Subscription cable and satellite television services are a fleeting thing. Our parents and grandparents once needed to turn on the ol’ boob tube to catch the latest episodes of I Love Lucy and Bonanza, whereas 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. However, despite the smorgasbord 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 boxes 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 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. As such, we’ve picked out the best of the bunch to get you the absolute most entertainment for your money.
Roku 3 ($100)
The third incarnation of the Saratoga-based company’s flagship streaming device is the most comprehensive to date, sporting more than 2,000 channels, intuitive cross-platform search utility, and an excellent user interface that easily beats the clunkier navigation of its 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 getting shuffled around your entertainment center. Not only does the Roku 3’s remote allow users to quickly and easily navigate Roku’s extremely intuitive channel-based interface, it features a built-in headphone jack for wireless listening when turning up the TV volume is a no-go. A single HDMI port at the back simplifies setup, alongside an Ethernet port for the fastest connection, and a microSD slot for additional game storage (in case you get tired of Angry Birds).
Roku Stick ($50)
For a more discreet experience, the compact Roku Stick comes with nearly every notable feature present in the flagship Roku 3, for half the price. The remote for the Stick does leave behind the headphone port of its larger brethren, but it’s lined with shortcut buttons for easy access to apps like Netflix and Amazon with the touch of a button. The Stick’s slick, thumb drive-like design fits perfectly behind any HDMI-compatible television, yet still provides users with stunning 1080P HD streams regardless of its size. With access to more than 2,000 sports, movies, news, and music channels, the Roku Stick makes it easy to cut the cord and never look back.
Fire TV ($100)
Amazon’s first foray into the streaming marketplace debuted in April 2014, and instantly became a heavy-hitter among the streaming pack. Opting for a premium Amazon Prime account gives the device some added oomph, but anyone with subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus will still be able to reap the benefits of the Fire TV. Amazon also made the device compatible with a dedicated video game controller (sold separately at $40), which is designed to work with a wide array of mobile games such as Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto III. Sure, it’s not as loaded with apps as the Roku 3, but the device makes up for it with extras like a speedy interface, and voice search.
Apple TV ($100)
While it’s certainly showing its age at over 2 years old, Apple’s slick, jet-black Apple TV is one of the best offerings on our roundup — especially 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 HBO GO and Hulu Plus, with Airplay and apps like iOS remote, you can easily beam any content you’ve previously purchased or rented through the iTunes Store via the cloud to the TV, and control it with our iPhone or iPad. Video quality, though susceptible to bandwidth and content limitation, often comes in smooth and sharp — whether playing video from your own library or from the device’s limited app selection and dead-simple interface.
Google Nexus Player ($100)
After canning its first attempt at a streaming media player, Google returned to the set-top box field in fall of 2014 with the Asus-made Nexus Player. It offers similar capabilities to Amazon’s Fire TV, allowing for voice-activated searching and personalized recommendations, along with integrated gaming if you decide to opt for the optional controller. The Google device is woefully lacking at present in terms of available apps, and also has no Ethernet port, but the integrated Android platform renders the streaming device’s user interface one of the most attractive on our roundup. It also tacks on Chromecast-style casting from mobile devices, making the player a high-potential work in progress.
Google Chromecast ($35)
Google’s Chromecast stick excels on our roundup where all other streaming devices seemingly fail: price. For $35, users can purchase the company’s compact, HDMI dongle, allowing them to quickly and effortlessly stream an assortment of content from smartphones, tablets, and PCs whether it be Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Google Play, or legions of other providers. The device revels in simplicity, and streams video directly from the cloud, rendering the resulting 1080p feed as crisp and clean as it would be on any set-top box.
Fire TV Stick ($40)
Don’t let the size of Amazon’s Fire TV Stick fool you. The device packs nearly the same punch as its larger cousin, essentially functioning as Amazon’s answer to the Roku Stick and Google’s Chromecast. Perfect for the budgeting cord cutter, it streams stunning 1080p HD video and provides rich Dolby Digital Plus surround sound in the process. As sleek as it is inconspicuous, the black-matte Fire TV Stick also discretely plugs into any HDMI port without becoming an eyesore, while allowing you to tap into Amazon’s Advanced Streaming and Prediction technology (ASAP), the latter of which learns your viewing habits and allows you to skirt buffering sessions.
Video Game Consoles (Varies)
Even before Microsoft’s Xbox One received an Emmy for its “industry-leading television-on-demand and media center capabilities,” video game consoles ranked as the most popular devices for streaming content to your TV. Other top choices include the Xbox 360, and both the PS4 and PS3. The systems have quickly become jack-of-all-trades media centers, conveniently giving you access to scores of programming from the likes of HBO Go, NFL Network, Netflix, and Hulu Plus. Several other devices on our list provide gaming, but as you might expect, the next-gen consoles blow all mobile games out of the water in terms of video resolution and capabilities — plus, you can re-watch the entirety of the The Wire in HD. The downside? Even most last-gen consoles (Xbox 360 and PS3) still cost upwards of $150 if you buy them new.