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Video from the cloud has settled in on big TVs, and it’s here to stay. At our house, we care just as much about what’s happening on “House of Cards” on Netflix as we do about that other popular political thriller, “Scandal,” from traditional network ABC. And we’ll sometimes spend night after night on online services watching years of canceled series we missed in their original runs, instead of fresh episodes of current series offered from the networks. Some evenings, we just watch interesting clips from YouTube, or recent films downloaded from iTunes. It’s all just video entertainment, and it’s all right there on the same TV.
The big question is which device to use to bring all of this Internet video to that TV. Where once the main choices were Apple TV and Roku boxes, there are now a couple of newer major options from name brands.
So here’s a guide to the main choices for people who primarily want online entertainment on their TVs at a low hardware price. That means I’m not including so-called “smart TVs,” which include some of these services, but are costly. And I’m not including expensive new game consoles, which also can access some of these online video services, due to their price and their focus on the hard-core gamer audience.
Note that all four of the main contenders have some of the most popular choices — Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus. Also note that while none of the four charges its own subscription fee, you will have to pay some of the service providers, like Netflix, to subscribe. In other cases, as with services like HBO Go, you’ll have to authenticate that you have a paid cable subscription that includes that channel.
Apple TV, which the company once called a “hobby,” is now a real business, with 20 million units sold in total. It generated $1 billion in revenue from hardware and content in Apple’s last fiscal year.
In addition to Apple’s own massive collection of TV shows, movies and music available through iTunes — which is exclusive to this box — Apple TV offers 33 other apps or channels, which stream content ranging from sports to broadcast TV to weather to kids’ programming and foreign fare. While iTunes itself is a download service, iTunes purchases are available to stream on Apple TV very quickly after the download begins — they behave like streaming video.
It also offers access to photos and music stored in Apple’s iCloud service, and can access media on computers on your home network. And it has a secret weapon: AirPlay. This allows you to beam video, photos and music from any Apple device, like an iPhone or iPad, or even mirror the device’s entire screen on the TV.
Best for: People who use mostly Apple devices and services like iTunes and iCloud.
Not so great for: People who live in the Android or Amazon ecosystems, or those who prefer massive channel selection.
Unlike Apple (or Amazon or Google), Roku lacks its own big content service, so its angle is twofold: A massive selection of third-party channels (well over 1,000), and a multiplicity of models, mostly small boxes, starting at $50. The latest is a small stick that plugs into an HDMI port on the TV and provides the full Roku experience, including a remote. Roku, which has been around for years, says it has sold about eight million units.
Most of Roku’s channels are niche, like those devoted to horoscopes, firearms and yachting, but, as noted, it also has the broadly watched ones. That even includes Amazon Instant Video, despite the introduction of Amazon’s own competing box. Unlike Apple TV, Roku also offers some games.
But Roku is weak on beaming from mobile devices, something it says it hopes to expand. Lately it has piggybacked on a Google beaming technology for Netflix and YouTube, but in my tests, I could only get the latter to work.
Best for: People who want the greatest variety of content and hardware.
Not so great for: People who have their own content stored in the big ecosystems, or who want to beam from their devices.
When Google launched its entry in the category last year, it took a different approach. Chromecast isn’t a box that offers its own user interface filled with channel choices. Instead, it’s a small $35 plug-in stick that allows you to stream (or “cast,” in Google parlance) video and music from apps on Android and Apple devices, or from Google’s Chrome browser. There’s no remote — the source device controls the playback on the TV.
Unlike AirPlay on Apple TV, Chromecast sessions don’t stream directly from the source device to the TV. Instead, the Chromecast stick fetches them directly from the cloud. This has the advantage of allowing you to launch a video, and then use the source device for other things. In most cases, with AirPlay, you can’t switch away from the content being streamed.
But there are also a couple of downsides. There’s no remote, and no built-in apps, so you have to have your phone, tablet or computer with you when you want to launch a video onto your TV. Also, Chromecast so far works directly with only 17 services, though it can access many more via the Chrome browser.
Google has big plans to expand this selection and add capabilities.
Best for: People who like beaming from devices, and/or those who prefer a device that can be plugged in behind the TV, out of sight.
Not so great for: People who want a greater variety of apps, or a dedicated remote.
Amazon Fire TV
Introduced just last month, Fire TV is most comparable to Apple TV. It’s a small box built around its maker’s giant library of video, and costs $99. But, like Apple TV, it also has third-party services — about 65 so far, of which 33 are classified by Amazon as “entertainment.” And it has a dedicated remote.
Unlike its Apple rival, or even Roku, Fire TV is also aiming to be very serious about games, and offers more than 200 so far. It even has an optional $40 game controller.
Fire TV provides access to Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime service, which, among other things, offers a sizable library of free streaming videos.
But its key differentiator is voice search. By simply speaking into a microphone on the remote, a user can locate TV shows and movies by title, genre, actor and director. In my tests, this worked very well, and was vastly superior to tapping out words on an onscreen keyboard.
At launch, Fire TV had a couple of major downsides: It lacked access to users’ music stored in Amazon’s cloud locker service, and its interface made it hard to find just the Prime offerings instead of individually paid titles. Amazon will remedy these omissions soon. I have seen a working prototype with these features included.
However, it can so far only beam programs from Amazon’s own newer tablets. The company plans to extend this capability to Apple devices later in the year.
Best for: People who do a lot of searching, casual gamers and those who are deep into the Amazon ecosystem.
Not so great for: Android and iOS device owners who want to beam videos, and those who want a wide variety of third-party services.
Whichever device you choose, you’ll get a rich variety of Internet video and music — and very likely added services and features — for a minimal investment in hardware.