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Many TVs on the market today call themselves ‘smart’ – but for the most part, their features are generally not that great. From sluggish systems to limited functionality and apps, what you get out of the box (if anything) is not great. This is where media streaming boxes and dongles come in. They can transform virtually any TV into a true smart TV, all for under $100.
There are 4 main options that you should really consider. The question is, which media streamer is right for you? We’ve tested them all for you so that you don’t have to. Read on to see how they compare.
Good for: Android or Google Chrome users who would like to mirror their PC web browser or smartphone apps to their TV. Or anyone with a low budget.
What is it? This streamer comes from Google in the shape of a dongle. You stick it into an HDMI port on a TV, give it some power through USB or power adapter and forget about it. Then after a simple setup, you can start streaming content to your TV. It’s the cheapest of the lot, not to mention easy to take around with you. Bring it on your travels and say goodbye to lousy hotel TV channels.
What can it do? The Chromecast is controlled entirely through your smartphone or Chrome web browser. Any smartphone app that has casting capabilities will have a casting icon show up when it sees a Chromecast on your network. Click it and it will stream that app’s content onto your TV. From a PC you can only mirror tabs in your Chrome browser. This means you won’t be able to mirror any application on your computer that you like. You can, however, use apps like RealCloud to get videos stored on your hard drive to stream from your computer onto your TV.
($49.99 – $99.99)
Good for: Someone who would like lots of apps on their TV and wants to sit on the couch with remote in hand, controlling it all.
What is it? Roku has many options in the TV media streamer category. They have something for everyone: from the $49.99 Roku Streaming Stick to the $99.99 Roku 3. Click here to see how they all compare.
What can it do? The Roku really shines with its collection of apps (or channels as they call it). Most of the major video and music services have their own dedicated Roku channel, not to mention news, photos, sports, games etc.
The remote that it comes with is very useful (it even has a headphone port so that you can watch TV without disturbing others in your house). Plus you can also use your smartphone to stream apps like YouTube so that you don’t have to fiddle around with typing on the remote.
The one downside compared to other streaming devices is that there is no true mirroring option, so you have to hope that there is a Roku compatible application to accomplish all of your streaming needs.
Good for: People who frequently use Apple’s music, TV, movie and photo services.
What is it? The Apple TV has been around for 7 years now in a few different forms. Unfortunately however, the software itself hasn’t changed dramatically. But if your home runs around the Apple ecosystem – that is, you use iTunes for all your music, TV shows, movies and iPhoto holds all your pictures, then this might be for you. It comes with a few apps from Netflix to Hulu Plus, HBO Go and ESPN. Most of the added extras worth watching require a paid subscription.
What can it do? Aside from playing all of Apple’s media services on your TV, the best feature, which is almost convincing enough, is AirPlay. This is really the best PC/Smartphone mirroring service around. You can mirror your entire Mac desktop perfectly (or Windows if you buy the AirParrot 3rd party software) or show whatever is on your iPhone or iPad on the big screen.
That all sounds well and good but there are a few kinks. We use AirPlay regularly in the office and have found that the AirPlay option sometimes doesn’t show up on your computer. Plus, it doesn’t work at all with older Macs (again, this can be resolved with AirParrot).
Good for: Someone who uses Amazon’s services (and is an early adopter).
What is it? The newest addition to this list, the Amazon Fire TV is Amazon’s attempt at conquering your living room.
What can it do? This pretty, black box works very nicely if you buy in to all the Amazon services. If not, be prepared to be asked to join. All in all it works very smoothly, with a good-looking remote control and handy voice search functionality that can search Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu etc. for that TV show you’ve been wanting to watch.
Out of all the above options, this media streamer also does very well with putting games on your TV (and even has a game controller, sold separately). There are some interesting titles available and many more to come I’m sure.
The downside with the Amazon Fire TV, like with many products, is that it is new to the market. It has more apps than the Apple TV, but not as many as Roku. They haven’t really had the opportunity to improve it based on users’ feedback. I will say, however, that it could have a bright future.
So, which one is best?
Good question. Luckily, if your main goal is to add more functionality to your TV and watch your favorite movies, TV shows and videos on it, then all of the devices mentioned above will get the job done. Each one has its pros and cons, so really it is up to you and your individual needs. You really can’t go wrong with any of them!
Let us know in the comments below if you’ve had any experience with any of the streaming devices mentioned. We’d love to hear what to think.
Bonus tip: what do the Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV all have in common? Well, you can use RealCloud with them of course! Find out more here.