Considering how often I write about the superiority of streaming internet video over traditional (cable or satellite) television, it seemed like it was high time I actually laid out which options are available for anyone interested in seeing what all of the fuss is about. Therefore, the list below outlines 9 ways to watch streaming internet video services (such as Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Instant Video) on your TV — from the comfort of your couch, bed, or any other furniture you may have pointed toward your television.
A future post is in the works that will go into more details about which streaming services are available and which ones I would personally recommend. For now though, there is a pretty good overview of currently available streaming services from TechRadar which provides details about many of the most popular services and should offer some insight into which ones might contain content you’ll be interested in.
#1 – Roku
Roku streaming players first hit the scene back in 2008. For context, in 2008 Netflix was pretty much the only game in town when it came to (legal) online video streaming services, and even Netflix offered very little online content at the time — their primary focus was still on delivering discs through the mail.
Today, Roku is still going strong and is on their third-generation of media players, which now includes the Roku Streaming Stick (pictured). I personally have owned a 2nd-gen box for about four years now and can safely say that the box pretty much just works as expected. There is some initial setup, such as connecting to your home’s Wi-Fi and signing into your streaming service accounts, but after that, you just select your video service (such as Netflix, Hulu, etc.), find a video you’d like to watch, and hit “play”.
What’s Great: Simple to use, Lots of available content, Low price
The box just works — and it supports pretty much every video service you can think of. What’s more, even if the box doesn’t officially support a service, the Roku platform allows developers to write apps, which can be made available to others as a “private channel“. Many developers have taken it upon themselves to write tons of great apps that connect to just about video service available. When you combine this with the already fantastic list of official channels on the Roku store and the relatively low price you can find these for on Amazon (about $32 for a used streaming stick at time of writing), you can see why Roku is an extraordinarily popular option.
What’s Not So Great: New services are less likely to show up on Roku first
Roku devices are fantastic, but let’s face it — they don’t receive the same attention from the public as some of the other devices in this list. Because of that, new services may less likely to prioritize building their apps on the Roku platform first and instead may opt to build their apps on more well-known platforms such as Apple TV, Google Chromecast, or one of the video game consoles. Roku’s user base is large enough that sooner or later most services become available, but if you’re the type of person who wants to access the newest services as soon as they’re available, you might want to consider one of the other options.
Click here to browse Roku prices on Amazon
#2 – Amazon Fire TV
Amazon debuted the Fire TV family of devices in April 2014 and then followed up with a much more compact (and cheaper!) version in November of that same year. Both devices received mostly positive reviews, but since the Fire TV Stick is $60 less, it has become the obvious choice if you’ve narrowed your options down to the Fire TV family of devices.
Both devices run on a modified version of Android, which is the same operating system that Amazon uses for its Kindle Fire tablets. Reusing the tablet OS on the Fire TV devices is great not only because it makes the user experience better for those who are already used to their Kindle Fire tablets, but also because the it allows the boxes to do more than they could if Amazon had chosen to use a more “stripped down” operating system.
For example, one perk found in the Fire TV devices is the ability to play video games, which are available for download in the Amazon app store. Amazon also sells a gaming controller, which makes the device quite versatile, especially considering the low price point of the Fire TV Stick.
To set expectations, however, the device isn’t meant to be a gaming console. This means that the quality of the games found on the app store simply won’t rival what you’d get from one of the major consoles on the market today. Still, some people might enjoy just having the option to play a game or two on the device every once in a while.
What’s Great: Competitively priced, Can access most major streaming services
The Fire TV Stick can be picked up on Amazon for less than 40 bucks at the time of writing, which makes it a pretty great deal, especially when considering the the large amount of content that can be accessed from the device.
What’s Not So Great: Interface tends to favor Amazon content, No private channels
The biggest complaint that I’ve seen so far is that the Fire TV platform tends to favor Amazon Prime content over content provided by other services such as Netflix or Hulu. For example, while setting up the Fire TV device, you’ll be shown a video promoting Amazon Prime and the main menu lists “Prime Video” prominently, while you’ll need to dig a little further in the main to find the Netflix app. Of course, this shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience assuming you actually intend on subscribing to Amazon Prime, but it’s worth noting in case you plan on primarily watching content from some other provider.
Note: if you haven’t yet given Amazon Prime a shot, I’d recommend giving their 30 day free trial a spin to at least check it out. If you don’t like it or find yourself not using it often, you can always just cancel before the free trial is over. I was a long time subscriber of Netflix myself, but recently cancelled that subscription in favor of Amazon Prime since with Prime I get videos AND free shipping on tons of stuff, which just makes it a better buy for my situation (lots of Internet purchases and not too interested in Netflix-exclusive content).
Click here to view the Fire TV Stick on Amazon
#3 – Apple TV
First generation Apple TV boxes hit store shelves in early 2007. The devices were not focused on streaming services — since none really existed yet — but instead acted as a portal to watch content downloaded from iTunes on the a television set. In 2010, the 2nd generation box was introduced, which focused much more heavily on connecting to content streaming services and more closely resembles the devices available today.
Apple TV is great if you’re already hooked into the Apple ecosystem. That is, if you own an iPhone, a Mac Book, or an iPad and are therefore accustomed to using iOS, you’ll probably find that the Apple TV fits your needs quite well. It can connect to just about every major video service, has a great user interface, and overall is built with the quality you’d expect from a major player like Apple.
If you don’t already own lots of other devices from Apple, though, or if you don’t mind learning to operate a device that isn’t running iOS, you may want to seriously consider checking out some of the other less expensive options on this list — many of which can do just as much or more than the Apple TV.
What’s Great: High-quality user interface, Easily integrates with other Apple services
From the video above you can see that the latest Apple TV interface is beautiful. The colors are crisp, the interface makes sense, and even the transitions from one option to another looks great.
The other highlight for this device is that it easily integrates with your other Apple services including iTunes and iCloud — which makes life easy if you plan on viewing your photos or listening to your iTunes music collection on your TV .
What’s Not So Great: Higher cost than other streaming devices, All content must be approved by Apple
The other potential drawback is that since Apple must approve all games, apps, and videos before they make it into iTunes, it will ultimately be up to Apple to decide which content Apple TV users will be able to access. Since most streaming services are available on the platform, this probably shouldn’t be a major factor when trying to determine if Apple TV is right for you, but it’s nonetheless worth noting that you’ll only really have access to content that Apple has approved in one way or another.
Click here to browse Apple TV prices on Amazon
#4 – Google Chromecast
First launching in 2013, the Chromecast line of streaming video players from Google has been a pretty big hit thanks to a highly competitive price and an impressive range of versatility in its abilities to play a wide range of content.
The Chromecast line is very similar to the Fire TV stick and the Roku Streaming stick (both mentioned above) in that it plugs directly into the HDMI port on your TV and then serves up tons of content over your home Wi-Fi connection. The feature that probably sets the Chromecast line apart from the other devices the most is the way in which you interact with the device.
While the Roku and Fire TV devices both come with remote controls, the Chromecast line of devices does not. Instead, Chromecast users will need to interact with the device by downloading a smartphone app which transforms their phone into an interactive remote control. Whether you consider this a benefit or a drawback will probably vary based on how you plan on using the device.
That is, controlling the device from your smartphone might provide an immersive user experience, but the concept doesn’t come without some problems. For example, if you have kids in the house who don’t yet own their own smartphones, you might have to run into the room frequently to change videos for them or, alternatively, relinquish control of your phone to the kids and hope it will be given back to you in one piece. Personally, I wouldn’t be too excited about either of those options, which would make me think twice about snapping up a Chromecast device if I was looking for a family-friendly streaming box.
What’s Great: Low price, Supports more content than many other streaming devices
At just under 38 bucks, the Chromecast is definitely on the competitive end of the pricing spectrum for streaming video devices. Even better, if you don’t mind going the refurbished or used route, you can snap one of these guys up for less than $30.
The other clear benefit of the Chromecast ecosystem is its ability to play content from pretty much anywhere. As the video above shows, you can “cast” basically any web-based video over to your Chromecast device by simply tapping the cast button on your phone. This feature makes it possible to play videos from sources that aren’t supported by many of the other devices on this list — a clear advantage for Chromecast.
What’s Not So Great: Using cell phone as remote could be problematic for some
As mentioned above, the only real downside of the Chromecast is the device’s lack of a real remote control. To be fair, the lack of a remote control is what helps keep the cost so low. Furthermore, it’s difficult to imagine how a non-smartphone remote control would even work on the Chromecast, since the smartphone is where you choose which video to cast over to the device. Nevertheless, because smartphones are tied so tightly to the user experience, the Chromecast will be far less useful for families with kids who don’t own their own smartphones or for anyone else who doesn’t own a smartphone. If either of these sound like you, you may want to consider whether a different device would be a better fit.
If you don’t have young kids, do own a smartphone, and are on a budget, it might be difficult to beat Chromecast’s versatility and overall “bang for buck”. If that sounds like you, click here to browse Chromecast prices on Amazon. (Don’t forget to check out the used and refurbished options!)
#5 – Generic Android Streaming Boxes
Since Android is an open-source operating system, there has been an influx of device manufacturers who have opted to use Android in their own custom streaming boxes. To be fair, using the widely popular system isn’t a bad idea, since many people are already familiar with it and it can be used for free by the device manufactures. However, this has created a situation where hundreds of Android streaming boxes are now available — all with different capabilities and technical specs.
If you search on Amazon for “Android Streaming Box”, you’ll end up with a list of devices ranging from about $16, all the way up to $350. As you might expect from such results, the quality of the devices found in such a wide range of prices is going to vary wildly, which ultimately makes it very difficult to determine the quality of the device unless you’re deeply familiar with what the listed technical specs mean. In fact, even if you are familiar with the more technical aspects of electronic devices, it can still be challenging to know what you’re getting when purchasing one of these devices since they are typically sold by companies that you’ve probably never heard of, which may or may not have any sort of quality assurance, customer support, or return policy.
My personal recommendation would be to steer clear of these generic boxes and opt for a device sold by one of the more well-known companies on this list. Nevertheless, if you still want to see what’s available in this niche, I’d narrow my options to devices with great reviews. This way, you at least have some assurance that the box you’re buying isn’t a complete waste of money.
What’s Great: Low price, Plays a wide range of content
You can find some pretty powerful streaming boxes for not a lot money. The trick, though, is finding a box that is easy on the wallet, but yet actually works well. Make no mistake, it is possible to find such a device, but it may take a little extra effort and research up front.
Besides being (potentially) cost-effective, the other major advantage of the generic Android streaming box is it’s ability to play lots of content. The specs of each box will vary somewhat, so you should double check the file formats that your device is capable of playing before purchase, but for the most part, many of these devices can play pretty much any video format you throw at them.
What’s Not So Great: Questionable quality, Customer support will vary, May be more difficult to setup and operate
Most of the boxes in this category are manufactured by companies with little (or no) name recognition. As mentioned, some of them may have great quality control, while others may ship out items that are dead-on-arrival regularly. Similarly, it’s almost impossible to know what sort of customer support will be available to you if your box malfunctions or stops working entirely.
Finally, while some of the devices may come completely setup, others may require you to install some software, configure device drivers, or perform any number of other software/hardware setup. If you’re looking for a device that’s plug-and-play ready, you’ll definitely want to take a second look at one of the other categories instead of opting for a generic Android box.
If you’re still not deterred, you can browse a selection of Android Streaming boxes here.
#6 – Home Theater PC’s
Home theater PC’s (HTPC’s) are the devices which require the most technical know-how on this list by far. If you’re looking for a device that you can just plug into your TV and then not have to think about anymore, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
On the other hand, if you’re interested in having a full-powered computer capable of playing just about any video — from nearly any source — connected to your TV, then you’ll definitely want to check out home theater PC’s (also called mini-PC’s on some websites).
To get an idea of what these things are all about, take a look at Quantum Byte or the Zotac Zbox system that I’ve personally been using for over 3 years now. Then, check out this review of one of the Zotac Zboxes from Newegg (skip to the end to see the device in action):
What’s Great: Plays nearly any video from just about any source, Can access more content than streaming devices
Since these things are computers, you can hook up USB devices such as Blu-ray/DVD players, load videos onto them from USB thumb drives, connect them to the Internet and download videos from there, or do anything else that you’d normally be able to do on your desktop or laptop. The main difference, of course, is that these little guys are designed to be compact, typically come with HDMI output (for easy hookup to your HD TV), and sport top-notch graphics processing chips — to ensure your videos are played without any hiccups.
The other perk of having a desktop connected to your TV is that it allows you to access content that streaming boxes can’t. For example, streaming boxes can’t access Hulu content unless the user is a subscriber of Hulu Plus. However, Hulu does allow you to access Hulu content from a desktop or laptop computer. Since your home theater PC is a desktop computer, you can watch Hulu content for free on your TV using your HTPC — no Hulu Plus subscription required.
What’s Not So Great: More expensive than a streaming device, Setup could be challenging, User interface can be a hassle
One of the main drawbacks to HTPC’s is there price, especially when compared to some of the cheaper options on this list like the Fire TV stick or Chromecast. Still, for all that these devices are capable of doing, the price tag really isn’t too bad. For example, the box that I’ve been running in my living room for about 3 years now can be found on Amazon for less then $180 and it’s played just about every type of video I’ve thrown at it.
To be fair, though, since it’s a full-blown computer I’ve had to perform regular maintenance on the device (clean-up hard drive space, update software, etc.), which is something that you wouldn’t need to worry about with many of the other options listed here.
The other downside of HTPC’s is that the user interface can be challenging. Since it’s nothing more than a computer connected to your TV, you’ll need to buy a USB remote control (something like this) to control the box from the couch. You’ll also want to consider picking up one of these wireless mini-keyboards, so you can easily navigate to various websites and enter search terms when looking for videos.
#7 – Smart TV’s
Smart TV’s are the easiest way for someone to watch Internet videos on their TV, since the capabilities come built-in. This means that you really just need to take the TV out of the box, select your Netflix or Hulu Plus (or any other supported video service) app and hit “Play”. It really doesn’t get much easier than that.
What’s Great: Seamlessly integrated with your TV
The best thing about Smart TV’s is that they make it very easy to access Internet content from your TV. There aren’t any extra boxes to setup, no separate user interface to learn, and no hassle. If you’re the type of the person who just wants to use one remote control to access all of your content and doesn’t want to spend time setting up or configuring a separate box, you’ll probably find the Smart TV option quite appealing.
What’s Not So Great: Cost, could become outdated quickly, available options will vary from one TV to the next
One of the drawbacks to buying a Smart TV is that the extra “Smart” capabilities tend to drive up the price of these TV’s as compared to others. With that said, Smart TV’s are still pretty affordable. For example, you can pick up this off-brand 32″ for less than $200, which really isn’t too bad when considering that just a few years ago you’d pay twice that amount for an HDTV that didn’t come with any of the smart capabilities.
The real downside of the Smart TV though is that there’s a good chance that the technology will become outdated rather quickly. No matter how great the smart TV features seem today, it’s a pretty safe bet that the hardware (or software) features will be quite outdated in just a few years. When that happens, your options will be to buy yet another new Smart TV or buy an external device (like the ones on this list) to hook up to your TV. In other words, the Smart TV may not be the best long-term solution. Then again, if you’re just looking for a quick-and-easy way to access a few streaming services on your TV, this trade off might be acceptable.
Finally, as with other devices on this list, the features of one TV will not necessary match the features of another. One smart TV might be great at playing Netflix but be unable to play (for example) Amazon Instant Video — or vice-versa. One TV might receive software updates regularly, while another might receive none at all. One TV might have an inuitive user experience that makes perfect sense, while another might be highly confusing and uintuitive. To make sure you get a TV that matches your expectations, I’d suggest paying attention to customer reviews and watching videos about the particular TV set that you’re interested in — like the one above.
Interested in picking up your own Smart TV? Click here to check out the latest sets on Amazon.
#8 – Smart DVD/Blu-Ray Players
Smart Blu-Ray players aim to combine the two most popular ways of obtaining video content: Discs + The Internet. In theory, this is a great idea since it allows you to access a wide range of content all from the same device. You can pause your Blu-Ray, connect to Netflix, or start listening to Pandora from a single remote control. What’s more, these devices have become quite cost effective over the past few years.
For example, I found this Sony Blu-Ray player available for under 80 bucks at the time of writing and this refurbished one available for less than $45. Considering these devices give you access to streaming services AND can play DVD’s/Blu-Ray’s, those prices seem pretty competitive with just about anything else you’re going to find on this list.
What’s Great: Reasonably priced, plays DVD’s/Blu-rays and streaming video all from the same device
As mentioned, you can find these things for under $50 and they can play a wide range of content — including discs!
What’s Not So Great: Not as popular as other options (like Roku, Apple TV, etc.), Experience will vary greatly from one device to another
Smart Blu Ray players have a higher chance of becoming outdated (or obsolete) than some of the other devices made by major players in this area since there are far more choices to choose from. More choices means that there will be less people using each device. Compare this to the small number of Apple TV’s, Fire TV’s, or Roku’s available and it’s easy to see that there will be less people using a particular make and model of smart Blu-Ray player than one of those major devices. If only a handful of people are using a product, it’s less likely that the company who manufactured the product will continue creating updates for that device. All of this, taken together, means that the average Smart Blu Ray player probably has a higher risk of becoming outdated than some of the other options on this list. Then again, I would say the Blu Ray players are more “future proof” than Smart TV’s.
The other thing to keep in mind about Blu-ray players is that the experience and feature set will vary from one device to the next. One might work flawlessly, while another brings nothing but frustration. As mentioned elsewhere, read up on reviews and do your research before making the plunge.
#9 – Gaming Consoles
It may come as a surprise to some of you, but gaming consoles have really turned into “entertainment devices” over the past few years. Instead of simply offering a gaming platform, modern consoles can now connect you to countless online streaming services, play a wide variety of media types, and even access live video — a far cry from the original NES, that’s for sure.
What’s Great: Play video games, Blu-rays*, and stream all from the same device
Probably the best thing about gaming consoles is that they can pretty much do it all. You can play games, watch discs*, and streaming online video from the same device. Combine this with the fact that you’re getting a device that’s hugely popular and backed by some pretty well-known companies** and you can probably stop worrying so much about whether your device will still be receiving updates in a few years or if you’ll receive technical support if something goes wrong.
*Please note that the Wii U cannot play Blu-ray’s or DVD’s.
**As a reminder, I work for Microsoft.
What’s Not So Great: Cost, Bulky compared to tiny streaming stick options
Compared to some of the other options, these devices can seem sort of pricey. For example, Amazon currently has the PS4 listed at $350, the Wii U listed at $297, and the Xbox One priced at $346, which do seem high if compared to the streaming sticks, which can all be had for under 100 bucks. Then again, it’s important to remember that comparing the streaming stick offerings to a full-featured console is really not an apples-to-apples comparison. As described above, consoles can do so much more than simply connect your TV to Netflix or YouTube — they are the most well-rounded devices on this list by far.
The other potential downside of gaming consoles is that they are larger than many of the other options listed here. So, if space comes at a premium in your house– or if you plan on travelling with your streaming device — you may want to keep the size of gaming consoles in mind.
Well, there you have it: Nine of the best ways for you to watch streaming video on your TV.
Did I miss anything or overlook anything important about any of the devices? Let me know in the comments below!
Also, if you’re using any of these devices to stream to your TV, help us out by letting others know what you recommend — your feedback is appreciated!