Subscription cable and satellite television services are a fleeting thing. Whereas our parents and grandparents once needed to turn on the ol’ boob tube to catch the latest episodes of I Love Lucy and Bonanza, most of us can catch the latest episodes of our favorite show from a myriad of devices, whether it be our smartphone, tablet or personal computer. We live in an age of digital convenience, one in which we can stream all our entertainment from remote servers and the cloud in a matter of 10 seconds, all without the complicated procedures and high-cost subscriptions plaguing former, entry-level devices in the field. However, despite the Salmagundi of mobile streaming devices and the like, we somehow always come scrambling back to the one device where much of our technological ogling began: the television.
Thankfully, there are plenty of set-top box options available to the average consumer on a budget. Each is equipped with its own set of highs and lows, both bolstered and hindered by internal hardware and outward design, while offering a hodgepodge of staple services and unique features suitable for your desired needs and home-network compatibility. Popular streaming services such as the beloved Netflix come standard, as do lesser-utilized services such as Hulu Plus and Amazon Prime, but not every device is going to allow you to remotely access your iTunes library or stream the riveting season finale of Ghost Hunters in glorious, 1080p HD video.
Here are our picks for the best TV streaming devices available at your fingertips. You can always pull the trigger and jump on one of the best smart TV platforms — but let’s face it — no one really wants to do that anyway. Also, check out our set-top box showdown and be on the look out for Netflix’s rumored set-top box app.
Roku 3 — $100
The word “Roku” means “six” in Japanese, and though it’s merely a subtle nod to the six companies founder Anthony Wood has launched in recent years, it’s not the name that’s a stand out. The third incarnation of the Saratoga-based company’s flagship streaming device is the most comprehensive to date, sporting more than 750 channels, an intuitive cross-platform search utility and excellent user interface that easily excels the the clunky navigation of the set-top box’s predecessor, the Roku 2. The new, puck-sized offering is attractive and subtle, adorned with a glossy-black exterior and beveled edges, and equipped with nonskid rubber and enough weight to prevent it from moving amid your entertainment center. The bundled Wi-Fi direct remote is no more complicated than need be despite its motion sensitivity, allowing users to quickly navigate the polished, nine-channel interface and listen to streaming content via the built-in headphone jack and accompanying earbuds. The back of the ultra-compact device may lack the standard-def AV outputs associated with other Roku offerings, but it’s still furnished with a HDMI output, Ethernet port and microSD slot for additional game storage (in case you get tired of Angry Birds).
When it comes to streaming services, the Roku 3 is unparalleled. The available catalog is enormous, whether you’re looking to watch popular services such as Netflix and HBO Go or additional offerings from the likes of Crackle, Disney and Vudu. Likewise, the available music-streaming services and live TV offerings are laudable. Pandora and Spotify come standard, as does the Amazon Cloud Player, and users can access an impressive suite of live channels so long as they have an active cable subscription. It’s not going to knock a dedicated cable box off its throne, but it’s a great secondary solution for streaming content sans another cable box. Though the Roku lacks proper YouTube integration, Android and iOS users can still utilize AirPlay-like applications such as Twonky Beam to stream video content from their mobile device. Additionally, utilizing the Plex server application on the device and your PC will allow for greater content streaming from around the Web.
The Roku 3 is sleek and speedy, coupled with a terrific grid-based interface and a laundry list of notable services anyone would enjoy. It’s not heavily integrated with the Apple ecosystem to the degree the Apple TV is, but its drawbacks are few and far between. And if you do pick one up, check out our handy tips and tricks for turbocharging your Roku device.
Roku LT — $50
Sometimes motion controls, dual-band wireless and even HD streaming are complete overkill. Fortunately, the cheapest offering in the Roku lineup, the Roku LT, is a no-frills device rooted in same great functionality as its older sibling (without the $100 price tag). The glossy, black-and-purple streaming device is just as compact as other Roku models and loaded with a vast array of streaming content available in admirable 720p resolution. Video services such as Hulu Plus, Netflix and Amazon Prime all make an appearance, along with additional offerings from Pandora, Spotify, MLB.TV, HBO Go, Vudu and a host of more than 1,000 entertainment channels. The device is devoid of an Ethernet and USB ports, as well as an SD card slot, but the lack of assorted connections shouldn’t be an issue for most people considering most home networks are more reliant on Wi-Fi than they are a wired set up. The device is also equipped with full-size, analog video outputs in addition to an HDMI output, providing welcoming support for older TV models that often get overlooked when it comes to top-set box playback.
Unlike the interface adorning the first set up Roku boxes, the LT’s grid-based interface is polished, responsive and an overall breeze to navigate. Like the Roku 3, the LT lacks native YouTube functionality, but Android and iOS users can still use applications like Twonky Beam to stream video content from their mobile device. The aforementioned Plex server application is also available on the device, furthering choices for streaming content from around the Web using either a PC or Mac connected to your home network. The device’s latest firmware update brings enhanced utilities for cross-channel searching, meaning users can enter a desired search term and the device will automatically scour a plethora of different channels for the appropriate content. Also, although users can browse and add new channels using the available smartphone app for Android and iOS devices, the box includes a more traditional remote adorned with a simple directional pad and a four direct-access buttons for quickly accessing apps like Netflix and Amazon sans a smartphone.
While we can’t recommend the Roku LT based on its tight integration with the Apple ecosystem or its native 720p playback resolution, we can rave about the price. It’s slightly more expensive than the Chromecast, but the extra $15 opens up a viable swath of excellent programming which will likely never been available on Google’s offering. Make sure to check out our handy tips and tricks for turbocharging your Roku device if you do happen to pick one up.
PlayStation 3 — $200
Which next-gen console will reign as the streaming hub of the future has yet to be determined, but the current-gen PS3 trumps the Xbox 360 in every streaming facet other than stability. Sony’s flagship gaming system has undergone a slew of design overhauls since it’s initial 2006 debut, slimming down the exterior design while super sizing the storage, yet its streaming capabilities have remained relatively the unchanged. More expensive and bulkier than other streaming devices on our roundup due to its equipped optical drive and emphasis on gaming, the device is certainly not a dedicated top-set box. Regardless, the PS3 packs a notable lineup of quality programming and additional content purchasable directly through the PlayStation Store. Standouts such as Netflix, Hulu Plus, Youtube, and EPIX are readily available, and avid football fanatics who posses a DirecTV subscription and NFL Sunday Ticket can opt for the NFL Sunday Ticket app — an offer currently available on few, if any, other streaming devices. Although there’s no designated Pandora or Spotify app, Sony does offer a Music Unlimited package, as well as a TuneIn Radio app for accessing streaming stations from around the globe.
Content looks great on the big-screen in 1080p, whether originally intended as HD or upscaled from standard-def, and the device also supports a melange of video formats to keep transcoding video to a minimum when using the Java-enabled PS3 Media Server on your Mac or PC. Unlike the Xbox 360, Sony allows developers to create streaming video applications mirroring the design of their Web counterparts, thus giving them an element of familiarity that makes for quicker and easier searching and discovery. Aside from limited video contenders, the crux of streaming on the PS3 still lies within the navigational woes inflicting those who’d rather stick with the gaming control instead of purchasing a dedicated remote. It’s not incredibly difficult to use the bundled controller, especially if you’re an avid gamer, but a traditional remote is always welcome.
The PS3′s utilities and integration with mobile platforms doesn’t quite match those of the Apple TV or Roku 3, but it remains a capable device for accessing and streaming all the standard services you come to expect from a quality streamer. However, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing the device for the sole purpose of streaming content to your television when more robust — and cheaper — alternatives already exist.
Google Chromecast — $35
Google’s newly-announced Chromecast excels on our roundup where all other streaming devices seemingly fail: price. For a $35, users can purchase the company’s compact, HDMI dongle, allowing them to quickly and effortlessly stream an assortment of content, whether it be from Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Google Play or any of the forthcoming providers likely to be announced in the coming months. The device, roughly the size of a flash drive and adorned with a textured black-matte finish, revels in simplicity what it lacks in available content. Users simply need to plug the dongle into their TV’s HDMI port, connect to their Wi-Fi network and launch any of the supported apps using their Android or iOS devices prior to tapping the “cast” button located in the upper-right corner of the screen. Video streams directly from the cloud, rendering the resulting 1080p feed as crisp and clean as it would be on any other streaming device, and additional controls for pausing, playing and skipping content are all easily accessible using your smart device’s interface. Furthermore, Chromecast features the ability to mirror any tab within the Chrome browser, whether utilizing a PC or Mac. Sure, the feature is fraught with lag, audio drops and subpar image quality, but at least it’s an option for streaming content from providers other than the four innately compatible.
Google’s Chromecast may be dirt-cheap, but you also get what you pay for. The offered services, though work as intended, are extremely limited, while the bundled mirroring feature leaves much to be desired. Still, it’s a great way to go if all you need is a little Netflix or Hulu Plus in your life. If you need more details, we’ve laid out everything you need to know about Chromecast for your viewing pleasure.
Apple TV — $100
The Apple ecosystem is often thought of as an all-or-nothing deal, one that can work either fantastically or painstakingly depending on which side of the fruit-blazoned gun you reside on. That being said, Apple ‘s slick, jet-black Apple TV is one of the best offerings on our roundup if you’re already heavily-invested in any of the Cupertino-based company’s other products. Not only does the Apple TV grant users access to a myriad of 1080p HD content ranging from Netflix and MLS to Vimeo and Hulu Plus, but it also allows users to directly stream any content they’ve previously purchased or rented through the iTunes Store via the cloud. Video quality, though susceptible to bandwidth and content limitation, often comes in smooth and sharp — whether playing video from your own library or any one pulled from the device’s limited app selection. The icon-driven design of the Apple TV is attractive and easy to navigate, as is the carousal-laden iTunes Store, and the former can even be rearranged to exhibit your favorite and most-utilized apps at the top.
Despite the stalwart selection of streaming apps, it’s AirPlay that makes the Apple TV shine. Users use the built-in utility to wirelessly stream content from their iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad to their TV, thus providing an effortless way to stream content from AirPlay-enabled apps and various websites. Additionally, the feature can mirror the display on your mobile device or a Mac equipped with Mac OS X Mountain Lion or later, bringing all of your content to the big screen, albeit often with subpar image quality. The box is also equipped with healthy selection of connections including HDMI, Micro-USB, Ethernet and an optical audio output, and comes bundled with a minimalist remote that dons nothing more than a navigational wheel and two additional buttons.
The Apple TV doesn’t have much — if anything — over the competition other than AirPlay and the device’s seamless integration with other Apple products. However, those two features alone might be enough to sway those straddling the fence regarding the Apple TV. The channel selection isn’t as robust as the Roku 3, nor is it the cheapest on our list, but it still has plenty to offer.
What do you think of our selection of the best TV streaming devices? Which is your favorite set-top box and why? Let us know in the comments below.