ReadWriteShop is an occasional series about the intersection of technology and commerce.
Sure, you can stream Netflix shows or movies on your laptop or tablet. But if you've got a big screen TV sitting in your living room, chances are you'd like to use it. And that's where streaming TV devices come in—gadgets that make it dead simple to stream Amazon or Hulu video straight to your living room.
Once a specialty niche favored by geeks and cord-cutters, these gadgets are some of the hottest items around. Google’s Chromecast took Amazon by storm earlier this year, peaking as the site's bestselling electronics gadget last fall. Now settled into the number-three slot, it still holds firm as the only non-Amazon device in the top five. In the streaming media players subcategory, it holds the top spot, followed directly by the Roku 2 and Apple TV.
The success of these gadgets owes as much to their affordability as to the growing availability of streaming video. Chromecast costs a mere $35. The Roku 2 and Apple TV go for $80 and $100, respectively.
But how to choose between them? Features can vary as much as cost. If you’re looking for the ideal device to pipe media to your TV, here's what you're going to want to think about.
What it does: Stream video to your TV from the Internet or your phone, tablet or computer—and then use your mobile device as a remote control. You can start watching a program on an iPhone, for instance, then pause it and resume on the TV (or vice versa). Chromecast also offers "Tab Casting" and full desktop casting from computers. These features allow people to beam their entire desktop, or the contents of a Chrome browser tab, to their television.
Biggest Pros: Like the Roku 2 and Apple TV, Chromecast can deliver 1080p HD videos, which is impressive considering its cheap $35 price tag. It's easy to start a stream. Just pull up the app (mobile) or any website (via the Chrome browser on a laptop) for a compatible service, and tap a button to begin "casting" to the TV. And the list of streaming sources just expanded today, with the announcement of 10 new compatible apps: VEVO, Red Bull.TV, Songza, PostTV, Viki, Revision 3, BeyondPod, Avia, RealPlayer Cloud and Plex. These join Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Pandora, YouTube, Google Play Movies and TV and Google Play Music, making for a total of 17 sources.
Plex, Avia and RealPlayer Cloud are particularly handy if you want to pipe your own media files to your television. YouTube allows for a unified TV Queue, which enables anyone on the same Wi-Fi network to add videos, for an on-the-fly YouTube playlist. Another plus: Regardless of app, any iOS, Android or laptop on the same network can take control of the TV stream.
Biggest Cons: Even with the brand new additions, the streaming inventory is still limited. If you're a fan of Daily Motion, Vimeo, Amazon Instant or Spotify, you're currently out of luck. And there's no telling when (or if) that will change.
Of course, hints of things to come abound these days. Android's 4.4.1 update points to Chromecast mirroring, so connected TVs might display those mobile screens some day. And Google's Chromecast hackathon last weekend suggests that even more streaming apps from developers big and small could be imminent. But you'll need to patient to see how these possible developments play out.
Also note that there’s no dedicated remote control. Since all actions take place on the mobile device or computer, it can be inconvenient if the device goes to sleep when you want to pause at a specific point. Finally, you'll need a solid Wi-Fi signal; Chromecast has no ethernet port for a wired Internet connection.
Ideally suited for: Budget shoppers, users who need no-frills desktop casting for presentations, and people who often watch media on their mobile devices and want to resume on their TVs (and vice versa).
What it does: If you bought a Roku 2 when it was released in 2012, don't be confused. Roku updated its entire product line this fall, so the Roku 2 we are discussing here is actually the "new" Roku 2. Roku boxes offer all the same third-party streams as Chromecast and much more, including Amazon Instant, Vevo, Daily Motion, CNN, TEDTalks, Plex, MLB TV, Spotify and many others. Indeed, Roku boasts one of the biggest streaming inventories, and its recent partnership with MGo online videos makes online movie rentals very easy and convenient. The company also recently jazzed up its on-screen interface to improve search and title suggestions.
Biggest Pros: All Roku devices can access a generous inventory of Roku apps (er, channels), both official and “private.” Among Roku’s products, the Roku 2 stands out in particular because of its remote control. In addition to being a well-made unit that's comfortable in the hand, it also features a built-in headphone jack for private listening. Previously, only the premium Roku 3 offered this, but now it’s available on the Roku 2 for $20 less than that premium box. The remote also features dedicated buttons for direct access to Amazon, Blockbuster, MGo and Netflix.
The box itself works over dual band Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), so it can connect to both older and newer routers. And it offers a Plex app, so you can show off the home movies and other media in your computer on your TV screen. Roku also has an app that can turn your smartphone into a remote control (replete with full keyboard, which makes it much easier to search on the device) that you can connect via Wi-Fi. Helpful when you lose the actual Roku remote.
Biggest Cons: The Roku 2 has no Ethernet port for wired Internet connection (the Roku 3, by contrast, does). And you can't reprogram the dedicated service buttons on the remote, so if you don't use Blockbuster, you're stuck with it. Also worth noting: MGo is not only featured on the remote control, but also in the Roku software. So with every universal search, MGo results pop up as options, and it can’t be uninstalled.
With all the streaming options available, there’s one notable omission: YouTube. There’s currently no direct or simple way to stream YouTube videos on this box (though there are workarounds). [Update 12/27: Roku 3 just got YouTube streaming and casting. For more, click here.] Even worse, for HBO GO users who subscribed via Comcast/Xfinity: The cable provider blocks streaming access on Roku. Streaming HBO Go on Chromecast and Apple TV, however, works just fine.
Ideally suited for: People who like having lots of streaming options presented in an attractive interface, can do without YouTube videos (or are willing to use workarounds to get it), and whose viewing habits don’t hinge on HBO GO via Comcast.
What it does: Plays videos, music and pics from the Web, from computers (with iTunes) and iOS devices. iCloud files, iMovie projects and media purchased or rented from Apple’s iTunes Store, which can be blocked from playing on other gadgets, stream very well to the Apple TV. The box can also mirror your Mac computer, iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch screen using AirPlay, so you can display your desktop or mobile screen on the big screen.
Biggest Pros: The box works over Wi-Fi and Ethernet, offering apps for every non-Google stream that Chromecast supports, and several it doesn't. These include Vimeo, Flickr, Disney Channel, PBS, Sky News, and various sports covering baseball (MLB), football (NFL), basketball (NBA), hockey (NHL), soccer (MLS), as well as ESPN. And thanks to a recent software update, users can listen to their iTunes Radio stations through their TVs. Like Roku, there’s no official Plex support for Apple TV, but crafty users have figured out a way to make it work.
As for AirPlay, it works seamlessly from Apple computers and mobiles. If you have an iOS device, setup is a cinch. Hold the handset or tablet up to your Apple TV, and the box will automatically grab your network and iTunes account settings. AirPlaying iTunes content also works from Windows PCs.
Biggest Cons: The very coolest feature—AirPlay—only works in conjunction with Apple gadgets or through iTunes. In other words, you can stream from iTunes on your Windows desktop, but you can't simply mirror your PC the way Mac and iOS users can.
And, despite years of waiting, Apple TV users still don't have a channel or app store, so the inventory of streaming sources is very limited (especially compared to Roku's selection). If you live your entertainment life in iTunes, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Streaming sources either come built in or via software download, which means owners will be at the mercy of Apple’s good graces.
Ideally suited for: People in all-Apple households, or those who are loyal iTunes Store customers.
The holidays are almost here. Will a streaming device show up in your shopping or wish list? If so, tell us which one you've got your eye on in the comments below.