Which New Media Player is Best for Streaming Movies, TV, and Music?
This fall has been exciting for streaming media as the top media players—Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku 4, and Chromecast all have new models. I wish I could tell you which model to buy. The hardware on these devices has been improved and mere specs won’t really help make your choice. To this list of the top four media streamers, I add the Nvidia Shield, because, well, you need an Android TV streaming device too. All of these devices are easy to use with the Roku 4 and Fire TV having the simplest menus.
Amazon Fire TV ($99)
The second generation Amazon Fire TV is continues to be a top pick for streaming devices. It continues to be easy to use and streams beautiful quality.
Buy this media player if you are:
- Amazon Prime Member—the best way to get access to all free and paid Amazon streaming media. and/or
- 4k (UHD) TV owners — 2015 (and later) models required as there must be an HDCP 2.2 connection on the TV
- A movie nut that always wants to know who actors are, trivia about the movie and more.
- A gamer that likes to play mobile games on the big screen ($139 for Gaming edition)
- Alexa— Working in conjunction with the Alexa Amazon Echo app, this voice command feature can add to or edit items on a shopping list, get information and pictures on subjects from online searches, play music, display weather, and will probably grow rapidly with more abilities. It is NOT always on like it is on the Amazon Echo, rather it is activated by pressing the microphone on the remote control.
- X-ray— Amazon owns the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), and has integrated information into movie viewing. Press the down button on the remote and the list of actors from that scene appears. It will also show trivia about the scene, and identify a song that is playing (and the album with the song). This has been a time saver for me as I don’t have to search the whole cast list from the movie when I want to immediately figure out an actor’s name (and what other movies they have been in).
- Free Amazon Prime content—I have Amazon Prime because I live far from a big city and it’s just easier to shop with free shipping but there is a lot of movies, tv shows and music that’s free and easy to play on the Fire TV.
- Stream or Mirror from mobile devices—has Miracast built-in to stream from Android phones and tablets, and Kindle Fire, and apps that work with Airplay and iPhones, iPads (doesn’t work as well as Apple TV though).
- Voice search results favor Amazon—when searching for movies or TV shows, the results will consistently point to where the title is available from Amazon, but often miss that it’s also on Hulu, HBO Go, Netflix or other streaming apps.
- Has carousel menus that hide titles and app icons— The home screen menu and movie titles are displayed in rows—recommended titles, genres like comedies, new titles, etc.—so the only way to see more is to scroll horizontally. Once you get to the end of the row, you have to go back a screen as it doesn’t loop to the beginning. This means only a few titles can be seen at one time. I prefer a grid menu.
Roku has always been the media player that I recommend for those who are confused by technology or for those who have family members that are technologically challenged. The Roku 4 is the cream of the crop and a must if you have a new 4K UHD TV.
Buy this player if:
- you have family members that are challenged by streaming technology menus
- 4K UHD TV (after 2015)
- 4K Rentals— through the integrated M-Go streaming service, more titles are available to rent for about $6. Amazon offers a number of UHD titles, but all are only available for sale (at a whopping $26!)
- 4K recommendations—This is a list of the newest 4K content as it becomes available, making it easy to find titles that take advantage of your UHD TV investment.
- Follow—If there’s a movie you are waiting to see when it streams (missed in the movie theater or want to see again), you can follow the title or follow an actor. When the movie becomes available on a streaming service, it will appear under your Follow menu. It’s a great way to be notified when new TV episodes are ready to stream.
- Better search results— Because Roku has no retail ties, the search results for where to stream titles is agnostic, showing where you can see a movie or TV show on subscription services as well as where you can rent or buy them (with the prices).
- Headphone jack on the remote— The remote control includes a 3.5mm headphone jack so you can listen to the TV in bed and not disturb others in the room.
- Remote control has difficulty with voice search—the Roku remote can search by pressing the search button and telling it the title you want. However, it never understood me and gave me really odd results. The Roku app can also do voice search and the results were usually accurate.
- Might not have enough advanced features to justify buying the Roku 4—The search and follow features are part of the Roku OS (operating system) upgrade. If you don’t have a 4K TV, the Roku 3 might be a fine choice for less money.
Apple TV (4th Generation) ($149 – 32GB, $199 – 64 GB)
The newest Apple TV has finally got it right. It can download apps from an app store—more than just streaming, also QVC shopping, weather, games—that were always better suited for a big screen. The apps have been improved and work as well as they do on iPads and iPhones. While it doesn’t have 4K, the picture quality is amazing.
Buy this player if:
- You own apple products—iPhone, iPad, Mac Computer
- You own a newer iMac or Macbook
- You use iTunes and have a lot of movies and/or music in iTunes
- You take photos with an iPhone or iPad and want to easily see them on TV
- Siri done right—Siri can launch apps, fast forward or rewind a specified amount of time (“rewind 3 minutes” or “fast forward 30 seconds”), and finds movie titles and specific TV episodes including using common language (“find the newest episode of Scandal.)
- Variety of quality apps
- Shop directly from the Apple TV—using the Gilt or QVC apps
- Play popular video games—that you like from your iPhone
- Use Airplay to make your TV your Mac monitor—add a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and make your TV your computer with the click of the Airplay icon. Click again and it’s back on your computer monitor
- Stream apps or videos from iPad/iPhone to the Apple TV (or mirror the device)
- Photos taken on iPhone or iPad are available immediately on the Apple TV
- Apple Music is the worst streaming app ever—and there are no other music services available.
- No 4k available— If you have a UHD TV and you really want 4k streaming content, the Apple TV isn’t it.
- The iPhone Remote app doesn’t control it
- Remote touchscreen control can be tricky to use
Chromecast — 2nd generation
The new dongle is a disc shape, but otherwise it works much the same as the first model. It’s a little more reliable, easier to take with you on the road, and its content comes from your phone or tablet through the Chromecast app.
Buy this player if:
- You want to take the media player with you when traveling or visiting friends
- You have friends or multiple family members that want to send videos to the TV
- Continue play between devices—Start the video on your phone or tablet (or Chrome browser on your computer) and continue watching on TV or
- Start watching on TV and take it with you by picking up where you left off on your phone.
- Not mirroring from phone so picture quality is better but can control it with your phone (always have the remote with you)
- Many music apps available
- Only Chromcast enabled apps—Limited to the apps that are compatible with Chromecast
- Still limited number of photo apps supported
- Slight latency playing games
Nvidia Shield ($199)
The company known for its computer video cards that make PC games run beautifully, has created one of the first Android TV devices. Built to be a gaming device, the NVIDIA SHIELD – still holds its own with streaming media.
- Buy this player if:
- You are a gamer that wants to play games on your streamer
- You have a 4k TV
- You have a number of Android devices
- Good movie and TV search results include Hulu and Sling TV as well as Google Play store including contextual search (e.g., “movies about Las Vegas.”)
- Best for playing mobile games
- Video recommendations from many apps appear together based on what I’ve been watching
- Google Cast —can be used with any apps that stream to Chromecast
- No Amazon Instant Video or Vudu apps
- Fewer apps across the board
- Menus not as straightforward as other streamers
- Updates have worked inconsistently—some updates have taken a couple of tries