Last week, we explained why streaming can’t yet totally replace cable. But that doesn’t mean streaming can’t be a great cable alternative—you’ve just got to be prepared for its limitations.
If you’re interested in cutting the cord and going the streaming route, one of the first things you’ll need is a way to stream all those online services to your actual (non-smart) television. You’ve got plenty of options, from the full-featured (and expensive) Apple TV, to the platform-neutral Roku, to the small (and slanted towards proprietary content) Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire stick. Any of these will allow you to stream media to your television; the one you prefer is entirely based on what’s most important to you.
The differences between these systems are not vast, and most of them would do fine. However, there are certain key aspects, especially regarding channel selection, that you should know about. If you’re really entrenched into one content provider (say Amazon or Apple) then that will affect your choice. If you’re pretty provider-agnostic, then your choices are broader and come down mostly to personal preference.
Pick the player that gives you the easiest access to the content you’ll watch most
Except for the Roku, all the major players in the streaming media player market are also players in the streaming content market. Apple has the iTunes Music Store (with its movies, TV shows, albums, and podcasts) and has long been rumored to want to start a bona fide streaming service of its own. Google has the Chromecast, and also the Google Play Store. Amazon has the Fire stick, and Amazon Instant Video as well as Amazon Prime.
In the same way contract negotiations between cable companies and content providers have often hurt viewers (who just want to watch their programs), competition between these giant corporations and their different products also denies many customers easy access to all the streaming content they want.
Wrangling between Apple and Amazon mean there’s no Amazon Instant Video app for the Apple TV. There are workarounds possible, but if you’re dedicated to the Amazon ecosystem, Apple TV isn’t the ideal system for you.
If you’re a diehard Apple person, with years of iTunes purchases, then the Apple TV maybe the simplest and most convenient choice for you. If you’re entrenched in the Android ecosystem, then the Chromecast and its emphasis on the Google Play store may suit you best. If you’re a big Amazon fan, then the Fire stick may make for a seamless transition to streaming content.
Basically, if there’s one service you can’t live without, or that you use more than any other, it’s probably a good idea to go with that system.
The Roku offers a neutral platform with a wide range of channels
Unlike the others, Roku has no streaming platform of its own, and thus has no reason to undercut its non-existent competition. You can easily access both the Google Play store and Amazon Prime. (But not iTunes, because Apple keeps a tight leash on all its proprietary content.) It’s also has the largest selection of channels, and an excellent search function that allows you to find the movie you want at the lowest possible price.
If you want to watch a lot of Internet content on your TV, then Chromecast can help
The Chromecast allows you to mirror any website in the Chrome browser from your laptop or smartphone. This is ideal if, say, you want to watch something that’s not available via regular streaming channels. BBC America, for instance, doesn’t yet have a streaming app, but does allow viewers (with existing cable subscriptions, alas) to stream recent episodes (and more recent seasons) on its website. The Chromecast would make it easy to then mirror that content onto your TV, allowing for a richer experience.
This is also helpful when you want to watch one show or video, but don’t really want to go to the (admittedly small) hassle of downloading and installing a particular channel on your streaming player.
If price is an issue, go with a streaming stick
While Amazon, Google, and Roku all offer set-top boxes (Amazon Fire TV, the Nexus Player, and Roku 3), they also all offer “streaming sticks” which are smaller and more compact, and typically cheaper. The Chromecast is the cheapest, at a mere $35, and the Amazon Fire stick and Roku streaming stick both clocking in at about $39.
In comparison, the base model of the Apple TV comes in at $149. The Apple TV is unique among these systems in that it comes with local storage—and a lot of it. The base model has 32GB of space and you can get 64GB for an additional $50. If you already have a significant cache of local digital media (mp3, video files, etc.) then the Apple TV can be an elegant way to get access to all your existing stuff as well as streaming.
Fancier models offer more bells and whistles, but not necessarily better service
Recommender site the Wirecutter recommends the Roku 2 as the best streaming media player for most people. But Roku has two more advanced models, the Roku 3 and the Roku 4. The Roku 3 offers a fancier remote, a headphone jack, and voice search. The Roku 4 supports 4K TVs and has a feature to help you find your remote. If these features matter to you, the $30 to $60 extra may be worth it. But there’s no notable difference in speed or reliability between the more feature-rich models and the basic Roku 2. The same holds across most of the advanced media streamers: the added features are definitely nice-to-haves, rather than need-to-haves.
|Streaming Player||Best if….|
|Amazon Fire||You are already locked into the Amazon ecosystem: You download books for your Kindle, stream music via Amazon Music, and rent movies from Amazon Instant Video. Bonus: You already have an Amazon Prime membership.|
|Apple TV||You’re a longtime Apple user (or recent diehard convert) and you want an easy way to both stream new content and access all your downloaded movies, music, and podcasts. Bonus: You want to use Siri for search.|
|Google Chromecast||You watch a lot of videos on various websites that don’t have traditional streaming apps; you’re invested in the Android/Google Play ecosystem, and you want to stay there; you don’t want to pay more than $35 to start streaming to your TV. You’re cool with using your smartphone as a remote.|
|Roku||You have no allegiances in the online media world: you just want an easy way to stream as much stuff as you can.|