If you're looking to buy a streaming box, it's likely you'll end up choosing between three products: Chromecast, Roku, and Apple TV.
Those aren't the only streaming boxes on the market, but they're by far the most popular and for good reason -- they all come in models under $100 and offer a lot of value for your money. While the Roku 3 remains my favorite streamer and a CNET Editors' Choice, it's not necessarily the best choice for every buyer and the Google Chromecast and Apple TV are compelling alternatives.
So which media streamer is right for you? Let's take a look at all three options.
Roku 3 ($99)
Why it's great: Roku 3 is still the best box
If I could recommend just one streaming box, it would be the Roku 3. Here's why:
Over 1,000 apps: Roku is the undisputed winner when it comes to content, with a massive channel library that includes Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, MLB.TV, Amazon Cloud Player, Vudu, PBS, TWC TV, and (finally) YouTube. Roku is often the first to get new channels, plus the company has a good track record of bringing updates to its boxes years after they've been released.
Headphone jack in the remote: Plug in headphones to the Roku 3's remote and you can listen to whatever you're streaming, while it automatically mutes your TV so nobody else in the room is bothered. It's a truly killer feature, especially for late-night watching without bothering anyone else.
Blazing-fast: The Roku 3 has the fastest chip of any of Roku's boxes and it shows, making it feel more responsive than any other streaming box I've used.
Cross-platform search: Roku's cross-platform search is a standout feature, letting your scour through Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Vudu, Crackle, M-Go, and Blockbuster On Demand to see where content is available. It's undeniably frustrating to rent a movie that you later find out was available on Netflix (I've done it), and Roku's search takes a lot of the pain out of finding out what is available where.
Why it's not perfect
Relatively expensive: $100 isn't that much, but you can buy almost three Chromecasts for the price of the Roku 3. If you don't need everything the Roku 3 offers, it may not be worth the extra money.
No true AirPlay / Google Cast equivalent: Both the Apple TV and Google Chromecast let you use native apps on your smartphone or tablet to push content to your streaming box. It's especially nice for apps when it's easier to use a smartphone interface, and for the Apple TV, it allows you to access a lot of services that don't have a dedicated app, such as Spotify. Roku is starting to offer some of this functionality -- YouTube and Netflix are currently supported, plus you can push photos, music, and videos stored on your phone -- but it's not nearly as widely adopted as the other boxes.
Personal media requires Plex: Roku's never been the best at playing your personal media files -- file format support via its USB port is limited -- but it does support the Plex media server, which makes up for a lot of its shortcomings. However, you still need to run the Plex software on a connected PC, so a Roku isn't the best option if you just want to connect a drive full of files.
Google Chromecast ($35)
Why it's great: Cheap, simple, and small
Chromecast made a splash when it was introduced in July 2013 for just $35, and it's only gotten better since, adding Hulu Plus, Pandora, Google Music, Plex, Vevo, and HBO Go since its debut. Here's why it's great:
$35 is tough to beat: There's something about the magic price of $35 that makes it the perfect impulse buy. Even if you only end up using it a handful of times, you'll feel like you got your money's worth and Google seems committed to continuing to offer regular updates, despite its more limited support of previous platforms like Google TV and the Nexus Q.
The box that isn't a box: The Roku 3 and Apple TV may be compact, but the Chromecast takes small to another level. The sticklike design means it's completely hidden behind your TV, although note it needs power either from your TV's USB port or the included power adapter. While it's not the perfect hotel companion it initially seems like, it's still a nice travel companion if you're staying somewhere with more traditional Wi-Fi access.
Major apps covered: If your streaming-media needs are meager -- a lot of people don't need much more than Netflix and YouTube -- the Chromecast has you covered.
Why it's not perfect: Limited apps and no true TV interface
App selection could still be better: The Chromecast has done a good job of adding more apps, but there are still some significant holes, including Amazon Instant, Spotify, and Rdio, to name a few. Google just announced a Software Development Kit (SDK) for the Google Cast protocol, so more apps should be on the way soon, but it will still be a while before it starts to catch up to Roku.
No cross-platform search: There's no exact equivalent of Google's cross-platform search capability with Chromecast, which is surprising since Google TV's PrimeTime functionality is similar. While some third-party apps offer similar functionality, I haven't found any that are quite as easy to use as Roku's integrated search.
No onscreen user interface or standard remote: Unlike the Roku 3 or Apple TV, the Chromecast doesn't have a true TV-based user interface, other than a static status screen. Everything is controlled through your smartphone or tablet, which means you need to fire up your device every time you want to pause or rewind. Both the Roku 3 and Apple TV offer apps for smartphone/tablet control if you'd like, but the Chromecast can only be controlled one way. For the living room, I personally prefer real buttons over virtual ones, but it's somewhat a matter of preference.
Screen mirroring doesn't work that well: Screen mirroring is a beta feature on the Chromecast and it shows. While the ability to project any content from a Chrome tab to your TV sounds great, in reality I've found it doesn't work that well, especially compared with a similar screen-mirroring feature available on the Apple TV and recent Mac laptops.
Apple TV ($99)
Why it's great: An excellent iOS companion
The Apple TV is the oldest box of the bunch, but that doesn't mean you should necessarily rule it out -- especially if you're invested in the Apple ecosystem.
It 'just works' in the Apple ecosystem: If you're invested in the Apple ecosystem, the Apple TV lets you access all your content on your TV. It works with your purchased iTunes content, including TV shows, movies, and music, plus if you use iTunes Match, all your cloud-stored music is available as well. iTunes Radio was also recently added, given you a free radio option in your living room too.
AirPlay is still awesome: Again, if you have other iOS devices, it's dead simple to push music, photos, and videos from nearly any app to your Apple TV. It also gives you access to a lot of apps that aren't supported natively by the Apple TV; for example, there's no Pandora app on the box, but it's easy to stream Pandora from an iPhone or iPad. And if you have a relatively recent Mac, screen mirroring works pretty well too.
Catching up with apps: The Apple TV used to get a lot of flak for its limited app support, but it's done a much better job recently, adding high-quality services like HBO Go and Watch ESPN within the last year.
Why it's not perfect: Showing its age
Fewer apps and features than Roku: The Roku 3 has (a lot) more apps, cross-platform search, and a remote with a headphone jack in it. None of those are essential features, but they're all nice to have, especially when the Roku 3 costs the same amount.
Very iTunes-centric: The entire Apple TV interface seems designed to push you toward iTunes content, with a home screen almost entirely dominated by iTunes movies, TV shows, and music. That's not a problem if you're all-in on the Apple ecosystem, but it's not ideal if you prefer to rent and buy content from other online stores, like Amazon or Vudu -- neither of which are currently available on Apple TV.
New model coming soon? One final thing to consider: there's a lot of speculation that Apple may release a new Apple TV soon. Those rumors have certainly circulated before, but considering how old the current Apple TV hardware is, I would be surprised if we didn't see a new box by the end of the year, if not within six months.
The good news: they're all pretty good
When it comes to the "big three" streaming boxes, the good news is they're all mature, affordable products. A die-hard iOS user can get a lot of functionality out of the Google Chromecast, and an Android fan can get a lot out of an Apple TV.
As of now, the Roku 3 is still the best option for most buyers, but it's a quickly evolving space, as the Chromecast continues to add more apps, and the rumors intensify about a newer, better Apple TV.