The Best Set-Top Boxes for Streaming Video

Amazon, Google, Apple, and TiVo all have their offerings, but which set-top box is the best on the market?

Apr 5, 2014 at 2:30PM

Earlier this week, Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) unveiled FireTV, a $99 set-top box that plugs into an HDTV and allows owners to easily access Internet video. While Amazon's box is nice, it's far from revolutionary -- just the latest set-top box in what has become an increasingly crowded market. Most of the major tech firms, including Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL), offer similar devices, in addition to TiVo (NASDAQ:TIVO) and others.

Unfortunately, none of them is perfect, and all of them come with trade-offs. The following is a list of the top set-top boxes, their positives and negatives, and who should consider buying them.

it's vital to note, however, that these boxes don't work with every paid-TV provider. While some services (like Amazon Prime and Hulu) are primarily the tools of cord-cutters, others (like HBO GO and WatchESPN) require a paid-TV subscription. For the longest time, and until February, DirecTV would not allow its subscribers to access these paid apps through Roku's devices. So if you're thinking about picking up one of these devices, be sure to check with your paid-TV provider to see if they support it.

Amazon's FireTV: A fast interface for the Amazon junkie
Amazon's set-top box is the latest to launch, giving it a leg up on the competition. Amazon has worked hard to ensure a blazing fast interface with nearly instantaneous load times, and has given the FireTV a few notable features, including voice search and the ability to play video games.

Unfortunately, the voice search doesn't work across all services, and Amazon's box can't access HBO GO. Both of those things should change in the coming months but are notable drawbacks for the time being. The gaming options are interesting, but they pale in comparison with the experience offered by a full-powered video game console (though both Amazon's FireTV, and the games it offers, are much less expensive).

Who should buy it: Amazon Prime subscribers who can wait for HBO GO.

Apple TV: An extension of the walled garden
Apple hasn't significantly updated its set-top box since 2012, and it shows. Compared with the FireTV, its interface is a bit sluggish, and it can't play video games or do voice search. It has a robust offering of apps, but a few are missing, notably Showtime Anytime and Amazon Prime Video.

But Apple TV excels when it comes to working within Apple's walled garden. Any music or video content purchased through iTunes is easily accessible, and the Apple TV allows iPhone and iPad owners to mirror the screens of their mobile devices on the TV.

Who should buy it: Anyone who owns Apple's other products and buys a lot of videos on iTunes

Google's Chromecast: Dirt cheap
Google's Chromecast isn't really a set-top box at all, but rather a streaming dongle that plugs directly into an HDMI port and connects to the Internet wirelessly. By far, the best thing about the Chromecast is its price: at just $35, it's about one-third the cost of the Apple TV. Apps are limited, for the time being, but more should arrive in the near future. Still, a few are unlikely to ever arrive: Amazon Prime or iTunes, for example.

Unfortunately, the Chromecast lacks a traditional remote control -- owners have to give it commands with a tablet, smartphone or PC. Rather than open the app on your TV, for example, you open it on your smartphone, then "cast" it to your television. Frankly, the process can be confusing for those who are not technically inclined.

Who should buy it: Techies on a budget

Roku 3: All the apps you'd ever want
When it comes to app availability, nothing beats the Roku 3. Just about every streaming app imagine is available, with the exception of proprietary digital stores like Apple's iTunes and Google Play.

At $99, it's more expensive than the Chromecast, but compared with its competition, it's probably the best set-top box on the market right now (at least until Amazon's FireTV ads more apps). Of course, the inability to access Apple and Google's digital stores is going to be a major hangup for anyone who has bought a lot of movies and TV shows from Apple and Google.

Who should buy it: Those who haven't invested a lot of money into Apple and Google's digital stores

Blu-ray Player with apps: It's about the discs
Then there are the Blu-ray players: In many ways, they're the DVD/VCR combos of old, bridging the gap between disc-based media and Internet content. Most of the newer models offered by the name-brand companies (Samsung, Sony, LG, etc) allow owners to access Web-based content.

At least for the time being, Samsung seems to lead the pack, offering owners of its later-model Blu-ray players access to more apps than its rivals. Samsung's BD-H5100 retails for about $80, and offers many (though not all) of the most popular Internet video apps.

Who should buy it: Anyone who has an extensive blu-ray collection

TiVo's Roamio: Not for cord-cutters
TiVo's Roamio is a bit different from the other set-top boxes on this list: Rather than offering an alternative way to watch video on your TV, TiVo's Roamio seeks to replace your cable box entirely, combing Internet video services like Hulu and Amazon Instant Video with the DVR and paid-TV service you already have.

Unfortunately, it's quite expensive -- the base model starts at $199 and can be as costly as $599 depending on the size of the DVR you desire. Then there's a monthly subscription cost, though as TiVo rightly points out, it might allow you to reduce your existing cable bill (many paid-TV providers charge for their equipment).

Who should buy it: Those looking to supplement their current cable subscription with Internet video services

Video game consoles: More than playing games
Lastly, there are the video game consoles, including the Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, Wii and Wii U. While their primary purpose is to play video games, most of them also offer access to the most popular Internet video apps.

Of the ones mentioned, the two best and most reasonably priced are the PS3 and the Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 offers access to far more apps than the PS3, including Starz, Syfy, MTV and Xfinity, among many others. It's also less expensive than PS3, starting at just $179 (versus $249 for the PS3). Unfortunately, it requires an active subscription to Xbox Live Gold, which costs about $60 per year -- that's in addition to any other subscription fees paid for digital video content. The PS3 has no requirement and also offers the ability to act as Blu-ray player.

Who should buy it: All the consoles offer up powerful digital video capabilities, but are still much more expensive than the non-gaming competition. Only buy if you'll use the video game functionality.

Your cable company is scared, but you can get rich
Outside of the Roamio, all of these devices are helping to facilitate the death of cable -- many cord-cutters buying these devices understand that cable is going away. But do you know how to profit? There's $2.2 trillion out there to be had. Currently, cable grabs a big piece of it. That won't last. And when cable falters, three companies are poised to benefit. Click here for their names. Hint: They're not Google or Apple. 

 

Sam Mattera has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Apple, DirecTV, and Google (A and C shares) and owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, and Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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