Online content streaming—sometimes called “over the top” or OTT—is quickly gaining popularity, and it’s available from a wide variety of devices, including TVs, Blu-ray players, and dedicated media streamers. That’s all well and good, but there are a couple of flies in the ointment. While the apps for some content providers are nearly ubiquitous, others are found on only certain devices. Also, the specific capabilities and even the user interface of a given app can differ from one device to another.
So even if you have streaming apps on your smart TV and/or Blu-ray player, you might want a dedicated media streamer as well. And since they’re not very expensive—and quite a bit smaller and thus more portable than a TV or Blu-ray player—it’s easy to add one to your system. Here are some things to think about as you shop for a media streamer.
1. Content Providers
– The companies that make media streamers have agreements with certain content providers; some providers, such as Netflix and YouTube, are found on just about every streamer.
– Roku streamers generally have the largest number of providers.
– Google and Amazon are not friendly toward one another, so you won’t find Google Play content on an Amazon device or Amazon content on an Android device.
– The only way to get iTunes content from a set-top streamer is with an Apple TV.
– Most streamers can download apps that weren’t pre-installed on the device; in some cases, you must have a cable or satellite subscription to get a particular app, while in other cases, extra fees may apply.
– In addition to providers of movies and TV shows, apps can include video games and other content.
– You need to decide which channels and apps are most important to you, which will help determine which streamer is best for you; for a list of available providers on some of the most popular streamers, click on their names below:
2. Live TV
– In addition to video on demand (VOD), apps that stream live—also called linear—TV channels are starting to appear, allowing more people to cut the cord to cable and satellite.
– PlayStation Vue is one such service, and it can be used on various devices, not just the PlayStation game console. For a list of available packages and channels, click here.
– Sling TV also provides live-TV streaming on a variety of devices. For a list of available packages and channels, click here.
– AT&T recently launched its DirecTV Now live-TV streaming service on a variety of devices. To see the official list of packages and channels, you must sign up for a free trial here.
– CNET has assembled a handy comparative list of the live-TV channels offered by each of these services; to see it, click here.
3. HD or UHD?
– Most higher-end devices can stream content up to 4K/UHD. Apple TV is the exception; it’s relatively pricey, but it can only stream HD.
– Most lower-end, basic devices are limited to HD (1080p).
– If you have a 4K/UHD display or are planning to get one soon, get a 4K/UHD-capable streamer.
– If you have a 1080p display and you don’t plan to upgrade any time soon, and/or your budget is very tight, a 1080p streamer is fine.
4. HDR or Not?
– Several streaming providers, such as Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu, now offer streaming content encoded in high dynamic range (HDR).
– All but one HDR providers use HDR10; Vudu offers HDR content in Dolby Vision, and it has announced that it will add HDR10.
– Several streamers can now receive HDR content and send that to the display; all are compatible with HDR10, while the Chromecast Ultra is the first and only one that can handle Dolby Vision as well.
– If you have an HDR-capable display or are planning to get one soon, get an HDR-capable streamer.
– If you have an SDR-only display and you don’t plan to upgrade any time soon, an SDR streamer is fine.
5. Form Factor
– Most streamers are small set-top boxes that are powered from a wall outlet.
– A few, such as the Roku Streaming Stick, Amazon Fire TV Stick, and Google Chromecast, are small thumb drive-sized devices (aka “dongles”) that plug directly into an HDMI input on a display, AV receiver, or preamp/processor. These are typically powered by connecting their USB port to a USB port on the display or a USB AC power adaptor.
– For suggestions about which form factor to get, see the next section.
– All streamers have an HDMI output that connects to an HDMI input on the display, AV receiver, or preamp/processor.
– Most streamers have a USB port that lets you connect a storage device to expand the streamer’s storage for apps; in many cases, the device can also play content on a USB storage device.
– As mentioned before, streaming sticks typically use their USB port for power, not storage.
– Some streamers have a microSD card slot to expand the device’s storage capacity.
– Set-top box models often have an Ethernet port as well as Wi-Fi capabilities; connecting to your router with an Ethernet cable will generally provide better performance than Wi-Fi.
– Most set-top box models have an optical digital-audio output; streaming sticks do not.
– If you want to connect the streamer via Ethernet cable, use a USB storage device, and/or use an optical digital-audio connection to a legacy audio system, get a set-top box model with the connections you need.
– If you don’t need any of these connections, a streaming dongle is fine. Plus, it won’t clutter up your equipment rack with another box.
– Like virtually all consumer-electronics devices, media streamers come with their own remote.
– In some cases, the remote communicates with the streamer via infrared (IR) commands, which means the streamer must be in line of sight with the remote.
– In other cases, the remote communicates with the streamer via radio-frequency (RF), which means the streamer needn’t be in line of sight with the remote.
– RF remotes sometimes provide a headphone jack for private listening.
– Some streamers can be controlled from a smartphone or tablet with an app; this is the only controller for the Google Chromecast.
8. Voice Control
– Some streamers, such as Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV, offer the ability to control the device using voice commands.
– A microphone in the remote picks up your voice and transmits commands to the streamer via RF.
9. Local Casting
– In addition to online streaming, many streamers also let you “cast” content from a local device such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer to the streamer.
– Examples include Apple AirPlay, which is limited to Apple devices, and Google Cast, which works with Google-based devices and Android devices with a Chromecast.
10. Budget & Recommendations
– In each of the recommendations here, the name of the device is linked to the corresponding Amazon or other page where you can purchase the product. Also, the prices given are MSRP, not street price; in many cases, you can find these products at lower prices.
– If a streamer is identified as Wi-Fi only, it does not have an Ethernet port; if there is no such notation, it can be connected to your network via Ethernet cable or Wi-Fi.
– Roku Express ($30); IR remote, Wi-Fi only
– Google Chromecast ($35); HDMI dongle, uses smartphone as remote, Wi-Fi only, casting from Android devices
– Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40); HDMI dongle, RF remote, voice control, Wi-Fi only
– Apple TV ($150 for 32 GB, $200 for 64 GB); RF remote, voice control, AirPlay casting, smartphone control app available; called “also great” in the Wirecutter article
– Amazon Fire TV ($90); RF remote, voice control, microSD slot
– Roku Premiere ($90); IR remote, Wi-Fi only
4K/UHD with HDR
– Google Chromecast Ultra ($70); HDMI dongle, uses smartphone as remote, casting from Android devices, HDR10 & Dolby Vision
– Roku Premiere+ ($100); RF remote with headphone jack, microSD card slot, IR receiver for universal remotes
– Roku Ultra ($120); similar to Premier+, adds voice search, USB port, transcodes Dolby Digital+ to Dolby Digital for output via HDMI and optical digital-audio output
– Nvidia Shield ($200); RF gaming controller/remote (simple remote is an extra $50), voice control, headphone jack on remote, Kodi to access media on your network; called “also great” in the Wirecutter article
I’m sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments. What are your most important considerations when shopping for a media streamer? What models do you recommend at different price points?