Roku 3 tops Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Chromecast in streaming player shootout

The Roku's fast operation and vast content selection best other players'

Published: September 05, 2014 08:00 AM
Roku 3

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Quick—when was the last time you rented a DVD or Blu-ray? For a growing number of us, it's probably been a while, since more devices—TVs, Blu-ray players, game systems, and dedicated streaming media players such as Apple TV and Roku—combined with an ever-expanding array of services have literally put thousands of movies and TV shows as close as the nearest remote control—often all for a low monthly fee.

If you don't have an Internet-connected TV, or the one you have isn't able to access some services you'd like to use, you may be considering a stand-alone streaming media player. That's no surprise; market research firm Parks Associates forecasts that by 2015, one-quarter of all U.S. households will own one of these devices.

But which one is best? We tested most of the models currently on the market, which range in price from $35 to about $100. We have a few can't-miss favorites, but you should choose the model that can access the services you most want to use, and provide the extra features that you'll actually use. That said, here are some of our top picks:

Roku 3, $100

The Roku 3 is our top all-around player, with a clean, easy-to-use interface, fast operation, and the most content of any tested player, including Amazon Instant/Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Netflix, YouTube, and Vudu.  It has dual-band Wi-Fi for more reliable wireless connections, a wired Ethernet jack, and using a Roku app on a phone or tablet you can cast content directly from Netflix and YouTube to your TV. And its motion-sensing remote control has a headphone jack that lets you to listen privately even when others are in the same room.

But if you should also consider the other Roku models if you'd like to spend less, or blazing speed and a motion remote don't matter. The Roku 2 ($70) gets you a lot of what the Roku 3 offers, including dual-band Wi-Fi and a remote with a headphone jack, though not the motion-sensing remote, faster processor, Ethernet jack, or casting capability. The Roku 1 ($40) costs even less, but you lose the headphone jack and dual-band Wi-Fi. Also, the remote connects via IR rather than Wi-Fi Direct. The Roku Streaming Stick is the company's answer to Chromecast, as it's a small, flash-drive-shaped player that slips into a TV's HDMI input; power comes from a TV's USB ports or from a wall outlet. It's not as fast as the Roku 3, but like that model, it can cast Netflix, YouTube, and personal media from a smart phone or tablet to your TV.

Google Chromecast, $35

This budget champ's claim to fame is its ability to cast content from your computer's Chrome browser to your TV. It can also mirror content from your Android phone or tablet. It now has more content than when it launched, including direct support for Hulu Plus, Netflix, Google Play (Google Video, Google Music), HBO Go, and YouTube, though some important services, such as Amazon, are still missing. Chromecast plugs into a TVs HDMI input, getting power either from the set's USB port or an AC wall outlet. There's no remote control; instead, you use a smart phone, tablet or computer to control the device.

Amazon Fire TV, $100

One of streaming media's newest contenders, Amazon Fire TV brings super-fast operation and voice control to the party. It's also the first media player capable of being a credible game platform, though you'll want to spring for the optional ($40) game controller, and game support so far has been light. Not surprising, the box is optimized for Amazon's Instant and Prime video services, which are prominently displayed in the interface. Voice search is a nice feature but when tested with the paid streaming services it only worked with Amazon and Hulu Plus, not Neflix. Concerned parents may like FreeTime, a password-protected kids' area that lets parents block inappropriate content or set viewing time limitations.

Apple TV, $100

A must-have for Apple-centric users who have a lot of content stored in iTunes, a Mac computer, or on Apple's iCloud. Not surprisingly, Apple TV has the company's usual super-friendly interface, and it seamlessly integrates with iTunes TV show, movie and music libraries, as well as Apple's iCloud storage service. Using AirPlay, it can stream content from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch to a TV, and it supports AirPlay mirroring, which displays whatever's on your iOS device's screen on the TV. Its biggest drawback is lack of content compared to Roku—it's still missing Amazon and Vudu.

That's a brief synopsis of some of the top players from our tests; for a full report, visit our streaming media player Ratings. And keep checking back for our first looks at the newest streamers as they hit the market.

—James K. Willcox

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