Maybe you need a way to unify your subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and MLB.TV in one device that will let you play them all on your TV. Or maybe this is the year you finally cut the cord and say goodbye to the cable bill. Whatever your reason for shopping for a streaming media device, these boxes and dongles have become a standard part of the 21st century living room. Here’s what you need to know before you decide between the devices by Roku, Apple, Amazon, Google or others.
THE MAJOR PLAYERS
Apple has been making an Apple TV box since 2007. The current generation, which debuted in early 2013, recently dropped from $99 to $69. If the rumors are true, that price cut happened because a new version—which is set to be equipped with Siri and accept voice commands—will be announced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June in advance of a fall release.
Then there’s Google. Lots of people are nuts about the Chromecast, which, at $35 is the cheapest here. Chromecast is a little different, though, in that it pulls content from your phone, tablet, or computer to the TV (so make sure your phone has Wi-Fi turned on!). You can’t just plug it into your TV and run everything through the device. For that you need Google’s box running Android TV, which came out late in 2014 and is called the Nexus Player ($99).
Roku still sells every generation that it’s ever produced: Roku 1 ($49), 2 ($69), and 3 ($99). Plus there’s the Roku Stick ($49), a USB-looking dongle that plugs directly into your TV’s HDMI port. Similarly, Amazon sells both the Fire TV and Fire TV Stick for $99 and $39, respectively. There are other boxes and other options, including the much-loved Western Digital WD TV, which is the box of choice for people with huge digital video collections who play most of their files from a local drive. But for most people shopping for a streaming box, these are the boxes to consider.
LIKE EVERYTHING, IT’S ABOUT ECOSYSTEM
A few years ago, maybe I would have told you to pay close attention to the assortment of apps offered by each of the competing boxes to make sure services you want to use—and are probably already streaming to your phone or tablet—are there. Now, though, the big-name streaming services that everybody uses, such as Netflix, HBO Go, and Hulu Plus are going to be available no matter what box you buy. They’re everywhere. I use these services through an Xbox 360 on one of our TVs. And all the boxes have a plethora of new options to explore.
The current exception to this rule is HBO NOW, the new service that would let you watch Game of Thrones and Veep for a monthly subscription fee, whether or not you have a cable subscription to HBO (more on that later.) Currently, HBO NOW is only available to Apple TV users, but that exclusivity is about to end. Google announced last week that the service will come to Chromecast this summer—just in time for True Detective season 2, fanboys.
The more pressing question is to whom do you want to sell your soul? We can talk about price or performance, but the main difference between these boxes is that each company pushes its own content ecosystem. Load up Apple TV and the iTunes store is prominently displayed up top, along with movies you can buy and rent through iTunes. Google pushes the Play store, Amazon pushes its own. That’s part of the reason that reviewers at sites like CNET and The Wirecutter like the Roku: It doesn’t have a store it’s constantly trying to push on you.
However, if you already own buckets of content purchased through one of these companies, then that simplifies your shopping decision. Stay within your ecosystem and that content will all be available to sync through your streaming box. It’s like buying a new computer or smartphone. You’re probably already trapped.
HOW NICE DO YOU NEED?
It’s a fair question. Don’t buy the shiniest, newest, most powerful box if last year’s model will do everything you need for less cash. That’s why reviewers are so keen on Roku. If you want to pay a hundred bucks for the newest features of Roku 3—voice search, the ability to plug headphones into the remote—then go ahead. But a lot of people don’t need that. As long as they can play the next episode of Orange Is the New Black, they’re happy, which is why the $69 Roku 2 is an appealing option.
For the moment, this selection is unique in the streaming box market. Amazon has the box and the stick. Same for Google. Apple has produced several generations of Apple TV, but this isn’t iPhone, where the outgoing model gets a price cut and stays on the market. Apple typically sells one Apple TV—whichever model is newest. So if you want an older model on the cheap, you’ll need to turn to the secondary market. (And possibly tolerate the hiccups of obsolete hardware. Our old Apple TV purchased in 2011 can’t hold contact with the network and mysteriously crashes.)
This brings up another question: Box, or stick? Streaming devices are living in two price tiers. The sticks will run you $35 to $50, while the newest boxes get up to $100. What is that extra $50 buy you? Again, bonuses. Roku Stick doesn’t have some advanced features of the Roku 2 or 3, including a USB slot or voice search. Amazon Fire TV Stick has just 1 GB of memory to the Fire TV’s 2 GB, and is wireless only—you can’t hard-wire in an ethernet connection.
The boxes are little faster, a little nicer, a little more powerful. The question is whether that’s worth another $50 bucks to you.
WHAT YOU CAN’T GET
It’s been four years since I’ve had a cable subscription, and since then I’ve gotten by running the popular streaming apps through a video game console or a set-top box. It can be done. But I don’t want you to have any delusions about the world beyond the cable bundle.
First, there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s not available unless you have a cable/satellite package, or know somebody who’ll let you use their password. I’m not just talking about HBO Go here. Scroll through the default apps that populate an Apple TV menu, for example, and you’ll see apps for say, ABC or ESPN. That doesn’t mean you can just watch ABC or ESPN through your box, though. They’ll ask you to log in with the username and password from your cable service. The cable companies see these apps as a bonus for their subscribers. They’re not going to do anything to make it easier for people to leave the bundle.
Speaking of ESPN, you’ve probably heard people say that live sports is the monster that’s keeping traditional TV alive. That is true. It’s not that you can’t stream any sports through the boxes—it’s that the viewing experience is hemmed in by the economics of 20th century TV distribution.
As noted, you need your own (or somebody else’s) cable login to stream ESPN, the juggernaut that owns the rights to an increasing number of the big-ticket sports leagues and events. Meanwhile, the MLB, NBA, and NHL all have apps available on all the major streaming devices that will let you pay a monthly fee to watch an unlimited number of their games—sort of. The “sort of” is because of broadcasting blackout rules, which prevent you from streaming games from your local team. If you live in Georgia and want to watch the Braves through your Apple TV, too bad. There’s a cable network that has exclusive rights to broadcasting the games in your area, so MLB’s app will check your location and stop you from watching the hometown club.
It costs $8 a month for a Netflix streaming-only subscription. Same is true for Hulu Plus. HBO Now will run you $15 if you decide to get on the level on quit leeching off your friend’s lawyer’s squash partner’s password. Like baseball? MLB.TV costs $20 per month, or $25 for the premium package. Apps for the other major sports are about as expensive.
You can see where I’m going with this. Yeah, you can use the slate of new boxes to free yourself from the cable, and enter a brave new world where everything kinda sort of basically works. Just know what you’re getting into. While you have more freedom to pick and choose what packages you buy, the monthly subscription fees add up if you do it all the way you’re supposed to. And the end result of your entertainment amalgamation is something that isn’t quite… comprehensive.
It works fine for me. I haven’t got enough viewing time to even stay up on what’s available on Hulu and Netflix. Some people, though, have to see certain things. They’re not the kind of people for whom “whatever we can find on Netflix” is fine. And for them, the streaming media box experience might be a rude awakening.