LOS ANGELES —The holidays are a great time to spend hours binging on shows and enjoying Internet entertainment.
Wth so many options for your shopping dollar, we’ve taken a full look at the various product choices.
If you don’t have a “Smart TV,” which have streaming channels already built in, or aren’t planning to buy one, the best alternative is a streaming player. These start at around $30, are super easy to install and open your TV up to hundreds of on-demand channels.
More expensive models offer better remotes, the ability to stream in higher definition 4K and DolbyVision and have connections via ethernet to a stronger Internet signal than wi-fi, which could be helpful with higher-resolution movies.
CHOICES: There are five models from Roku, the oldest and most popular streaming device, plus two from Amazon, three from Apple and two from Google. Video game fans can also access streaming media via the Xbox and PlayStation game consoles.
WHY STREAMING: If you’re new to online entertainment, know that an entire world of programming is ready for you. Subscription services like Netflix (starts at $7.99 monthly,) Hulu (starts at $7.99 monthly) and Amazon Prime ($99 yearly, with expedited shipping and online entertainment) offer movies, TV shows and original shows, like Stranger Things 2, Orange is the New Black, The Handmaid’s Tale and Red Oaks.
Beyond the dedicated services, the streaming players also offer cable TV channels like CNN, FX and Comedy Central with on-demand viewing. But to watch, you first need to prove that you’re a cable subscriber by “authenticating,” with your cable account password.
Many so-called “cord cutters,” have ditched cable and switched to streaming players to save big bucks off their average $100 monthly cable bill. According to market research firm Leichtman Research Group, some 400,000 people disconnected from cable in the third quarter of 2017 (compared to 250,000 in the year ago quarter) while some 535,000 added limited streaming options from Sling, DirectTV and YouTube. (These services offer a way to see the cable channels along with movie services, without having to authenticate.)
What to pick
The most expensive of the pure streaming players starts at $149, or $179 for the edition that plays 4K movie and TV content.
What you’re buying is a premium product that’s an outgrowth of the Apple eco-system. If you’ve rented many iTunes movies over the years, Apple TV keeps track and will play them back for you. All those photos and videos shot on your iPhone are on your Apple TV menu, ready for viewing, and the unit connects to Apple Music, along with the usual collection of channels: everything from Netflix and Hulu to a new addition, Amazon Prime Video. Additionally, Apple TV has an ethernet port, which will come in handy for watching 4K content.
“You have to be a power Apple user to want the Apple TV,” says Lee Neikirk, an editor with Reviewed.com. “It looks beautiful,” but at $130 more than the top of the line Roku Ultra, it’s a stretch for most consumers, he says.
Amazon Fire TV with voice remote. (Photo: Amazon)
Amazon’s streaming options are all about Amazon content front and center—surprised? Underneath, you’ll find the usual collection of channels like Netflix and Hulu, but there’s one huge omission. The world’s most popular video service, Google-owned YouTube, won’t be available as of January, due to a corporate spat between Google and Amazon.
There are two models of FireTV available, and they heavily discounted this time of year. The FireTV Stick (on sale for $34.99) plugs directly into your TV’s HDMI port and a power outlet. If you’ve got a 4K TV and want higher resolution, the FireTV is on sale for $54.99. Both have voice search on the remotes from Alexa, Amazon’s personal digital assistant. What they don’t have are ethernet ports.
“That’s our biggest issue with the new Fire TV,” says Neikirk. However, Amazon sells a $15 adapter that connects to USB for folks who need the stronger signal.
Chromecast lets you stream anything from phone to TV. (Photo: Google)
The wonkiest of the offerings, Chromecast ($35) also connects directly to the HDMI port and a power outlet, but your phone acts as the remote. Find something on your phone worth watching and just “cast” it to the TV.
But not all services work with Chromecast. Yes: Netflix, Google Play, Spotify and others, no to Amazon Prime, thanks to the corporate spat between Google and Amazon. The Chromecast Ultra ($55) streams in 4K. You’ve got to be very tech savvy to enjoy Chromecast, says Neikirk, who says the unit is “not as friendly for people who prefer the traditional experience.”
The pioneer of streaming players has 5 models starting at $29.99 and going up to $99.99. The Express is the entry level unit, which plugs into the HDMI and power outlet, and requires line of sight for the remote control to work. (i.e., if it’s behind the TV, you won’t get very far.) Roku points out that its smartphone app can solve that issue.
The Express Plus ($39.99) has cables to plug into older, non-flat panel TVs, while the Stick ($49.99) can plug into HDMI without a power outlet needed and solves the line-of-sight remote issues. The Stick + ($69.99) streams 4K and HDR content as does the Ultra ($89.99) which also has an ethernet port for plugging in hard-wire for stronger signal.
The Express is a great basic option for those looking to stream, but don’t care about 4K or other high-resolution options, while the Stick has a better remote and faster streaming. If you need 4K programming, get the Stick +, and if the ethernet port is important, get the Ultra.
Reviewed.com, an affiliate of the USA TODAY Network, awarded the Roku Ultra its “Best Overall” award in streaming players, and gave the Streaming Stick+ the “Best Value” award here.
Best entry-level streaming player: Roku Express. No frills, all the channels and $30. If 4K not a concern, you can’t go wrong with this option.
Lowest-priced streaming device for watching 4K: Amazon FireTV and Chromecast Ultra are discounted to $55 for the holidays.
Most channels available: Any Roku device. Amazon FireTV is missing YouTube, and Google Chromecast lacks Amazon Prime Video. Roku says it has 100+ channels (most of which you’ve probably never heard of past a handful) to Apple’s 60. (Amazon refers to “tens of thousands,” of channels, apps and Alexa skills.)
Best setup: Amazon FireTV. When we ordered it on Prime, Amazon had our sign-in information already, and it arrived set up, without having to log in.
Best choice if you live in an Apple world. Apple TV is an expensive choice, starting at $149, but if you take a lot of photos and videos on your iPhone, subscribe to Apple Music and podcasts and rent movies from iTunes, they’re all here, in one place.
Our pick for overall choice: Roku Express if you don’t care about 4K programming, the Streaming Stick + if you do (4K, more channels, great remote, has Netflix, Amazon and YouTube.) If you need ethernet, the Roku Ultra, $89.
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