They say choice is a good thing, but what happens when your choices are vast and seemingly indistinguishable? For most people, it leads to paralysis of analysis: you freeze up like that guy in those Carl’s Jr. commercials, blankly staring at the wall of choices before you. Streaming sticks, set-top boxes, Smart TVs, software, hardware — there are several somethings out there for everyone, and it can all be downright confusing, if not exhausting. Starting today, we want to help make that Oscar-nominated film or guilty pleasure (Toxic Avenger, anyone?) easier to find and even more enjoyable to watch. We’re talking tech and taking the guesswork out of figuring out what works best for you so your viewing time is Certified Fresh — here are the four things to consider before you go shopping.
Streaming sticks, set-top boxes, gaming consoles, Smart TVs — size really doesn’t matter much when we’re talking about modern video streaming appliances. Diminutive devices like Google’s Chromecast or Amazon’s Fire TV Stick can do most of what the larger devices do in terms of simply streaming content into your living room — or anywhere else. The primary differences are going to be speed and features: all of the devices will do a solid job of just pushing Netflix or Crackle programming to your TV, but larger devices will have faster processors, so you’ll be able to move around their interface with more pep. That bump in speed and power also means that a larger device will likely be able to support 4K video streams. Think of it this way: you have the budget to buy the Honda CRV or the Porsche Cayenne. Both are SUVs and will actually get you where you’re going comfortably, but one will get you there faster, with greater comfort and more convenience. The decision boils down to what you want and what you need.
For example, Nvidia makes a box (that I’m currently reviewing) called Shield TV. It’s very similar to Chromecast in that they both run modified versions of Android, but where the Shield TV differentiates itself from a stick is by adding a more powerful processor, gigabit ethernet, two USB 3.0 ports, a micro-USB port, microSD slot, and IR receiver. It also supports 4K video streaming (Chromecast maxes out at 1080P) and 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound pass-through over HDMI. But the differences don’t end there — you also get voice-activated search, gaming and headphone jacks built into the remotes, all of which are possible because you have a larger platform to work with than you would with a stick.
So what do you need? Just the bare bones? If you’re happy with most of what your current TV can do and don’t need a bunch of extras, then a streaming stick is probably the tool that’s right for you. Do you want to explore the universe of streaming channels and services? Are you a modern day video or cinephile hunter/gatherer, looking for that odd movie or off-beat sitcom that your friends haven’t discovered yet, who possibly also enjoys casual games like Fruit Ninja or hardcore first-person shooters like Dead Trigger 2? Go for the set-top box.
My recommendation for those who are shopping for a parent, or looking for the most simple device, is to go with either the Roku Streaming Stick or Amazon Fire TV Stick. They both come with standalone remote controls and are great for older adults who aren’t accustomed to using their smartphones for everything, including viewing content. That’s the only downside to Google’s Chromecast: it’s essentially a player for your Android smartphone or tablet. No Android smartphone or tablet? No Chromecast. Everything is played and controlled from that mobile device. Both the Roku and Amazon sticks have large libraries of apps and content, with interfaces that are relatively simple to learn and navigate. If you spend an additional $30 with the Fire TV Stick, you can pick up a remote that works via voice activation, allowing mom or dad to search for content across services without having to type things into a somewhat clunky interface. The only thing to keep in mind with the Roku and Amazon sticks is that you’re going to need an Amazon Prime membership to get the most out of the content available to you if you’re an Amazon Instant Video user. Between the two, Roku thus far enjoys the larger library of content, and has dedicated buttons on its remote for Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Google Play, making it practically elderly parent-proof and giving it a slight edge over the Fire TV Stick.
In most cases, you’ll get access to the services you use most — including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Showtime NOW, and more — by downloading and activating the corresponding app on your streaming device. Frequently this will also include access to mobile games and music apps like Pandora, Vevo, iHeartRadio, and others. However, you will run into some licensing and strategic marketing choices which limit the availability of some services on some sticks. For instance, one of the most successful sticks to date is Google’s Chromecast, but even with all its demand, you won’t be getting Amazon Instant Video access directly from the stick because Amazon has their own streaming stick and has kept their app off of the Google Play Store, which is where you go to download Chromecast apps and services.
You may be wondering which device comes with the biggest library and most services. I’ll ask you this: how’d that work out for you as a cable subscriber? Hundreds of channels and nothing to watch. Right now, Netflix’s library is arguably the largest overall (and boasts the strongest original content), while Hulu Plus has the biggest library of current network TV and cable series, with Amazon Prime a very close second. If it’s all those other channels you’re after (like Crackle, Fuse, Ocean Network, NimbleTV, Revision3, TWiT, Crunchy Roll, and Anime Vice), your best bet is a Roku device. To date, they have around 3,000 “channels,” but with one caveat: many are subscription-based. According to CordCutting.com, they include 739 religious channels, 346 movie and TV channels, 241 “special interest” channels, and even 199 weather channels. Some have a free level which will get you access to some of their content, but generally speaking, in order to experience all that a channel has to offer, you’re going to have to pony up some cash. At that point, if you’re paying for dozens of channels, you’re not really saving anything over cable — it all adds up. My suggestion is to take your interest — anime, for example — and subscribe to individual channels for short periods of time until you find the one that has the the content you’re looking for.
Streaming Stick: All three are great devices; which one you pick really depends on what you need and who you’re buying it for. On paper, the Roku stick is the one to beat because it has the largest library of channels. All of the hardware is pretty comparable so it comes down to content, and Roku is the top dog on that front — unless you have geeky tendencies and can do a little flashing. The famous open-source home theater software KODI can be flashed onto the Fire TV Stick, opening up a universe of options which rivals Roku’s deep channel repository.
Set-Top Box: Set-top boxes like the Shield, Roku 4, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple TV let you watch your favorite content while extending their functionality by boasting hardware powerful enough to allow you to play mobile games — and their interfaces are generally more polished and feature-rich. Shield TV actually comes with an Xbox-style video game controller as well as a remote, which both feature voice activation, allowing you to search for your favorite shows across services without having to type anything in. Both also include headphone jacks, so you can plug in your favorite cans and crank up the sound on Blade’s “Blood Rave” opening fight scene late at night in your apartment without disturbing the neighbors downstairs. The Roku 4’s remote also has a headphone jack, but throws in a “remote finder” which is a button on the set-top box which sets off an alarm on the remote control so it beeps from whichever shadowy crag your children dropped it into. Remotes with these kinds of features may be available and work with various sticks, but you’ll have to pay extra to get them.
Are you a hardcore gamer? Do you consider yourself a “gamer” at all? People who play games like Candy Crush Saga, Fruit Ninja, or Flappy Birds will appreciate the extra horsepower in the set-top boxes — and people who favor racing games, first-person shooters and tower defense games will get even more out of it. No lag, no freezes, and no slowdowns during moments of intense gaming.
With all of that in mind, if it’s a set-top box you’re after, the Roku 4 takes the top spot. It supports 4K, it has the largest library of channels and all those awesome features built into the remote, it connects to all the main services including Amazon Instant, and it can be found for $130 or less. Just know that if you also want access to awesome mobile gaming, the Roku is at the back of the pack. For that, Shield TV or Apple TV are better choices. Bear in mind, though, that if you’re a Google or Apple fan, neither the Shield nor Apple TV currently has access to the Amazon Instant Video app, so your Prime membership nets you no returns on either of those platforms.
There it is: what you need to know if you’re in the market for a streaming stick or box. If you have any questions which weren’t answered above, leave a comment below and I’ll get to it — just know that I have a majestic beard and don’t suffer trolls lightly. Seriously. I’ve been internetting properly for a very long time.
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