Quick: which type of device is currently dominating Amazon’s Best Sellers list, holding the top two overall spots (as of this writing)?
E) Streaming Media Players
Answer: E. And it’s not close. Between the Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, Roku 3, and Apple TV, streaming media players are lighting up online retail. As customers continue to cut cable, the streaming box (or stick) is the hottest new device, a product that is somehow both affordable (usually, sub-$100) and magical (can beam just about any media from one screen to the next).
But which streaming device should you pick? Clearly, a lot comes down to content. If you’re a Yupp TV fanatic, you’ll pick the Sony NSZ-GS8, ASUS Cube, or VIZIO Co-Star LT. Decision made. Suppose, however, you’d simply like a nice blend of Netflix and Hulu, plus the ability to use your friend’s roommate’s password to access HBO Go? Good luck choosing: You’ve still got a dozen different boxes, sticks, and hockey-puck-shaped streamers that meet your needs.
Since we have no way of know whether you’re a Mad Men junkie or Game of Thrones fan—and since all the top boxes seem to be getting all the same services anyway—let’s put the actual content aside.
Instead, we set out to rank the 18 most recent streaming media players based on specs, features, usability and expert reviews. We considered every major streamer released or updated since January 2013, looking at the following factors:
– Specs and features: This primarily includes output resolutions and audio support, but also factors in wireless connectivity and features (like voice control, screencasting, and DVR functionality).
– Expert reviews: What do the likes of PC Mag, CNET, TechHive, TechRadar, LAPTOP Mag, Home Theater Review, and Wired think? We aggregated review scores to get the best big picture perspective.
Here’s what we found:
18. Sony NSZ-GS8
17. TiVo Roamio
16. ASUS Cube
Like a rejected TV script, these media players simply don’t have the mass appeal or originality to become a true success. With limited inter-device streaming (the NSZ-GS8), clunky user experience (the ASUS Cube), and lackluster file-format support (the TiVo Roamio), they’re all stuck in pre-production. You can feel bad for them, but let them die their natural death. It’s better this way.
15. Roku LT (2013)
14. TiVo Roamio Pro
13. TiVo Roamio Plus
Give these players credit for trying: Each brings something unique to the market. The Roku LT offers a low-priced, lower-resolution alternative to its cousins (the more popular Rokus 1, 2, and 3), while the TiVo Roamio Pro and Plus provide a strong feature set and all the familiar benefits of pause-and-rewind TV. Unfortunately, each ends up feeling a little like a lesser version of a more popular show, like Last Resort was to Lost or like Low Winter Sun was to every detective show ever made.
The One and Dones
12. Philips HMP2000
10. VIZIO Co-Star LT
Each of these players gets a lot right, with reasonably simple set-up, moderate feature sets, and decent compatibility. Still, clicking the Co-Stars’ retro-style remote or navigating the Smart Media Player’s menus has a subtle, dated feel—the kind of feeling you get when watching Seinfeld, licking an envelope or signing a check. These players had their day, but the world is moving on. Oh well. We’ll always have that one season.
Renewed for a Season
8. PLAiR 2
Unique, intriguing, and capable, both the Matricom G-Box Midnight MX2 and PLAiR 2 offer something special. The MX2 features full Android-based web browsing, something none of the top-selling players allow. Meanwhile, the PLAiR 2 is among the cheapest streamers you can buy (as low as $25), a good Chromecast alternative for Google haters and capitalization ignorers across America. Still, neither device is as polished or as reliable as any of the products below. Keep these options in mind, but don’t be surprised if they fade off in another year, like a once-renewed, forever-forgotten sitcom.
7. Roku 1
6. Roku 2
Solid, predictable, and popular, the Roku 1 and 2 are a great choice for anyone who can’t afford the more full-featured Roku 3. Each offers top output resolutions, compatibility across dozens of file formats, and low prices to match (approximately $45 for the Roku 1 and $65 for the Roku 2). Like CSI and Law & Order, expect the two entry-level Rokus to stick around for several more years.
5. Google Chromecast
Compared to the bulky shells of their competitors, Google’s Chromecast and Roku’s Streaming Stick feel like the future: lighter, more efficient, and best of all, under $50. Experts say Roku’s Streaming Stick is roughly comparable to the Roku 2 in features and capabilities, while Google’s Chromecast oozes the company’s commitment to simplicity and user-friendliness. If you’re always using a tablet, laptop, or phone anyway, consider saving the extra cash and grabbing one of these.
3. Apple TV
It’s one thing to make a popular TV show. It’s quite another to bring home the hardware year after year. Whenever they present their new streaming media players, Apple and Amazon don’t walk on stage: they swagger. Where their competitors make simple streaming gadgets, the two tech giants create whole entertainment ecosystems, complete with industry-leading features and seamless operation. Even if you can’t stand one (or both) of these companies, it’s hard to argue that their offerings are simply bigger and better than most. If you already own three Apple products, or if you’re a long-time Amazon Prime subscriber, look no further than the company’s corresponding streamer.
The All-Time Classic
1. Roku 3
Sometimes focus is more important than money and talent. The Roku 3 is the best product of the bunch, with the snappiest operation, top-tier video and audio support, and extra features that make each part of the experience just a little better (for example: the headphone jack on the remote allows for convenient, private listening). Better yet, a Roku 3 won’t lock you into the Apple or Amazon ecosystem. Yes, you can guarantee some success if you hire all the best actors and spend the most money. But Roku understands that the best shows aren’t always about star power and special effects, but rather about tight execution and smart, ensemble casting. For the best overall streaming experience, get the Roku 3.
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest
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