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Content streaming is no longer an up-and-coming technology. I can say confidently that streaming is in full swing, and thankfully, it’s here to stay. While we expect to see greater bandwidth and even more audio and video content in the future, the Internet has become a major medium for watching movies, exploring new TV shows, and listening to our favorite music. These days, streaming devices are as common in home entertainment systems as disc-based devices such as Blu-ray players are, perhaps even more so. If you want to binge-watch a popular TV series, odds are you will to turn to an Internet-based device to fulfill your entertainment needs.
While looking at the sheer number of streaming devices on the market, it’s easy to get intimidated, or worse, think that all devices are pretty much the same. Choosing the right one may not be as difficult as you think, and if you look beyond the surface, you can discern the differences that make these devices unique. In this overview, we're going to explore a variety of content streamers from popular manufacturers. While they all offer access to the Internet, they each have characteristics that make them worthy additions to your home entertainment system.
At first glance, the Google Chromecast doesn't look like an ordinary streaming device. At just 2.8 inches long, it's practically the size of a USB flash drive. Equipped with an HDMI connector, it can connect easily to your high-definition display. The Chromecast is powered by a micro-USB interface, and can also be powered by an available USB port on your television. A standard USB charger is included. For high-speed Internet access, the Chromecast features single-band 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. Given its small form factor, it's not equipped with an Ethernet port.
The Chromecast supports video resolutions up to 1080p. Once connected to your display, you can share content via compatible apps from an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet; essentially using your portable device as a content delivery system and remote control. Furthermore, select Android devices can mirror their screens to the Chromecast for displaying on your TV’s larger screen. There’s even an extension available for the Google Chrome Browser that allows you to mirror your Web pages and associated content directly to the Chromecast. This is a great feature for sharing your favorite Internet content with family and friends.
While not all audio and video apps are compatible with the Chromecast, the compatibility list continues to expand. Currently, the Chromecast offers access to popular services such as Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and YouTube.
Roku Streaming Stick
Roku is a popular name in the streaming community, and when it comes to content, Roku clearly believes there is strength in numbers. With more than 1,000 channels to choose from in the Roku library, you’ll likely have a hard time drifting into boredom with one of these devices connected to your TV. That amount of content rivals the offerings of satellite and cable providers. The Roku Streaming Stick is similar to the Chromecast in size and connectivity, but adds dual-band Wi-Fi, allowing you to access both 2.4- and 5GHz wireless networks.
As the Roku Streaming Stick is designed to connect discreetly to your television, it includes an RF remote for controlling the device without requiring a clear line of sight. The remote control also features shortcut buttons, which allow you to access favorite channels, such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. While the Roku doesn’t mirror content in the same way the Chromecast does, you can download the free Roku app for your iOS and Android device. This app allows you to use your smartphone or tablet as a remote control. You can even use it to share your locally stored music, photos, and even your personal videos. In this regard, it has an edge over the Chromecast, which can only access content that is already uploaded on the Internet, not stored locally on your smartphone.
With the Roku 3 you get the same great access to the Roku library that the streaming stick provides. With its larger form factor, the Roku 3 packs other notable features that make it easier to consume multimedia content. In addition to streaming Internet multimedia, this device features a USB port that supports music, videos, and pictures. It also features an Ethernet port for wired high-speed Internet connections when Wi-Fi isn’t available.
Both the Roku 3 and Streaming Stick support 720p and 1080p playback. While the Streaming Stick has an integrated HDMI connector, the Roku 3 requires an HDMI cable, which is sold separately. The remotes that these items include also differ quite a bit. Not only does the Roku 3’s remote have a headphone jack for personal listening, a great option for not waking your housemates or neighbors, but it also supports motion gestures for gaming. To get your interactive gaming underway, a free version of Angry Birds Space is included. A pair of in-ear headphones is also included. At just one inch high and 3.5 inches wide, the Roku features a compact footprint and can be placed alongside your other home entertainment components easily.
When it comes to ecosystems, few can match Apple’s impressive integration functionality. Using your AirPlay-equipped Apple device, such as an iPod, iPhone, or iPad, you can easily share and mirror your content to the Apple TV for displaying on your television’s screen in vivid 1080p. While AirPlay mirroring is only available on select devices, the Apple TV also allows you to share content stored on other devices, such as Macs and PCs. Furthermore, it features iCloud integration, which gives you the ability to access the content you have stored in Apple’s cloud service.
Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity are both included on the Apple TV for high-speed Internet access. And, like the Roku 3, the Apple TV enjoys a compact frame, at a mere 3.9 inches, for easy placement. You will also find an optical audio output on the rear of the device for digital audio connections to components like home theater receivers.
When it comes to Internet content, the Apple TV has lots of it. All the major players are here, via built-in apps, including Netflix and YouTube. You can also access sports content via NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB apps. The entertainment doesn’t stop there—the Apple TV also gives you to access to the iTunes store. The iTunes store is Apple’s deservingly popular multimedia Internet-based marketplace. From there you can shop a massive library of music, movies, and TV shows to rent or own. Your purchased contently is always readily available for playback.
Netgear NTV300SL NeoTV Max
Netgear is a computer-peripheral powerhouse. It offers some of the best networking equipment available, and it’s safe to say that the company knows a thing or two about accessing the Internet. Its NTV300SL NeoTV Max Media Player dares to be more than just a streamer. Sure, you can access services like Pandora and Hulu Plus, but via DLNA technology you can also access multimedia content stored on your other compatible networked devices. This player even supports 3D content available via the VUDU streaming service. If you don’t want to rely solely on the Internet, the NeoTV Max also features a microSD card slot for playing media stored on portable cards.
Like the Apple TV and Roku 3, this media player features an HDMI output and supports up to 1080p resolution. It also supports the playback of 5.1-channel surround sound. Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity are built-in for Internet access and a QWERTY remote is included for easy and intuitive system navigation. Downloading the free NeoTV remote app will allow you to control the media player from an Android or iOS device.
Slingbox has made quite the positive impression on consumers and industry insiders alike with its DVR-compatible devices over the years. Its products enable you to "place shift" and "time shift," meaning you can access your television's content on a mobile device or computer when you're away from home (place shifting), and watch recorded shows whenever you want (time shifting). The Slingbox M1 attaches to your DVR, satellite or cable box, and in true Slingbox fashion, it enables you to control the connected equipment from afar, such as programming a show to record on your DVR. While the M1 doesn't offer app-based content streaming like the other devices in this overview, it is compatible with the Apple TV and Roku devices, which further expands your entertainment options.
The M1 features Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity, and like the other devices mentioned, supports 1080p resolution. As an added convenience, you don’t need to be connected to your home’s network to consume your content. The Slingbox M1 allows you to enjoy your media wherever Internet access is available. Even better, you can do so without fees, as the Slingbox M1 doesn’t require a monthly subscription.
Choosing the Right Streaming Device
I’m excited to see how far streaming technology has come. While manufacturers continue to push the envelope on resolution and available content, there’s no need to wait to see what’s coming down the pipeline. At B&H, we have a wide selection of streaming devices that are ready for prime time. Whether you want an HDMI dongle device, access to games, or you’re fond of a particular ecosystem, there’s likely a nice product that’s available now that fits your needs—and then some.