All smart TVs have streaming apps, like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and so on. Media streamers are nothing but streaming apps. Sure it's convenient to use your TV's built-in services, but are they the best experience?
Probably not, actually. More to the point, is it worth getting a media streamer if you already have a smart TV? Maybe...
Behold, the pros and cons of TV apps and media streamers.
First, some terminology. A "smart" TV is one with built-in apps for services like Netflix. Often they have web browsers, games, and other timesinks. A media streamer is something like Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and so on. They are solely for the purpose of streaming content from the Internet or local network to your TV. On a basic level, smart TV features and media streamers do the same thing (stream content), but how well they do it varies a lot.
Here's a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Winner: Media streamer
Loser: Smart TV
If all you want is Netflix, everything streams Netflix. I think I've seen a toaster that did it. But beyond that, it's a lot less certain.
A vital component to any streaming device (TV or dedicated), is the ability to buy and rent current TV shows and movies. The two services with the most content in that regard are Amazon and Apple. No TV has iTunes (and please don't mention the Apple Television vaporware), and not all of them have Amazon Instant Video.
Google Play is a reasonable runner-up, but it still doesn't have the breadth of content of Apple and Amazon. Vudu is cool, but primarily movies, and US-only. Sony's Video Unlimited service is decent too, but not widely available either.
The better media streamers, like Roku and Apple TV, have Amazon Instant Video (or iTunes), along with a lot of other content like HBO Go in the US or Sky's Now TV in the UK. HBO Go is available on numerous streaming boxes, but the only smart TVs that have it are from Samsung. Now TV is pretty ubiquitous in the UK.
The Apple TV also has the added ability to easily stream music from your computer, which I use all the time. Other TVs and streamers can do this, but it's not as smooth an experience.
To me, just that fact is enough to justify the cost of a media streamer. If the point is to watch content, media streamers offer more content providers than any single television.
Ease of use
Tie, sort of
It's hard to compare all TVs against all media streamers. The better streamers, like the Roku 3 and Apple TV, are fast and easy to use. Everything is laid out well, and you can get to what you want quickly and simply. Even the Fire TV, despite its other issues, is easy to navigate and fast to use.
Some TVs have decent menus for their streaming content... but most don't. Worse, they're often slow and clunky to use.
So on that level, the better media streamers win. There is the added simplicity, however, of only having one remote with a smart TV. Most people don't like an Ottoman of Remotes, and using just the TV's apps could save you from having to buy a universal remote.
Comparing the best media streamers against the worst smart TVs, it's an easy win for the streamers. The lesser streamers against the better TVs, it's more of a wash.
Since the better streamers are barely any more expensive than the worst, generally I'd say this category is a win for streamers. But overall, I guess I have to concede a tie.
Winner: Media streamer
Loser: Smart TV
Chromecast is another streaming platform that has evolved significantly since launch, improving mirroring, adding app compatibility and promising even more improvements as developers dig in. Amazon Fire TV promises more updates of its own, including adding more catalogs to its voice search, but remains stubbornly US-only for now.
Then there's the TVs. If you bought a smart TV a couple years ago chances are its interface, apps and capabilities, not to mention its response time, seem dated by comparison to a $99 box. Most smart TV platforms are updated only during the year they were launched, if then, and afterward age as quickly as any technology.
One exception is Samsung's Evolution Kit, but it costs twice as much as a Roku 3.
Generally, picture quality shouldn't be an issue. If your TV's internal scaler isn't great, however, it's possible the scaler inside a media streamer is better. This could mean Netflix et al will be sharper than when streamed internally from your TV. This is because, for the foreseeable future, most streaming content will be 720p. There are some 1080p and even 4K exceptions, but they're still fairly rare.
What has to happen is the TV or streaming box must upconvert the 720p to your TV's 1080p (or 4K). How well this is done determines how detailed the image can look.
If you do have a 4K TV, you will have to use your TV's built-in Netflix app (above) to see 4K content from them.
Remember, just because your TV's Info button says "1080p" doesn't mean that's what the signal is from Netflix, that's just what your TV is receiving from the media box.
Tie, sort of (again)
Generally speaking, a smart TV costs about $100, or around £80, more than a "dumb" TV. The better media streamers cost about the same. So technically it's a wash.
It's not that simple, however. If you want to get a good, top-of-the-line TV, it's going to have smart features built in, whether you want them or not. So if you want to add a media streamer, you're going to be paying for the same apps (mostly, as mentioned above) twice.
That last part is the kicker. Most people are going to be faced with adding a media streamer to a TV that already has most of the streaming services. Looking at it that way, this becomes more complex than a simple tally of ties, wins, and losses.
The question really is whether a media streamer is worth $100, or £80, when you already have a smart TV?
Personally, I'd say yes, and I hate recommending people spend more money than they need to. It comes down to Amazon and iTunes. Being able to watch just about any show or movie whenever you want is huge, and most smart TVs just don't offer that ability. Many also have clunky, annoying interfaces, and they're not updated frequently.
Sure there are some exceptions, but having a good media streamer means you can ignore a smart TV's apps, both when you're shopping, and when you've got it home. That's worth $100 to me, easily.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. plasma, active versus passive 3D, and more. Still have a question? Send him an email! He won't tell you what TV to buy, but he might use your letter in a future article. You can also send him a message on Twitter @TechWriterGeoff or Google+.