Watch Internet Video on Your TV:
Streaming Media Players
These devices let you watch video from the Internet on your TV. For example, you can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, or YouTube on your TV using these devices.
Google Chromecast will mirror whatever is on your computer's Chrome browser onto your TV screen, giving you unfettered access to the Internet on your TV screen, but it requires a bit more know-how to set up.
Amazon Fire TV, Roku, and Apple TV, on the other hand, have built-in "apps" that give you content from mostly paid services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, etc. There are also some channels offering free video like Crackle and YouTube. Think of these like a video rental store in your home.
None of these are a direct replacement for cable TV, but when used along with an antenna, can go a long way to replace cable.
These are all good boxes, but my current recommendation for most peolple is the Roku 3. It has the most channels, a handy voice search feature, headphone output on the remote, and is cheaper than Amazon Fire TV. Amazon Fire TV is great but is a bit more expensive. Apple TV is getting old but is the only way to access your iTunes, so Apple fans may want it. Chromecast is good for more geeky folks who don't mind using their computer with their TVs.
Note that recent TVs and DVD players are coming with streaming functionality built-in, so look for that. It's like getting one of these boxes included in the TV. Also, if you have an XBox 360, Sony PS3 or Nintendo Wii, you can subscribe to Netflix. If you have an XBox, you'll need a XBox Live Gold account to do so.
Please also note that these boxes don't record. If you want recording capability, check out my page on DVRs that you can use with an antenna.
Finally, please note that these boxes are not for watching shows in real time. You usually watch recorded shows after they've aired. For many this is a plus, since they can watch at their convenience. Some readers have been confused about this however.
In some ways, the Amazon Fire TV might be the easiest-to-use out of all of the set-top boxes. It comes already set up with your Amazon account (so you don't have to enter your password), and has a voice search feature so you don't have to use the cumbersome letter picker to search (note Roku 3 has this feature now as well).
It has all of the standard pay channels like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and so forth, plus channels with free video such as Crackle and YouTube. Read my full review here.
There is now a "little brother" to the Amazon Fire TV called the Amazon Fire TV Stick. It's much cheaper at only $39 at the time of this writing (with frequent special deals). Like the Chromecast, it's a small stick tht you plug into your TV's HDMI port. The main things you lose are the voice remote (but you can download an app for your phone to do this), some processing power (it's a bit slower), and some of the higher-end games. It's great if you travel and want to watch these services in a hotel room, for example.
Chromecast - Requires a Computer or Android Phone
But, this requires a computer or laptop to be near your TV, but it opens up your TV to almost unlimited content from free websites as well as paid services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and so forth. Chromecast will also work with some Android phones if you install an app (however, some video streaming sites block content on phones so you might not be able to get quite as much content).
Chromecast plugs into your TV's HDMI input, so you will need a modern TV. You can read my full review here.
Chromecast is great if you are tech-savvy and have a computer near your TV, and you don't mind using your computer to watch TV. It gives you access to the most content, because you can project whatever is in your browser onto your TV. But, if you don't want to mess with a computer when you watch TV, go with one of the other boxes on this page. You can purchase Chromecast here or click the link below.
Roku - Lots of Channels, Works on Older TVs, My Pick!
The Roku is the veteran streaming TV box, with the most "channels", and many people swear by it. If you have an older TV with no HDMI input, this is the way to go (Roku 1 has composite video output for older TVs, but Roku 2 and 3 do not), as most of the other boxes on this page only have HDMI.
With the Roku player, you can stream Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu Plus, and many other pay services.
Many people ask me if Roku is a direct replacement for cable TV or an antenna. The answer is "no". There are lots of free "channels" on Roku, but the most popular ones like Netflix or Hulu Plus require payment. Out of the box, you can't simply stream all of the network stations on your Roku like you would with cable TV or an antenna (without adding other stuff). It's a convenient and easy way to watch content from the Internet on your TV.
Roku 3 now has voice search, just like Amazon Fire TV. Since it costs less than Amazon Fire and has more channels, Roku 3 is now my number one set-top box recommendation!
Read my full review of Roku or click below for more info:
Apple TV - For Apple Fans
Apple TV is great if you have a lot of iTunes content and have a lot of Apple products. The video purchase and rental costs on iTunes are a bit higher than Amazon though. It also offers Netflix, YouTube, and a small, but growing, number of other channels.
If you own a lot of other Apple products, like iPads, iPods, and iPhones, Apple TV offers tight integration with those devices. You an stream content wirelessly from your iPad to the Apple TV box and watch it on your TV. This is pretty cool - almost true Internet access on your TV (some sites are blocked). For more info, read my complete review of Apple TV.
Unlike Apple TV and Roku, TiVo Premiere allows you to record 75 hours of broadcast shows right in the box. You hook your antenna right up to it. In addition, you can watch shows from Hulu Plus, Netflix, and Amazon Prime (for additional charge, of course), not to mention YouTube. TiVo also has one of the best user-interfaces around, in my opinion.
All of this is great until we get to the cost of TiVo: $14.99/month or $499 for lifetime service. That is where they lose me. I am a cheapskate and hate paying $150 for the base unit plus $15 monthly fee, or alternatively, $700 for the base unit with no monthly fee.
Your Smart TV / DVD Player / Game Console
Many TVs and DVD players are now being sold with Internet capability, so that you can get Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc. on them without additional hardware. Check your manuals to see if your devices have this capability before buying a separate box.
Furthermore, all modern gaming consoles such as Playstation and Xbox have these capabilities as well. Try these features before buying another box.
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