By , James K. Willcox
Published May 10, 2016
There are a number of different streaming media devices in our Ratings of those players, but if you're looking for a new model the chances are strong that you'll choose from just four brands: Amazon, Apple, Google, or Roku.
In fact, almost 90 percent of all streaming media devices in the U.S. are sold by these companies, according to research firm Parks Associates. And they each offer a choice of different models. Most of these platforms sell both a set-top box and a stick-style media player, with prices ranging from as little as $35 to nearly $200. Stick-style players tend to cost the least, but generally have fewer features than set-top box models.
You'll have to determine whether a set-top box or stick-style player is the best streaming media player for you. But one of the following models will be a good bet.
The $100 Amazon Fire TV and the smaller, cheaper ($40) Fire TV Stick are best for Amazon Prime members who already pay $99 per year to get free two-day shipping on orders from the online shopping giant. Both Fire TVs provide access to a lot of streaming services but give priority to Amazon’s own content, including Amazon Prime videos, which are included in Amazon’s Prime membership fee. (Amazon recently introduced a new monthly Prime membership plan, as well as a video-only Prime service.) Alexa voice assistant is on hand for voice searches, and the pricier player supports 4K Ultra HD videos.
Apple TV is a no-brainer for those already living in Apple’s world. It’s the best—and in some situations only—way of getting all of your iTunes content to your TV. Using Apple’s AirPlay feature, you can also stream music, videos, and photos stored on your iPhone or iPad to your TV. Apple TV provides direct access to most of the major streaming services, with one notable exception: Amazon Prime. The two newest (4th generation) Apple TVs—the $150 32GB Apple TV and $200 64GB version—have the Siri voice assistant for searches and entering passwords, and a new touchpad remote control. Apple still sells the earlier (3rd gen.) Apple TV, which costs about $70.
Looking for a cheap, unobtrusive streamer that keeps getting better with age? Chromecast was the original stick-style streaming player. It’s now shaped like a small, colorful disc but still plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI input, almost disappearing from sight. Perhaps even better, it costs only $35, making it the least expensive of the recommended streaming media devices in our Ratings. There’s no remote; instead, you use your smartphone or tablet to select the programs you want to watch. You can also use Chromecast to send—or “cast,” in Google’s parlance—content from a laptop’s Chrome browser to the TV. Google's set-top box, the Nexus Player, was never really a contender, and it's slowly disappearing from the market.
Roku, offered in several models, is our top streaming player pick for most people, especially those looking for a lot of content. Roku's set-top box lineup includes the Roku 1, Roku 2, Roku 3, and Roku 4; prices range from $50 to $130.The brand-new, faster Roku Streaming Stick ($50) replaces the current model. The new model will be the least expensive Roku.
All Roku players are easy to use and let you search multiple streaming services. The Roku 3 and 4 allow voice search, and the Roku 4 is the first model from this brand to support 4K UHD videos.
We like Roku's agnostic approach to content, since it doesn't have any services of its own to push. Roku's results are ranked by price, with the least expensive option—including where it's free—listed first. The Roku Feed feature lets you track hit theatrical releases and TV shows and alerts you when they become available to stream or when the price drops.
Detailed test results of all these models are in our streaming media player Ratings.
Editor's Note: This article was adapted from the June 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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