Quick answer: The best media streamer for almost anyone is the Roku 3. It is currently the top selling media streamer and supports more apps with a better and more user-friendly interface than any other media streaming device.
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The future of media consumption
Media streamers are extremely useful in today’s home entertainment climate. They are inexpensive, versatile and bring new life to older TVs without ‘smart TV’ functions. As online content has grown exponentially, so has the number of services and devices that enable you to binge watch whatever suits your personality. Whether you want to watch Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu Plus through your TV, now is a great time to buy a media streamer with so many competing devices putting pressure on each other. We are coming to a point where on demand services are becoming more appealing than traditional cable services as modern living rooms become more connected.
Streaming box vs streaming stick
Media streamers can come in two main formats — streaming boxes or streaming sticks. Both types of devices essentially connect your TV to the internet and provide access to a plethora of apps and streaming services. You may or may not have a ‘smart’ TV, but usually they are slow or quite limited in what they can do. Media streaming devices focus on providing specialized access, better performance and faster interfaces focused on streaming online content. They also have additional features such as headphone support, local file support and are often updated and add new apps regularly. Streaming set-top boxes are larger, faster and support additional features, while streaming sticks are cheaper, small dongles that simply plug into your HDMI port and connect to W-Fi. The biggest difference is that streaming sticks are much slower than their counterparts.
A big reason many have switched to online streaming services is to save money on their cable bill. Media streamers must been viewed as an investment, you just have to remember that multiple streaming subscriptions can add up quickly and can also use up a lot of your internet bandwidth. While it is important that a media streamer does not cost too much (you are trying to save money, after all), you need to pick a media streamer that fits your needs and has good developer support so it is future proof. An interesting predicament is the multiple ecosystem media problem. If your purchase media content online, it is very likely you’re already tied into the Amazon, Apple or Google ecosystem. As such, you need a device that can support the apps and streaming services that you use the most — you can find a comparison list here. If you’re a file junkie, you may simply want a media device to that supports various file formats to easily stream your local media from a hard drive. We are happy to see more companies competing in this market, as they allow different functionality and ways to stream your content while pushing other companies to to add new features and apps.
Best media streaming box
The best media streamer can be a complicated question, but if you’re just looking for a simple no hassle solution, then you will be very happy with the Roku 3. It provides great features while being easily accessible for those who have difficulties with electronic devices. Unless you have a huge library and are locked into a specific ecosystem (Apple, Google or Amazon), then there are few reasons to go with a media streamer from one of the big companies. They end up pushing their ecosystem heavily and restrict access to other apps and services or make them less user friendly. On the other hand, the Roku 3 is the opposite and has a huge amount of apps to pick from, with frequent updates and excellent developer support. It supports access to almost every platform (Amazon Instant, Google Play, Sling but not Apple) and lets them compete on content and pricing with each other — just as a free market should. We love that the Roku focuses on providing a more user-friendly experience without making sacrifices to upsell you content. The interface is straightforward and uncluttered, especially when compared with competing devices. It even has a microSD slot for expandable local storage. The Roku is the top selling media streamer, even outselling the Apple TV.
It also comes with a simple but useful remote with voice and unified search, allowing you to search for movies and TV shows across multiple apps. The voice search works surprisingly well, just press a button and speak the actor, director or movie title you’d like to search for, while the unified search is something we’re surprised other devices don’t have. The remote also has a headphone jack allowing you to watch your shows privately, just plug in the included earphones and the TV will mute itself. Turn the remote sideways and you can use it to play games (although there is only a limited selection). The Roku remote also utilizes radio frequency rather than infrared, so you don’t need to worry about pointing the remote at your Roku. This means you can hide the Roku and don’t need a line of sight to use it. To compare, the Apple TV relies on infrared and sometimes won’t register button presses if you don’t have a clear line of sight. You can also use the Roku app on your smartphone as a remote. The Roku 3 supports dual-band WiFi (a/b/g/n) (while the Roku 2 supports the same, many owners complained about poor wireless connectivity). The Roku software also supports Super HD Netflix (using a higher bitrate) which is comparable to Blu-ray quality. While being a media streamer first and foremost it also supports other types of apps such as Facebook that are lacking on other systems. Although it has a lot of extra features, the Roku caters to the majority of customers’ needs while making it a breeze to use.
We’ve been using the Roku 3 for the past 4 months with few complaints, and we’ve recommended it to several friends and family members who have enjoyed using it without problems. It is very fast and responsive and is very easy to use in every way. It is important to note that your TV must have an HDMI port to use it. There is also support for some local file playback through USB including FLAC and MKV, with network playback support for UPnP, DLNA and Plex. Although there is no Miracast support, you can playback media stored on your phone or tablet through the Roku app. If you need local file support for a lot of different file formats, we recommend the WD TV Live instead.
If you’d also like to mount your Roku, checkout the TotaMount Roku Mounting System. Just clip it onto the back of your TV, and pop your Roku right in. It is compatible with all the Roku boxes.
Update coming soon.
If most of your products and device are Apple and you love the Apple ecosystem, then we suggest sticking with Apple TV. Although it is missing a number of key features compared to other devices, it works really well with other Apple products. It has a lot of app support and provides easy access to all your iTunes content and iTunes Radio. AirPlay works really well and allows for easy audio and video streaming from any Apple device. It supports most of the major apps, and many of those that are not natively support can be accessed through Airplay, such as Amazon Instant and Pandora. The Apple TV of course works great, although like the Amazon and Google streaming devices, they push their iTunes content heavily. Overall it is an excellent companion to iOS devices but it is starting to appear outdated. There is no unified search, no games, no headphone jack on its remote and no local storage, while lacking access to a lot of services you can easily get on the Roku. If you’re set on getting an Apple media streamer, we would suggest waiting until they release the next version.
Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV is very fast, loading files and apps faster than the Roku 3. Voice search built into the remote is also excellent and makes it easy for anyone to use (although it doesn’t work for Netflix). It’s biggest flaw is that it has a weak interface that focuses too heavily on Amazon content while making it unnecessarily difficult to access or search non-Amazon content and apps. While it does have access to Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and HBO Go, all the content is separate and harder to find. For example, the movies section is only Amazon titles and does not show any content from other apps. If you want to find movies on Netflix you will have to open up the app and search it. You also cannot even pin your favorite apps to the front screen. It is clear that Amazon Fire platform still has a ways to go in terms of development, but you can be certain that a lot of improvements will eventually be made. It does have some cool features though, such as learning what you watch and pre-buffering titles so they start instantly. This also allows for instant fast-forwarding and rewinding rather than having to wait for it to buffer. It also has decent gaming support, although the games are mostly designed for smartphones or tablets and the Amazon Fire Game Controller is $40 itself.
Best media streaming stick
If you purchase a lot of media from the Google Play store, then Google’s Chromecast is a great streamer. It has been very popular product due to its cheap price and good amount of features and growing app support. However, it is mostly for those who are more tech savvy. It does not include a remote and you must use the Chromecast app from your smartphone, tablet or Chrome browser to control and load media onto the Chromecast. But for what it is, it works really well and allows for easy direct streaming. With a single click you can cast almost anything in your browser onto your TV. It can also be great for travelling and loading your content from your device onto a TV, although the biggest barrier is connecting to hotel Wi-Fis and sometimes it will not work.
Google has kept up developer support for the Chromecast with regular updates, though the software catalog still has a long way to go compared to the Roku. It does support the major apps suchs as Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Google Music, Hulu, Pandora and Plex but there is no unified search. December’s update did add a guest mode allowing your friends to send content from their own devices (does not support iOS currently). Chromecast also has access an app called Videostream allowing you to stream any video from your computer.
Roku Streaming Stick
If budget is a concern, then the Roku streaming stick is an excellent alternative. It has the same amazing apps and remote control and simply plugs directly into an HDMI port on your TV. It uses the power from a USB jack or a power adapter to operate and has dual-band Wi-Fi for good wireless performance. The main drawback with the Roku streaming stick is that it is much slower compared to the Roku 3. It took roughly 1 minute to load Netflix, compared to about 15 seconds on the Roku 3. The good news is that future updates should reduce loadtimes substantially. For about half the price of the Roku 3, it is a great deal with a small form factor. It is nice that you can easily hide the Roku streaming stick, but the Roku 3 can easily be mounted on the back of a TV so this shouldn’t be a strong reason to buy it over the Roku 3. One annoyance is that because it is powered by the TV’s USB port, whenever the TV is powered off the Roku streaming stick will also power off. Booting it up again can take up to 2 minutes. Although it has a slow bootup and long loading times, its still a fantastic device that benefits from a well designed interface. It is our runner-up with the Roku 3 being our top pick if you can afford it (we think its worth it).
Amazon Fire TV Stick
If you only watch Amazon Instant content, it’s great for that and incredibly fast, but you’re still locked into their ecosystem and it is not nearly as user friendly as it should be. The Fire TV Stick which is a dongle version of the Amazon Fire TV set-top box, is quite cheap and often goes on sale. It competes directly with the Roku streaming stick and Google Chromecast and operates faster than them. Even though the Roku streaming stick is slower, it provides an overall better interface with access to Amazon content plus much more. The Amazon Fire platform unfortunately restricts you too much and doesn’t offer enough features to compensate for their lack of apps and poor design interface.
The BRAVIA Smart Stick adds Android TV to your Sony television. It plugs into an HDMI input slot and turns your TV into a smart TV giving it access to a number of streaming apps. It however only works with Sony televisions and there are better options out there.