Devices that stream media to TVs
Netflix videos look fine on a computer. But there’s a way to bring them onto a TV and enjoy the comfort of the bigger screen.
About one in five U.S. households with Internet access have turned to an Apple TV, Roku, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV or some other device to run Netflix and many more apps on their TV. The streaming media devices, which connect to a TV via HDMI cable, link televisions to the Internet.
Roku is the most popular option, excluding gaming consoles, according to research firm Parks Associates. But each device has its own quirks.
Google Chromecast: $35
Usability grade: B
This tiny stick is the cheapest way to broadcast websites and more than 1,000 popular apps on a TV screen.
In addition, the device lets users easily beam video, pictures and music from their smartphones, tablets or laptops onto their TV. An app can turn the TV into a digital photo frame. Unlike rivals, Chromecast mostly works off apps already on your devices, so there’s no re-downloading them and having to log in again.
The new, second-generation Chromecast provides a fast Wi-Fi connection to reduce buffering. Customer service by phone is available, but customers are advised to visit an online message board first. A box version, the Nexus Player, costs $99 and has a better hardware designed for playing games.
Roku 3: $99
Functioning like a set-top cable/satellite box, the device plugs into a TV’s HDMI port and runs apps that show videos, games and other online content. Roku touts the most content options with access to Hulu, Netflix and more than 1,000 apps. It also offers niche channels, including one dedicated to videos of European travel. The remote control has a headphone jack to listen without disturbing others. Roku offers 24/7 customer service. A downside: inconsistent video quality.
Amazon Fire TV: $99
The Fire TV supports viewing videos streamed in 4K, the next-generation high-definition quality standard. It also comes with a remote, which supports voice-based searches and interacting with a voice-synthesized virtual assistant named Alexa.
The device has a parental control setting. A game controller, for an extra $40, makes it easier to play games, though the remote can suffice. Amazon Prime subscribers have quick access to Amazon’s video library. Support is 24/7, and available by video chat.
A smaller, Wi-Fi only version is available with voice-search-enabled remote for $50. But it stores fewer apps and operates slower.
Apple TV: $149
The revamped Apple TV is a big upgrade. The remote can handle voice queries through Siri, the virtual assistant familiar to iPhone users. The volume controls on the remote will save users from searching for their TV remotes.
The on-screen experience is sleeker than ever. A small app library has hampered the Apple TV, but that’s likely to change in the coming months now that appmakers have a streamlined process to develop for the box. Personal iTunes music and video libraries are accessible in high quality.
There’s also a big emphasis on games, which might end up looking better on Apple TV than Fire TV because of technology differences and Apple’s deep relationships with gamemakers.
WD TV Media Player: $99
Usability grade: C
From Irvine-based Western Digital Corp., the box can connect to computer hard drives via a network or directly, making it ideal for users with large music and video collections in various file types. Whether the content is downloaded illegally through Torrent sites or saved from an old camcorder, the WD TV manages to play just about anything. Apps are limited to the most popular, including Netflix, Facebook, Spotify, SiriusXM, YouTube, Pandora and Sudoku.
Microsoft Xbox One: $499
Usability grade: B
For non-gamers, the voice command feature could partly justify the Xbox One’s high cost. Users can start the gaming console and watch a show or listen to a song without lifting a finger.
Users can also simultaneously search multiple apps for a movie or music including apps that haven’t been downloaded yet. The controller is easy to use and two apps can be displayed — you can watch a TV show on Hulu and a baseball game on MLB.TV at the same time. It has a limited app selection but is the only device with Skype.
Sony PlayStation 4: $399
Usability grade: C
Another box designed for gaming, this one’s starting to pick up as many entertainment options as the Xbox. Chief among them PlayStation Vue, a subscription service that includes live access to AMC, NBC, CBS, Showtime and dozens of other channels.
Voice search requires wearing a headset or the $43 PlayStation Camera. The game controller is more complicated than the Xbox’s. An Internet browser is helpful for viewing a website on a TV, but app selection is limited.
The original version of this chart was published Aug. 15, 2014.
Credits: Photos: Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times