With the growth of “Smart TV” sets in almost every size and price category, some pundits have predicted that the market for external streaming devices might be diminishing. As we move into the new year, that may not yet be the case. Buoyed by many new product introductions in the fall, as well as updates to the software and interfaces of several existing models, the market for streaming products will likely remain strong in 2018.
This article will compare the leading contenders, of which there is no easy winner. The products all have their pros and cons, and as is frequently said here, what’s “best” is the product and combination of services that does the job for the specific client or job situation at hand.
For the most part, it’s the software, rather than the hardware, that matters most. In other words, what may determine which is “best” is how well any one product’s service palette lines up against the content desires of the end user. After all, no matter how great the picture or sound, no matter how intuitive the interface, and no matter the voice control options, a product that doesn’t deliver the programming a client wants is essentially useless. Remember that in some cases, a specific program service is only available on one device. Others are more ubiquitous.
Without further ado, here are the ground rules for this year’s “Stream Off”: First, the product must be able to access content services either directly (most of the devices to be discussed) or when started through a service’s app, but then be able to function without the phone or tablet (Chromecast). Next, it must receive 4K/UHD content with some form of HDR (with one exception with regard to HDR). Finally, it must have some level of voice search or control, CEC device control, at least for power on/off, and an app for phone/tablet control. Beyond that, everything else is open.
To maintain an even playing field, the products will be discussed in alphabetical order by model name.
Developed by Sling, AirTV lets the user merge the content of the Sling TV service and OTA reception into a single, unified guide and interface. Based on the Android TV platform, it also has Chromecast capability, a selection of standard streaming apps such as Netflix on board, and additional content and services that are available through Google’s Play stores. At present there is no AirTV product with HDR, but we’re making an exception so that you have a view of what it offers.
AirTV stands out from the crowd of black boxes with its colorful white-and-blue appearance for both the device and remote. Hard buttons are available for power and volume as well as for Netflix, Google, and, of course, the Sling TV service. Wired Ethernet, USB 2.0 ports, and an optical audio output line the back, and there is a remote finder on the base unit.
As with many of the products discussed here, Sling TV is centric to an underlying ecosystem. Yes, the Sling TV app is available on all the other products, but nowhere else does it provide the base UI. That brings with it the Cloud DVR service offered by Sling (though also available on other aggregated OTT program services). When the $39, USB-connected AirTV adapter is added to the $99 AirTV product, the user has an all-in-one product with a OTA/OTT combination unmatched by anything other than the Shield TV, and certainly not at the $139 combo price that includes a $50 credit toward a Sling TV subscription.
There is voice search and a limited array of Google Assistant capabilities. For example, it can tell you the time and weather, but not tomorrow’s schedule or help find a recipe. But, for modest price this is an interesting alternative that has 4K, full OTA viewing, and a wide variety of Android-based apps. With all the attention given to the more visible products, AirTV might just be worth a look for the right application.
Apple TV 4K
Apple TV 4K is the fifth-generation product carrying the Apple TV moniker. Long anticipated, and somewhat late to the 4K/UHD world, it has most of the features one would want. There is hard-button control for TV on/off and volume, wired and wireless connectivity, and Siri voice control for both content search and control of compatible HomeKit home control products. The HDR is both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision.
As one might expect, this is the go-to for clients deep into the Apple/iOS ecosystem. There is AirPlay to share iOS- and Mac-based content, access to your content stored in iCloud, and Apple Music. On the UI side, the Apple TV makes it possible to browse and select content from more than 60 different services without switching between the individual apps. So far, so good.
While the update to tvOS 11.2 fixed an issue in the earlier versions that upscaled all content to HDR to the annoyance of many users, some problems remain. A current sore point for some Apple TV owners is the lack of support for Dolby Atmos. YouTube is available, but lack of support for the VP9 codec means that you can’t display native 4K content. Also, because the rivalry between the companies that both manufacture streamers and provide services is fierce, so there is never a guarantee that an app will always be available.
For those who use a streaming device in lieu of a cable set-top box, fully integrated apps such as those from Spectrum and Xfinity Stream app are not available. Note, however, that any device that has the underlying “TV Everywhere” app (WatchESPN or HBO GO) may access those services by entering the necessary authentication information.
Though it is possible to mirror any app not in the device’s native repertoire to a display, this only works with iOS devices. When there is a “mixed system” of an Apple TV and an Android phone, you can’t watch content from one device through the other.
The Apple TV 4K adds a white ring around the “MENU” button. I’ve always found the remote elegant, but too thin and not something that comfortably fits in the hand. But that’s just me; one can always use the app or a custom-programmed remote for control.
At $179 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB model, Apple TV 4K is toward the top of the price range. If the Apple interface is found appealing, Dolby Vision is important, and the Apple content ecosystem is required, it’s a good deal. Otherwise, let’s look further.
Unchanged since its introduction last year, this is a very slim and compact “plug-directly-into-the-back-of-the-TV” device, with a built-in, flexible, HDMI cord. It also outputs Dolby Vision as well as HDR-10. There is also a jack for hardwired networking, but from an installation standpoint, it means that the network cable must reach down to the “wall wart” power supply. Even for wireless installations, the current output supplied by a rear-panel USB port will likely not be sufficient.
Also unchanged is the method of operation: you install the Google Home app on your iOS or Android device to connect it to Wi-Fi, and then you configure it. Then, whenever one sees a “cast” icon on the top line of a Chromecast-enabled app on the phone, tablet, or laptop, simply tap that to send it to the TV or projector. Once that is done the Chromecast completes the connection and streams the content, and the originating device can leave the room or perform another function.
The phone or tablet is still needed for volume control and stop/pause/play, but perhaps the biggest change in the Chromecast/Google ecosystem for streaming devices since last year has been integration with Google Assistant. Voice control through a Google Home or Mini makes it easy to search and play content, and when a device’s CEC is available and properly configured, it is possible to turn the display on or off.
Just as Apple TV mirrors from iOS devices, Chromecast mirrors any content from an Android device when properly setting the Google Home app to “cast.” See the sidebar for more on Android screen mirroring.
All in all, Chromecast is an interesting device. Its tight integration with the Google ecosystem is a plus. On the other hand, the dependence on a phone or tablet to initiate a program and the absence of a physical remote is problematic for some. At $69 it is the least expensive streaming product that offers Dolby Vision and a hardwired network connection. In some cases, that makes it a must-have.
Fire TV (Generation 3/UHD Compatible)
While Amazon’s Gen. 2 Fire TV (released in 2015) had limited 4K capability and older HDMI connectivity, the new version released this past October has the basic expected feature set: full 4K, Atmos compatibility, and HDR-10, but not Dolby Vision. Standard connectivity is wireless only, but a wired network connection is optional via a $14.99 accessory.
The device itself is a square box that is a bit larger than the Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick+, so you might want to secure it to the back of a TV with an accessory or something along the lines of Quake Hold. From a UI standpoint, the device is a bit “Amazon-centric,” as one might expect it to be. The service app selection is broad, but not as extensive as some might like. More important for many may be the fact that as of January 1, 2018, YouTube will no longer be available. If that is important to your client, then you might want to look elsewhere. Another omission that some might see as a showstopper is the inability to mirror from an iOS or Android device.
One thing that the Fire TV has that the others lack might push it up the list. As a part of the Amazon ecosystem, the voice control on Fire TV’s remote not only does content search and command, but also provides full control of anything with an Alexa skill. If there is no Echo, Dot, or Show in proximity, this feature may make all the difference in the world. Some, but not all, search commands appear on the display as well as an audio response.
At $69 the latest Fire TV shares the same price as the Chromecast Ultra and the Roku Streaming Stick+. Is it a better bet for a specific installation? As with any of these products, it depends on what the user’s content requirements, control needs, and preferences are.
Roku Streaming Stick+ and Roku Ultra Gen.2
Roku is the acknowledged market share leader in streaming devices, given that it gave birth to the modern generations of this product category. Roku is also the only brand with two 4K/UHD products. Both share Roku’s latest OS 8 operating system, fast processors, voice search, and hard power on/off and volume up/down buttons on the remote, as well as four direct-access buttons for select streaming services. They also have HDR-10 and Dolby Atmos support, but not Dolby Vision.
The main thing both have in common is what many regard as the widest array of streaming service apps. Not having a corporate or OS affiliation with Amazon, Apple, or Google, Roku isn’t party to the, “I won’t put my content on your device” battles. Indeed, many have called Roku the “Switzerland of Streamers” since they are a neutral player. Other than Apple’s content, there is no major app that you can think of that isn’t there.
On the connectivity side, Roku’s OS uniquely includes a “Hotel/Dorm” mode that lets the user connect to separately authenticated Wi-Fi systems such as those in hotels. I’ve personally used a Streaming Stick+ in hotels throughout the U.S., in Hong Kong, and in Europe, and it works very well. Pair it with the tethered broadband connection from your phone using a VPN, and it really does the trick overseas for geo-restricted apps.
The new $69 Roku Streaming Stick+ is more than a match to other “behind the set” 4K streamers at the same price band. One way it differs from form-factor competitors is its unique “Wi-Fi range extender.” This is a separate dongle for increasing Wi-Fi range connects to the Stick via a USB Mini port so that there is no confusion with the USB Micro port used to connect to the power supply. As a connection bonus, purchasers may be able to request a short HDMI-to-HDMI extension that lets the Roku product connect with hard-to-reach HDMI ports similar to the way the flexible HDMI cable does on the Chromecast and Fire TV.
The latest generation Roku Ultra is less expensive than its earlier namesake at a regular MSRP of $99, but it still adds the key step-up features in its larger “sit-on-the-shelf” form factor. It retains the wired network jack, a microSD port for additional channel storage, a USB port for local content playback, and a remote finder button. It drops the optical audio output. The remote also adds a headphone jack and game control buttons and IR capability so that it may be programmed into a universal remote system.
As with Fire TV, a manufacturer name precedes this model. The name in question is Nvidia, and that may give you a hint as to what sets this streamer apart. Indeed, it has some features and capabilities not found on the other products here.
Its basic platform is Android TV, but unlike the Android-based Xiaomi Mi Box in last year’s streaming device comparison, an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor adds significantly greater power and functionality. Yes, there is the obligatory HDR-10 and Dolby Atmos compatibility, a voice-control remote with IR and wireless control, and ’cast capability for enabled apps on iOS, Android, macOS, Windows, and Chromecast devices. However, there is much more than that.
Adding to the Shield TV’s internal storage, there are USB 3.0 ports for external hard disk or thumb drives. Even better, they support 24/192 Hi-Res audio external USB DACs or a plug-in USB adapter that allows the unit to act as a SmartThings Link for Zigbee and Z-Wave devices.
The USB ports also may be used to connect the Tablo TUNER Antenna Adapter. This $69 accessory, in conjunction with the Tablo ENGINE app connects to an off-air antenna for live TV viewing. When a $3.99/month or $39.99/year subscription is added the guide, the program information guide expands from one day to 14 days, along with cover art, episode synopses, and more. Even better, the Tablo ENGINE subscription adds DVR capability to internal or external storage.
Completing the feature portfolio, as an Android TV, there is access to the Google Play Store for apps, Google Play for content, Google Photos, and your Google Calendar. For services not in the Play Store, there is Chromecast capability.
Last, but perhaps most important, just as the Fire TV has Alexa functionality and Skill control, here you have the search power and full control capability for Google Assistant not offered on any of the other devices. I found that more queries were answered with video through Google from the Shield than via Alexa through the Fire TV.
When fully loaded with the Tablo Engine and a game controller, there is no doubt that the Nvidia Shield TV is the most expensive product discussed here. Is it worth it?
In a perfect world I would strongly suggest that you invest in one of each of these products for your workshop and showroom. At the end of the day, which device is best for a particular job rests with the end user’s preference. Keep in mind any price issues, installation challenges, the requirement for hardwired connectivity, which content and/or control ecosystem the job demands, and certainly look at the range of content options.
It may be hard to explain to a non-technical prospect, but in many cases two devices may be required. For example, an Apple TV 4K for Apple-specific content paired with a Shield or a Fire TV, depending on the control system. For simpler second-room installations, with three products all priced with standard MSRP at $69, the choice is a toss-up. Dolby Vision capability needs lead you to a Chromecast Ultra while someone looking for the widest palette of content services will inevitably be drawn to the Roku Streaming Stick+. Looking for the “kitchen sink”? Nvidia’s Shield seems to do almost everything a user could possibly want…as long as content or control outside its repertoire isn’t needed.
Channel Master Stream+
As this article was going to print, a new entrant in that category was announced by Channel Master. It won’t be available until some time in January so I don’t have a hands-on look, but it not only fits the criteria for the other streamers, it adds an interesting feature not otherwise available at its $99 price.
Based on an Android TV platform is will offer most of the popular streaming services and apps along with 4K and HDR. Voice control will be available along with built in Chromecast and Google Home integration.
What will set Stream+ apart from the rest is its inclusion of two ATSC 1.0 tuners with a program guide that will integrate with the streaming content’s UI. With two tuners it will be possible to watch one program and record another to an optional 128GB MicroSD card. Capacity may be increased up to 512GB with a USB 3.0 port onboard for future connection to external storage.
Building on the success of the previous DVR+ product, Stream+ has all the earmarks of a powerful contender in this category.
With OTT and cord-cutting all the rage in the popular press, as experts we will do best by not suggesting a single product all the time, but custom tailoring the selection to the client. Here, it isn’t the price of any of these that breaks the bank, it is knowing which to select that will pay dividends for your business.