Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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, 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.
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.
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. Check out our list of essential private Roku channels.
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.
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.
In the near future, you may also want to check out the growing number of excellent Android TV boxes, which are poised to stake their claim in the digital media player market.
Image Credit: DeclanTM