It’s summer time, the season of reruns, and thoughts turn to watching movies and catching up on missed TV shows.
The best way to watch video streamed over the Internet remains streaming media players. Although there are lots of different choices for such gadgets, the best ones are devices from four major players: Apple, Google, Amazon and Roku. The best choice for you will depend on what devices you already own, what you want to do and how much you want to spend. Here’s a look at your options:
• Apple TV: Apple TV is one of the easiest devices to use and, in some ways, the most capable. It is also the best device to choose if you already own an iPhone or iPad or have a significant number of movies or songs on iTunes on your computer.
Apple recently added a slew of new channels that has boosted Apple TV’s total to more than 40. That’s a small fraction of the applications or channels you’ll find on Roku’s boxes. But Apple is able to supplement that total with AirPlay, a feature that allows users to beam videos, music, Web content, games and more from iPhones, iPads and computers to Apple TV. Thanks to AirPlay, you can watch movies from Amazon or listen to music from Spotify even though neither has an Apple TV app.
But at $100, Apple TV is one of the pricier options. It’s also the least customizable, providing users neither an app store nor the ability to delete or sort apps. And it lacks a universal search feature that would allow users to comb across apps for particular movies.
• Roku Streaming Stick: Unlike the other major players, Roku offers a full line of devices, ranging from its $50 entry-level Roku LT to its $100 top-of-the-line Roku 3. My favorite is not a box at all, but Roku’s Streaming Stick, which is a bargain at $50.
The Streaming Stick is about the same size of a USB flash drive. It plugs directly into an HDMI port on the back of your TV and gets power either from a USB port on your TV or a power outlet. As such, it’s hidden away, making it perfect for newer wall-mounted TVs.
Roku’s biggest advantage has been its vast selection of channels; at last count, the company offered well over 1,500. Roku even added YouTube earlier this year, which was long been one of its few glaring holes.
Unlike Apple TV, the Streaming Stick has a “universal” search feature. It doesn’t comb all of Roku’s channels, but it does allow users to search for movies across Amazon, Netflix and Vudu.
But if you have purchased movies from iTunes, the Streaming Stick isn’t the device for you, because you can’t stream them to the device, either from your computer or from Apple. While you can stream other content to the Streaming Stick from your computer, it can be difficult to set up.
And if you want to play games on your streaming media player, you’ll need to find another device. The game selection for the Streaming Stick is slim and its remote control isn’t designed to be used as a game controller.
• Amazon Fire TV: The newcomer on the streaming media scene, Fire TV is a great device if you are a big customer of Amazon’s media services or own one of its new Kindle Fire HDX tablets. The box is tied closely to Amazon’s video offerings, including its Prime subscription service. Via a new update, the box also will get access to Amazon’s digital music service. And the Fire TV has a feature much like AirPlay that allows users to beam video from their Kindle tablets to their televisions.
The Fire TV is also a good choice if you want to play games. Amazon offers a game controller and features some 272 games in its app store, including popular ones such as “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.”
One of the unique features of Fire TV is its voice search. Press and hold a button on its remote control, and you can dictate the name of an actor or movie, rather than having to type it using an on-screen keyboard. Right now, Amazon’s search only looks at the company’s own offerings and music videos from Vevo, but an update expected later this summer will give it the ability to comb through movies and videos from HBO, Hulu Plus, Crackle, Netflix and Showtime Anytime at the same time.
But at $100, Fire TV is one of the pricier options, made even more so if you also buy the $40 game controller. And outside of games, the Fire TV’s channel choices are almost as slim as those for Apple TV. Unlike on Roku, you won’t find apps to access Spotify, Facebook or Vudu.
• Google Chromecast: Chromecast is the least expensive option and is about as small as the Streaming Stick. Unlike the other gadgets, it lacks both a user interface and a remote control. Instead, you use it by beaming video and music or Web content from smartphone or tablet apps or a Chrome browser on a PC.
This approach makes the Chromecast a fairly easy device to set up and use. But it also limits the amount of content Chromecast users can access. Although the number of apps that can stream content to the device has increased greatly in the past year, it still lacks access to many popular apps and services, including Spotify and Amazon.
Users might soon be able to get around that with a new feature that will allow them to mirror whatever is on their smartphone screen on their TVs, but that feature will only work with a handful of Android phones.