In the battle of streaming devices, the viewer wins

Through various deals I couldn’t refuse, I’ve ended up with three different streaming media players. A family member asked me to choose the “best one” and, honestly, I can’t really say for certain, but I’m leaning toward the Roku system. They all have pluses and minuses and it really comes down to what ecosystem you prefer to be in.

apple tvFirst, let me point out the one major player I don’t own is Apple TV, although I’ve been around when family members have used it. If you want something simple that you can hook up to a TV to sling the content from your iPhone or iPad to the big screen, it seems like a slick system. And, since Apple doesn’t play all that well with Google or Amazon, it may be your best choice for an iHousehold, although it is by far the most expensive option at around $100.

Second, let me note that I am probably biased in my criticism because as I mentioned, I landed all three devices with good deals that cut my final cost down. Certainly, if you pay the full price for anything you’re going to be a little more harsh in your analysis than if you find it at a great discount.

Now, for the reviews:

Roku LT ~ $55

Roku LTI’ve owned and used this Roku for several years now. It was the first streaming device I purchased and I’ve been happy with it since day one. It was the entry-level box but I’ve never found a reason to upgrade. It does what I want and the number of “channels” available is constantly increasing. I use it for a variety of streaming options, including: Amazon Prime Instant Video, Amazon Prime Music, Pandora, PBS, NASA TV, Google Play Movies and, finally HBO GO. (I say finally because for a long time, Comcast had its customer service head buried in the sand and wouldn’t let its paying subscribers use HBO GO.) There is now a stick version available and there are fancier models that do more, but for basic connect and go usability at a reasonable cost you can’t beat the Roku LT.

Google Chromecast ~ $35

Google ChromecastI purchased the Chromecast when I found it on sale, and recently bought a second one when I was able to get it for a significantly reduced price during a holiday promotion. Set up is reasonably simple, although it seems to be a little wonkier in finding and maintaining a wi-fi signal than the Roku. I use it for slinging stuff wirelessly from my phone and Chromebook up to the TV screen. That “stuff” generally involves HBO GO, Google Play Music, Google Play Movies, YouTube and Google+ Photos. The ability to cast my Android phone’s screen up to a TV is a huge plus, as well. (That will come in handy when I want to screencast my Google Glass to my phone and then cast my phone screen to a larger monitor when doing demonstrations.) I also have found the screensaver you can post to your TV via the Chromecast when not streaming something is great.

Amazon fireTV Stick ~ $39

fireTV stickI wrote a blog post about the fireTV stick when I first bought it so you can read more details there. I’ve used it a lot for Amazon Prime Video and a weather app. We’ve used it to view pictures and it will even play some games that you can download. I suspect I would use if more if it was on our main TV in the house and not a secondary one. But it’s very handy having it in the family room where the workout bike sits. It seems to hold a wi-fi signal very well, although in all fairness to the Chromecast, the fireTV stick resides a lot closer to the router than the Google CC does. If you’re not an Amazon Prime subscriber, however, I see no point in owning this device. The majority of benefits come from its ability to stream Prime movies and music.

My Recommendations

As I wrote early on in this post, what ecosystem you live in is probably going to be the best determiner for you when considering whether to go with Amazon or Google for your streaming sticks. If you dabble in all of them, I’d recommend a Roku device. You can access nearly everything that the Amazon and Google sticks can — and certainly the bulk of what you would want to stream in terms of videos and music. (I will give the nod to the Google CC if you have all-access music on Google Play. Casting that to an Amazon stick isn’t possible and on Roku it requires a third-party app that isn’t great.)

If you’re heavily invested in the walled Apple garden, of course, then you’ll probably want to take a closer look at Apple TV. But for the rest of us “free-range streamers,” start with the Roku, then add a Google Chromecast or an Amazon fireTV stick depending on whether you’re a more frequent visitor to the Google or Amazon universe. I’d argue that with the costs ranging from only $35 to $55 — if you pay full price — you can’t really go all that wrong with any of them.

Or be like me — buy all three and establish a beachhead for the day when you finally convince your spouse you don’t need to pay for 500 cable channels when we only watch half a dozen of them. I’ve heard HBO is looking at offering a standalone subscription service, which means my wife and I could catch Game of Thrones without paying a monthly cable bill. I can’t wait…

winter comcast meme

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Set your TV on Fire with Amazon’s new stick

Amazon FireTV Stick boxI pre-ordered the new Amazon fireTV stick when it first became available and it arrived about two weeks ahead of schedule. I took the opportunity to use my Google Glass to produce an unboxing, setup and operational overview video. It’s presented here in three parts so people can choose to watch only sections they are most interested in or all three if they so wish, as I shot them assuming you would move from one chapter to the next.

One of the key things to keep in mind is that this device is really going to shine only if you are an Amazon Prime member. What is the point of having a device that can stream hundreds of thousands of movies, TV shows and music tracks at your command unless you have that library available to you?

Amazon FireTV Stick box contents

As you’ll note in the first video, the contents of the box include the stick, a power cable, a power block and an HDMI extender dongle. Note that unlike Google’s Chromecast (which I also own), Amazon strongly recommends that you use the power block to power your fireTV stick instead of using the USB power port on the back of your TV.

In the first video, I unbox the fireTV stick and give an overview of the box contents and offer some commentary about the device compared to a Google Chromecast:

In the second video, I show part of the set up of the fireTV stick:

In the third video, I get into the final installation and set up, as well as sharing the Amazon cartoon that runs when you first install and then some of my initial operations of the fireTV stick:

Note that at the end of the third video, I mentioned I was going to check out the smartphone app. I did and it worked very well as a remote and for voice searches. I just didn’t think it was compelling enough to shoot a video about.

A few other things are worth mentioning here that did not come up while I was shooting the videos because I found them buried deeper in the personal settings area of the menus. I mention them here because I was excited to find them and I don’t think they are all that obvious when you first look into the fireTV stick’s capabilities.

Amazon Fire TV Stick screenshotThe first is that the stick lets you use a selection of built-in photos as a screen saver or — even better — you can select albums you have in your Amazon Cloud Drive and pull your own pictures up to act as the screen saver.

Amazon FireTV Stick screenshot

The second thing is that the fireTV stick will serve as a Miracast device so that if you have a smartphone capable of using this technology, you can mirror your phone’s screen to your TV to share it with an audience. That has some great potential for holiday gatherings when you want to share a collection of photos or videos with the family all at once instead of waiting while they pass your phone around.

Because I just started using the fireTV stick today, I can’t offer any long-term, objective reviews of how it works or how it will hold up after a period of constant use. But my initial impressions are positive. The price is $39, compared with $35 for the Google Chromecast — so the choice may very well come down to which of the two universes you are more deeply embedded in. For various reasons, I have one foot in both the Amazon and Google universes, and both feet are at levels deep enough to be in over my ankles. So, for the cost, having the flexibility of providing both operating systems in my house made it well worth the investment, and I’d probably say that even if I had not received the fireTV stick half off by pre-ordering.

No matter what you decide to do though, never lose sight of the fact that for less than $50, you have a technological device your great-grandparents could have never imagined becoming commonplace plugged into the back of a TV that our parents and grandparents probably never imagined would be in every home. “Mind-blowing” might not even cover it.