You don't have to pay for cable to get good TV. These streaming devices deliver instant movies and TV shows to your big screen, but which one is best?
If you’re considering ditching cable to stream content from the web, you’re certainly not alone. An estimated 143 million people watch TV on the Internet, according to a Nielsen study. While 288 million viewers still prefer the traditional TV, the study suggests more viewers are choosing Internet TV over time-shifted TV (recorded) or TV on a mobile phone.
I dropped cable and switched to streaming last year after realizing that my $65-a-month subscription added up to $3,780 dollars over the previous five years. Since then, I’ve been watching TV on my laptop, but it just isn’t the same as a big screen. So last month, I started comparing streaming devices.
I researched four streaming devices: The Roku LT, the third-generation Apple TV, the Boxee Box, and Google TV. After comparing spec sheets and pricing, sifting through dozens of reviews, and tapping experts for opinions, I chose a winner. But first, here’s a quick roundup…
The Roku LT is the base model from Roku’s second series of streaming devices. Costing only $49.99, it’s a relatively small streaming box that comes with a variety of features:
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Plays up to 720p HD video
- Low power consumption
- Works on both newer and older model TVs
A distinguishing factor among streaming devices: which channels they include. Not all streaming devices are compatible with every streaming video service, but Roku had quite a few options:
- Netflix – has full seasons of TV shows and movies
- Hulu Plus – offers new episodes of some current shows, full seasons of other TV shows, and a selection of movies
- Crackle – provides free movies
- HBO GO – includes movies and past seasons of every HBO show (requires an HBO subscription)
- Showtime Anytime – offers episodes of Showtime shows (requires a Showtime subscription)
- Amazon Instant Video – includes movies and TV (there’s a fee for each download, but some videos are free with an Amazon Prime subscription)
Retailing at $99 at the Apple Store, the Apple TV is a good option if you’re already an Apple fan, since you can stream content from your iOS devices – like the iPad or iPod – to your Apple TV with a feature called AirPlay. You can also access your iTunes account from the set-top box and watch movies, TV shows, or listen to music you already own.
If you don’t own an Apple device, streaming isn’t an option for you. However, you can still buy or rent videos directly from the Apple TV, access the included streaming services, and sync any music, TV shows, and movies you’ve purchased and stored in iTunes. The Apple TV is also sleek-looking and has a few good features, like:
- Built-in Wi-Fi
- Fits in the palm of your hand
- Very low power consumption
- Plays video up to 1080p
While the Apple TV’s big draw is iTunes compatibility, you can also stream videos from some of the most popular online options, including:
The Boxee Box is currently going for $176.99 on Amazon. While more expensive than the Roku LT or the Apple TV, the Boxee Box is capable of playing almost any video or audio file you can throw at it, and contains some features you won’t find in its competitors:
- Built-in Web browser with support for Flash media
- Can play video up to 1080p in almost any popular format
- “Watch Later” feature lets you send content you find online to your Boxee Box to view later
- Optional TV add-on ($50 extra) integrates broadcast television content into the Boxee Box interface
- Remote control with a full keyboard on the back
The Boxee Box also has a decent number of streaming apps, including:
- Vudu (on demand pay-per-view movies)
For Google TV, you have two options: Either purchase a new HDTV with Google TV built-in or buy a separate streaming box (called Buddy Boxes by Google) to convert your existing TV. Right now, there are a few buddy boxes on the market – the most prominent being the Sony Internet Player with Google TV ($199.99) and the Vizio Co-Star ($99.99).
Since both devices do the same thing, and the Vizio Co-Star costs half the price of the Sony, I immediately dropped the idea of buying the Sony. Here’s what you’d get with the Vizio Co-Star:
- Built-in Web browser (Google Chrome)
- Integrates with your cable or satellite box
- Remote with a full QWERTY keyboard for Web browsing
- Compatibility with the OnLive gaming service to play current video games (requires subscription and the purchase of games)
Unlike competitors, Google TV is designed to integrate your existing cable or satellite subscription with Internet-based streaming video. You can search for the name of a TV show you want to watch and Google TV will figure out your options for getting it, either from your existing television lineup or a streaming provider. If you don’t have cable or satellite, the benefit of the feature will be limited, but you will get access to the Google Chrome store and several streaming video apps. Some examples:
Since I was hunting for the best overall value, I went with the Roku LT. For $49.99, it’s not only the cheapest streaming device, but it provides a large selection of channels. I hesitated at first because it doesn’t offer YouTube, but quickly realized I could find just about everything YouTube offers on the other channels. The functionality has been seamless so far. All of the apps stream to my TV without buffering or other errors.
The close runner-up: A Google TV buddy box like the Vizio Co-Star. If you’re looking for the most features, Google TV is your best bet since you get streaming video, built-in Web browsing, and the option to play video games through the device. But the Google TV device is also one of the more expensive options, and if you don’t have cable, you’ll lose out on a few features.
Are you using a streaming device on your TV? Sound off on our Facebook page and tell us which device is your favorite. But if you haven’t cut your cable yet, check out You Don’t Have to Pay for Cable TV. We may be able to change your mind.