I like to watch TV, but I don’t own a television. In my studio there was never any need. Bingeing “The Crown” on an iPad in bed seemed enough, even a luxury.
Until the pandemic, that is, when all I wanted to do was switch from my day sweatpants to night ones and watch whatever streaming algorithms fed me, all the time. And I wasn’t alone: This year, Nielsen reports that video streaming has increased by more than 74% from last year.
So I turned my 4K computer monitor into a real television, using an HDMI streaming stick and a pair of bookshelf speakers, and it worked flawlessly. Daytime hours: working car. Night: without notifications
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this setup hacked together. But I would recommend the streaming stick. At $ 50 or less, they̵
Better yet: Small pocket media players have a much faster refresh cycle than your smart TV, which gets dumber over time due to outdated and unsupported software. Sticks are an easy way to upgrade an otherwise perfectly fine older big screen.
The problem? There are many options, each with an ever-changing set of features and content partners. Here’s how media players compare in key areas and how to choose the one that best suits your streaming needs.
First round: sticks against boxes
The top four contenders are the new Chromecast with Google TV ($ 50), third-generation Amazon Fire TV Stick ($ 40), Roku Streaming Stick + ($ 50), and TiVo Stream 4K ($ 50).
The first thing to consider is whether you should jump the stick and get a premium player. At $ 100 or more, those boxes are aimed at people who want the best possible image quality, support for new formats and ports for USB drives, and wired internet connections. (Apple TV boxes, for example, start at $ 149 and don’t hide behind the TV, so I’m not talking about it here.)
The sticks are more than enough for most people. They are all equipped with remote controls for easy navigation. All but the new Fire TV Stick support resolutions up to 4K and HDR content. Also, the affordable price of the devices means that if a new service isn’t on one platform, you could just get a different device without spending a fortune.
Round two: Services Showdown
Your growing mix of subscriptions could determine which media player to buy. (If you need help with collection services, I wrote a guide in August).
All four sticks house the most important services: Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, but if you subscribe to …
• HBO Max: There is no support on Fire TV or Roku. (They carry the old HBO app with a smaller content library.)
• Peacock from NBCUniversal: Fire TV release counts.
• Apple TV +: Not available on Chromecast, but you can “cast” Apple content from a Chrome browser on your Mac.
The devices also give preferential treatment to certain services.
Google’s Fire TV Stick and Chromecast prioritize their manufacturers’ respective on-demand stores. The section dedicated to the live channel on Chromecast shows content exclusively from YouTube TV, while the TiVo Stream 4K live guide has a special integration with Sling TV. (Both companies say additional live television collaborations are underway.)
Roku, meanwhile, ranks the results by price, which can be misleading: A flagship result for the first season of “Game of Thrones” is a “free episode” on The Roku Channel, where the company gets a cut. of HBO memberships. Roku didn’t recognize that I was logged into the device’s HBO app. It also doesn’t let you curate search results based on your favorite services.
Third round: the search for things
Since most toggles have most of the same content, they try to differentiate how they help you find things to look at.
The Chromecast is my first choice here. The device features a new interface called Google TV, which is also available for Android phones and some smart TVs.
The top row combines the recommendations from my different inscriptions. Below is a customizable line of my apps, so shortcuts for resuming the programs I’m watching. Everything I needed, in regards to streaming, was just a few taps away.
The built-in Google Assistant was really useful for navigation. “Watch Chef’s Table” or “Tune to NBC Sports” inserted me directly into the content. A voice search for “Knives Out” led me to a page where I could watch a trailer, add the movie to my checklist, or start streaming via Prime Video. When I asked the Google Assistant for player backgrounds while watching a French Open match on YouTube TV, the Assistant paused the match and viewed a Wikipedia summary. (Thankfully, the Assistant didn’t read it aloud.)
Most importantly, the Assistant transcribes voice commands as you say them, so you can make sure they’re correct in real time. Of the media players I tested, which all include voice capabilities, Chromecast was the only one that did.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
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I really wanted to like TiVo Stream 4K, which was designed around a similar idea: a home page for all your content across multiple subscriptions. Select the sources you want to bring out. And if you sign up for Prime Video but rent through Google Play, you can set that up too. TiVo doesn’t guide you to sign up for new services, unlike Fire TV and Roku.
The device is powered by Android TV, but all of its standout features were contained in an app called TiVo Stream. Using an app to access other apps can sometimes seem complicated, and unless you launch each program from within the Stream app, it can’t keep track of your preferences and be very useful.
Roku is the spiritual opposite of TiVo. While the player gives you all the streaming options available for any title you search, its main page is just an app grid. To navigate, you really have to open each service, one at a time.
Amazon’s Fire TV has a big update coming later this year, which has made it difficult to overhaul the device now. The new software promises to unify multiple subscriptions on its main page, such as Chromecast and TiVo, and to simplify the current design, which includes seven menus.
Round four: everything else
I didn’t like Roku’s TV software or its excessive activation process, but there’s a lot to love that’s unique to Roku. The Streaming Stick + includes a long range wireless receiver to boost Wi-Fi reception, and you can listen to your shows through the Roku mobile app, so it’s very easy to incorporate headphones. And, in an update later this year, some Roku 4K players will support Apple AirPlay 2, so iPhone, iPad, and Mac users can share videos directly to the device. A spokesperson for Roku confirmed that this will include HBO Max content, which is otherwise not available on Roku. And while Chromecast and TiVo also support casting content, Fire TV only supports mirroring from Android devices.
The Fire TV and Chromecast can also act as a smart home control hub, for anyone who wants large-screen viewing portals for their Amazon-owned Ring and Google-owned Nest cameras, respectively.
Roku and the new Chromecast are my top picks, but for different reasons. Roku exposes all your options, while Chromecast keeps it simple. Just know that for whichever device you choose, losing that damn remote will be inevitable. Before you start streaming, plug in one of those Bluetooth trackers.
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Write to Nicole Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org
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