By Tracey Dowdy
On-demand media services like Netflix and Hulu have undeniably impacted the way we watch TV. Instead of weeks of reruns or cringe-worthy movies like Sharknado 4: The 4th Awakens, we now binge watch our way through weekends, cramming in entire seasons of Game of Thrones or hunkering down for a Johnny Depp movie marathon.
The only thing harder than choosing what to watch is deciding how to watch it in the first place. There are a lot of great streaming devices out there, so how do you choose which one is best for you? Of the myriad of options available, the standouts are: Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Google Cast, Android TV, and Apple TV. All offer access to the most popular music and video streaming services, and all except Google Cast have on-screen menu systems and a dedicated remote. Google Cast uses your smartphone, tablet or PC with cast-compatible apps to stream content.
Roku offers consumers 5 options: Roku 1, Roku 2, Roku 3, Roku 4, or the Roku Streaming Stick. All five offer access to over 300,000 movie and TV episodes from over 3,000 channels so your choice will depend on what features are most important to you, e.g.: headphone jack for private listening, motion control for games, 4K video capability, or the ability to cast personal media to your TV. The other consideration is price – the Roku 1 and Roku stick start at $49.99, while the Roku 4 is $129.99.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon Fire TV focuses heavily on Amazon Prime content with Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime Music front and center in the menu. Hulu, Netflix, and other channels are available, just be aware it’s definitely an Amazon-centric device. Current versions of Fire TV and the Fire TV Stick come with voice remotes equipped with Alexa, the voice assistant used with the Amazon Echo speakers. (Amazon Fire TV – $99.99/ Fire Stick – $39.99)
Google Cast devices allow you to “cast” content from your smartphone or tablet to your TV or cast your favorite music straight to your speakers. Simply plug in your Chromecast device and you can control everything from your smartphone or tablet. There’s no separate app, no remote, no on-screen interface and at just $35 each, they’re the least expensive of the top options.
Speaking of pushing specific content, Apple TV pushes Apple content, no surprise there. The latest version has expanded its app store, includes a voice remote that uses Siri, and features Air Play as well as standard streaming options. Because it is Apple-centric, the music services focus on Apple Music though third party options are available. The two biggest issues are its inability to support 4K video and the price – the 32GB version is $149 and the 64GB is $199.
Nvidia Shield Android TV
The Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming box is a favorite among gamers. It works with 4K streaming services like Netflix and YouTube, allows you to use your smartphone to cast compatible apps, and has a “lightning fast” interface plus it offers 128GB of storage. The downside is that it’s one of the most expensive options on the market, lacks the number of native apps offered by Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire, and doesn’t have a remote. If your primary use is gaming, this is the device for you. If you’re looking for a device for other media streaming services, one of the other devices on this list may be a better option. (The Nvidia Shield Android TV starts at $199.99)
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.