Media Streaming Devices Buying Guide
As more and more content becomes available online, having a home theater that can take advantage of that content becomes all the more important. An easy way to get your TV online is with a streaming media device, which not only connects your TV to your home WiFi network but also comes pre-loaded with apps for streaming movies, TV shows, and live sports. This brief guide can help you pick the right device for your home theater setup.
Benefits of Streaming Devices
Plug in one of these compact devices for an instant screen upgrade, giving your HDTV a connection to your home WiFi network and an enormous library of HD content. Usually in the form of a small box or stick that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port, streaming devices are extremely small considering the sheer volume of media they provide—some of them host content from upwards of 2,000 different streaming sources. Since they’re so small, streaming devices also help reduce visual clutter in your home-theater setup, providing less distraction from what’s happening on screen.
What Can I Stream?
Streaming devices do more than just play movies and TV shows. While features vary between models, any good streaming device should also connect you to dedicated sports channels, video-rental services, and music. Some streaming devices also come with a marketplace where you can download simple apps and casual games to the device’s internal storage. Regardless of which model you get, your streaming capabilities should include:
- Movies (Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu)
- Video rental (iTunes, Amazon Instant Video)
- Music (Pandora, Spotify)
- Live sports (MLB.tv, ESPN)
- Cable channel apps (HBO, Showtime)
- Online-only video content (YouTube, Vimeo)
Regardless of which model you buy, it’s important to note that most streaming services require some kind of additional fee. This ranges from a monthly subscription for unlimited streaming access to a one-time charge for a 24-hour movie rental. If you choose not to subscribe to any streaming services, there’s still plenty of content to watch on apps for free on sites such as YouTube or Vimeo.
Which One Should I Buy?
Streaming devices are compatible with practically any TV with an HDMI port, so picking the right model comes down to how you think you’ll use it. Some streaming devices work well with other gadgets from the same manufacturer—the Apple TV, for instance, will stream content from your iPhone to your TV—some are better suited to gaming, and others have exclusive apps and media channels. These are a few of the most popular models:
Made by Apple, the Apple TV is designed to integrate seamlessly with any device running iOS or computer running Mac OS X. Apple’s AirPlay technology lets you mirror the screen of your iPhone or iPad on your HDTV, so you can view photos and play games on the big screen. The Apple TV is also the only streaming device with access to the iTunes store, which is home to thousands of HD movies to rent or buy.
Google Nexus Player and Chromecast
Google’s offerings are similarly compatible with Android devices, supporting screen mirroring and movie streaming from the huge range of devices that run Android OS. While Chromecast works solely via screen mirroring, leaving it up to you to choose content on your device, the Nexus Player comes with a remote and a number of exclusive apps. Both devices offer exclusive access to the trove of content available on the Google Play store.
Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
Perfect for Amazon Prime subscribers, Amazon’s streaming devices grant access to Amazon Instant Video as well as Amazon’s huge digital video-rental selection. While both devices offer similar content, the Fire TV is built with a more robust processor and the ability to use voice commands. The Fire TV is also an especially good option for households with kids thanks to Amazon’s Free Time, a feature that makes the interface more child-friendly and lets parents add time and app restrictions.
Roku 3 and Streaming Stick
Unlike the other options, Roku doesn’t have its own content service, but it makes up for this with access to more than 2,000 different streaming apps—far more than any other device. Though they offer the same amount of content, the Roku 3 outpaces the Roku Streaming Stick with a better processor, dedicated remote, and voice search.
Consult this chart for a breakdown of technical specifications:
|Apple TV||Google Chromecast||Google Nexus Player||Amazon Fire TV||Amazon Fire TV Stick||Roku 3||Roku Streaming Stick|
|Special Channels||iTunes||Google Play||Google Play||Amazon Instant Video||Amazon Instant Video||Amazon Instant Video||Amazon Instant Video|
|1080p Full HD Support||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Other devices to consider if...
There are some other devices to consider before purchasing a streaming device. While these don’t quite replicate the features of a dedicated streaming device, they may be better suited to specific needs:
...you’re due for a TV upgrade.
Most new HDTVs come equipped with WiFi right out of the box, which lets them stream media without the need for an external device. While these TVs are great for mainstream channels, such as Netflix and Hulu Plus, dedicated streaming devices typically provide a greater variety of channels and, as they’re designed for streaming from the ground up, they’re better at managing all of that content. If you’re in the market for a new TV and only plan on streaming movies occasionally, a WiFi-enabled TV may be a better option.
The same is true for new Blu-ray players. If you have a large Blu-ray collection, buying a WiFi-equipped player lets you manage physical and online media from a single device.
...you prefer interactive entertainment.
If you plan on spending more time gaming than watching movies, a video-game console may be a better bet. The latest round of consoles—PS4, Xbox One, and Wii U—all have media-streaming capabilities, and have more robust gaming features than any streaming device.
...you spend a lot of time away from your home theater.
The Slingbox enables a different kind of streaming. Rather than streaming movies to your TV, it streams your TV—including all of its live, DVR, and streaming content—to your computer or mobile device. This lets you catch up on your favorite shows and live sports while you’re away from home, making it perfect for frequent travelers.
Before buying a streaming device, you should check to make sure your home theater is equipped with these features to ensure compatibility and smooth HD streaming:
- An HDTV with HDMI port
- A home WiFi network
- Internet service with at least 5MB/s download speed (20MB/s for 4K streaming)
Can a TV connect to the internet? How big should it be? Our TV buying guide helps you learn more about the most important features on HDTVs.
Get powerful, dynamic sound from movies and TV shows without a bulky multi-speaker setup.