On a nearly daily basis it seems that cable and satellite television companies are trying to find new and inventive ways to bilk their customers out of more money. Simultaneously they reduce the number of channels that people might actually want to watch while they add in mountains of extraneous programming. It is doubtful that anyone needs Bravo, and reasonable people agree that anything on E! should only be used to interrogate prisoners in Guantanamo. To escape from this festival of suffering, more and more people are turning to streaming devices and the internet for all of their television viewing needs.
Rather than watching every show through a computer, an increasingly large number of people have chosen to pick up streaming devices that allow them to easily browse through shows offered online. These make it easy to watch your programs on a TV, but not all are created equal. Some won’t give you true HD, some don’t render certain feeds correctly, some won’t give you stereo sound, and some won’t even recognize your home network and can’t connect to the internet at all. To help you avoid those substandard pieces of equipment, we have compiled our 5 best streaming devices.
Complete Your Apple Collection: Even if Apple’s products don’t make you go “squee!” you can still enjoy their streaming box, though you won’t be privy to all of the (expensive) features unless you are an Apple fan. The biggest advantage of Apple TV is the ability to stream saved shows or movies to any iOS devices through the AirPlay system. AirPlay also allows the use of AirPlay compliant speakers to give you a wireless surround sound experience. AirPlay enables you to push anything from your newer iPad, iPhone, or Mac to your TV for a full-screen experience with full high-def glory.
Apple TV will give you most of the usual streaming services, but it does drop a few that are standard to many viewers. You’ll have access to Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube but if you prefer Amazon Instant, Showtime, or Vudu you’ll be out of luck. It produces excellent HD whether being pushed from an iOS device to a television or coming directly out of the box. Cloud storage will let you keep any iTunes purchases in a digital space. If your home looks like a genius bar wet dream, Apple TV is marvelous. For everyone else it is merely good. [Purchase: $93]
Cheap But Cherry: The ill-named Google “dongle” is certainly the least expensive of all the streaming devices. It is also both the simplest and the most complicated to use since it must use your wireless network. There is no hardwire option. After you insert the salacious dongle deep and hard into an HDMI port, you have to download the ChromeCast app to a device so you can interface with it, since it doesn’t come with any kind of remote out of the box. For some, this will be a simple matter that will permit them to watch their favorite shows in minutes. For others, it will be a lengthy battle trying to use the app to convince the ChromeCast to connect to the wireless network, trying to use the sometimes infuriating menus to customize it, and possibly weeping as you drink alone in the dark, a dongle your only companion.
ChromeCast has numerous drawbacks in the streaming services it uses. For most of the web-based viewing options such as YouTube, Google Play, Netflix, and Hulu, you’ll be fine. If you hope to see Vudu or Amazon Instant, you’re going to have to pull out your computer. It is possible to use some third-party services such as iTunes, but you’ll need additional apps to make it work. The streaming works well so long as you have your wireless router in the same room as the Chromecast. If it is further away, expect resolution to plummet and lots of stu–stu–stuttering to occur. [Purchase: $35]
Streaming Only: The biggest advantage of using a Roku box is they are not trying to cram their proprietary streaming service into any of your delicate orifices the way that Google, Apple, and Amazon do. This makes their device more versatile and allows you to choose from all of the big dogs in streaming. Through your Roku you can get Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, and Showtime, though don’t expect to get anything you already own from Google Play or iTunes.
One of the nicest features on the Roku is the remote with headphone jack. The remote is a little on the cheap side, but it is easy to use and simple to get your Roku to work without the hassle of extra apps or other software. The downside of the Roku is that it doesn’t have the same massive infrastructure that you get when you sign on with a Google, Apple, or Amazon device, which means cloud storage or even playing locally stored media is typically a bust. It is a pure streaming box, period. [Purchase: $95]
WD TV Live
The Multi-Tasker: Western Digital’s WD TV Live streaming device came out of nowhere. It has better streaming options than either the Chromecast or Apple TV with Showtime and Amazon Instant being the only notable holdouts. It can work with both Android and iOS devices to send your media wherever you want it to go. It has the option of a wired or wireless connection, and it interfaces with almost any existing device so even if you have tons of stuff stashed away, you’ll still be able to watch it using the TV Live. It is easy to use and works either with the boxed remote or by turning your smartphone into a remote if that is how you roll.
The only reason the TV Live isn’t a home run is the lack of backup from the company. They don’t have the money of the other competitors to address any issues with hardware, software, or firmware, so one buggy update can brick your TV Live. The interface can be a little buggy and hard to acclimate to using, the WiFi isn’t stellar, and you can get some lag playing off an outside device. It is so close to greatness it is almost painful to see the many tiny flaws. Still an excellent device for both streaming and using your personal media collection. [Purchase: $80]
TiVo Roamio Plus
The Hoarder’s Pet: Not completely ready to cut the cable but want a solid streaming experience in addition to a DVR so damn good it won’t leave a dry seat in your house? Then drop the money and get a Roamio Plus. It has all the most popular streaming services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, and Amazon as well as some add-ins like Pandora and Blockbuster (yep, we were shocked at the last one too). In addition to high-quality streaming that can be done either through a wired or wireless network connection, the Roamio Plus will also work with most of your existing television systems. It includes a DVR that reaches as high as 3 TB and can record up to 6 shows at the same time.
The drawback to the TiVo is that it is still a DVR first and an impressive streaming device second. It will work with your iOS devices and iTunes, but not so much with Android and Google Play. It also won’t give you any love from Vudu, HBO Go, Showtime, ESPN, or many of the other niche streaming services. Instead, it offers the ability to watch anything you have stored anywhere you can find a WiFi connection, so if you like to do a lot of recording and pump it out later, TiVo has you covered. Different models have different features, so check the box before buying. [Purchase: $176]
Honorable Mention: Xbox One
The Xbox One or the Xbone as it is unaffectionately known is a decent gaming system, but it is clear that Microsoft was trying to make it a full multi-media device, including some very usable streaming options. It won’t let you watch Vudu, Spotify, or Showtime, but everything else shows up in full 1080p resolution. It even offers the ability to watch certain live TV with a subscription to the right service. Add in a Blu-Ray player, 500 gigs of storage, and the ability to own some n00bs in your game of choice and it equates itself reasonably well as a streaming device / game console / entertainment system. The biggest issue is the high price tag and the numerous monthly subscription charges for the various memberships you will need to get the most out of it. [Purchase: $400]
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