Streaming media is the future. We said it. It takes the best of home entertainment and combines it all into a neat, affordable package.
Sure, you can get a paltry offering from your smart TV or Wi-Fi enabled Blu-ray player, but those of us that demand a more thorough and robust experience can satisfy that craving with a new streaming media device.
These devices, hands down, are the best way to enjoy various services on your big and beautiful HDTV. But with new streaming media devices hitting the market every year, choosing the best option becomes as blurry as a 360p YouTube video.
Stay tuned, as we here at BFads.net present our 2015 Streaming Media Device Guide, where we'll give you a sampling of the best and most capable streaming media devices on the market today.
Roku 3 / Roku Streaming Stick
Roku 3 Streaming Media Player - $89.99 at Walmart
Roku 3500R Streaming Stick - $46.99 at Amazon
Without a doubt, Roku is the original modern streaming media device. In 2008, the Roku became the first device created to offer Netflix streaming on home televisions, before most people had even become aware of Netflix streaming.
7 years later, the Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick continue the tradition of sleek, cutting edge, and easy-to-use devices that open the door to a massive library of streaming content. Since Roku is not a content provider, there is seemingly no filter on their offerings, with just about every streaming and on-demand service under the sun available at your fingertips - including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Google Play, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Vudu, Sling TV, and more.
While both the Roku 3 and the Roku Streaming Stick open the door to all of the aforementioned content, there are some notable hardware differences. First, aimed at bedrooms, second TVs, or college dorms, the $39.99 Roku Streaming Stick offers no connectivity outside of the HDMI port used to plug into your TV, and packs all of the Roku content in a package about the size of a pack of gum.
The $99.99 Roku 3 is about the size of a large bar of soap, and uses that extra heft to offer Ethernet connectivity, a MicroSD slot, and a USB port for additional storage on top of a faster processor. The Roku 3 uses the additional horsepower to offer more features such as a headphone jack right on the remote for private listening, voice control, and even light gaming.
The Roku family, without a doubt, offers access to the largest amount of online content providers of any streaming media device, and is an excellent choice for streaming newcomers and enthusiasts alike.
Google Chromecast HDMI Streaming Media Player - $27.97 at Amazon
From Internet giant Google comes what is perhaps the most paltry and basic offering from a headlining developer, the Google Chromecast, which is available at many major retailers for under $30. The Chromecast is a pint-sized device that plugs directly into the HDMI port on your HDTV. From there, the Chromecast allows you to stream media from your smart phone or tablet directly to your TV.
The disadvantage here is obvious since the Chromecast does not offer any streaming media services on its own. A separate device is needed to actually run the media. All the Chromecast does is allow you to broadcast that media to your HDTV if you are using a Chromecast-enabled app and device. There are a nice selection of apps that work with Chromecast, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Pandora, and more. But remember, the fact that you are running these apps from your smart device means that if you close the browser or turn off your mobile device, the content will stop playing on your TV. You can however, continue to do other things on your devices while the content is streaming.
These limitations make the Chromecast a good option only for those that can in no way afford to buy a more capable media streaming device, those who rarely, if ever, stream content, or those who want to stream in a location where the only Internet connection is on their cell phone or LTE-enabled tablet.
Apple TV - $62.10 at Walmart
Apple fans who are firmly entrenched in the Apple ecosphere will feel right at home with the $99 Apple TV. If you're at all familiar with Apple, you know the routine. Once you sign into your Apple TV with your existing iTunes account, you'll instantly have access to all your iTunes music, movies, and TV shows you've been enjoying on your iPhone, iPad, and iMac. This also means that the massive library of content featured on iTunes becomes instantly available for purchase or rent, right on your HDTV.
Just like the Chromecast, it's as easy as a few taps to stream content from your iPad or iTunes - including your photos, videos, and even some apps and games - right to your TV using Airplay.
It really is that seamless and simple, something for which Apple has become famous. Unfortunately, Apple has also become infamous for restricting iTunes content to only Apple devices, a trait which continues in streaming media devices. This means that your library of media you have amassed from the iTunes store, particularly movies and television shows, will only be available on an Apple TV device.
Of course, the Apple TV isn't limited only to iTunes content, as you can access a bevy of other media streaming services including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and Showtime. The glaring drawback here is that, in typical Apple fashion, there are no content providers available that directly compete with Apple. So that means on Apple TV you won't find Amazon Instant Video and Music, Spotify, Pandora, Crackle, or Vudu.
On the hardware side, Apple TV features HDMI and optical out, as well as Ethernet and Wi-Fi options for connectivity and includes a slim and minimalistic remote that will have Apple fans feeling right at home.
Apple junkies should probably look no further, as the Apple TV is the only streaming box that offers access to iTunes content. However, if iTunes isn't something you are invested in, or you prefer other media services, the limitations on content providers make the Apple TV a less desirable choice.
Amazon Fire TV / Fire TV Stick
Amazon Fire TV - Currently unavailable at Amazon
Amazon Fire TV Stick - $34.00 at Amazon
Amazon's entry into the streaming media box frenzy comes in the form of two different yet similar devices, the Fire TV and the Fire TV stick.
First, the similarities; each of these devices is an Android set top box in disguise. Running on a heavily customized version of Google's Android mobile OS, the Fire TV series boasts a bevy of streaming content sources, including Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Showtime Now, Pandora, and Spotify to name just a few.
Where the Fire TV sets itself apart from the competition is how it takes advantage of its Android roots. From the Amazon app store, the same app store available on mobile devices, you can download from a massive library of apps including many of the hit games you enjoy on your mobile phone. If you want to take it to the next level, Amazon even offers an Xbox-esque controller that lets you fully enjoy the in-home Android gaming experience.
That's also where the differences between the Fire TV and the Fire TV stick begin to show.
First and most obvious is the form factor. The $39.99 Fire TV stick is just as it sounds, a small stick, about the size of a large USB thumb drive, that plugs directly in to your TV's HDMI port. The Fire TV has a more traditional look, which is a bit smaller than a double CD case, and retails for $99.99.
That extra size gives room for more horsepower in addition to connectivity. The Fire TV Stick is a no-frills device as far as hardware extras go, with no connectivity whatsoever aside from the micro-USB port used to power the device. The Fire TV, on the other hand, offers optical out for home theater systems, Ethernet for a hard wired internet connection, and a USB port to play media directly from a USB flash or hard drive or to expand storage for apps and games.
Under the hood, the Fire TV boasts a quad core processor and 2GB of RAM, double that of the Fire TV Stick. This becomes an important factor if you're looking to game on your Fire TV, since that extra horsepower allows the Fire TV to run genuine video game hits such as Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto 3, and Telltale's The Walking Dead.
Whether you choose the Fire TV or the Fire TV Stick, Amazon's streaming media family of devices provide a fluid interface that grants access to a large amount of content.
Sling Media Slingbox M1 - $99.99 at Sears
The Slingbox M1 is a streaming media device that sort of does the opposite of what other devices do. Rather than bring media and content into your home, Slingbox sends media out of your home, giving you access to live TV and content saved on your DVR on any compatible device.
The Slingbox is connected in line between your cable box and your television, and is then hooked up to your home internet connection via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. From there, you can access your live TV content over the Internet by using any device including smart TVs, tablets, and smart phones that are capable of running the Slingbox app, or by logging into slingbox.com on any PC.
Think of the Slingbox M1 as a $149.99 streaming media device for those that love their cable or satellite package. It doesn’t run Netflix, Hulu, or the like. It’s not meant to help you cut the cord from your cable provider, but rather take that cable subscription with you wherever you go.
Even though streaming media devices are harkening in a new era of home entertainment, they still fall victim to some of the class pitfalls that have plagued viewers since the days of VHS. Namely, most of them do not include an HDMI cable, so make sure to double-check and add one to your shopping cart before you check out if needed.
Streaming media devices, like any highly competitive market, are constantly changing as manufacturers continue to offer newer and better devices to win a spot in your living room. That's why it's more important than ever to keep your browser pointed at BFads.net throughout the holiday season and beyond. Just as in years past, we'll continue to bring you the latest in buying guides, holiday picks, and price breaks, helping you stretch your hard-earned dollar.