It's a different world when it comes to watching entertainment. Where once there was a choice between an antenna or cable TV, now we have small gadgets that bring us television, movies, and entertainment on demand.
Want to marathon every episode of the original "Star Trek" at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning? You got it. You just need the right device to help bring it to your living room.
Let's take a stroll through the big shakers: Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, and Roku. They're competitors, but they have a lot of overlaps, as well as some big areas of difference.
The one you choose will depend on your viewing habits, brand loyalty, and how you prefer to consume your streaming media.
The latest version of the Apple TV box arrived in 2015. It comes stocked with a slick user interface, Siri-enabled voice search, a sleek remote control, and integration with Apple's app store.
The gadget is made to appeal to iPhone and Mac-toting Apple fans who rely on iTunes to stay caught up on their favorite television shows and movies. The Apple TV comes in two flavors, which are separated by the amount of built-in storage space.
The 32 GB version of the latest Apple TV costs $149 and will handle the needs of most streaming fans. If you plan to go nuts downloading apps and games, then the $199 option with 64 GB of storage is worth the upgrade.
Should you buy an Apple TV? If you are already a heavy user of iTunes and have invested in a lot of purchases through Apple’s media store, then this makes sense.
Think of the Apple TV as a luxury gadget. It’s one of the most expensive streaming boxes on the market. If money is a consideration, then you can check out one of the more budget-friendly options from the competition.
Amazon's streaming gadget comes in two very different flavors. The Fire TV Stick is an easy-on-the-wallet $40 box that comes with an Alexa Voice Remote. You get access to all the usual streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now, but the Alexa integration is a bonus for people who already enjoy Amazon's voice-activated devices like the Echo and Dot.
The Amazon Fire TV costs $90 but supports 4K TV. This one will appeal to videophiles who want to feast their eyes on super-high-quality 4K content, but most viewers will be satisfied with the more affordable Fire TV Stick.
The Fire TV devices are a good fit for Amazon Prime fans who stream a lot of the online retailing behemoth’s videos, including original shows like "Man in the High Castle" and the car-obsessed "The Grand Tour."
Google’s $35 Chromecast is the low-price leader for streaming video gadgets. One of the reasons it's so cheap is that it doesn’t come with a remote. You’ll need your phone or a tablet (or a computer) to operate it. It works with Android, iOS, or Windows devices.
The round gadget is small and cute and easy to tuck away behind your television. While you can use it to access the usual suspects of Netflix, Hulu, and other popular streaming services, it doesn't play nice with Apple’s iTunes or Amazon's streaming-video app.
What the Chromecast does well is mirror your computing devices onto your television. That means you can pull up a website on your phone, send it to your Chromecast, and see it on the big screen by using the downloadable Chromecast app.
You’ll get the best results at home if you have a strong Wi-Fi network in place. If you already spend a lot of your streaming video time on your smartphone, then you will probably enjoy playing around with Chromecast.
Roku is one of the pioneers of streaming video gadgets. The 2016 version of the Roku Streaming Stick pops in at a very reasonable $50 and hooks you up with your Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and Google Play videos (once again, there’s no iTunes support).
It comes with a capable remote, but you can also download a Roku app for your iOS or Android device and use it with the Streaming Stick for voice search. The app also features a private listening option that runs the audio through your headphones. This is a great way to keep the noise down in a crowded household.
The Roku is a solid, all-purpose video streamer with a lot of versatility.
Mix it up
The true connoisseur of streaming video may choose not to settle on a single streaming box. You could find yourself filling up the HDMI ports on your television with two or three different devices.
This may mean wrangling more remote controls, but it also gives you the widest set of options. For example, there is no dedicated Amazon video app for the Apple TV. There is a workaround, but you may find it easier to just invest in a low-cost Fire box to go along with your Apple device and then sit back and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Streaming Media Player Comparison Chart to Cut the Cord on Cable TV
There are two kinds of streaming gadgets: set-top boxes and HDMI sticks. Streaming boxes are larger and more expensive but tend to be more powerful.
HDMI sticks are the size of USB drives and plug right into your TV's HDMI port. That means less clutter in your entertainment center and they're also cheaper.
I've split them into two charts - scroll down for the streaming sticks chart.
|Apple TV (4th Gen)||Apple TV (3rd Gen)||Roku 1||Roku 2||Roku 3||Roku 4||Google Nexus Player||Amazon Fire TV|
|Price||$149 32GB, $199 64GB||$69||$50||$70||$100||$130||$100||$100|
|Resolution (max)||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p, 4K Ultra HD||1080p||1080p, 4K Ultra HD|
|Video connections||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI, Composite||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI|
|Audio connections||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI, Composite||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI||HDMI|
|Other connections||USB-C||microUSB||No||microSD, USB||microSD, USB||microSD, USB||microUSB||microSD, USB 2.0|
|Wireless networking||Dual-band Wi-Fi||Dual-band Wi-Fi||802.11n||802.11n||802.11n||Dual-band Wi-Fi||Dual-band Wi-Fi||Dual-band Wi-Fi|
|Remote Control||Remote with Siri voice commands||Yes||Remote + Roku app||Remote with headphone jack + Roku app||Remote with headphone jack + Roku app; voice search||Remote with headphone jack + Roku app; voice search||Yes with voice search||Yes with voice search; optional game controller available|
|Local Storage||32GB, 64GB||None||None||None||microSD, USB port||microSD, USB port||8GB||8GB internal expandable to 128GB with microSD|
|Paid movies & TV||iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, Watch ESPN, more||iTunes, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, ESPN||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go sports, more||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go sports, more||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go sports, more||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go sports, more||Netflix, Google Play, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, Showtime, more.||Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, HBO GO, Showtime Anytime, more|
|Free movies & TV||YouTube, Vimeo||YouTube, Vimeo||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Crackle, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Crackle, Vimeo, Huffington Post, more|
|Music||Apple Music||iTunes||Pandora, SHOUTcast, Rdio, Soma FM, more||Pandora, SHOUTcast, Rdio, Soma FM, more||Pandora, SHOUTcast, Rdio, Soma FM, more||Pandora, SHOUTcast, Rdio, Soma FM, more||Pandora, Vevo, Google Music, more||Prime Music, Pandora, more|
|Other services||Functions within App Store environment for gaming, more; streams audio and video from Apple gadgets via AirPlay||Streams audio and video from Apple gadgets via AirPlay||1000+ channels including games||1000+ channels including games||2500+ channels including games||2500+ channels including games||Google Play apps; Game controller; Streams video from Android, iOS, Chromebook||3000+ channels, apps & games; IMDB integration; FreeTime parental controls|
|Purchase||Stream, Rent||Stream, Rent||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own|
|Apple TV||Apple TV||Roku 1||Roku 2||Roku 3||Roku 4||Google Nexus Player||Amazon Fire TV|
|Roku Streaming Stick||Google Chromecast||Amazon Fire TV Stick|
|Audio connections||HDMI||HDMI w/ Surround Sound||HDMI|
|Wireless networking||Dual-band Wi-Fi||Dual-band Wi-Fi||Dual-band Wi-Fi|
|Remote Control||Remote + Roku app||Smartphone, tablet or computer||Remote + app; voice activated remote upgrade available|
|Paid movies & TV||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go sports, more||Netflix, Google Play, NFL Sunday Ticket by DirecTV, other Android and Web apps (Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Amazon Instant Video and sports via browser)||Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, more|
|Free movies & TV||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more||YouTube, Vimeo, other Android and Web apps||YouTube, Crackle, Fox News, Huffington Post, more|
|Music||Pandora, SHOUTcast, Rdio, Soma FM, more||Google Music, other Android and Web apps||Prime Music, Amazon Music, Vevo, Pandora, iHeart Radio, Spotify, Tunein|
|Other services||1000+ channels including games||Stream online video from smartphones, tablets and Chrome browser on Mac or PC||3000+ channels, apps & games; IMDB integration; FreeTime parental controls|
|Purchase||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own||Stream, Rent, Own|
|Roku Streaming Stick||Google Chromecast||Amazon FireTV Stick|