You have probably been hearing your friends ramble on about ditching cable and joining the cord-cutting movement. They have also told you that you could get a media streaming device and save a truckload of cash on cable.
You’ve even done some internet research and stumbled upon our buying guide on The Best Media Streaming Devices of 2018.
Looking at all these options and others that haven’t been mentioned, you’d like to know how we arrived at our decisions and recommendations. The following is a list of factors to consider when buying a media streaming device.
Resolution and Playback Quality
For both novice and power users, the first factor when purchasing any kind of video playing or media streaming device is the picture quality and resolution. If you have an HD television, you’ll probably hover around the budget spectrum of media streaming devices capable of HD quality since 4K media streamers are generally expensive and won’t work for your TV anyway. However, if you own a 4K or 4K HDR TV, you’ll probably want a streaming box that leverages the 4K capabilities of your TV display.
App selection range
Conventionally, the range of apps supported by a device has been the most important factor when choosing a media streaming device. Over time, the various platforms available have widened their app selection ranges such that most apps are available no matter the platform you choose. However, before adding your chosen streaming box to your cart, do some background research on whether your chosen media box supports a particular app. Or you can ask us in the comments and we’ll gladly help you out.
In general, larger set-top box designs such as the Amazon Fire Cube, NVIDIA Shield and the Xiaomi Mi Box and the Amazon Fire TV are faster and perform better than streaming sticks such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku Streaming Stick, and the Roku Streaming Stick+. That is because the set-top boxes have significantly more powerful hardware and features such as cooling vents that make their operation smoother. On the other hand, the prices also correlate pretty strongly with the size, form factor, and performance (loading speeds, smoothness, network stability etc.).
Vendor Lock/ Ecosystem Tie-ins
If you want Apple media services such as Apple Music and iTunes Video, you can only access them via the Apple TV. On the other hand, Amazon Fire TV devices have the best support for Amazon Prime Video while Google Music, Google Play Movies, and TV are best accessed via Android TV devices and the Google Chromecast. Roku is one of the neutral parties since it offers apps from Google, Amazon and other competing video services alongside its own apps. However, the Roku ecosystem lacks some advanced features such as voice control and smart home controls seen in other ecosystems.
When starting out, media streaming devices had static app lists. However, they now include live content recommendations and feeds based on users’ viewing habits. For example, Apple TV has an app that helps track new content, Amazon and Android TV have recommendation feeds built into the device home screens, and Roku has the Roku Feed. You can look up some of these features to figure out what is best for you.
Support for Captive Portal
Sometimes people opt to carry their streaming devices such as TV sticks when traveling for business trips and the like. While moving around, one may run into Wi-Fi networks in hotels and residences such as Airbnb that require one to sign in via a web portal to access the network. The web portal required to sign into a Wi-Fi network is referred to as a “Captive Portal”, and not all streaming devices support the feature. In this case, do some background checks about the device. However, if the device has an inbuilt web browser, it will most likely have captive portal support.
Network Connectivity and Ports
If you plan to connect USB sticks, SD Cards, Audio Outputs and other devices such as external drives and Network Attached Storage (NAS) to your media streaming device, then you need to look out for devices with Ethernet ports, USB, SD Card slots, and audio outputs such as Optical Audio. Since most media streaming devices access the Internet wirelessly, ensure the device you want to buy is updated to the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard to ensure your streams are stable and also to avoid getting kicked out of overcrowded networks.
Remote Control and Voice Features
Some remote controls can control both your TV and the media streaming device, others are loaded with buttons to rewind, pause, play, fast forward and other special functions. Others like the Amazon Fire TV have minimalist remote controls and even include voice control. However, no remote control is perfect so ensure you check the remote features for your chosen device to decide the most important features.