Our need to play physical disks has all but faded away thanks to the best set-top boxes; face it, no one totes around a Case Logic and eject buttons are for rental car radios and fighter jets.
Chances are also good that you have at least one high-def TV, Blu-ray player or gaming system that can stream content, but there’s still a place for the dedicated media streaming set-top box at home. Nowadays, these tiny powerhouses offer dramatically improved user experiences, access to a wide range of content at 1080p, and price tags easily within anyone’s budget, making it easier than ever to cut the cable company’s iron umbilical cord.
Before you pull the trigger on one though, it’s a good idea to take an inventory of your digital collection. The format of your files (or whether or not you have any files) should help you decide which streamer is right for you. We’ve selected the top five that should satiate any media user, aficionado to amateur.
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For the Medialess: The Roku 3 set-top box is perfect for the man who doesn’t have three terabytes of Vine videos saved but is ready to enter the streaming world. With access to Netflix, YouTube, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, HBO Go, ESPN and more (a lot more — over 1,000 channels in total), it’s pretty tough to run out of content. If you’re a loud gamer or you just like staying up later than your wife, Roku has cleverly placed a headphone jack right onto the remote, which doubles as a gaming controller. Now you can chuck those Angry Birds by your lonesome and no one will be the wiser. The Roku is compatible with dual-band wi-fi, and Time Warner customers can even download an app that lets the Roku replace their cable box. The downside? The Roku 3 doesn’t do a great job streaming local files from your computer, but if you don’t already own a copious amount of content, then this might be the best hundred bucks you’ve ever spent on a set-top box.
For the Chrome Addict: Yes, Chromecast really is $35, and yes, it really does work, albeit a little differently than other media streamers. It streams from your Google Chrome window or apps on your phone, tablet or computer, so while it’s not a free-standing streamer per se, Chromecast accomplishes the same goal as the others: get stuff from the internet onto your TV screen. Right now Chromecast supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, and HBO Go, but again, these operate off of apps on your handheld device. And while Chromecast is still rather young (and a bit limited in features), this is a Google product, meaning that developers and guys without girlfriends are working round the clock to increase compatibility and capabilities. Chromecast supports every wi-fi platform that you could care about, and if you can’t get it to connect, their website is more than helpful.
For the Apple User: If your iTunes library is more extensive than the Library of Congress, then Apple TV is a no-brainer for you. Apple TV will stream anything from your iTunes library via airplay, and with access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, YouTube, and a slew of other services (minus Amazon) there’s plenty to view. On the downside, Apple TV doesn’t have access to Spotify or Pandora (because as usual, Apple only wants you using their format). On the upside, you can rent content directly through the iTunes store, and because it’s made by Apple, the streamer itself is a sexy little machine with a slick aluminum remote.
WD Live TV
For the Pirate: So you’ve been torrenting files since “Survivor” debuted and your collection is as vast as Davey Jones’ locker. Most contemporary media streamers won’t support older file formats, so for you, we recommend the WD Live TV. WD claims that the Live TV will “play virtually any file”, and they mean it: WMV, MOV, JPEG, MKV, it’ll play them all. Except, that is, for Apple files. While originally released in 2011, WD has updated the installed apps on the Live TV to include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Facebook, and anything else you’d like to use. The WD Live TV can also be controlled by your smartphone via a remote app.
For the Early Adopter: So you dropped some green and picked up a new Sony 4k TV — only to discover your current media streamer can’t keep up with the resolution of your sweet new screen. Truth be told, the Sony FMP-X1 technically isn’t a 4k streamer, but it serves a similar role. The puck-like 2TB hard drive ships with 10 4k movies pre-loaded and also provides owners access to Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K service via the web which offers over 100 4k titles to rent ($8) or buy (starting at $30). Be warned, though, it only works with Sony TVs. Using it also requires a new Sony Xperia tablet to control the player and to download content, which increases the total cost of ownership to about $500 on top of the $699. Those are steep limitations to swallow, but for now, it’s the only 4k game in town.