Which Streaming TV Box Is Right For You?
The Major Players
- Roku - Of all the companies on this list, Roku is the only one that solely makes streaming boxes, and they've been doing so since 2008, starting out as a Netflix box. They've evolved over the years to allow more content, and even beat out their initial competition. Now, they have the largest app selection of all the other boxes, and generally tops the list of best-selling streaming boxes.
- Pros: Wide selection of choices and form factors from a stick that plugs in the back of the TV, to a 4K powerhouse box, with prices ranging from $29 up to $129, making it the cheapest. Has the largest app store, only missing the Apple iTunes store, and an easy-to-use interface.
- Cons: Home interface is a little stale having not changed in years, which depending on who you talk to may not be a bad thing. Limited voice commands, only does text-to-voice search, no Siri or Amazon Alexa-like digital assistants in the Roku.
- Google Chromecast - Google has been in the streaming business for a while now, starting with the ill-fated Nexus Q, which featured a Chromecast like feature where a Nexus phone could be used as a remote. Google also worked on Android TV, which found its way into some boxes and TVs, but it's the Chromecast that gets the most attention. Mainly, due to its, at one point lowest, low price of $35, which was huge when it first released in 2013 with $50 being the cheapest at the time. It's a stick that plugs into the back of the TV that allows you to interact with it using another device.
- Pros: Low price. You interact with it using the apps you already use, so you don't have to re-sign in to all your accounts. Chromecasts allow you to keep track of multi-rooms. Also available in Chromecast Audio for a connected speaker system.
- Cons: No remote means you have to always have another device with you to interact with, limited app support, can be annoying with frequent glitches preventing playback or lagging video.
- Apple TV- Apple's been in the game the longest of all the other streaming boxes, starting out in 2007 as a companion to your iTunes library, forcing users to use high-definition component cables, at a time where most people didn't have hi-def TVs, and not even Apple output in hi-def, topping out at 480p. Apple's come a long way, with every generation playing catch-up. Apple took their time going from 720p to 1080p, and even today they don't currently sell a 4K model. Specs are only part of the game, Apple shines in the software department in every generation, with a smooth, exciting and easy-to-use interface.
- Pros: Siri integration allows you to ask your TV the tough questions, like should I bring wear a coat today, and lets you ask Siri to play this episode in this service, which is very nice. Wide app selection in a familiar iOS design. Remote uses lightning to charge, which you probably already have a cable for.
- Cons: Pricey for what you get. Three options, the old model at $69, and the new model with Siri and an app store at $149 with 32 GB and $199 with 64 GB, making it the most expensive on the list. Remote doesn't have arrows, uses a trackpad that can get tiring for some. You have to charge your remote, which may last long, but when it dies, you have to make sure your cable is close by. Remote is a bit too flat to hold comfortably.
- Amazon Fire TV - Amazon's Fire line has traditionally been designed to offer lower-than-average pricing, with the trade-off being Amazon's services get shoved in your face, and that continues with the Fire TV line. Sure, you have the major services, with the exception of iTunes and Google Play, but Amazon's Prime, rental, and music services show up very high on the homepage for you to be enticed into purchasing. That being said, the Fire TV offers a fresh design while also being very easy to understand, being my personal favorite. Amazon's Alexa makes a welcome appearance, with similar features to Siri. The Fire TV line has gained popularity for reasons that may not be legal, as it's very easy to "hack" into it to gain access to "free" movies and TV shows. Because the Fire TV just runs Android, you can get it to install whatever you want, and people do. Because of this, it makes it very hard to find them when all you want to do is play Netflix, and have a companion to your Amazon Echo.
- Pros: If you have an Amazon Echo, they play well together. The fresh interface, and remote are a joy to use, with the remote being nice in the hand compared to the others. If you're really into Amazon's services, there's really no other choice. Comes in two designs: stick and 4K box at $39 and $89, respectively.
- Cons: Popularity makes it hard to find. Because it runs Android, it can be easy to mess up if you don't know what you're doing.
Great, so what should I pick?
There is no one right answer. It all boils down to what services you will get the most use out of, and how much you want to spend.
The overall winner for best value goes to Roku, hands down. Roku wins at most content, with the only service the Roku lacks being iTunes; it even has Amazon's Prime Video app. The Roku is also the only service to offer the Spectrum TV app, so if you have TWC/Spectrum, you can use your Roku as a cable box to prevent rental fees, which saves a lot of money. The Roku is also the cheapest with the Roku Express priced at just $29, making it the best value you can get.
If you don't want to keep track of another remote, the Chromecast at $35 is a great choice if you have a device near you anyway to control the TV with. It also connects with the Google Home, if that's something you find joy in.
The Fire TV and Apple TV are the ones to choose if you really prefer the ecosystem of Amazon or Apple, respectively. Although the Fire TV and Apple TV have very inventive, and engaging interfaces, where, again, I prefer the way Amazon does their UI, they're just don't have the largest collection of apps. Now, if Amazon Prime or iTunes is your thing, there's really no other choice. Apple TV works best if you live life in the Apple world. Your iOS and macOS devices will love it. The Fire TV is also best friends with Amazon Echo, so they can talk to each other.
Bottom line: it all comes down to what world you like to live in. If you just want to watch some Netflix, just get a Roku, and you'll be very happy. See what your friends or family like to use, and do your homework. There isn't a right choice, but there is a better choice. You just have to figure out which grass is the greenest.