Roku? Apple TV? Amazon Fire? What is your favorite? And which do you recommend to your clients?
Clients always ask me which media streamer they should get. Or more accurately, they almost always say that they are “just going to use the smart TV and don’t need another box.” Once we explain to them why the SmartTV isn’t the right solution (see below), we usually are then left with the decision of picking the right streaming media player. In my view, there are only really two mainstream devices to use in our industry—Roku and Apple TV. For purposes of this discussion, I’m not talking about Kaleidescape or other luxury solutions. I assume most of you run into similar discussions on a regular basis, so I thought I’d share my thought process and my discussion points with clients. I would really appreciate it if you would share your thoughts and talking points in the comments section below.
What We Don’t Like About SmartTVs. When talking clients out of using a SmartTV for streaming services, we always start with discussing the challenge of getting the audio back to the surround sound receiver in another room, especially if the project isn’t a renovation and running new wire isn’t easily done. We also discuss the complexity of reliably controlling the SmartTV functions and how functionality and commands—particularly exiting the Smart TV to other inputs—doesn’t work well and is often changed with firmware updates from the TV manufacturer, which would require a service call to reprogram their remotes to again, hopefully, work properly. My analogy of favorite stations—that they keep changing what channel a certain TV station is on and every time they do so, the remote won’t work reliably. But in this instance, each app exits differently. Some default to “yes” and some to “no,” and there is no way to reliable get it right each time, as it varies by app. Recently it appears that Samsung and Sony have started allowing an exit of SmartTV with an input change, but who knows if that will always be the case.
For a stand-alone TV in a secondary room that either has no external speakers or just has a powered sound bar (ie. no need for a universal remote), then the SmartTV may be an acceptable option. Although I do stress to clients the benefit of keeping interfaces the same across the home, so using Apple TV and/or Roku is still a better option.
Negatives of Amazon Fire. Talking clients out of using Amazon Fire is an easy discussion. It isn’t controllable by a universal remote, as it only communicates via Bluetooth. Therefore if there is a control system or remote in the mix—or there might be in the future—then Amazon Fire isn’t a good fit.
What We Don’t Like About Apple TV. Apple TV used to be my preferred go-to. With the new Siri remote, however, I’ve become a bit less of a fan. The on-screen keyboard interface is worse, and there is no way to integrate Siri into most control systems, requiring the client to either forgo features or keep another remote out. Plus, there’s no Amazon app. But, if a family is a die-hard Apple supporter or has a lot of purchased content in iTunes, Apple TV is the right fit
My New Go-To is Roku. My new go-to answer for streaming services is Roku. It was close before, but compared with the Apple TV 4, Roku is the clear leader in my mind. Roku has a great interface, has every streaming content provider you could want (including Amazon), and it integrates cleanly. Some control systems even give you IP control via the serial number of the Roku box. The only drawback is a weak mirroring app for streaming from your phone to your TV (Apple TV does it much better, but only for Apple devices), and the lack of ability to set a static IP address (although MAC reservations are a solid work around.)
In most of my distributed video installations, I include at least one Apple TV and one Roku to give clients options. That way each family member can choose the interface they prefer and can have access to all of their content whether in iTunes or on Amazon or on another service. Fortunately both solutions are inexpensive and can be easily scoped into most projects.
So which media streamer do you use and why?