Why You Want a Streaming Set-Top Box (and Which One You Should Get)

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Even if you’re still a cable subscriber (no judgments here), you’ve probably offloaded a chunk of your TV time to Netflix, Hulu, or another streaming service of choice. Or all of them! It’s your world, your couch, your weekend. Fortunately, you’ve got lots of options — Roku, Apple TV, and more — to help navigate it.

Maybe too many options, actually. What’s tricky is that no two of these are the same, and none is straight-up perfect. But by talking through the differences among them, you should be able to find the one that’s right for you.

Why not just a TV?

I know, I know — you bought a smart TV that has smart features and a smart remote, and you can maybe even tweet from it if you wanted to, which you don’t because you’re not a monster. Yes, you can use the “smart” function on your television.

You mostly shouldn’t, though.

The problem with “smart” or “connected” TVs is that they often feature software built by hardware companies, which is like running in shoes designed by a weightlifter. The two don’t have very much to do with one another. So not only are the apps on your TV likely to be slow and jerry-rigged, but they also don’t get updated with the regularity (and competence) that your phone does. It’s a bad experience.

The problem’s gotten a little better recently; some companies have outsourced their TV’s smarts to Google, either through Android TV or Google Cast, while LG uses something called webOS, which is mostly fine. These are still largely side projects of giant companies, though, versus the people at Roku, who spend their days working only at improving Roku. Besides, a separate streaming device is more flexible; why spend more money on a smart TV when for a few more bucks you can make any TV smart?

Okay, okay, now here are your best options.

Roku Stick

Did you know that Roku started as a Netflix project? Anyway! The grande dame of streaming still delivers one of the best overall experiences. You can access every major streaming service on it, along with literally thousands of other “channels” that offer everything from classic science fiction to a goat-farm livestream. (Roku channels get weird).

For $50, the newest Roku streaming stick isn’t the cheapest dongle you can get, but it’s the one that works with everything and includes fun extras like headphones that sync up with the TV without being plugged into it, and voice-controlled search that shows you every possible place you can find a particular movie or actor. Other devices do that, too, but because Roku isn’t trying to make more money off of you through its own digital storefront (*cough* Amazon) it truly has your best interests in mind. Also? It lets you stream over public Wi-Fi connections, like a hotel’s, meaning it’s just as useful on the road as it is at home.

Roku’s independence is its biggest strength, but it’s also the reason for a major weakness; you can’t toss content from your laptop or phone to it as easily as you can an Apple TV or Chromecast. If you’re deeply committed to a digital ecosystem already, there may be a better option out there for you. Also, it can’t deliver 4K (though the bigger Roku 4 can), if that’s something you care about right this very moment.

Roku Streaming Stick, $34.99 at Amazon

Best for: Dongle fans, streaming completists, budget-minders.

Not for: Casual gamers, early 4K adopters, devout Apple or Google fans.

Apple TV

Photo: Apple

Apple overhauled its Apple TV recently, making it a little bigger and giving it a lot more abilities. Most notably, the new Apple TV embraces apps, which range from the usual fare like HBO Now and MLB at Bat to video games, workout apps, and, uhhh … Gilt?

Starting at $150, the new Apple TV is more expensive than its peers. It can also do more, but the question you need to ask yourself is, how much of that more do you really need? If you want better games than you’d find on your phone but don’t care about a full-on console like the PS4 or Xbox One, then sure! You’ll like this. (Just make sure you get a compatible controller, because using Apple’s touch remote to play Transistor will drive you half-insane.)

The other main benefit of an Apple TV is how it fits into your life if you already own nothing but Apple products. It can pull content from your iTunes library, and mirror pretty much anything from your iDevices. Like Roku, it has universal, voice-powered search and no 4K powers. Unlike Roku, it doesn’t offer Amazon Video, because of fun corporate infighting.

And if you just want an Apple box to play your Netflix on? You can still get a previous-generation Apple TV for just $60.

Apple TV, $149 at Best Buy

Best for: Slightly more than casual gamers, Apple fanatics, the monied class.

Not for: Late adopters, non-gamers, people whose devices weren’t designed in Cupertino.

Chromecast

Photo: Google

It might take a little while to get used to Chromecast, a tiny beach-ball dongle that hides behind your TV. There’s no interface, no remote. Or rather, there are those things, but they’re both your smartphone.

As long as your iPhone, iPad, or Android phone are on the same Wi-Fi network as a Chromecast, all you have to do to use it is open your streaming app of choice, tap the wee Cast icon, and it’ll pop up on your television. That’s it! Nothing more to it. Almost all of the major movie and television and music apps you can think of are Chromecast-compatible, with the exception of Amazon Video, because of the the aforementioned corporate squabbling. You can also Cast anything from a Chrome browser, which means basically anything on the internet.

Once you get accustomed to not having a physical remote, or a way to navigate apps other than thumbing through your phone, Chromecast ends up being surprisingly great. In some ways, it saves a step. The downside? Phones run out of battery a lot more often than remotes, and if yours is dead or goes missing, no streaming for you.

Chromecast also doesn’t play as nice with hotels as the Roku Stick does, so beware if you’re a regular traveler. And it doesn’t have anywhere near the search capabilities that the rest of the competitive set does; it’s just whatever each app provides. At just $35, though, those might be little inconveniences you can live with.

Chromecast, $35 from Best Buy

Best for: Cheapskates, minimalists, smartphone addicts.

Not for: Searchers, gamers, fans of physical remotes.

Amazon Fire TV

Photo: Amazon

There are a few Amazon Fire TV devices, including a $40 dongle and a $140 gaming-focused box. If you’re considering the dongle, you should probably just get the Roku Stick, and if you’re considering the gaming version, you should probably just get a console. The $100 Fire TV, though? That might be just right.

Fire TV has a lot of things that other streaming devices offer, including voice search and thousands of sources to pull from. Like the Apple TV, it has lots of games, and like Chromecast, it lets you mirror some content from certain smartphones to your display. It also has two things that neither of those devices can offer: 4K, and Amazon Video.

Being able to stream 4K video right now doesn’t matter much, unless you have a 4K TV set, and even if you do, there’s not a ton of 4K content out there. In terms of future-proofing, though, the Fire TV is ready for the next resolution revolution. The bigger prize, though, might be Amazon Video, which, in addition to hit series like Transparent, offers a surprisingly solid range of movies and TV shows to choose from. You know how Netflix doesn’t have nearly as big a selection as it used to? A lot of that stuff is on Amazon now.

Basically, if 4K and Amazon Video matter at all, you’ll be deciding between a Roku 4 and a Fire TV. If you’re deeply committed to Amazon, don’t mind a slightly clunky interface, like playing the occasional casual game on your TV, and want to save $20, go with the Fire. Otherwise, you won’t regret bringing home the underdog.

Amazon Fire TV, $99.99 at Amazon

Best for: Amazon junkies, 4K faithful, the gaming-curious.

Not for: Interface obsessives, Apple devotees, splurgers.

How to Buy a Streaming Set-Top Box