Seemingly every provider has opened the floodgates to charge a few bucks a month, or a la carte, for access to its TV shows, movies, music, podcasts and cat videos. To sip from the stream you can always use your phone or tablet, but eventually you'll probably want to enjoy these services on a larger screen and/or decent speakers.
That's where streaming devices come in. They can all stream Netflix and a bunch of other video and audio apps to your TV and home audio system, and many can do a lot more. It just depends on what you want, and how much you want to pay. Here's a quick tour of our favorite streamers at different price points.
A quick note on pricing: We've used the standard selling prices for these devices, but they often go on sale. Amazon is currently selling its streaming stick for $34, for example, while Roku is offering $10 off the Streaming Stick, Roku 2 and Roku 3.
For the price of a cheapskate dinner for two, you can beam just about every entertainment app on your phone to your TV. Chromecast requires a phone or tablet as a remote control, which can be a pain to pull out (and unlock to fire up the app, especially if it's not charged...), but it's the most budget-friendly streamer we recommend. Just plug it into a free HDMI port on your TV, go through the easy guided setup, and you're ready to go, provided you have decent Wi-Fi.
In the world of cheap streaming sticks, $5 goes a long way. The Fire TV stick has an actual remote and user interface, immediately making it the better living room device than Chromecast, especially for the less tech-savvy streaming subscribers. App selection is superb (it's the cheapest way to get Sling TV, for example) and travelers will appreciate the unique ability to easily jump onto hotel Wi-Fi networks. The main downside is an interface that pushes you into buying even more stuff from Amazon.
In our opinion Roku is hands-down the best streaming ecosystem, and the stick is the cheapest way to get it. Roku delivers more apps than anybody, the best search in the business and a great interface that allows full customization and doesn't favor one provider (like Amazon, Apple or Google) over any other. If your budget is too tight for a Roku 2, then the top streaming stick is a great consolation prize.
Welcome to the sweet spot in the stream. The Roku 2 is our favorite streaming device for the money, because it provides that great Roku interface along with lightning-quick response times that outdo the Streaming Stick. Another reason it's worth $20 more is that, unlike any stick, it has an actual Ethernet port on the back. Yes, Wi-Fi can be great for streaming (and every device on this list works with Wi-Fi), but given the choice we'll stream via a wire every time.
So Apple's World Wide Developer's Conference came and went without an updated living room streamer, but take heart, Apple fans: the current Apple TV is still a great device. Its app selection continues to balloon, its AirPlay feature is still our favorite for screen mirroring and access to unsupported apps like Pandora, and with the recent price cut it's a better deal than ever. Another big selling point is access to Apple's content, namely iTunes Movies and TV shows, Apple Music, and whatever TV service the company dreams up.
We don't love the Roku 3 quite as much as the leaner, meaner Roku 2, but it still makes a pretty strong case for spending the extra $30. The only difference between the two resides in the Roku 3's fancier remote, which is equipped with voice search, a headphone jack for wireless private listening, and the ability to operate the box without needing line of sight.
This picture is not a trick. Yes, a Blu-ray player made this list and yes, it plays games via the PlayStation Now streaming service (controller not included).
The simple fact is that many people still have a use discs (CDs, DVDs, Blu-rays) beyond coasters or crafting. A streamer that can spin, especially one that does so this inexpensively and competently, still has a place in many home entertainment centers.
So as a gaming device we certainly don't recommend this cheapest of PS3s -- at this stage, if you want gaming, save up for a PS4 or Xbox One. But as a media device, the jack-of-all trades PS3 is still pretty appealing. It offers spinning discs, better app selection and faster response times than the company's Blu-ray player, and it's still one of the best file streamers around.
And then there's PlayStation Vue, Sony's new multichannel TV service designed to compete directly with cable. The service is growing more appealing with the addition of more cities and a la carte channels, and a PS3 is the cheapest way to get it on the big screen.
Speaking of gaming, the Shield does casual Android games on the big screen better than any other device, and can even pipe PC games to a TV and utilize Nvidia's online games service, but that's not why it made this list. With Android TV lagging behind other ecosystems, the Shield's appeal as a streamer lies mainly in its 4K capability and its processing power, which among other things allows lightning quick access to local files via Plex or Kodi, and can even work with Android favorites like VLC Player. If none of that means anything to you, then you're probably not in Shield's demographic anyway.
Now *this* is broad-based appeal. A TV with built-in Roku means you don't have to spring extra for streaming stick or box to get the best app ecosystem around. Roku TV runs circles around other Smart TV platforms, and its easy-to-use interface makes watching other sources, like a cable box, easier than ever.
The 2015 Roku TVs from TCL, Sharp and Insignia are just rolling out now, starting at $230 for the 32-inch size. The 40-inch TCL here was reviewed last year, but still it's a great bargain, and like all Roku TVs receives regular updates, including Roku's latest extras like My Feed.
We like the PS4 better as a game console, but the gap is narrowing. Now that you no longer need an Xbox Gold subscription to stream Netflix, app selection is pretty much a wash. Both have access to most major video services, although between the two only Xbox gets Sling TV, Showtime Anytime and FX Now, while only PS4 gets Vue, Plex and Spotify.
If you want to spend another $75 or so you can grab the Kinect version, which enables voice and gesture control.