Cheap streaming media players let users enjoy online video and other content from providers such as Netflix on a TV screen instead of crowding around a computer monitor. Streaming devices have also nudged many consumers to unplug from costly cable or satellite TV service. But when comparing Google Chromecast vs. Roku players vs. Apple TV, as well as the newer Amazon Fire TV, which is best for the budget-conscious buyer?
Streaming Media Player Buying Guide
For consumers seeking the widest array of content at a bargain price, the Roku Streaming Stick (starting at $49) takes gold. Consumers with a little more to spend can upgrade to a Roku 2 set-top box (starting at $70) with additional features. The cheapest streaming media player we recommend is Google Chromecast (starting at $35), a dongle that enables users to "cast" content from Google Play, a supported mobile app, or the Chrome web browser to a TV. Unlike the others, it relies on another device for content rather than housing its own channels. Apple TV (starting at $99) limits some of its most compelling features to Apple's family of devices and doesn't support nearly as many content providers as Roku. It's also priced at the high end for a streaming media player. A better option for consumers with available funds may be the Roku 3 (also starting at $100), which comes with USB and microSD ports to accommodate more content, an Ethernet port for a more stable connection, and a faster processor than the Roku 2. Amazon Fire TV (starting at $99) focuses far more on gaming than the others and makes a good option for Kindle owners and Prime members. But Roku's cheaper devices also serve up Amazon Instant Video, not to mention an unmatched selection of other content unavailable through Amazon.
Some households may not need to purchase a streaming media player at all, as many new HDTVs, Blu-ray players, and game consoles come equipped with the ability to connect to popular online streaming services such as Netflix. However, smart TVs, as they're called, still cost more than their "dumb" counterparts. With all the set-top boxes available for under $100, a dedicated device may be a more economical solution. The best streaming devices also add a lot more functionality.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
What We Looked For in the Specs
Support for 1080p HD.All the cheap streaming media players recommended here play back the highest of high-definition content. In fact, many require an HDMI port and work only with HDTVs. Consumers with standard-definition TVs should opt for a Roku 2 or Roku 1 (starting at $50), which can plug into a TV via an RCA connector (with a yellow plug for composite video and red and white plugs for stereo audio).
Content Galore.Lucky for consumers, two of the most popular streaming video services -- Netflix and Hulu Plus -- work with any of the media players listed here. It must be noted that no device includes free access to such subscription-based providers. Owners still need to pay $7.99 per month for Netflix or Hulu Plus. HBO Go and WatchESPN are available only to paying cable subscribers and unlimited Amazon Instant streaming requires a Prime membership ($99 per year).From the table below, it's clear that Roku offers the most "channels"; more than 1,000 are available. Unlike Apple TV or Chromecast, it supports Amazon Instant Video and Redbox Instant, an $8-a-month service that lets subscribers stream movies and receive rentals from Redbox vending machines. Roku also hosts free channels that typically broadcast prerecorded video, such as TED talks and AllRecipes.com cooking shows. SnagFilms gives users access to thousands of ad-supported movies. An additional 150-plus private channels are developed and distributed independently. One popular example is Nowhere TV, which streams local news and sports broadcasts.
In addition to providing such "all you can eat" streaming services, each player supports various ways to access and/or purchase media a la carte. Consumers invested in the Apple ecosystem can call up and add to an iTunes library on Apple TV and the Google Play store connects with Chromecast. Amazon users can make Amazon Instant Video purchases and display photos from Cloud Drive, although reviewers express some surprise that there's no support for Cloud Player music yet. The ability to access media files stored on a computer or mobile device using a channel called Plex helps make Roku players more flexible. Smartphone users can also download the Roku app to send videos, music, and photos on the phone to a TV.
Device Compatibility.All the streaming media players we researched allow users to send content from a supported mobile app to a TV, but some support more devices and apps than others. Among the Roku players, only the Roku Streaming Stick and Roku 3 have this capability and the only compatible apps are Netflix and YouTube. By contrast, Apple TV and Chromecast support numerous apps and can also mirror what appears on a computer screen. In other words, whatever users can access with a web browser can also be displayed on a TV. Want to use Chromecast to watch an unsupported service such as Amazon Instant Video? Start streaming in the Chrome browser and "cast" it to the TV.In most cases these methods of content delivery just add flexibility, but Chromecast relies on them entirely. The dongle works with Android and Apple iOS mobile devices and Windows and Mac computers running the Chrome web browser. Mirroring is primarily confined to a Chrome browser tab; an option to "cast" the entire screen is still in beta and only the Nexus 5 phone has native support for Android mirroring. One benefit is that Chromecast-compatible apps can run in the background on tablets and smartphones. Users can open the Netflix app, "cast" a movie, and then minimize the app and continue to use the device while watching. Apple TV allows multitasking with some apps -- HBO Go, for example -- but not all.
Apple TV uses the company's AirPlay technology to receive and display audio and video content sent from other devices. Users can mirror an entire Mac desktop or mobile device screen. Mirroring is generally limited to recent versions of Apple devices and Mac computers. Amazon Fire TV users can "fling" content or mirror the screen only with a Kindle Fire HDX tablet, although support for Android and iOS devices is said to be in the works.
Consumers mainly interested in connecting their computers to their TVs can also do so without a streaming device for almost nothing. A 10-foot HDMI cable costs just a few dollars and allows for mirroring and dual-screen modes. Setup is as easy as plugging in the cable to an HDTV and a computer with an HDMI port and changing the input setting on the TV.
Streaming Media Player Reviews
Looking at the thousands of streaming media player reviews of devices from Apple, Google, and Roku, as well as early reviews of Amazon Fire TV, it seems that all the manufacturers have produced praise-worthy products. Aggregate ratings from Amazon and Best Buy show that none of the devices we examined receives less than four stars. We considered reviews by experts as well as the everyday consumer to find out how easy it is to set up and control each device.
Simple Setup.Getting started with any of the options is relatively easy. The Roku Streaming Stick plugs straight into an HDMI port. Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku set-top boxes connect to an HDTV using an HDMI cable -- which is not included -- and draw power from a wall adapter. Users set up a Wi-Fi connection using an included remote. (Those who have several Wi-Fi networks should be sure the streaming media player is connected to the same network as any devices they plan to use with it.) Apple TV, Roku 3, and Fire TV can also connect to the Internet with an Ethernet cable for a faster, direct connection or in the absence of a home Wi-Fi network. With Roku, the final step takes place on the computer, where owners authenticate the device and connect to their subscription services. An easy-to-follow video can be found on Roku's website. A set-top-box review at GeekWire credits Amazon Fire TV with being the easiest to set up. Buyers receive the box preconfigured with their Amazon account and the quad-core processor loads content almost instantly.
Google's Chromecast is perhaps a smidge more complicated to set up than the others. Users plug the dongle into an HDMI port and a power cable into the wall or a USB port on the TV. Then they must download the Chromecast setup app to a computer or Android device and follow the directions to connect Chromecast to a Wi-Fi network. For those who want to broadcast content from a computer, a Chrome browser extension is an additional required download. CNET put together its own setup guide, and although some commenters report problems, most have found the process painless. When it comes down to it, no streaming device should take more than five or 10 minutes to get up and running.
Convenient Navigation.Controlling a set-top box isn't difficult, but it can be frustrating. The Apple TV and Roku remotes easily browse menus to find and select movies or TV shows. However, streaming media player reviews complain that users who want to type in the name of a specific title face the time-consuming task of hunting down each letter onscreen. On the upside, both can connect to a smartphone with a corresponding app installed and use the phone's keyboard instead. The Apple TV Remote app is available only for iOS devices, while Roku's works with Windows, Android, and Apple smartphones and tablets. Streaming media player reviews on the Roku forums also point in the direction of Remoku.tv, a website that allows Roku owners to use a browser window on a computer as a remote.
Amazon Fire TV uses a remote similar to those of Apple TV and Roku but ups the ante with a voice search system. Set-top-box reviews blast this feature, though, for indexing content only from Amazon itself and from the Vevo music video service. A search might prompt the user to buy a movie through Amazon Instant Video, for instance, when it's available free on Netflix. Chromecast doesn't have a remote because it doesn't need one: Unlike a set-top box or Roku Streaming Stick, Chromecast is not a system unto itself; there are no menus to navigate. It is, in a sense, only a relay point for receiving content "cast" from a phone, tablet, or computer.
In short, all these devices are designed so even a novice won't have trouble. After setup, watching Netflix on a TV with Chromecast is a simple matter of opening the Netflix app on a smartphone or tablet and hitting a button to cast it, or pulling up the Netflix website on a Chrome browser and choosing the "display on TV" option. With a Roku player or Amazon Fire TV, users navigate to the built-in Netflix app. Some Roku remotes also have a quick-select button for Netflix, and the Roku Streaming Stick and Roku 3 support casting from the Netflix mobile app. Apple TV users can opt for either method: They can start a Netflix movie from an Apple mobile device or computer and then broadcast it on the TV using AirPlay or they can navigate to Apple TV's Netflix app and make a selection.