Thursday, September 18, 2014

What streaming device should I buy?

Today I was asked about the streaming devices that are on the market.  The specific question was which one offered the best bang for the buck.

When it comes to getting your entertainment, there are many options available to consumers today.  In fact, a lot of us are moving toward "cord cutting" for entertainment.  Sure, you still have an Internet provider, but at least you aren't paying to get 500 channels when you're only going to use 10, including 5 or 6 of those which you can get over the air for free.  Setting aside home entertainment mainstays that now incorporate streaming functions, if you want to get a set top box there are four basic players in the game:

1) Amazon Fire TV
2) Apple TV
3) Chromecast/Google TV
4) Roku

Any one of these four will plug into your TV and give you access to all sorts of entertainment.  The first three, though, were specifically designed as content delivery devices within the ecosystem of their respective manufacturer.  This means that Amazon, Apple, and Google designed these so you would purchase your content from them specifically and directly.  Roku, on the other hand, is wholly independent of the others and offers more "independent" channels.  They all support the big content delivery independents - Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and YouTube.

Apple TV

Apple TV is the most restrictive of the four and this makes it the poorest choice for the general consumer.  Apple offers you access to music and movies you purchase through iTunes, Netflix, and Hulu Plus.  They have a bunch of other "channels" you can access if you have the right subscription (usually a cable provider).  You can read about the channels available here:

The best thing about AppleTV, though is that you can also mirror your iPhone/iPad/iPod to the TV and that's pretty cool.  I have one of these for just that purpose.  It's also nice to be able to access your photo stream on the TV and iTunes radio is just as good as any cable based music channel.

Anyone who knows will know I am a HUGE fan of Apple products.  I have the full suite - iPhone 6 Plus (preordered), iMac, MacBook Pro, iPad, AppleTV, and next year I'll even get an Apple Watch.  But, if I'm being honest, I just can't recommend the AppleTV to anyone who isn't heavily hooked into the Apple ecosystem.  Apple just hasn't shown themselves serious about this area of entertainment and Android based devices are just better.  Apple TV goes for $99 normally, but you can find it on sale occasionally and on Black Friday, Best Buy likes to sell them for closer to $50-$60 too.  (Hey - it's only a couple of months away!)

Chromecast/Google TV

Google has come up with their own rendition of home entertainment set tops called "Google TV" and an Android extension device in a stick called the "Chromecast".  If you're looking for a full set top solution, forget about Chromecast.

Consumers of the Google Play world of content (movies, music, etc) and Android afficionados, will find Google's options a great addition to their homes.  If you have Android devices, you'll enjoy the ability to mirror them to the TV just like Apple geeks can do with the Apple TV.  Google TV is for Android what Apple TV is for iOS, right down to the channels offered.  The one thing you get with Google TV that you don't get with Apple TV - apps.  There are lots of Android apps that will run on your Google TV box.

Again, though, my recommendation here is limited.  The Google TV boxes run anywhere from $100-$200, depending on the model, sales, and so forth.  Heavy Android users - this is a great pick for you.  Of course, you can't play iTunes content on Google TV but there's just as much content from Google Play.  If you're not all about Android, then there are better choices.

Amazon Fire TV

When you come right down to it, Amazon is the supreme leader of content delivery.  No one does it better.  Period.  End of discussion.  Their e-reader devices may not get my vote, but Amazon has a very well developed ecosystem for delivering movies, music, and books that has made it the behemoth it is today.

The Fire TV is a relative newcomer to the set top box market.  It retails for $99 and offers full access to all the big content providers, apps, and even has a standard game controller you can buy to play some of the many games available for the device.  The interface is simple; sliders where each row is a different category of content/apps, and even a voice recognition driven search system.  It is elegant in its simplicity and design.

The best feature of Fire TV is how it hooks into Amazon's ecosystem and the pairing of the device with Amazon's "Prime" service.  Amazon Prime costs $109/year and offers free, 2-day shipping on anything you buy as well as access to their Netflix like library of movies and TV shows.  Of course, newer material takes a while to get to the streaming service, but the selection actually rivals Netflix.  Having Prime plus Netflix will give you enough media content to vegetate on the couch for years to come.


Roku is the power house in this category.  In addition to carrying all the big content providers, Roku also taps into Google's media and even Amazon's.  (No Apple or Google content accessible yet.)  As an added bonus - the Roku is cheap.  Entry level Roku boxes cost only $50 and earlier generations can be found for less.

In the war of versatility, Roku takes the cake without competition.  In addition to the heavy hitters, there are dozens of small content providers with channels you can add to your Roku box, some for a couple of bucks a year and others for free.  Music lovers will be pleased to find that even Spotify is available on the Roku.

Sidebar - What's "Plex"?

I'm glad you asked!  In addition to the big content providers, you may find yourself to be a bit of a content provider on your own.  With Plex, you can store your very own content at home (Plex Media Server) or even in the cloud.  (Cloud services start at $3.99/month and they offer yearly, $29.99, and lifetime, $74.99, subscriptions as well.)  Roku, Google TV, Amazon Fire TV, and most mobile devices support Plex to boot.  This is a great option to add to your home entertainment system if you have a large MP3 collection or if you have a lot of movies you've ripped.

So...What to Buy?

Your particular viewing needs will dictate which device you find most appealing.  If your content exists primarily in one ecosystem (Apple, Amazon, Google) then that's where you'll best end up.  If you want a bunch of tchotchke channels with esoteric programming, along with the big content providers, then you'll find Roku works great.  The overall winner in my book is the Amazon Fire TV.  Amazon's content is just unparalleled in the market and even if you're a regular Google or Apple kinda user, Amazon's content delivery is superior.  SO, if you were the type of shopper who just wanted ONE box, then I'd recommend getting Amazon Fire TV, adding Amazon Prime, buying any digital movies you want through Amazon, and even tying it into your "Free Digital Copy" coupons when you buy discs.

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