About two in five American households now subscribe to a streaming video service such as Netflix or Amazon Prime, according to a recent survey by Nielsen. But not everyone has a smart TV capable of directly accessing these services. That's where a streaming media player comes in.
But which one to get? We recently tested nine models for our streaming media player Ratings to see how they fared. For this streaming media player review, we chose three leading players: Apple TV, which has added more content; Amazon Fire TV, which has gained a few new features since we first tested it; and the second-generation Roku 3, which replaces the company's previous Roku 3 flagship model. Here's what we found.
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Although Apple TV is getting a little long in the tooth—its last major upgrade was in 2012—it's a must-have for Apple-centric users who have a lot of content stored in iTunes, on a Mac computer, or on Apple's iCloud.
Not surprisingly, Apple TV has the company's usual super-friendly interface, and it seamlessly integrates with iTunes TV show, movie and music libraries, and Apple's iCloud storage service. You can also use Apple TV to access the new Apple Music subscription service. Using AirPlay, it can stream content from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to a TV, and it supports AirPlay mirroring, which displays whatever is on your iOS device's screen on the TV.
Apple has added more content. In addition to Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, it now has access to Fox Now, HBO Go and HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, WatchABC, and WatchESPN, but it still lacks Amazon, M-Go, or Vudu.
We're expecting Apple to offer a revamped or entirely new Apple TV in the near future.
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Amazon Fire TV, the retailer's first streaming media player, offers fine, responsive performance and a few unique features. Although it trails both Apple TV and Roku in installed base, one research firm reported that Fire TV (including the Fire TV Stick) was the best-selling media player during the first three months of the year.
Fire TV lets you search for content using voice commands, and it offers a kids' environment, called FreeTime, that lets parents choose what their kids can see and set time limits for viewing. Fire TV also has one of the most credible gaming platform of any streamer we've tested, with titles including "Minecraft-Pocket Edition," "The Walking Dead," and "Monsters University." But you'll really need to spring for the optional $30 game controller. There are some free games, and others start at 99 cents.
Like other streaming players, Fire TV offers access to streaming movies and TV shows from several services, including Amazon (Prime and Instant), Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, and YouTube.com. Earlier this year the company updated its software with several new features, so you can now add a USB drive to the player to expand its storage, and it supports Bluetooth for use with Bluetooth headphones. One additional bonus for Prime subscribers is access to Prime Music songs and playlists.
With its winning combination of solid performance, loads of content, and a pretty wide range of prices, Roku media players are among the most popular streaming choices.
This spring, Roku revamped the Roku 3 player (though it didn't change the name), adding a few new features, including voice search and "Roku Feed," which lets you track content you're interested in and get automatic pricing and availability updates. For example, the "Movies Coming Soon" section lets you track hit theatrical releases and then get alerts when they hit streaming services, along with info about how much they cost on each service.
Roku still has the most content of any tested player, including streaming movies and TV shows from Amazon, Blockbuster, HBO Go, Hulu, M-Go, Netflix, and Vudu. Like other Roku models, the Roku 3 has limited screen mirroring and casting capability, letting you cast Netflix and YouTube directly from a compatible phone or tablet to your TV. This year the Roku 3 is the only Roku model with a headphone jack on the remote, so you can plug into the remote for private listening.
And the winner is . . .
The Roku 3 remains our top pick for most people looking for a media streamer, mainly on the basis of its unrivaled assortment of content. It's also fast and easy to use once you've set it up. But each of these three players is worth considering. Though Apple TV is starting to feel a bit dated, at $70 it's now $30 cheaper than it was a year ago, and is pretty much a no-brainer for those already living in Apple's world. Amazon Fire TV has continued to beef up its content, and it has a few unique, worthwhile features that make it a great choice, especially for parents and gamers. It tends to prioritize Amazon's own services over others, but having free access to Amazon Prime music is a bonus.
Still, not everyone wants to add a settop box to their TV setup; that's one reason there's a growing number of stick-style streaming media players that plug into a TV's HDMI port. We have several—including the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, and the Roku Streaming Stick—in our streaming media player Ratings, which contain detailed test results of all the tested players. And keep a lookout for our shootout of stick-style players, none of which cost more than $50, later this summer.
—James K. Willcox
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