
If you are a Mac or iOS user, or typically use iTunes to buy your media, the Apple TV is a no brainier. All of your iTunes media is automatically available on your Apple TV, and of course, iOS and MacOS have brilliant compatibility with the Apple TV.
Unlike all of the other devices, the Apple TV isn’t a setup stick. Instead, is a very small and stylish little black box. The design is both very Apple like, in that it is elegant, purposeful and striking, and yet also very un-apple like in that it fits very naturally into most pre-existing home setups without standing out too much.
The Apple TV comes with it’s own remote, but unlike all of the other TV devices, this remote works on IR. Whereas with the Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast and Roku you don’t even need to be pointing at the device when pressing buttons, with the Apple TV you need a clear line of sight. This actually has one advantage though, in that if you use a universal remote in your home you can carry on using it for the Apple TV.
The Remote which comes with the Apple TV is almost identical to the remotes that come with iPod docks and Macs. There is, however, one very subtle difference in that the buttons are raised slightly differently. This means you will actually be able to tell which remote you have picked up, so if you already have one existing remote in the house, you don’t have to worry about getting them mixed up.
AppleTV does have links to all of the major streaming players, including HBO Now, Netflix, and Hulu, but unfortunately, for streaming media, the Apple TV lags far behind all of it’s competitors. This is because it is very hard for developers to make their own apps for the TV, having to go through approval processes with Apple. The only area where Apple has other providers beat is with sport channels, as the Apple TV box does have access to far more live sport channels than either Chromecast, the Amazon Fire Stick, or Roku. If you, or someone in your family, is a sports fan, this might be something to consider.
But, if you love to buy your media instead of streaming, the Apple TV is amazing. The iTunes store contains almost every movie, TV show, or piece of music you could ever want, and purchasing new content with your Apple TV is smooth and easy.
And if you have a bundle of iPhone or iPad apps you love to play, maybe even as a family, you can stream the game to the television. This means that, for example, if you are playing a puzzle game and you are stuck on one particular puzzle, you can get the whole family to chip in and help. Some games even allow dual screen game play, turning your iPhone or iPad into a second controller or displaying extra information on your iOS device while all the action is happening on your main screen.
Of course, the Apple TV is really easy to set up as well; all that is typically needed is for you to type in a WiFi password using the remote and you are good to go. But, it is also very easy for guests to connect to the Apple TV. As long as they have a Mac or iOS device, you can allow them to connect up to it without even having to give them your network’s WiFi password. This is also something to consider, if you are planning on having friends use the device whenever they come over (maybe for a YouTube party).
Really, which TV Streaming device you decide upon depends on what you think your main usage case will be.
If you are the kind of person who just wants to play around with awesome new tech, while enjoying all the features of using a fully developed device, then you should go with the Chromecast. As more and more people hack away at it, it’s only going to get better and better.
But, if you want to just get up and running straight away, without fiddling around with installing more apps, then you should really go for the Amazon Fire. It beats almost every other device in ease of use, ease of setup, and capability to do everything you want it to do the moment you plug it in.
As long as you don’t mind a small bit of set up, and care much more about having access to all the TV shows and services you want, you really should go for the Roku, as long as you don’t mind that occasionally you might experience a bit of stuttering while watching high quality programs.
And lastly, if you have anything stored on iTunes, or use Mac and iOS devices all around the house, then the AppleTV is the best path to go down, as it simply slots straight into your home and all of the systems you use without any hassle.