Looking for an easy, cheap way to access streaming movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, and other services? There are a number of options. More televisions are now "smart TVs" with the ability to access a variety of streaming services directly from the set. Most Blu-ray players, as well as video game consoles, also have this feature, as do gaming systems such as Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation. But for many of us, a dedicated streaming media player is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to add streaming capability to any TV.
Streaming players from Roku (Roku 1, Roku 2, and Roku3), Apple (Apple TV), and Amazon (Amazon Fire TV) are all popular choices, and range in price from about $60 to $100. Google recently updated its Google TV concept as Android TV, which is used by its $100 Nexus Player. These are all small settop boxes that connect to the TV via an HDMI cable. There are also several tiny stick-style players, about the size of a USB flash drive, that plug directly into a TV's HDMI port, drawing power either from the TV's USB port or an AC wall outlet. Popular models include Google Chromecast, which costs $35, the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick, and the $50 Roku Streaming Stick.
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, though the device. Most models come with small remote controls, but many can be controlled using an app downloaded onto your mobile device. Some, including Chromecast, have no remote, so they have to be used with a mobile device such as a phone, tablet, or portable computer.
Almost all boxes have access to Netflix, plus a few other video services and a music station or two. All but a few models also have apps of other kinds, including Facebook, Twitter, and photo services such as Picasa and Flickr. If you want a specific service, make sure any player you're considering offers it. (It's possible the manufacturer could add other services in the future, but there's no guarantee it would be the one you're looking for.)
We've found that initial setup is pretty easy: You plug the box into your TV and connect to your wireless network, and you're good to go. A few models even have Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), so no password is needed; you push a button on the router to connect the player. The media players we tested all yielded very good full HD (1080p) picture quality.