With so many streaming services to choose from, how do you get the best quality experience? Naturally, you can use the services’ mobile apps or watch video in a desktop browser. But where these services come into their own is when a streaming device sends your favorite content to a bigscreen TV.
In this sixth part of Flixed’s How to Cut the Cord series, we’ll explain how to pick a streaming device that delivers all of the features you want.
The previous posts in the series introduced the most popular options — and the most esoteric options — for live TV and on-demand streaming services. In our final article, we’ll how to save money the old-school way by tuning into dozens of local and national TV channels with an over-the-air antenna.
- How to Cut the Cord Part 1 – Picking Your Live TV Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 2 – Picking Your On-Demand Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 3 – Watching Your Favorite Live Sports
- How to Cut the Cord Part 4 – Exploring Niche Streaming Services
- How to Cut the Cord Part 5 – Managing Your Subscriptions
- How to Cut the Cord Part 7 – Getting Local TV Channels with an Antenna
Things to Consider When Picking a Streaming Device
There are a lot of things you’ll need to consider when picking a streaming device. The most important is the device’s user interface and remote control, which you’ll be using whenever you watch TV. If you can, go to an electronics store to try the devices out. Once you’ve had a chance to compare them, you can start digging into the other tech specs.
Sticks versus boxes versus smart TVs
You can use a variety of devices to get your streaming TV content into your home entertainment center. Streaming sticks look like thumb drives that plug directly into your TV’s HDMI port. A streaming box sits on a shelf next to your AV receiver and other home electronics and relies on an HDMI cable. A smart TV comes with everything you need built in.
Each form factor has its own advantages. Smart TVs keep things simple by reducing clutter and letting you use a single remote control. Streaming sticks are inexpensive and hide away behind your TV. Streaming boxes are more capable and often come with advanced features.
At the same time, each form factor has its own disadvantages. TV manufacturers have never done a great job keeping their smart TV systems up-to-date. Streaming boxes are pricier and add more clutter to your living room. Streaming sticks can be underpowered and have power cables that dangle beneath your TV.
In an ideal world, every streaming service would develop apps for every streaming device and the features would be the same in all of its apps. As wonderful as that sounds, that isn’t the world we’re living in. You’ll need to do some research to learn which devices your streaming service work with. Even though Hulu has apps for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, the apps don’t support Hulu with Live TV.
Audio and video quality
Cord-cutting would never have taken off if streaming services weren’t able to deliver video with the same quality as cable. High definition resolution at 1920 by 1080 is now table stakes in the streaming game. Services now set themselves apart by offering content in Ultra-High Definition’s (UHD) resolution of 3840 by 2160 which is also called 4K. Another video-enhancing feature, High Dynamic Range (HDR), provides more vibrant colors, deeper shadows and brighter highlights.
However, you’ll need to make sure you have the hardware to take advantage of those streams. By the end of this year, half of American households will have 4K-capable TVs, most of which also support some form of HDR. The real question is whether the streaming device will support 4K and the same HDR formats as your TV.
Most streaming devices support some form of surround sound. Even if you don’t have a full five-speaker-and-subwoofer setup, the speakers in your TV or stereo can “fake” the surround sound experience. At the high end, however, there’s no faking it. Audio technology like Dolby Atmos requires surround sound speakers as well as speakers in your ceiling.
The question of whether you can actually get the video resolutions that device makers promise is complicated. Streaming devices and the servers they connect to constantly adjust the quality of the video stream to match the quality of your internet connection’s download speeds.
A typical high definition video stream requires speeds of 5 Megabits-per-second while a 4K resolution UHD stream can require as much as 25 Megabits-per-second. People living in most urban and suburban neighborhoods will need to get a mid-priced cable internet service in order to get the best quality video. People living in rural areas may struggle to get consistent service.
Even if your internet service delivers consistently fast download speeds, your home network could be ruining your streaming experience. Whenever possible, you should use ethernet cables to connect your streaming device to your internet router.
Using WiFi is convenient — and sometimes the only option — but you may run into issues. If you live in an apartment complex, your WiFi router is competing with everybody else’s for the same frequencies. Even if you live in a large home, your streaming device will be competing with every other WiFi device in the household.
Picking a Streaming Stick
A streaming stick is a convenient, clutter-free way to add a device to your TV setup. It looks like a big thumb drive but instead of having a USB connection, it has an HDMI connector that plugs straight into the back of your TV. You will also need to plug a power cord into the streaming stick. Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast are the most popular streaming sticks on the market.
Roku streaming sticks
You won’t have any trouble remembering the name of Roku’s streaming stick. It’s the Roku Streaming Stick. The $50 device uses WiFi to stream HD-resolution video over your home network. It will also pass DTS surround sound to your home theater through the HDMI connection. You can search across channels and use Roku’s voice search through the included remote control.
For $60, the Roku Streaming Stick+ upgrades the device’s processor to support 4K video and HDR picture quality. It will also pass DTS, Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos surround sound to your home theater through the HDMI connection.
Amazon streaming sticks
Amazon has used its own custom version of the Android operating system to make a TV-friendly streaming platform called Fire TV. The entry-level Fire TV Stick runs $30 and supports HD resolution as well as Dolby Audio surround sound over WiFi. A built-in microphone lets you use Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to control your apps. The Fire TV Stick 4K costs $10 more and ads 4K resolution, five formats of HDR and Dolby Atmos support.
Google streaming sticks
Google’s Chromecast streaming stick works a little differently than its competitors Amazon and Roku. Instead of streaming directly to the device, you use a streaming app on your smartphone and send the video to your TV through the Chromecast device. Since all of the control happens on your mobile app, you don’t need a remote control.
The entry-level Chromecast supports HD resolution at a $35 price. Upgrading to the $70 Chromecast Ultra gets you 4K resolution as well as some form of HDR, but Google does not specify which HDR versions it supports.
Picking a Streaming Box
You get more product choices with richer feature sets by going with a streaming box. The most important feature these devices offer is an ethernet port. This lets you keep a clean, high-bandwidth connection to your internet router.
Apple’s streaming devices have always been a little ahead of the game in terms of performance and user experience. The devices use the same powerful Apple processors you’ll find in the latest iPhones and iPads.
The Apple TV app consolidates all of the programming from your streaming apps into one place. This makes it easy to see when new episodes are available and get recommendations for what to watch.
As with all Apple products, however, those advantages come with a price. You’ll pay more for an Apple TV than you will for other streaming boxes. You also suffer from Apple’s preference for design over usability. The flat, smooth remote control is notoriously difficult to use in a darkened room.
The $149 Apple TV HD is limited to HD resolution and surround sound output. For up to $50 more, the Apple TV 4K adds, surprisingly, 4K resolution as well as Dolby Atmos surround sound. Dolby Vision and HDR10 are the supported high-dynamic range options.
Roku streaming boxes
Roku has five streaming boxes that range in price from $30 all the way up to $100. The user experience across all the devices is the same, but you’ll pay for added features like 4K resolution or ethernet ports.
The entry-level Roku Express is a basic HD-resolution streaming box that only supports WiFi. The Roku Express+ adds a set of composite video cables for ancient TVs. Moving to the Roku Premiere adds 4K and HDR support over WiFi as well as surround sound. You get a voice-enabled remote control when you get the Roku Premiere+.
At the high end of the price range, the Roku Ultra comes with faster WiFi, premium headphones, an ethernet port and a number of other minor features.
Amazon streaming boxes
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube has all of the features that come with the Fire TV Stick 4K, including 4K, HDR and Dolby Atmos. You can also use Alexa directly rather than relying on the remote control.
Android TV streaming boxes
Confusingly, Google has two internal groups competing with each other in the streaming TV business. Chromecast is one and the other is Android TV. This is a version of the mobile operating system that Google revamped to work with remote controls and big screen TVs. The only drawback to Android TV is that app developers have to upgrade their mobile apps to support the TV-specific features.
Thanks to its gaming support, NVIDIA’s Shield TV is the most popular Android TV streaming box on the market. The mobile processor that runs Android gets a big boost with NVIDIA’s Tegra X1 graphics processor. That horsepower delivers 4K and HDR video and supports both Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound. What really attracts gamers to the Shield TV is access to the GeForce NOW game streaming service. Prices start at $179 without a game controller or $199 with a controller.
Picking a Smart TV
TV manufacturers have included “smart” features for years, but the experience has always been underwhelming. Companies that are good at making hardware aren’t always the best ones for developing user-friendly software. In addition, the cheaper TVs relied on inexpensive processors that couldn’t really handle modern streaming interfaces.
That’s changed over the years. Hardware has gotten cheaper and more powerful. In addition, some TV makers have simply accepted that they don’t want to be in the streaming software business. Many TVs now come with the Roku or Android TV systems already built in.
Using your TV as your streaming device lets you save money by not buying an extra device. It also eliminates clutter in your living room and reduces the number of remote controls you have to deal with. However, you may find several streaming services that don’t offer apps for your TV’s streaming platform.
Here’s how the world’s top TV manufacturers support streaming:
Samsung is such a large company that it can afford to develop its own software. More importantly, Samsung sells so many TVs that the larger streaming services are willing to develop apps for its proprietary system.
LG bought the WebOS mobile phone operating system and turned it into a smart TV platform. Of the live TV streaming services, only Sling TV has developed an app for LG’s system.
One of the most established names in electronics, Sony decided to use Android TV as its operating system for streaming apps. That gives you access to the full library of Android TV-compatible apps.
Chinese manufacturer Hisense decided to split the difference by making some models based on Roku and some models based on Android TV. Be sure you know which one is most compatible with the apps you stream.
China’s TCL is one of the fastest-growing TV makers. It chose Roku as its entertainment operating system, giving you access to everything in the Roku Channel Store.
Vizio is an American company that manufactures TVs in China. A handful of streaming services — including YouTube TV, Hulu and Netflix — have developed apps for Vizio’s proprietary SmartCast operating system
Picking a Game Console
If you’re thinking about using a game console as your streaming device, you probably don’t need to make a choice. You already have a PlayStation or Xbox. Both game consoles have app stores where you’ll find live TV and on-demand streaming services. As with the other devices in this article, some services don’t develop apps for both consoles. You may be shocked to learn that PlayStation Vue works on almost every device except the Xbox.