Big companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon are fighting each other over territory in a surprising market: streaming TV devices. You know—those small, homely, black plastic boxes that connect your TV to Internet video services like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Video, and HBO Now (and music services like Pandora and Spotify)?
And to these four add one more: The less boxy Google Chromecast device, which plugs directly into your TV and uses a mobile app as a remote.
Why would such important companies fight over such a relatively unimportant category? It’s not as though everyone needs a streaming-TV device. The Netflixes and YouTubes of the world come built in to most new “smart” TVs, as well as game consoles and TiVos, rendering a separate box a little unnecessary.
Besides: Millions of people, especially young ones, don’t watch TV on the TV at all. They’d just as soon watch Internet shows on something that can already get online, like a phone, tablet, or laptop.
So who are these devices for?
They’re for people with older TVs that don’t already offer access to Netflix & Co. They’re for people who’d like access to many more services than their TVs already offer, better organized, more easily searched, and more beautifully presented. And they’re for people who want to do all of this while sitting on their couches in front of an enormous screen.
Anyway, the new crop of streaming TV boxes and connected devices has landed. Just in time for the holidays—what a concidence!
As it turns out, they’re amazingly alike. They all bring the most popular video and music services to your TV, including the ones you have to pay monthly for (HBO Now, Hulu Plus, etc.). And all require a connection to a power source as well as your TV’s HDMI ports.
They all have fast processors and, in most cases, the ability to say the name of the movie, show, actor, genre, or director you’re searching for, which is a godsend. (Without it, you’re condemned to type out search terms using the remote control and an on-screen grid of letters, which is like water torture.)
Most of them come with “point-anywhere” remotes that work using Bluetooth, so you don’t have to point them directly at the boxes. Each company offers a free remote-control an app for your smartphone, too (though, strangely, Apple’s own remote app doesn’t work with its new Apple TV).
Alike, yes, but not identical. So which is the grand prize winner? Here’s a hint: It’s the one from the company that makes nothing but streaming media boxes and whose name begins with an R.
Candidate 1: Apple TV ($150 or $200)
The new, 2015 Apple TV is the only box that can bring you movies and TV shows from Apple’s own iTunes store. The question is, does anyone care?
It feels as though the biggest and best-priced movie store online these days is Amazon Video. (Netflix is shifting its focus to producing its own shows.) So if you’re going to buy a streaming box, you’d better make sure it can get onto Amazon Video. Especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member; you get thousands of movies and TV shows to watch free.
Unless you buy the new 2015 Apple TV. It’s one of only two boxes here that can’t bring you movies and TV shows from Amazon Video. (There are rumors Amazon is indeed writing an app that will bring its videos to Apple TV, which would be awesome for Apple fans. But the Amazon reps I asked declined to comment.)
(As a workaround you can always play Amazon videos on your Mac, iPhone, or iPad and broadcast it to the Apple TV using Airplay. Not as convenient, but doable.)
Here’s my full review of the Apple TV. And here’s the short version: It offers amazingy sophisticated voice recognition. You can say to the remote control, “Show me the highest rated romantic comedies from last year,” or “Find the second episode of Season 2 of ‘Lost,’” and it’ll find your options from the Apple, Netflix, and Hulu stores.
That Siri stuff is very useful, and the screensaver is a knockout (slow-mo flyovers of beautiful major cities). But the Apple TV is pricey, it can’t display 4K “ultra HD” video, and not all of those cool voice features work with inside all of the video services.
And Apple? Please, for the love of Steve, fix the text-entry screen. This one looks like you went out of your way to design the clunkiest possible way to enter account names, passwords, and search terms.
Still, if you’re reading this on your Macbook, iPhone, or iPad, you’ll probably to keep it all in the family with an Apple TV.
Candidate 2: Roku
Roku has a whole line of streaming TV boxes, each with a higher price and longer list of features. It also offers a cheaper Roku Stick, which plugs directly into the HDMI jack of your TV—a better bet for wall-hung TVs.
Here’s the rundown:
Rook 1 ($50): Old and super basic.
Roku Stick ($40): Adds screen mirroring from your Android or Windows machine; hotel/dorm WiFi connection; “point-anywhere” remote.
Roku 2 ($70): All that, plus Ethernet, USB, memory-card slots; faster.
Roku 3 ($100): All that, plus voice search, motion-control remote for games, headphone jack on the remote.
Roku 4 ($130): All that, plus 4K video, remote-control finder, optical audio output.
What’s nice about the Roku experience is that you do some of the setup on its Web site—like choosing the channels you want it to receive—so you don’t have to fuss around with the remote. (You can install any of 3,000 channels on your Roku box. Most are, ahem, not exactly mainstream. Blind Cat Rescue channel, anyone? How about the War Games with Miniature Soldiers channel? This is not a joke.)
Too bad you can’t also use the computer for entering your account names and passwords (for Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc.). You still have to tap out letters on an onscreen grid, crying all the way.
Roku has been in the business a long time, and it shows. Everything is polished. Everything works. The exclusive features are fantastic:
Remote Finder. Press a button on the box, and your remote beeps loudly from wherever it’s hiding in the room (Roku 4).
Dedicated buttons on the remote for Netflix and Amazon Video. Steps saved.
Headphone jack. It’s right on the remote. You can plug in headphones or earbuds and listen to the TV’s audio without disturbing anyone else in range — brilliant (Roku 3, 4).
The Feed. It’s like a Facebook for movies, shows, and actors you “follow”: a scrolling news feed of updates. Automatically lets you know when a movie’s price drops, or when it has just become available online. (The feed also shows up on your phone, in the Roku app.)
Works in hotels and offices. All of these boxes require a WiFi network, but most can’t use WiFi networks that have a login screen—like in hotels, dorms, and companies. The Roku can (all models).
4K. Not may people have 4K (“ultra HD”) TV sets yet, and there’s precious little to watch in 4K. But the Roku 4 is ready for both.
All Rokus offer a universal search feature, where you type what you’re looking for, and you see a list of online movie services that offers it. But Roku is the only company here that doesn’t have a video store; it therefore argues that its listings are the most complete and unbiased:
My only gripe is that the voice search feature (Roku 3 and 4) isn’t as powerful or natural as Apple’s or Amazon’s. You can’t say, for example, “Show me Tom Cruise movies”—you just say, “Tom Cruise.”
While the Roku 4 is the latest and greatest version, for my money the Roku 3 is still the best call for most streaming video fans.
Candidate 3: Amazon Fire TV
This plain-looking black box prominently features the stuff you’d buy or rent from Amazon itself.
The cynic might say, “Way to promote your own wares, Amazon.” The optimist might say, “Well, that’s handy—this is the only streaming box that shows me at a glance what I’m getting for free with my Prime membership!” (See the diagonal corner stripes on the movie titles below? Those are available via Amazon Prime.)
I have my beefs with the design. The descriptive text is chopped off at the bottom of the screen after only a few words, while most of the screen remains empty space:
The voice search works well for finding stuff to watch by name, actor, director, or genre; you can even open apps by voice. And one voice search finds stuff from Amazon’s own catalog (video, music, apps), as well as those of Hulu, HBO GO, Crackle, Showtime, and Starz. Not, alas, Netflix or Hulu.
As with Apple TV, you can also ask simple questions about news, sports, and weather. In fact, the Fire TV goes farther—you can ask general Siri-type information questions (“How tall was Abraham Lincoln?”), or add reminders to your Amazon to do list by voice (they sync with the Amazon Echo app).
As with Apple TV, there are a few game apps available for downloading; in this case, you can buy a $40, Xbox-style game controller to complete the effect.
Amazon also sells the Fire Stick, which doesn’t do 4K (as the Fire TV box does), doesn’t include the remote that does voice searches (it’s $30 more), and is much slower.
If you’re a loyal Amazon video fan—and especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member—the Fire TV will make your binge-watching a little easier.
Candidate 4: Google Chromecast
This streamer is unique among its rivals. For one, it’s not a little black box; it’s a puck-shaped device that plugs into your set’s HDMI port via a flexible cable. It also lacks a remote and has no “home sceen” of apps on your TV; instead, you use a phone app (iPhone or Android) to find stuff to watch. (YouTube, Netflix, Google Play, and thousands of other video apps work with Chromecast.) The downside? When your phone’s dead, so is your streamer.
Apple’s iTunes and Amazon Video aren’t among the offerings for Chromecast, but there’s a cheat: You can also send any Web page to your TV, from any device: phone, tablet, Mac or PC laptop, as long as you’re using Google’s Chrome browser. So you can dial up your favorite Amazon videos in your browser and watch them on the big screen.
There’s voice search on Android but not iPhone, no 4K, and no true universal search across all video services.
But the Chromecast is tiny (hangs off the back of your TV) and, incredibly, only $35. It’s the best call for cheapskates and geeks who want to watch the Web on their walls.
Candidate 5: Western Digital WDTV ($174)
This hollowish plastic box and its big remote give you access to 80 video and music services, including Vudu and Hulu Plus. You don’t have to install them yourself, as you do on Apple TV or Roku.
However, you’ll find a few key services missing—little things called Amazon Video (rats), HBO Go (shoot), Showtime Anytime (huh), and even Netflix (whaaa?!). There’s no voice searching, no universal service searching.
So what’s the point?
The USB and network jacks are the point. They let you connect a hard drive, flash drive, or network wire to play video files of your own, in any conceivable video format (MKV, AAC, DIVX, FLV and MOV). And photos, and music.
In other words, this box isn’t really about Internet streaming at all. It’s made in heaven for file hoarders, people with big video collections of their own. It’s not for things like the iTunes Store, but it’s the ultimate box for accessing the Steve Store or Casey Store.
(It also offers a feature called Miracast, which wirelessly transmits your Windows or Android device’s screen so it displays on the TV.)
If you had to buy a streaming TV box today—or give one as a gift this season—you’d probably want the Roku 3. It has the headphone feature, the voice search, and by far the biggeset selection of channels, including the important Amazon Video.
And it’s only $100 ($30 more gets you the Roku 4, which adds 4K and the remote-control finder).
Every now and then, a bunch of behemoth companies battle over a little piece of marketing turf—but the winner is the scrappy little company that’s never focused on anything else.
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David Pogue is the founder of Yahoo Tech; here’s how to get his columns by email. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. He welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below.