Back-to-school gear for streaming music and movies
CNET rounds up the best back-to-school gift picks for home audio and video, including streaming videos boxes, Bluetooth speakers, and sound bars.
Even students need some downtime to enjoy streaming video and the Roku 3 is the best box out there. The remote with a headphone jack is perfect if your student is sharing a living space, and a blazing-fast processor means the Roku 3 won't seem outdated anytime soon. Roku's platform supports over 1,500 apps, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Spotify, Vudu, and Showtime Anytime, and cross-platform search makes it easy to find what you're looking for no matter which services it's on.
There aren't many devices as student-friendly as a good Bluetooth speaker. The Logitech X300 is a knockout value at $60, delivering a fresh design that's small and sturdy enough for regular use on the go. Its sound quality is solid for this size and it's able to get relatively loud without distorting. And Bluetooth works with pretty much any smartphone or tablet, letting you wirelessly stream audio from any app you'd like.
If your student's looking for a pair of old-school bookshelf speakers, you can't beat the Monoprice MBS-650 on value. They sell for just $32 (plus shipping) when buying direct from Monoprice and they're the best-sounding ultrabudget speakers we've reviewed. They may not have the most stylish look, but they're perfect workhorse speakers, especially if you're on a tight budget.
Another budget-friendly gift option? Google's $35 Chromecast. It's an incredibly cheap video streamer that's a good choice for an Android-loving student, as it's the best device for watching and listening to Google-purchased movies, TV shows and music on your TV. The sticklike design also makes the Chromecast virtually invisible when stashed behind a TV. Best of all, the Chromecast's app library also continues to improve, as it now supports Netflix, YouTube, Pandora, HBO Go, and Rdio.
If you have a bigger gift budget, Roku's Streaming Stick is a nice step up over the Chromecast. You get even more apps -- over 1,500 of them -- including Netflix, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, MLB.TV, Spotify, Vudu, and Showtime Anytime. The Roku Streaming Stick also comes with a traditional remote, so you don't always have a smartphone handy to browse content, like you do on the Chromecast. And if you do prefer the using a mobile app, Roku's cross-platform search also works there too, so you don't need to use a tedious onscreen keyboard.
For students that love music, there's pretty much no beating the Sonos Play:1 for wireless home audio. It's a stylish, wireless speaker that works with just about every streaming music service, including Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, and Google Music. Sonos is also the most reliable wireless audio platform in our experience, beating out newcomers like Samsung and Bose. Bluetooth speakers are better if you need portability, but for a dedicated wireless speaker for the home, the Play:1 is an excellent value.
Another great audio system for students is the Audioengine A2+. These desktop speakers are a particularly great choice if the student's music listening revolves around a laptop, as you can connect the A2+'s directly via USB. They pack excellent sound into a relatively small design, plus there's even an option to add a subwoofer to expand the A2+ to a 2.1 system later down the road.
Students can get a significant discount on an Amazon Prime subscription, which makes the Amazon Fire TV a smart gift for the back-to-school season. Amazon's living-room box has some great features, like voice search built into the remote and superfast loading times for Amazon Instant content. Other apps are supported as well, including Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, although note that HBO Go isn't supported yet. It's not our top pick for streaming boxes, but it's worth considering for Amazon Prime-centric students.
The current iteration of the Apple TV is more than 2 years old, and the focus of constant rumors that it will be imminently upgraded. In the meantime, though, its AirPlay feature -- which enables one-click streaming of music and video from iPhones, iPads, and Macs-- makes it great for owners of those other Apple devices. And Apple is constantly adding new channels to the streaming box, including Fox Now, CNBC, Disney, and ABC News -- in addition to favorites like Netflix, Vevo, and Hulu Plus.
If you're buying a gift for a budding cinema buff, consider the Sony HT-XT1. It's a stylish "sound base" that sits under the TV, delivering the benefits of a sound bar in an even sleeker design. Built-in Bluetooth makes it easy to stream from mobile devices, and there are three HDMI inputs, which is plenty of connectivity for most people. There's no separate subwoofer, but that can be a plus for students in living situations where deep, thumping bass may not be appreciated.
Yes, students are probably "borrowing" their parents' passwords for TV Everywhere apps like HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Showtime Anytime, and the like. But if you want to stream the full gamut of available TV -- including live sports and events like the Oscars and Grammys -- what you really want is a Slingbox M1. Connect it to a spare cable box at the parents' house, and you can stream live TV from any channel to PCs, Macs, Rokus, Apple TV boxes, and most tablets and smartphones (just make sure they have good upstream bandwidth first).