Content streaming is no longer an up-and-coming technology. I can say confidently that streaming is in full swing and, thankfully, it’s here to stay. While we expect to see greater bandwidth and even more audio and video content in the future, the Internet has become a major medium for watching movies, exploring new TV shows, and listening to our favorite music. These days, streaming devices are more common in home entertainment systems than disc-based devices such as Blu-ray players. If you want to binge-watch a popular TV series, the odds are you will to turn to an Internet-based device to fulfill your entertainment needs.
While looking at the sheer number of streaming devices on the market, it’s easy to get intimidated, or worse, think that all devices are pretty much the same. Choosing the right one may not be as difficult as you think, and if you look beyond the surface, you can discern the differences that make these devices unique. In this overview, we're going to explore a variety of content streamers from popular manufacturers. While they all offer access to the Internet, they each have characteristics that make them worthy additions to your home entertainment system.
At first glance, the Google Chromecast doesn't look like an ordinary streaming device. In fact, its circular design is so discreet you might not notice it at all. Equipped with an HDMI connector, it can connect easily to your high-definition display. The Chromecast is powered by a micro-USB interface, and can also be powered by an available USB port on your television. A power adapter and cable are included. For high-speed Internet access, the Chromecast features dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity. Given its small form factor, it's not equipped with an Ethernet port.
The Chromecast supports video resolutions up to 1080p. Once connected to your display, you can share content via compatible apps from an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet; essentially using your portable device as a content delivery system and remote control. Furthermore, select Android devices can mirror their screens to the Chromecast for displaying on your TV’s larger screen. There’s even an extension available for the Google Chrome Browser that allows you to mirror your Web pages and associated content directly to the Chromecast. This is a great feature for sharing your favorite Internet content with family and friends.
While not all audio and video apps are compatible with the Chromecast, the compatibility list continues to expand. Currently, the Chromecast offers access to popular services such as Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and YouTube.
Roku Streaming Stick (2017 Edition)
Roku is a popular name in the streaming community, and when it comes to content, Roku clearly believes there is strength in numbers. With more than 500 channels to choose from in the Roku library, you’ll likely have a hard time drifting into boredom with one of these devices connected to your TV. That amount of content rivals the offerings of satellite and cable providers. The Roku Streaming Stick (2017 Edition) is similar to the Chromecast in size and connectivity, including dual-band Wi-Fi, allowing you to access both 2.4- and 5GHz wireless networks.
As the Roku Streaming Stick is designed to connect discreetly to your television, it includes an RF remote for controlling the device without requiring a clear line of sight. The remote control also features shortcut buttons, which allow you to access favorite channels, such as Netflix and Hulu. While the Roku doesn’t mirror content in the same way the Chromecast does, you can download the free Roku app for your iOS and Android device. This app allows you to use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control. It even up-scales lower-resolution content to Full HD 1080p; in this regard, it has an edge over the Chromecast, which supports resolutions up to 1080p, but without up-scaling lower-res content.
Roku Ultra Streaming Player (2017 Edition)
With the Roku Ultra Streaming Player you get the same great access to the Roku library that the streaming stick provides. With its larger form factor, the Roku Ultra packs other notable features that make it easier to consume multimedia content. In addition to streaming Internet multimedia, this device features a USB port that supports music, videos, and pictures. It also features an Ethernet port for wired high-speed Internet connections when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
While both the Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick support 720p and 1080p playback, the Roku Ultra can also output 4K resolution on compatible displays. While the Streaming Stick has an integrated HDMI connector, the Roku Ultra requires an HDMI cable, which is sold separately. The remotes that these items include also differ a bit. The Ultra’s remote has a headphone jack for personal listening, which is a great option for not waking your housemates or neighbors. A pair of in-ear headphones is included. At just one inch high and 4.9 inches wide, the Roku features a compact footprint and can be placed alongside your other home entertainment components easily.
Apple TV 4K
When it comes to technological ecosystems, few can match Apple’s impressive integration functionality. Using a compatible Apple device, you can share and mirror your content easily to the Apple TV for displaying on your television’s screen in resolutions up to 4K. While AirPlay mirroring is only available on select devices, the Apple TV also allows you to share content stored on other devices, including Macs. Furthermore, it features iCloud integration, which gives you the ability to access the content you have stored in Apple’s cloud service.
Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity are both included on the Apple TV for high-speed Internet access. And, like the Roku Ultra, the Apple TV enjoys a compact frame, at a mere 4.9 inches, for easy placement.
When it comes to Internet content, Apple TV has lots of it. All the major players are here, via built-in apps, including Netflix and YouTube. You can also access sports content via NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB apps. The entertainment doesn’t stop there—Apple TV also gives you access to the iTunes store. The iTunes store is Apple’s deservedly popular multimedia Internet-based marketplace. From there you can shop a massive library of music, movies, and TV shows to rent or own. Your purchased contently is always readily available for playback.
Choosing the Right Streaming Device
I’m excited to see how far streaming technology has come. While manufacturers continue to push the envelope on resolution and available content, there’s no need to wait to see what’s coming down the pipeline. At B&H, we have a wide selection of streaming devices that are ready for prime time. Whether you want an HDMI dongle device, access to games, or you’re fond of a specific ecosystem, there’s likely a nice product that’s available now that fits your needs—and then some.