Streaming media players & services

Streaming Media Player & Service Buying Guide
Streaming Media Buying Guide
Jump Into the Stream

Binge-watching TV shows has become an all-American pastime. Streaming services and devices are ideal for marathon watchers, as well as for cord-cutters, cord-shavers (those cutting back on their pay TV service) and even the new crop of cord-nevers. Using devices like Apple TV, Roku, or Amazon Fire TV, along with subscription or pay-per-view services such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, you can watch newly released and classic films, seasons of past and current TV shows, and shows and networks you used to have to subscribe to cable to get. You can even use these streaming devices to access photo apps and social media sites on your TV. 

You may actually already own a streaming device. Many televisions these days are smart TVs, with the ability to access a variety of streaming services directly from the set. Many Blu-ray players, as well as the major video game consoles, have this feature. But for many of us, a dedicated streaming media player is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to make any TV a smart one. And even if your TV is already Internet-capable, a dedicated streaming player may be more convenient to use, or offer some services you can’t get from the television.

At Consumer Reports, we test streaming media players thoroughly, and we've found that generally they are reasonably priced and simple to connect. Plug ‘em into your TV and then connect to your wireless network, and you’re good to go.

 

1

Types of Players

There are currently 17 models in our ratings, but the market is dominated by just a few brands. These include Apple, Roku, Google (Chromecast) and Amazon; a few companies, such as Roku, have several models with different sets of features and specifications. You can choose between set-top boxes and stick-style players that plug directly into a TV’s HDMI input—these small players may have fewer connections and features.

Picture of several typse of set-top box streaming media players.

Set-Top Boxes

You can get a set-top box streaming player from Roku (Roku 1, Roku 2, Roku 3, and Roku 4), Apple (Apple TV), Amazon (Amazone FireTV), Google Nexus, and Mohu Channels. They typically are a bit faster and more responsive than stick-style players, and have more connections, such as USB ports for playing personal media. These boxes connect to your TV via an HDMI cable and range in price from $50 to $200.

Picture of several stick-style streaming media players.

Stick-Style Players

Stick-style streaming media player models include Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku Streaming Stick, and Vudu Spark. Stick-style players are about the size of a USB flash-drive (although the new Chromecast has a colorful disc-like design). And all plug into your TV’s HDMI port, drawing power either from the TV’s USB port or from an AC wall outlet. They can range in price from $35 to $50.

2

Is Your Broadband Fast Enough?

Your Internet connection will help determine picture quality, since Netflix and other services actually adjust the signal you get based on the speed of your Internet connection. So if Tom Cruise's grin seems less than sparkly or that rom-com won't play without buffering, buffering, buffering ... you may need a more robust broadband connection. Also, if you're connecting to your network via Wi-Fi, make sure your wireless router is up to snuff.

You’ll Need a Speed of at Least 5Mbps
This is what you'll want for a high-def stream, and that's only adequate if you are streaming to one device at a time. Most homes will need 10Mbps or more, and the FCC recently updated its definition of broadband to 25Mbps. Note: Regardless of how fast your connection is, picture quality may initially be poor, but then improve after a minute or so as the service adjusts to the connection speed.

4K Video is Coming
All the services can deliver high-definition picture quality, but some—including Amazon, M-Go, Netflix, and Vudu—now offer a limited amount of 4K content for those who have higher-resolution 4K UHD TVs. These screens have about 8 million pixels, which is around four times as many as a regular 1080p TV. But you'll need a relatively fast connection, at least 15 to 25Mbps, to stream 4K content.

3

Features That Matter

Simple Setup
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) means you don’t have to manually enter a password. You simply press one button on the router and another on the player and, voilá, you’re securely connected.

The Right Connections
All streaming media players have built-in Wi-Fi, and some have an Ethernet jack for a wired connection to a modem or router. All can hook up to TVs via HDMI connections, but only a few have analog-video connections for use with older TVs that lack an HDMI input. Some include a USB port for playing your own media, such as music and photos, through the device. A DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) label means the player can access content—such as movies, videos, and photos—from other devices on the same network.

Organized Apps
As more channels become available on these devices, the ability to reorder (or delete) apps and customize your home screen is a plus. It helps you avoid scrolling through seldom used options.

Universal Search
We prefer players that can search across multiple services to find shows, without favoring one service over another.

Dual-Band Wi-Fi
A streaming player with dual-band Wi-Fi can help performance by relegating video streaming to the higher 5GHz frequency band, sidestepping possible interference with other devices in the home, such as cordless phones and microwaves, that operate on the 2.4GHz frequency. Some newer models now support the 802.11ac standard, which has the potential to deliver stronger, faster signals, but only if your wireless router also supports it.

Well-Designed Remotes
Some models come with remotes with embedded microphones so you can search using voice terms, which is easier than typing using an onscreen keyboard. Dedicated buttons for the most-used services allows for easy access. Back-lit buttons come in handy on family movie night. Some devices, including Chromecast, have no remote, and are used via an app downloaded to a mobile device such as a phone, tablet, or laptop.

4

Picking the Right Streaming Service

New online streaming services offer unprecedented viewing options.There are basically two options: all-you-can-eat subscription services that offer unlimited streaming for a monthly subscription, typically around $8 to $10 a month; and pay-per-view services, where you rent or buy individual movies or shows on an a la carte basis.

If you opt for a subscription, it’s worth noting they tend to have fewer current movie and TV titles than pay-as-you-go options. Pay-per-view titles are often available sooner. Subscription services make the most sense for those who watch a lot of shows and movies, or who like to binge-watch watch several shows or even entire seasons. If you only watch one or two movies or shows a month and prefer more current releases, a pay-per-view services is the better bet. Here’s a breakdown of the top options.

Image of Amazon Prime logo.

Cost: $8.25 month ($99/year)

Content: Movies, original series such as “Transparent” and “The Man in the High Castle,” older HBO series.

Pros: Free with an Amazon Prime subscription for two-day delivery, a growing content library, free Amazon Prime Music.

Cons: Few current episodes of programs from channels other than HBO, time lag before release of blockbuster movies.

Devices: Wide device support (except for Apple TV).

Image of Huluplus logo.

Cost: $8/month

Content: Current and past seasons of broadcast TV shows.

Pros: Current and previous ABC, Fox, and NBC shows, older ones from CBS, a few cable channels, and now some original series.

Cons: Includes ads, modest selection of movies, limited selection of older shows.

Devices: Almost universal device support.

Image of Netflix logo.

Cost: $10/month

Content: Movies, original series such as “House of Cards” and "Orange is the New Black," past seasons of shows such as “Breaking Bad.”

Pros: Vast selection, compelling original programming, wide device support.

Cons: No current episodes of programs from other channels, lag before getting blockbuster movies.

Devices: Almost universal device support.

5
Amazon currently sells two streaming media players, under its Fire TV brand. The Amazon Fire TV is a small set-top box, while the Amazon Fire TV Stick is a tiny stick-style player that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI input. Both players have access to Amazon Instant Video, a pay-per-view service, and Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Prime Music, which are free to those paying the $99 yearly fee for the Amazon Prime two-day delivery service. The player can also access TV shows and movies from several other services, including Netflix and Hulu. The Fire TV has received an update that enables support for 4K videos.
Like its predecessors, the latest Apple TV, lets you buy or rent movies and TV shows from iTunes; it also provides access to other services, such as Netflix and YouTube, but not Amazon Prime. Apple TV can use AirPlay to share content stored on portable iOS devices or a Mac computer on the TV. The latest Apple TVs are pricier ($150 to $200, depending on storage) than their predecessors but you can still buy older, third-generation, models for well under $100.
Google offers two streaming media players using the Android operating system. The redesigned Chromecast is disc-shaped, but like the older sticks, it still plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI input. It uses your phone or tablet as the remote control for access streaming content from several services. It also lets you “cast” content from computers using the Chrome browser. Google also offers an Android TV-based circular set-top model, the Google Nexus Player, which offers access to several streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu Plus. It also lets you cast content.
Mohu is primarily known as an indoor antenna company, but it now offers a device, called Mohu Channels, that targets cord-cutters by combining free over-the-air broadcasts with streaming. Users can connect an antenna to the device, which has a cylindrical shape, and it connects to your home network to receive streaming services, including Hulu, Netflix, and Vudu.
Perhaps best known for performance-based computer graphic cards targeting gamers, Nvidia now offers a set-top box, the Nvidia Shield, that’s half game console, half streaming media player. The unit has a unique, angular look, and it’s based on the Android TV platform, so you can cast content, and it has access to Google Play apps. Also, it supports 4K videos.
Roku shipped its first streaming player in back in 2008, helping to create the category. It now offers several settop boxes (the Roku1, Roku 2, and Roku 3, and well as its new flagship model, the 4K-enabled Roku 4), as well as a stick-style player (the Roku Streaming Stick). The Roku TV platform is also now built into TV sets from companies including Haier, Hisense, Insignia, and TCL, which use Roku as their smart TV platform. Roku has the widest range of content of any player, including access to Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, plus hundreds of niche channels.
Vudu, the pay-per-view streaming service owned by Walmart, now has a stick-styled player called the Vudu Spark. It has a low price, but it can only access the Vudu service—not Amazon, Netflix, or Hulu.
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