Pros and Cons of Today's Top Streaming Media Players

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Pros and Cons of Today's Top Streaming Media Players


Streaming-players-thumb.jpgFor a while there, it seemed like every CE manufacturer hoped to capitalize on the growing popularity of streaming media services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, and Hulu Plus by offering their own dedicated streaming media player. Many of those devices have quietly faded away, while the offerings from Roku, Apple, Amazon, and Google have firmly entrenched themselves at the top of the hill...and for good reason. I've spent time with all four systems, and they all bring something compelling to the table in terms of features, reliability, and/or easy of use. That doesn't mean they're all an equally good fit for every shopper, though.

The Roku products arguably have the most ubiquitous appeal, but the Apple, Amazon, and Google offerings may be a better fit for you, depending on your system and viewing habits. Even within my own home, we have different preferences. My Apple-tech husband loves the Apple TV and its easy integration with all our Mac/iOS products, while the five-year-old loves using the Amazon FireTV's voice search to find her favorite shows all on her own. It's really not about which one is the best; it's about which is the best for you.

To help with that decision, we've assembled this overview of the top streaming media players, with pros and cons for each and our verdict on the type of user who's best suited for each product.

Roku-3-media-streaming-device-review-with-remote.jpgRoku 3
Price: $99.99
AV connections: HDMI only
AV output: up to 1080p video, 7.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: Dual-band 802.11 WiFi, 10/100 Base-T Ethernet
Other connections: MicroSD card slot to add storage, USB for media playback
Control options: Roku Enhanced Remote (WiFi-Direct), iOS/Android app
Major apps: Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, VUDU, YouTube, M-GO, Google Play, Pandora, Spotify, I Heart Radio, TuneIn Radio, Sirius XM, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Time Warner Cable TV, PLEX, Watch ESPN, NBA GameTime, MLB.TV, NFL Now, NHL

Pros:
• Roku has the largest selection of apps, customizable via the Channel Store.
• The supplied remote has a headphone jack for private listening, as well as motion control for game playback.
• You can search for content across different apps.
• Screen mirroring is available with compatible mobile devices, and you can "cast" content from Netflix and YouTube directly from your mobile device.

Cons:
• The Roku 3 lacks analog and digital audio outputs, so your TV must have HDMI.
• Roku offers several apps that allow you to stream your personal media content from USB or a network server, but the process isn't as organic as it can be with, say, and Apple TV.

Verdict: Because Roku isn't affiliated with a particular service (iTunes or Amazon), it offers the widest selection of popular movie and music apps--and the best overall selection of apps. Add in a great user interface and a great remote, and the Roku 3 is still the top dog of streaming media for most users.

Roku-streaming-stick.jpgRoku Streaming Stick (HDMI version)
Price: $39.99
AV connections: HDMI only
AV output: up to 1080p video, 7.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: Dual-band 802.11 WiFi
Other connection options: Micro USB port for power
Control options: Roku Standard Remote (WiFi-Direct), iOS/Android app
Major apps: Same as Roku 3 above

Pros:
• The Roku Stick offers the same great Roku apps and user interface in a smaller, cheaper package.
• The Stick plugs directly into TV, so there's no separate box and no HDMI cable required. You can power the device from the TV's USB ports, if desired.
• You can search for content across different apps.
• Screen mirroring is available with compatible mobile devices, and you can "cast" content from Netflix and YouTube directly from your mobile device.
• Your TV doesn't need an MHL-compatible HDMI port to work with the newer HDMI version.

Cons:
• Some reviews say it is not quite as fast as the Roku 3 in loading apps.
• WiFi is the only network connection option.
• The supplied remote lacks the headphone jack and motion control you get with the Roku 3.
• The Roku Stick lacks analog and digital audio outputs, so your TV must have HDMI.

Verdict: The Roku Stick isn't quite as fast and lacks the great remote of the Roku 3, but it offers the same basic functionality for a lot less money.

Apple-TV.jpgApple TV
Price: $99.99
AV connections: HDMI, optical digital audio
AV output: up to 1080p video, 5.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: Dual-band 802.11 WiFi, 10/100 Base-T Ethernet
Other connections: None
Control options: IR remote, iOS app
Major apps: iTunes Store (Movies, TV Shows, Music, Radio, Podcasts), Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vimeo, Watch ABC, Fox Now, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Flickr, Internet radio, Watch ESPN, NBA GameTime, MLB.TV, NFL Now, NHL, MLS.

Pros:
• With the Apple TV, it's very easy to stream your personal collection of movies, music, and photos from Mac computers and iOS devices over AirPlay. It's also easy to access content stored in iCloud.
• Audio from Apple TV content can also be streamed to external AirPlay devices.
• The optical digital audio output makes it compatible with non-HDMI audio systems.
• Apple continues to add new apps regularly.
• The Apple Remote control app integrates control of all AirPlay devices on the network.

Cons:
• The Apple TV still has fewer apps than Roku and Amazon (no gaming apps at all), and there's no ability to customize the app lineup or group favorites.
• The Apple TV's iTunes-centric focus means there's no built-in support for competing services like Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, M-GO, Pandora, and Spotify--although some of the music services can be streamed to the box via AirPlay.
• You can't search for content across different apps.
• There's no Android control app.

Verdict: The Apple TV is best suited for the Apple-centric user who values personal media streaming (especially from iTunes and iOS devices) as much as access to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. If you've already assembled a lot of AirPlay devices, the Apple TV will be a seamless addition.

Thumbnail image for AmazonFireTV_Side_Popcorn.jpgAmazon Fire TV
Price: $99.99
AV connections: HDMI, optical digital
AV output: up to 1080p video, Dolby Digital Plus decoding/7.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: Dual-band 802.11 WiFi, 10/100 Base-T Ethernet
Other connections: USB port
Control options: RF remote, Android app
Major apps: Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, Vimeo, Amazon Music, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn Radio, I Heart Radio, Showtime Anytime, PLEX, Watch ESPN, NBA GameTime, MLB.TV, NFL Now.

Pros:
• The Fire TV's voice search works great to find Amazon Instant Video content.
• Amazon recently added an Android control app that also supports voice search.
• Many gaming apps and an optional motion controller are available.
• It's easy to access personal files stored on Amazon Cloud Drive.
• The optical digital audio output makes it compatible with non-HDMI audio systems.
• Screen mirroring is available with compatible mobile devices, and you can "cast" content from Netflix and YouTube directly from your mobile device.
• FreeTime helps you lock down the user experience for your kids.

Cons:
• The Fire TV doesn't support IR remote control, so it is not compatible with an IR-based universal remote.
• The Android app's virtual keyboard doesn't work in many apps.
• There's no control app for iOS, although Amazon says it is coming soon.
• Currently, the Fire TV lacks apps for VUDU, M-GO, and HBO Go (although the last one is reportedly coming soon).

Verdict: The Amazon Fire TV is best suited for the Amazon Prime member who wants a quick, easy, intuitive way to search for Amazon content, but it has many other desirable big-ticket apps, too. Voice search makes it easy for anyone is the house to use; add in the FreeTime service, and it's an especially good choice for people with young kids.

Amazon-Fire-TV-Stick.jpgAmazon Fire TV Stick
Price: $39
AV connections: HDMI only
AV output: up to 1080p video, Dolby Digital Plus decoding/7.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: Dual-band 802.11 WiFi
Other connection options: Micro USB for power
Control option: RF remote, Android app
Major apps: Same as Amazon Fire TV above

Pros:
• The Fire TV Stick offers much of the same functionality as the Fire TV in a smaller, cheaper package.
• The Stick plugs directly into your TV's HDMI input, so there's no separate box and no HDMI cable required. You can power the device from the TV's USB ports, if desired.
• Amazon's Android control app allows for voice search with this device.
• Screen mirroring is available with compatible mobile devices, and you can "cast" content from Netflix and YouTube directly from your mobile device.
• FreeTime helps you lock down the user experience for your kids.

Cons:
• The supplied remote doesn't include the voice search function; you can buy the optional Voice remote ($29.99) or use the free Android app. Amazon doesn't yet offer an iOS control app.
• The Fire TV Stick doesn't support IR remote control, so it is not compatible with an IR-based universal remote.
• WiFi is the only network connection option.
• The Stick's gaming options aren't as robust as those of the FireTV. You can mate it with the optional motion controller for greater functionality.
• The Stick lacks analog and digital audio outputs, so your TV must have HDMI.

Verdict: The Fire TV Stick offers much of the functionality of the Fire TV box, but the base model doesn't included the all-important voice search. To get the best user experience, Android owners can enjoy voice search through their mobile device, but anyone else would need to pay $29.99 for the optional Voice remote.

Thumbnail image for google-chromecast-9803_1_610x407-thumb-225xauto-9731.jpgGoogle Chromecast
Price: $35
AV connections: HDMI only
AV output: up to 1080p video, 7.1-channel audio pass-through
Network connection: 802.11 WiFi
Other connection options: Micro USB for power
Control option: Use your mobile device or computer as controller
Supported apps: Netflix, Hulu Plus, VUDU, YouTube, Google Play, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, I Heart Radio, Watch ESPN, HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, Watch ABC, MLS, MLB.TV, PLEX.

Pros:
• The Chromecast plugs directly into your TV's HDMI input, so there's no separate box and no HDMI cable required. You can power the device from the TV's USB ports, if desired.
• Google has added a ton of supported apps, including many big-ticket apps that weren't supported when the product was first released.
• Screen mirroring is available with compatible mobile devices, and you can "cast" content from Netflix and YouTube directly from your mobile device.
• You can "cast" video from the Chrome Web browser.

Cons:
• The Chromecast requires the use of a mobile device or computer to launch the supported app and act as the controller. No remote control is included.
• The Chromecast's bridge-like nature means it's not as plug-and-play simple as the dedicated media players. You have to load the app on your mobile device for every difference service you want to use.
• The Chromecast lacks analog and digital audio outputs, so your TV must have HDMI.
• WiFi is the only network connection option.

Verdict:
The Chromecast is best suited for some who uses his/her mobile device as a major entertainment source and wants an easy way to integrate a better AV experience into that ecosystem.

Additional Resources
• Check out our Media Servers category page for similar reviews.
The Resurgence of the Over-the-Air DVR at HomeTheaterReview.com.
Internet Bandwidth Problems and How It Can Screw Up Your Home Theater Experience at HomeTheaterReview.com.


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