It’s no secret that «smart» TVs aren’t that smart after all. In general, a dedicated stream box or flash drive is the way to go. However, there are plenty to choose from, so how do you decide what is best for watching movies?
There are five big names in this game: Amazon Fire TV (and Fire TV), Google Chromecast, Apple TV, various Roku boxes, and Android TV (which is a more full-featured platform than Chromecast, even though they’re both Google). Here’s a breakdown of each before we dive into what makes them different.
This is for those who have truly invested in the Apple ecosystem. There are two versions of Apple TV: Apple TV 4K and regular Apple TV. The 4K model comes in 32GB ($149) and 64GB ($199) variants, while the regular Apple TV only comes in 32GB ($149). If you’re going for 4K, I recommend upgrading to the 64GB model because 4K video will take up space quickly.
Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
This is Amazon’s take on the streaming market. Both Fire TV and Fire TV Stick have Alexa voice control and a wide range of apps and games to choose from. Fire TV 2017 costs $69 and can play 4K video; while the smaller, less powerful Stick goes for $40 and sticks to the HD. What a deal.
«Android TV» is not the name of a single set-top box, but a platform that other manufacturers can use in their set-top boxes. Even more confusing is that not all Android devices are Android TV devices.
There are many ways to get Android TV, including one built into many TVs. But if you want my short answer on which console to get, just buy NVIDIA SHIELD for $180. This is by far the best Android TV Box.
This is the simplest streaming device on the list — it doesn’t have a true «interface» on your TV; instead, you launch an app on your phone (such as Netflix or HBO Go) and «cast» the video from it to your TV. You can get a «regular» Chromecast for $35, but if you live that life in 4K, you can also get a Chromecast Ultra, which will set you back $70.
CONNECTED:Which Roku should I buy?Express vs. Stick vs. Stick + vs. Ultra
Probably the biggest name in this game, and the one that started it all. Roku devices are full of innovative features and an almost incomparable app library. And hell, there are a lot of Roku products out there, a lot more when you consider products that are no longer in production. So, here is a short list of current generation products:
Roku Express, $30: the simplest, simplest pen that Roku has to offer.
Roku Express+, $40: this little guy has component inputs for old TVs. It’s neat.
Roku Streaming Stick, $50: small, compact and relatively durable.
Roku Streaming Stick+, $70: the best version of Streaming Stick that supports 4K and HDR.
Roku Ultra, $100: the cream of the Roku crop — it supports 4K, HDR, and a few different ports on the back (not to mention a microSD card). Not bad.
This is of course a very simplistic one or two sentence look at what each platform is. Here we will talk about real meat and potatoes, which we will talk about below: the features that are in each box, and now they are compared with each other.
What services are available on each box?
Roku home screen with several of sets installed applications.
Perhaps the most important feature of any streaming box: what services can you watch on it? Here, not all boxes are created equally, especially depending on your needs. We can’t list every possible service here, so be sure to do your own research if your streaming box has a particular app or service you want to access. But overall, here’s how they compare.
Pretty much all the big names should be compatible with all of these devices: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Now, Showtime, Twitch, and other major channels should be available on every platform (although Amazon Prime Video isn’t available on Chromecast or Android TV other than SHIELD). However, if you’re using a TV streaming service like Sling, PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, DirecTV Now, or Hulu TV, it’s more difficult to figure things out.
If this is the case, I highly recommend contacting your TV vendor directly for device compatibility. For Android TV users, be aware that it has built-in casting options, making it both a Chromecast and a set-top box. So if your ISP supports Chromecast, it will also technically applicable on Android TV even if it doesn’t have a dedicated interface. It’s kind of a half solution if you ask me, but it’s a solution nonetheless.
Of course, there are also exclusives. For example, you are not going to access iTunes anywhere other than Apple TV. Google Play is a mixed bag — movies available on Android TV, Chromecast and Roku, but not on any other. As I mentioned earlier, Amazon Prime Video is available on Fire TV (of course), Apple TV and Roku, but it’s also available exclusively on NVIDIA SHIELD where Android TV is concerned.
If you’re looking for Kodi or Plex support, things get a little more complicated. For example, Android TV supports Kodi out of the box, but most others need a lot of work to make it happen. Plex, on the other hand, is a bit more ubiquitous. It’s available on Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, and SHIELD. It also supports broadcasting from your phone, making it available for just about every box we’re talking about here.
When it comes to the sheer number of supported services, Roku leads the pack by a mile. He offers thousands streaming «channels» (read: apps), although I admit that 80% of them are probably garbage. I’d say the rest of the boxes are pretty even in terms of available apps, although SHIELD will definitely take the crown for the games we’ll talk about below.
Which boxes are the easiest to use?
An Android TV home screen full of recommendations.
When it comes to ease of use, things get a little confusing because what’s easy for one person may not be easy for another — and it can also depend on how you watch TV.
What I can say is that most of these boxes are relatively simple and easy to use. For traditional boxes, I would say that Roku is the easiest to use: its interface is very simple, no frills (in a good way). Apple TV and Android TV are pretty basic, but will be most familiar to those already familiar with iOS and Android, respectively. Amazon’s fire boxes are perhaps my least favorite — I find them more intricate than the others.
The Chromecast is a strange beast as it doesn’t use a traditional interface. Some people may find this the easiest option of all, as all you have to do is launch the app on your phone and hit the Cast button to start watching. If you know how to get around with a smartphone, Chromecast will be very simple. But for those more accustomed to using a traditional TV remote and on-screen interface, Chromecast can be confusing and something like Roku would be a better choice.
What are the distinguishing features of each box?
In addition to the basic usability, each box has several exclusive features that make them more attractive. Which ones are important to you depends on what you’re going to do with your box. Here are the standout features of each:
Apple TV: the biggest thing here is Siri. It’s integrated into Apple TV so you can talk to it like a phone — and it can do cool things like repeat a slurred line with subtitles turned on, search for movies by genre (and subgenre), check the weather, and more. Otherwise, the Apple TV has controller support and a decent selection of games thanks to the compatible iPhone and iPad game library.
Amazon Fire TV: how and in the case of the Apple TV, Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant works here. It’s not as powerful in terms of media management, but it’s still great. Just like the Apple TV, Fire TV and Fire TV Stick have game controller support and are a decent choice for gaming.
Android TV: As with other sections, Android TV is a mess — just because there are so many boxes. You can do it easily and cheaply, but the more you pay, the more features you get. For example, NVIDIA SHIELD not only has incredible gaming support, but also access to Google Assistant, support for Samsung SmartThings, Plex Server integration, and an optional 500GB build. So yes, you can literally turn your SHIELD into a server. SHIELD also supports 4K video and private listening through the headphone jacks on the remote or game controller.
Google Chromecast: simplicity is the Chromecast’s selling point, so you won’t find many bells and whistles. Instead, the Chromecast is clean, minimal, and easy to use — not to mention cheap (at least for the non-4K version).
Roku: Like Android TV, there are many options here, each with its own set of features. If you’re looking for simplicity and affordability, Roku Express is your blueberry. But if you’re looking for full-featured goodness, the Roku Ultra is the way to go. It offers 4K playback, Ethernet, USB, microSD cards, and private listening by plugging headphones into the remote. (Although the lower Rokus can do this via the mobile app).
How to compare form factors?
Form factor may or may not matter much to you, and that’s okay. Just a couple of years ago, most of these boxes were about the same size, and they were basically boring squares. Things have changed since then, at least a little.
Apple TV: It’s a pretty small black indescribable box. Very clean and minimalist (like most Apple products), it certainly blends in with the background in most home theaters.
Amazon Fire TV: this is the only thing the full-featured device on the list that looks more like a streaming «stick» than a real set-top box. It literally plugs into the TV and then just hangs there… much like a Chromecast. The fact is that under this tiny hood lies huge hit. Kind of like a baby. The Fire TV Stick is literally a stick — it plugs in and just doesn’t work. It’s weaker but cheaper than the Fire TV. To be honest, as affordable as a full-featured Fire TV, I don’t even know why this stick exists.
Android TV: Again, Android TV is not a box, but a platform. There are many options out there. If you want small and unusual, choose Xiaomi Mi Box. It’s ultra clean. SHIELD, however, is much bigger… there. It’s bigger and has a slightly jagged «gamer» aesthetic. I don’t mind the SHIELD look, but I definitely understand why some people might.
Google Chromecast: it’s a small circle attached to a short HDMI cable. It just hangs there behind your TV. Not much to dislike about it.
Roku: Roku products can be divided into two categories: sticks and boxes. Express, Express+, Streaming Stick, and Streaming Stick+ are all flash drives. They stay away because they’re just watching TV. The Ultra is a real box, but it’s small, thin, and clean. It looks good and not gaudy — it should go great with any decor.
After all, most of these boxes are pretty small, so the form factor isn’t that big of a deal. Even the big boxes are small enough to hide behind the TV.
Which boxes support video games?
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Games are not what you usually think of from your console, but they are becoming more and more common, and some manufacturers use them to distinguish their device from others. At this point, most boxes support some kind of game — in general, very casual at best — but others have made it more of a trademark.
Apple TV: While it doesn’t claim to be famous, Apple TV has a pretty decent catalog of games, most of which are just iPad games that you can also play on your TV. And it supports game controllers built for iOS for a truly comfortable experience.
Amazon Fire TV: the game was one of the things that Amazon almost pioneered as it was the first company to introduce «real» games and a game controller in a regular TV box. The catalog is small (because it relies on Amazon’s smaller Appstore), but there are certainly some solid pick-and-play titles. Also, keep in mind that the gaming situation may be limited by what device you take — the Stick is much less powerful than the box, so game performance will suffer.
Android TV: how and most Android, this is a complex topic. Most Android TV boxes support a few elementary games, but NVIDIA’s SHIELD was really designed for gaming. There are a ton of exclusive games, including great ports of the great games from last year. And it can stream games from your NVIDIA-equipped gaming PC. If games on your box are important to you, SHIELD is the best choice.
Google Chromecast: The Chromecast doesn’t really have an interface to speak of, so the gaming scene is very… limited. There are a few family games that can be played on the Chromecast, but it doesn’t really have what I would call a true «gaming experience».
Roku: Roku is a cross between a Chromecast and an Apple TV or Fire TV — there are quite a few very simple family games here. There is no game controller, but the remote is meant to be a kind of gamepad. So, yes, if you don’t really care about games and think they are very limited in your console experience, Roku is a good choice.
Games are most likely secondary to the above categories, but it’s nice to know that you at least have options in this space.
What other options do I have?
All that said — and I feel like I’ve said a lot here — there’s another segment that could easily fit into the «console» niche: game consoles. If you have a PlayStation or Xbox, then you already have a console. Modern game consoles support 4K video, have access to Netflix and a host of other apps, and can really do just as much as most dedicated boxes. If you already have a game console, you probably won’t need a dedicated box — unless you need features like Siri, Google Assistant, or whatever else mentioned above. TV boxes are definitely more useful for those who are not gamers.
Alternatively, you can create your own home theater with Kodi or Plex installed. This tends to be more useful for local video than streaming video like Netflix and is a really challenging option for those who want something very specific. Buying a set-top box will be a lot easier (and cheaper), but if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty and enjoying how badly your butt hurts building something like a home theater PC, then by all means. You are doing
So which is better?
Here’s the thing: there really isn’t a «best» box — only one that fits best. For you. If you’re that deeply immersed in the Apple ecosystem, you can quote Jony Quince’s interview verbatim, then God will get the Apple TV. You will love it.
If you’re all about Amazon living, the Fire TV is for you — maybe the Fire TV Stick if you’re looking to save like thirty dollars, but whatever.
Android nerds, just get a SHIELD and be done with it. This is a great box and by far the most powerful, versatile option on the list, and by far the best Android box. And it’s not just smoke.
Chromecast for the occasional streamer who doesn’t want or need a lot of fluff. If you’re thinking about getting something simple and cheap for your bedroom TV, that’s fine.
Roku is almost new to this market so it has a lot of experience under its belt. Roku Ultra easily offers some of the best set-top box options, especially if you don’t already have allegiance to another company. Also, Express+ is the only option that supports RCA outputs, so it works with older TVs. It’s good looking Roku.