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Media streaming devices are simply awesome. Those little boxes that connect to your TV can add a wealth of entertainment options to your living room. The top three choices — the Chromecast, the Apple TV, and the Roku 3 — have been taking over people’s living rooms by storm.

But which device is best for you? We take a look at these top three contenders to see which one you should get.

Chromecast

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The Chromecast is the newest offering out of these three, released by Google in late July 2013. It’s a little dongle that can output to a TV via its HDMI connector, and is powered by a USB-to-micro-USB cable. You connect it to your home’s Wi-Fi network and use supported apps to stream content to your television.

Currently, iOS devices, Android devices, Windows PCs, and Macs are supported, and you actually need to have one of these so that you can actually stream content to it; the Chromecast won’t work without a secondary device to supply the streaming content. Although it’s a relatively new device that doesn’t offer quite as many services (which I’ll discuss below), that hasn’t stopped consumers from grabbing “millions” of them, according to Google. And who can blame them? Chromecasts are sold for just $35 in the US, which makes them the cheapest option.

They’re available from sources like Amazon and Google Play, so they should be available in the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The price may be a bit higher than it is in the U.S. due to currency exchange rates, but the Chromecast is still a generally much cheaper option than an Apple TV or Roku. Several months ago, we reviewed the Chromecast Google Chromecast Review and Giveaway Google Chromecast Review and Giveaway We're giving away a Google Chromecast, so read through our review, then join the competition to win! Read More to check it out, which I recommend that you read.

The device is extremely easy to set up as one end is an HDMI connector, so all you have to do is plug it into your TV. The mini-USB port can be plugged into any USB power supply or into the TV itself if it has a USB port. This power source is necessary because HDMI doesn’t supply any power with its video and audio signals (unless you have an MHL-compliant TV). Afterwards, follow the instructions provided to connected to your WiFi network, and you’ll be able to stream any Chromecast-supported service.

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The number of apps and services that can take advantage of the Chromecast is growing, but is still relatively low. Any Google media app such as Google Play Music, YouTube, etc., and a few other third-party apps such as Hulu, HBO Go, Red Bull TV, Pandora, VEVO, and Songza can stream content to the Chromecast. There’s also an extension for Chrome on your computer where you can mirror any Chrome tab to the Chromecast, but my own testing has found that this drastically slows down your computer’s performance, and the video output on your TV screen isn’t exactly buttery smooth either.

Of course, the Chromecast supports up to 1080p resolution. It only supports the HDMI output as there are literally no other connections — no, you can’t use the micro-USB port as an output. You won’t have to worry about formats, because as long as you’re able to play it in the supported apps (and thereby be able to stream it), then you’re good to go.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Chromecast is highly oriented towards online content. If you have any local media that you’d like to play, you’re out of luck. The only “local” playback is playing music strong your smartphone through Play Music. Otherwise, you must own an Internet-connected supported device to use the Chromecast.

Chromecasts are great for people who want to spend the least amount of money, and don’t mind simply streaming media from another device to the Chromecast. I think people who are invested in the Google ecosystem will enjoy it the most, although it’s easy for anyone to use. Again, like I mentioned above, the Chromecast acts more like a receiver rather than a complete media system, which is an important distinction to note while shopping around.

Apple TV

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The Apple TV comes in at the other end of the spectrum — it’s been around the longest, and it’s a full-fledged media system that can download content on its own. First released in 2007, it’s still going strong after two refreshes to the device. It offers a decent array of different supported services: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, NBA, HBO Go, The Weather Channel, Disney, ABC, MLB, Sky News, ESPN, iTunes, and much more. An updated list can always be found here. If you have other Apple products, you can also use AirPlay to stream from those devices to your Apple TV seamlessly.

You can buy an Apple TV from Amazon or Apple for $99, which isn’t too bad, but it ties with the Roku 3 as the most expensive option.

Setting up the Apple TV is very simple — just follow the on-screen instructions. You won’t even need to use a computer and a web browser like you do with the Chromecast. The only requirement is that you need an Apple ID to use it, but the Roku also requires you to register for an account.

Aside from streaming media from online sources, it can also play locally-stored, iTunes-compatible content. You can sync the Apple TV with another computer that runs iTunes, or access an iTunes library via Wi-Fi while that computer is turned on. The downside is having to use iTunes, whether it be syncing or remote access. That’s not a problem if you already use that software, but not everyone does.

The Apple TV supports up to 1080p resolution when playing H.264-encoded videos; MPEG-4 videos in 480p resolution, and M-JPEG videos in 720p resolution. For all other formats, you should be able to play it on the Apple TV so long as you’re able to play it in iTunes on a computer.

The only video output for the Apple TV is via HDMI, but it also offers optical out for audio. There’s also an Ethernet port in addition to Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth support for an Apple wireless keyboard.

Generally speaking, the Apple TV is a good device to get if you’re heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem and use numerous products from them as you’ll greatly benefit from AirPlay. Besides this, however, the Apple TV doesn’t have very much to offer besides a decent selection of supported online services — it’s alright, but not great.

As Simon pointed out, however, the Apple TV is a little overpriced if you use it just for the AirPlay feature. Instead, there are four other AirPlay receivers that are cheaper 4 AirPlay Receivers That Are Cheaper Than Apple TV 4 AirPlay Receivers That Are Cheaper Than Apple TV Built as a veritable entertainment box, the Apple TV isn't cheap. It's tempting to look for alternatives - AirPlay receivers that are cheaper than the Apple TV. We've laid out four options. Read More .

Roku 3

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The Roku is the last (but not least) of the three major media streaming devices. First released sometime before 2010, it markets itself as a direct competitor to the Apple TV, as most of the features are honestly very similar. It also has a great variety of supported services, but the underlying technology and interface is completely different.

You can get the latest and greatest, the Roku 3, for $99 from Amazon or Roku itself, but they also offer previous models at lower prices. We reviewed the Roku 3 several months back Roku 3 Review and Giveaway Roku 3 Review and Giveaway As more content becomes available online, the need for a traditional television subscription may not be enough anymore to justify the costs. If you’re already subscribed to services like Netflix or Hulu Plus, now may... Read More , which you should definitely read to find out more.

Similar to the Apple TV, the Roku is set up by connecting it to the TV and following the on-screen instructions. You’ll also need to create a Roku account in order to use the device. However, once that’s all done, you’re ready to go!

The Roku offers a massive amount of support services, which it calls “Channels.” The list includes all of the services that the Chromecast and Apple TV support, and then a whole lot more. When we reviewed it, YouTube was missing from the list but I’m happy to report that Roku has since added support for YouTube. It even has games!

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You can also play content locally, as well as stream compatible media from a NAS server. This is something that the Chromecast or Apple TV cannot accomplish.

Since the Roku 2, there’s a handy feature that lets you listen to the audio via a headphone jack located in the remote. The Roku 3 also had exceptional performance for its small size.

The Roku 3 can support 1080p and 720p resolutions over its HDMI port. Supported formats include MP4 (H.264), MKV (H.264), AAC, MP3, JPG, and PNG. Audio also goes over HDMI, and there’s no alternate connection available. If you need support for older TVs, you may need to look at the Roku 1 or 2 which offer older connection ports. It also has an Ethernet port in addition to Wi-Fi, and it also boasts a microSD slot to expand its storage capacity.

The Roku is for people who want the most out of their media streaming device, simply because it offers so many channels. Plus, not only is it great at online streaming, but it’s also effective when it comes to local streaming. People looking to purchase a Roku also shouldn’t mind spending more than the Chromecast to get all of these features, and don’t need the benefits of AirPlay. If you need more convincing, Matt wrote an opinion article over why you need a Roku 6 Reasons Why You Need A Roku [Opinion] 6 Reasons Why You Need A Roku [Opinion] Electronics can be evil. A short time ago I wrote an article about using the Xbox 360 as a media center. I concluded that it wasn’t the best choice. Sensing my betrayal, the 360 promptly... Read More .

Conclusion

Tough call, isn’t it? Hopefully this rundown has provided you with a side-by-side comparison between the different devices so you to make a decision more easily. If you’re still not sure, I’d recommend the following:

  • If you want to spend a little more money for more features, get the Roku 3. It’s generally speaking the much better media streaming device out of these three.
  • If you want to spend the least amount of money, get the Chromecast. Alternatively, you can also check out the Roku 1 or Roku 2.
  • If you live deep in the Apple ecosystem, consider the Apple TV. However, also consider the Roku 3 as it has far more features (excluding AirPlay) for the same price.
  • If you have a TV that doesn’t support HDMI, look at the Roku 1 or Roku 2.

Which media streaming device do you like the most? What feature do you like most about it? Let us know in the comments!

Image Credit: DeclanTM

  1. Benny
    April 15, 2014 at 10:08 pm

    I think there are more options out there beside Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire, and Google chromecast, when it comes to home entertainment. For instance, I know one brand that makes awesome smart tv box that offers what all 4 being compared here can do and going beyond. It has the same price point of $99 or can go even less. It has the capability to browse web, streaming video, music, and video chat with distance family or friends in the comfort of your living room. It has the capability to let you expand the storage space by connecting to an external hard drive or via Micro SD card or hooking up any wireless remote, keyboard, mouse, or web cam via USB ports.

    Here is Sungale’s Smart TV Box product comparable link with Roku, Apply TV, Google Chromecast, and Amazon’s latest releases Fire TV box: http://cloudtvbox.com/en/index.php

  2. Steve
    April 2, 2014 at 1:17 pm

    I simply use a HDMI cable from my desktop computer to my TV, then set my computer display to mirror both the TV and computer monitor. I can watch anything on TV that I can stream on my computer. Seems a lot cheaper and simpler, but maybe I'm missing something.

  3. Harold C
    April 2, 2014 at 3:54 am

    it roku all the way

  4. Howard B
    April 1, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Just ordered a Roku 3 (used) last week, received a Roku XD/S instead (asked for a partial refund). Going to use Plex Server + RARflix to stream local content to it; disappointed that only the Roku 3 supports YouTube, as of now.

  5. terry
    April 1, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    From someone who has all three streaming media solutions mentioned, this article totally nails it. Prefect descriptions of benefits and shortcoming of all three.

  6. Azg
    April 1, 2014 at 5:29 pm

    I have managed to cast photos music and videos that are stored on my HTC One Mini to my TV using my Chromecast and Bubble Upnp. It will also easily cast local content from laptop.mI am struggling with content stored on my ipad though

  7. Nelson
    April 1, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    One of the biggest omission in Chromecast applications (as stated before) is PLEX. And this is more than I can ask. I have actually more than 5000 music albums, 800 movies and 90 tv series with all their seasons on my NAS and I access everything from my PLEX app on my android phone. I almost never use Chromecast for online content except for a Youtube video from time to time. And for those who would argue that you need a PLEX Pass subscription, that it isn't true anymore. You can cast anything with a free PLEX account. So, maybe the "... Chromecast is highly oriented towards online content. If you have any local media that you’d like to play, you’re out of luck ..." part of the article isn't really accurate.

  8. Ryan
    April 1, 2014 at 3:32 am

    Apple TV can play downloaded content very easily. Simply load iTunes on your PC or Mac and place your downloaded mp4s in the video folder. Then your Apple TV can see the files and play them very easily over wireless. Ver simple

    • likefunbutnot
      April 1, 2014 at 2:01 pm

      In what world do you live that all your video content is .MP4? Yes, re-encoding is relatively straightforward, but I'd rather use a non-broken device that directly supports my video collection regardless of its container format.

      .MP4 has serious limitations in terms of audio support (e.g. no support for DTS data streams) and subtitles. It's not precisely a bad format, but it's not container I prefer and I see no reason to recommend a device that doesn't want to work with anything else.

    • Ryan
      April 1, 2014 at 2:14 pm

      Except for Subtitled movies, MP4's play best on all my devices, PS3, AppleTV, Roku, and XBOX 360. Other file formats, avi's, mkv's etc. always have more limitations on all these devices. I'm not saying AppleTV is the best device( I have a Roku as well) but the most popular torrents are usually MP4's so simply downloading these files then uploading them to ITunes is a very easy solution. I have a harder time getting my ROKU to play files with PlayOn over wireless then I do with my AppleTV and ITunes.

      I completely agree with you that I prefer Roku's openness to work with other file formats and hate Apple's mentality to lock down their device solutions. But if I had to recommend to a newbie how to stream downloaded content over wireless to a device, I would recommend AppleTV.

  9. willzd
    March 31, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    I have a Roku 3 and the PlayOn premium service from PlayOn.tv. You don't necessarily need the Roku to stream from PlayOn, but Roku has a channel for PlayOn that allows you to stream to your HDTV. You will need to setup the PlayOn streaming service on a PC on your home network. Please note that there are IOS and android apps that allow you to stream PlayOn to these mobile devices too. You can also configure PlayOn to stream to these devices over the Internet when you are away from home. Roku and PlayOn is marriage made in heaven, it easily doubles the content available to the Roku.

  10. -- DSW
    March 31, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    WDTV for me (and chromecast on occasion). Easiest for playing local content.

  11. AC
    March 31, 2014 at 7:58 pm

    WDTV wasn't even mentioned? Funny.

    • likefunbutnot
      April 1, 2014 at 12:17 am

      The WDTV largely fails at streaming anything other than Netflix and Youtube, but does reasonably well for dealing with local content. It's kind of the polar opposite of the Roku. The interface is clunky and slow-ish and it just doesn't work with enough internet services to be taken seriously as a set top box.

  12. likefunbutnot
    March 31, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    None of the above is actually particularly good at dealing with local media content. Roku did recently add support for Youtube, something it was missing for AGES and my biggest single beef with the platform, but all of the above devices have pretty serious limitations for playback of files already in your home, mostly in the form of unsupported codecs or even resolution restrictions.

    Personally, I have a Pivos STB that runs the Linux version of XBMC for fully-functional audio support and a navigation system that meshes well with my needs. All of the above devices can run a Plex client, which helps if you have a Plex Media Server someplace, but that's not always a good answer either, especially if you're trying to use some kind of NAS box with an ARM CPU as your server; they typically don't have the horsepower to handle on the fly transcoding.

    I don't really care for the Roku's control scheme or interface. I can run an XBMC or Plex remote control on a phone or tablet for things that, or send content to an AppleTV from an iFruit or to a Chromecast from anything that can run Chrome. The Roku is slow and clunky in comparison, though the Roku 3 is much less so than its predecessors. It's probably the best of the options suggested here, but none of these boxes are all that exciting.

    The AppleTV is handy if you already live in the the world of Fruits, but absent Plex support I think it's almost entirely unacceptable. Apple just has too many content and format limitations for me to take it seriously. Someone who is already using other Apple hardware will probably appreciate having an Airplay target, but Apple largely closes off methods of accessing content from non-Apple sources other than streaming and life's too short to deal with those kinds of issues.

    The Chromecast is cheap and is a decent Netflix/Youtube/Plex client, which is probably everything most most people would want in a streaming client, but crummy audio codec support make it sub-optimal in my opinion. I actually think they should be cheaper for what they are because they're so limited in terms of the services they can access.

    For the most part, I don't think anyone is making a truly compelling smart TV or set top box right now.

  13. Judge
    March 31, 2014 at 7:16 pm

    About time my WDTV has been doing this for years. Have not had a format yet that it can't play

  14. Judge
    March 31, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Hmm Roku still only does AVI.......I'll pass. Have you heard of MP4 and MKV Roku

    • Hito_kun
      March 31, 2014 at 7:02 pm

      The article clearly states that Roku 3 can play H.264 MP4 and MKV

  15. Leong
    March 31, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    +1 for WDTV.

    I have a Synology (media center is too OTT for me) so the WDTV works out great. Also have a Chromecast - nice, but will be better when potential is reached.

  16. jamieg
    March 31, 2014 at 5:52 pm

    Chromecast can defintely play music/video from local and NAS. One thing to point out for hometheater setups, CC does not handle DTS or Dolby Digital surround sound. This is why I just picked up a Roku3.

    • Heyitsrick
      April 1, 2014 at 2:45 am

      I believe if the Chromecast is directly connected to a Dolby/DTS receiver/home theater, it can handle those formats.

  17. Maarten D
    March 31, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    Top bad the roku HDMI stick isn't included in the article. Nice article though, andere very handy!

    • mic hall
      April 1, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      The stick is a major let down over the 3.

  18. donkeyrock
    March 31, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    WD TV Live Media Player is what I've been using for years.

  19. Reuben
    March 31, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    What do you guys mean by "In case you haven’t noticed, the Chromecast is highly oriented towards online content. If you have any local media that you’d like to play, you’re out of luck. The only “local” playback is playing music strong your smartphone through Play Music. Otherwise, you must own an Internet-connected supported device to use the Chromecast." What about using Plex or AVIA or the chrome browser as a media player before both those apps got approved?

    • Chahk Noir
      April 1, 2014 at 1:37 pm

      This. Plex Server running on a NAS, combined with corresponding apps, solves the "local playback" problem for both Chromecast and Apple TV for the most part. There might be some hoops to jump if your NAS isn't powerful enough to do on-the-fly transcoding, but it's a small price to pay.

    • Danny S
      April 1, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      Ah, you're right. I definitely could have added Plex. I haven't been able to really use my Chromecast for quite a while, so it didn't come to mind.

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