A couple of weeks ago my friends and I rented The Interview from Google Play only to realize that there was no way for us to view it on the TV. Without a streaming device, newer video game console, or HDMI cable between the lot of us we ended up crowded together on the couch watching the movie on the laptop, which was perched on the nearby coffee table.
After that experience I decided it was time to leave the dark ages behind and look into the various sticks and boxes that make watching online content, on an actual television, possible. Since I had to do the research for myself, I figured I’d might as well share in case you’ve found yourself in a similar predicament.
This is by no means some sort of technical comparison or review of each device, I only bought one after all, but I hope my takeaways will be a good starting point for figuring out which device may work best for you.
Chromecast – $35
Amazon Fire TV Stick – $39
Roku Streaming Stick – $49.99
Roku 1 – $49.99
Roku 2 – $69.99
Roku 3 – $99.99
Apple TV – Starting at $99
Basically you’re going to need an HD TV with an HDMI port, although if that’s not the case, a couple of options do exist, see below. Also, and this seems like it should go without saying, but you’ll need a wireless network to connect to.
Chromecast requires an HDMI port on your TV and because it doesn’t have a remote you’ll need one of these devices: an Android phone, tablet, iPhone®, iPad®, Mac or Windows laptop, or Chromebook. Obviously there are also system requirements that need to be take into consideration, read more about those here.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick connects to your TV’s HDMI port and comes with a remote control. You can also use a free app on your Android phone (iOS coming soon) if you’d rather not add one more remote to the pile.
All Roku devices likewise utilize the HDMI port on the television set. However, the Roku 1 and Roku 2 also offer a second option for those with older TVs – composite cables, you know the red/yellow/white ones. All Roku devices include a remote.
HDMI is the connection of choice for Apple TV as well. An Apple Remote also comes along with this snazzy box.
Content wise, you can find just about all of the most popular services on all four platforms. Netflix, HBO Go*, Watch ESPN, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Showtime Anytime, kids programs, music channels, and video games are all pretty standard.
Things get a bit trickier when it comes to content libraries tied to the brand of the actual device. Google Play for instance is only available on Chromecast and Roku, iTunes Movies, TV Shows, and music is only available on Apple TV, and Amazon Instant Video is only available on Roku and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. So if you’ve already built up a library of content from iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play you may be swayed to pick a device that supports what you already have access to.
In terms of money, some stuff is free, others require a separate subscription or fee, while others are accessible if you can authenticate a cable subscription.
For a complete run-down of available content, click on one of the devices listed below:
If you want to learn more about these options, here’s a 4-way comparison article from CNET that I found helpful. Their “Best Media Streamers of 2014” article is also worth a read. If you know you want a stick rather than a box, see what Gigaom has to say about the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Chromecast, and Roku Streaming Stick. CNN.com also offers a basic rundown of devices, including video game platforms.
Ultimately, I went with the Roku 2. I was swayed by the composite cable compatibility and some positive words from Roku-using friends. Thus far, I’m really happy with it – it was super easy to setup and use. I look forward to never having to watch TV or movies on my 13” laptop again.
*HBO Go will be available on the Amazon Fire TV Stick in the Spring of 2015