Now that all of the major players in the streaming world have given it their best shot the holiday season is upon us. If you are considering upgrading a current device or getting into the streaming game for the first time it might be tricky to really understand the difference. The three biggest players, Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV are all HDMI connected boxes with app stores and numerous app/channel choices. All three have a voice search feature, all have game options and cost between $100.00-$150.00 dollars. But there are distinct differences between the three formats. All offer most of the same essential services like Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, Watch ESPN and many more. But there are some major differences that often get glossed over on most comparisons. As opposed a comparison of apps we will concentrate on the things that make each of these devices unique. Find out which is best for you and answer the question What Streaming Box Should I Get?
Apple TV $150.00-$200.00 (See our video demo here)
The 4th Generation Apple TV or “Apple TV 4″ is the most expensive option on this list. At a cost of $150.00 it carries a premium price and sports an elegant OS and experience. Why is it so pricey? Apple does not subsidize the cost of its hardware in an effort to get people to buy in. The company makes premium products and convinces the rest of us that we are lucky to have a chance to buy them. The item is amazing for homes that love Apple products because of how it interacts with IOS and Mac devices as well as Apple based media, but offers a lot of goodies to (non Apple) people too.
One of its major selling points is that the controller has an accelerometer that allows it to work as an able remote for a number of games available on the box vs asking users to purchase another controller for games. The remote features a force touch supported touchpad like a small laptop used for navigation and selection. It also features minimal control buttons for playback and navigation. The remote also functions as a microphone for Apple’s popular Siri. Using the mic button users can access Siri for a number of functions that we will cover later.
What does it offer?
Apple TV supports the vast majority of major streaming apps like Netflix Crackle, YouTube Hulu etc. This much is expected. It also offers easy access to a user’s iTunes MP3 library, iTunes TV and Movie rental and purchasing options. This is great for those who have built a library of media over time for trips and distracting children. Most users will not notice what it not available outside of Google Play and Amazon Instant. It’s app store is constantly growing and promises to rival any format in numbers and diversity.
Innovative Video and audio Sharing options
One of its most interesting features is its ability to link up with IOS products to take advantage of AirPlay and mirroring. AirPlay allows users to launch video and audio apps to the Apple TV to expand its app capacity past what is offered through the device natively. This means that users with Apple products can watch movies and TV shows via Amazon’s Instant Video app which is not supported natively on the device (Apple does not play well with companies that offer services similar to it). Mirroring is similar to AirPlay is that it allows IOS devices to share screens with the Apple TV. But it offers the ability to fully display the device. This makes Apple TV a great presentation device for businesses, teachers and anyone who has to be in front of people. For more on AirPlay see this article on airplay on the previous Apple TV for more detail
It offers a diverse and growing list of games that can be played with the included controller. Nobody would confuse the Apple TV for an Xbox but the games are advanced and fun enough to encourage replay and the graphics are high quality. It very much rivals systems like the original Nintendo Wii and sports a number of games that are challenging and engaging like Role playing games, and even Disney’s new Infinity game. The games menu even suggests titles based on type like “Start your engines” for racing games or making suggestions based on the beauty of the graphics. For those just looking for a quick fix there are a number of simple titles ports of old games like Asteroids or Frogger that are simply casual time killers. The best games though take full advantage of the remote’s accelerometer and allow the player to control on screen actions through a combo of buttons and motions. Far more than a throw in feature, overall the games are good enough to be a consideration when purchasing a player.
The remote has a mic that allows users to ask Siri to open apps, and menus as well as provide basic info about weather, Sports scores and Info. It also searches across at least platforms, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Showtime and of course iTunes. Apple TV is a powerful streamer on its own that stands to add more and more functionality through new apps and software upgrades and an amazing addition to homes with IOS products. It promises to be a central hub for smart home integration and more.
Recommended for: Those looking for a sleek beautiful TV Interface, Families looking for a streamer with great game support, Those looking to extend the IOS experience to the big screen, those looking for dependable device to share content from IOS devices and those who want a premium aesthetic.
Roku 4 $120.00
Roku has been in the streaming business from the start. (See Video Demo here) An outgrowth of a secret Netflix project to bring its online streaming service to televisions during its infancy, the connected TV box has evolved to become the most open platform in streaming featuring access to apps (which it calls channels) from a majority of major platforms. It was one of the first to support Amazon’s streaming service and is home to essentially every on demand service available with the exception of iTunes. It offers over 3000 apps and has the most well organized app store of any on the market broken down by genre.
Never lose the remote
The Roku 4 has a (SUPER HELPFUL) feature that will page a lost remote.
Listen in private
The Roku 4 like some earlier models has a headphone jack for private listening. Users can plug headphones into the remote and automatically turn off the audio on the TV. This has a number of helpful applications from quieting noise in a bedroom to allowing someone to watch TV in a family room without disturbing someone who just wants to read.
Voice Search/Content Discovery
Roku is famous for its search capability that includes at least 20 different services. Roku is able to do this because it has no turf to protect so offering selections from MGo, Cinema Now and VuDu poses no threat to its business model. Users can access this feature using both a dependable voice search via the devices remote or by accessing search via the home menu and on-screen keyboard. The search also allows one to know if content they wish to view or purchase is already available to stream via a service like Hulu or Crackle. This means that for any movie, actor or even subject matter users will be able to find the most expansive results by far. The voice integration does not talk back or interact in any way. It is just a time saver that helps users find something to watch quickly.
Easy to Learn
The Roku interface is straight-forward and the easiest for new users to learn. As part of its advertising the company often sells space on its remotes to service providers like Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu, Pandora and others. The buttons will open the labeled apps instantly and bypass the need to access the menu at all. There are never more than 4 “quick launch” buttons on a remote but this option should not be overlooked especially for those buying a gift for someone who is not tech savy. It also has the easiest to learn app store with simple categories that make finding new apps simple and intuitive.
Along with a number of on-demand movie and TV apps Roku offers the most sports apps including NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS, NHL live sports apps as well as options from independent sports organization and UFC. Roku also offers Sling TV, a service from Dish Network that gives customers a cable option with a number of packages starting at $20.00 per month.
Save Money On Cable
Roku can be a replacement for those extra cable boxes in homes with multiple TV’s. TWC customers can use the company’s app on any television in the home and access their entire channel lineup and on demand programming.
Roku offers a very limited selection of games that are playable with the device’s remote but unlike others on this list Roku has made little investment in games with most titles being simplistic low grade indie games save a few classics like Galaga, Pac Man and some addictive puzzle games like Tetris and Snake. No one in their right mind would buy a Roku for the games but they are a nice time killer now and then and fun for kids.
The most unique thing about the Roku amongst its competition is its smartphone and tablet app. All of the devices can be controlled with apps but Roku’s app provides users with options such as a quick launch menu featuring all of the installed channels and the ability to share photos, video and music on a given device to the Roku.
You can’t go wrong with a Roku. It is the most agnostic platform available and does not require any special equipment to maximize the viewing experience. By offering new content across numerous apps it gives users the best chance to save money on digital content. For instance it is the only media player that offers Google Play Movies and Amazon Instant Video. It has apps that will play Ultraviolet content and supports numerous ways to access personal media. Roku also supports Windows display and Android mirroring.
Recommended for: Streaming beginners, Those looking for an agnostic platform, People who wish to play their own stored content those who enjoy customizing, people wanting a straight forward experience.
Fire TV 2nd Generation ($100.00-$145.00)
The Fire TV is sleek and fancy. (See Video Demo here) It offers voice integration through Alexa. It is a streaming box, shopping tool and gaming option for those looking to do more than puzzles but less than the latest first person shooter. Its hook is that it is like a living room connection to the world’s biggest online retailer. Amazon’s own Fire Tablets can mirror content to the device as well as act as second screens for content and other features during prime playback. The system integrates any content stored in Amazon’s cloud including music and pictures. It is tightly integrated with the Amazon on demand and Prime Instant video catalogue as evidenced by the tremendous amount of attention its own offerings get on the home screen. Its App store offers a few unique options like the most complete version of Pluto TV (an app that mimics a TV package) compared to the other boxes featured in this story. Fire TV also offers a fast and stable Sling TV App.
Voice Search/Content Discovery
Amazon’s Alexa based voice search is set up to help users access a number of features from finding content to shopping. Users can access Alexa at the push of a button in order to purchase items from their past purchasing history, add things to an Amazon shopping list as well as purchase content from the Amazon content library including music, movies and TV shows. Alexa can search the app store to add and open apps and even give you info like traffic reports, the weather and info gleaned from internet based services like Wikipedia. It talks back to you which is always good for a few laughs.
Great for Kids
One standout feature is the integration of the Amazon feature known as Freetime. Freetime is a closed section of kids content that parents can monitor, set time limits on and fill with the content that they want available for their children. Once in the Freetime setting one can not exit without entering a parental access code. This makes the device great for families who may be concerned with what their kids might access on a more open format. One could set up a Fire TV on Free Time and leave it that way permanently and essentially have a kids safe media player.
Android Powered Apps
Another popular aspect of Fire TV is that despite its name and GUI, it is really an Android based box. While it boasts an operating system call Fire OS its guts are Android all the way. The Fire TV even has access to programs like ES File Explorer and cloud based services that allow for easy sideloading of Android apps. The USB slot can also be used to upload apps and content via the file explorer or the Total Commander app.
Of the three devices the Fire TV is the only one that supports Kodi a major draw for some because of its ability to add third party content and integrate stored media. Amazon offers the ability to launch apps directly from mobile devices (provided that the app developers have integrated the feature. The app has to be side loaded but is an easy fix. (See a video on how to do it here)
The Fire TV boasts a number of quality video games but a majority of them require a separate game pad. Amazon offers its own but users can use any number of third party options. Its game offerings include games from Disney, EA Sports and even Game Fly Streaming. For those looking to maximize their Amazon gaming experience the company offers a game bundle that ships with a gamepad and a 32 gig memory card for more storage.
The Fire TV is a can’t miss option for those who are Amazon Prime customers because of the instant integration of media via your own account as well as access to Amazon’s music service. The device also features display mirroring for Windows 8 and up computers and Android phones with Android 4.4 and up.
Recommend for: Side Loading fans, Android lovers unwilling to jump in with Google’s Android TV Platform, Amazon Prime customers and families looking for the safest media player for their kids.