Remember when watching a video meant you needed to leave your house, get in the car and drive to your neighborhood video store?
I can still picture my local Blockbuster, the carpeted floors, fluorescent overhead lights, and shelves lined with empty boxes of all the new releases I could never quite get my hands on. Let’s also not forget the packed parking lots and long lines. Just to rent a movie!
It was a mini event that makes today’s standard of watching a video really easy. Too easy.
Times have certainly changed — all you need to do now is turn on Netflix, HBO Go, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. You don’t even need a TV anymore! But if you happen to buy a new smart TV, you can stream many of your favorite movie subscriptions and services from your TV’s interface.
Cord Cutting Continues to Rise
According to a Forbes.com report, pay TV subscribers decreased 3.4 percent from the previous year and continues to decline steadily, since the trend first emerged in 2010.
Maybe you’ve already joined the “cord cutters” and ditched your cable TV subscription in favor of a streaming box. Or maybe you’re thinking about it. At the time of writing, a cable TV subscription at Comcast starts at $60 a month, while a subscription to Netflix is a mere $11.
Using apps to watch movies or TV shows is not only cheaper, thanks to voice recognition software like Siri and Alexa, it’s even easier to use. If you can talk, you can play a movie on a streaming device. How cool is that?
The competition is fierce and device makers are gladly keeping up with the latest technology trends to bring you the best picture quality with ease and simplicity. The device you choose, however, is up to you, what kind of TV and WiFi connection you have, and your movie-watching preferences.
What Considerations Should Be Made Before You Choose the Device?
Before choosing a streaming device, think about what services you regularly use to watch your favorite movies and shows. You should check to see which device comes with what apps, but generally speaking, most devices come with the big ones, like Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Go, and Showtime.
Obviously, the Amazon Fire TV will cater to Prime customers and emphasize what Amazon has. Similarly, Apple TV also highlights iTunes. Does this mean you shouldn’t get an Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV if you never use iTunes or Amazon Prime? Absolutely not.
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More content providers are recognizing that people aren’t necessarily tied to one specific brand, so if you don’t use iTunes but you’ve purchased a lot of content from Amazon, Vudu, or Google Play, you can create a Movies Anywhere account, download the free app, and watch it on your Apple TV even though it’s not related to iTunes.
Roku, on the other hand, is not tied to any particular marketplace, although it has a free version, The Roku Channel, which offers movies and shows to anyone (with or without a Roku account).
When it comes to the number of supported services, Roku outshines Apple TV and Amazon Fire, as it offers thousands of streaming channels, even if you never end up watching most of them.
If you have a 4K TV, there are certain devices you may want to consider over others. If you have weak WiFi or if your router is far away from your TV area, you may want to get a Roku Ultra, which allows for ethernet plugin for a stronger connection, which means better picture quality.
What is 4K?
If you’re a tech nerd, you’ve no doubt heard about 4K, HD Ultra, and understand what it means when a TV is 1080p. The number four refers to the resolution or number of pixels on a TV, which is 4,096 horizontal pixels. A 4K TV has a total of 8.3 million pixels.
This means it has a super clear resolution and allows you to see defined details and texture when you’re watching your favorite shows and movies. Images on a 4K are super realistic, which brings a new level of the TV-watching experience.
The image on a 4K TV actually looks great up close, far away, or in between. Objects also look more three-dimensional.
According to TrustedReviews.com, you can see more depth, colors, and textures and you should actually sit closer to the TV to see it (although parents of young kids probably wouldn’t like this advice much).
What is the Difference Between Ultra HD and 4K?
There’s also something called Ultra HD, which is very similar to 4K but the resolution on an UltraHD is 3,840 x 2,160.
There’s even something called 8K, which, you guessed it, is twice the pixels of a 4K, with 7,680 x 4,320. According to CNET.com, we’re a long way from 8K TVs being in the average American household, so we’ll focus the majority of the resolution references to 4K since that’s more common.
What is 4K Formatting?
Over the years, the formatting of movies has changed — from VHS (and Beta) to DVD to the fast rise and fall of the Blu-Ray. Each time there was a change like this, the choices for movies would be limited in that particular format.
It’s the same with 4K formatting. You’d have to do a search on your streaming device for movies that are formatted in this way.
Streaming devices and companies are now making the technology 4K-friendly and companies like Netflix, Amazon Video, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Sky Q have formatted their programs to be shown in 4K formatting.
If you don’t have a 4K, Ultra, or 8K TV, more than likely your TV is HD either 720p or 1080p.
Inexpensive Option for 4K Streaming
Amazon Fire TV $69.99
- Yay: Easy to install, simple to use, can be used with 4K and HDR
- Nay: Amazon content is a priority, lots of advertisement on the home screen
Amazon Fire TV was late to the streaming game, as it was only launched in 2014. Because it launched later than the other streaming boxes, its main focus is on 4K TVs, so if you don’t have this, it may not be the best choice for you. Instead, go with the 1080p Amazon Fire TV Stick.
If you have a 4K TV, you already have built-in streaming apps, but chances are you’re not satisfied with the interface, which is why you’re looking elsewhere for an outside streaming device like Amazon Fire TV.
You can go hands-free and flawlessly sync your Alexa devices like Echo or dot. You can start your content without pressing any buttons but only works with Hulu, Playstation, Vue, and showtime.
Plus, you can watch all of Amazon Prime’s content and can watch your Amazon videos, HBO, Showtime and Starz shows as well.
Some notable features of the Amazon Fire TV include:
- Alexa voice integration for help in searching for movie and show titles
- Amazon Prime integration
- Solid connection, with video buffering to the maximum resolution being quick
- You can change the color depth and format
What Can Alexa Do?
Using the remote, you can activate Alexa by holding down the microphone button. Once activated, she can do pretty much the same thing an Echo Dot can do, like answer basic questions, take notes, set timers, and give you an update on the weather.
She can also be used to control other devices in your smart home, such as your Nest thermostat and Phillips Hue lightbulbs. It’s helpful if you want one remote to control the lights and temperature in your home while watching your favorite shows.
You can even ask Alexa about various actors and tell her to rewind 10 seconds if you’ve missed a part of your show or movie.
How to Set Up Amazon Fire TV
- Setting up Amazon Fire TV starts with plugging in the power source from the box.
- Connect your HDMI cable from your TV to the device
- Turn your TV to the selected input channel
- Set up the remote (it comes with batteries) and it should automatically pair with your Amazon Fire TV
- Connect to your home WiFi
What Reviewers Had to Say About Amazon Fire TV
The majority of the 16,000+ customers wrote glowing reviews for the Amazon Fire TV, giving it 4 out of 5 stars. Many said they enjoyed the picture quality and being able to watch their Prime content and filter through movies through voice-activation (Alexa).
Since Amazon has their own Prime marketplace, they make sure to emphasize that in their interface, which may be a turn off for people who don’t use Amazon Prime.
The customers who gave it poor ratings complained about:
- The poor user interface experience, such as horizontal scrolling through movie titles
- Amazon ads cluttering their view
- HDMI cable being too short
More Expensive Option for 4K Streaming
Roku Ultra $89.99
- Yay: Roku Ultra has more options for TV shows and movies in 4K than its competitor devices. It’s a great option for people who have older TVs because of its optical digital audio output (those red, yellow, and white cords).
- Nay: Common customer complaints included inconsistent or slow connectivity issues
Out of all the Rokus, the Roku Ultra is probably the best, especially if you have a 4K TV or plan on buying one. Roku Ultra is the top of the line most powerful player with a quad-core processor which means it has the best picture resolution available.
It’s the most expensive of all the devices, but also has the most amount of features that sets it apart from Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, and Roku’s other streaming devices.
These are some cool features Roku offers that sets it apart from their less expensive devices:
- Night listening mode (I.e. lowers the volume for sudden, loud, explosive sounds and raises the sound for low sound)
- Headphone jack in the remote for private listening
- A remote finder to find a lost remote control
- Ethernet port for a wire plug-in option (for interruption-free streaming)
- Micro SD card slot
- USB port
- Gaming buttons to play your favorite video games
Roku has its own substantial advantages beyond price. It has more 4K apps, including YouTube, whose numerous 4K videos aren’t yet available on Apple TV 4K, and Vudu, which has more first-run 4K movies than iTunes. Roku’s platform is more content-neutral and offers price-centric search results.
Roku even has its own free movie channel, but it’s ad-supported, so expect it to be cluttered with some display advertisement.
How to Set Up Roku
Here’s how to set up a Roku (for any version):
- Plug in the power cord from the Roku to the wall outlet
- Connect the HDMI cable or composite cables from the Roku to the back/side of your TV
- If the Roku has ethernet cable support, plug that in from the box to the back of your router
- Put in the batteries into the Roku remote
- Create a Roku account to keep track of your devices and to add or purchase channels from the Roku Store
What Reviewers Had to Say
At the time of writing, over 2,000 customers who purchased the Roku Ultra on Target.com said they were really pleased with:
- Easy setup process
- Roku Channel that offers hundreds of free movies
- Fast loading channels on apps such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu
- More content than other streaming boxes
- Some services (i.e. DirecTV Now) don’t sync well, and incompatibility issues
- Connectivity isn’t the best, even with high-speed internet
- Remote is not user-friendly (i.e. no mute button)
Here are different kinds of Rokus devices:
Roku Express $30
- All you do is plug it into your TV with the high-speed HDMI cable, connect to the internet and start streaming
- The Express models have a remote where it has to be pointed at the device, unlike the other Roku models.
Roku Express+ $40
Roku understands that not everyone jumps on the bandwagon to get the latest and greatest in tech. Some people don’t have smart TVs with an HDMI cable, and if this is your situation, Roku Express+ is a great way to use your existing TV. Roku comes with the three audio outputs (the white, yellow, and red cables that plug into the back of your TV for sound).
- Great option for someone who doesn’t have a smart TV and needs the red, yellow, and white composite audio/video jacks to plug in the device to your TV.
- Comes with a voice remote with TV power and volume
- You have access to 500,000 plus movies and TV episodes
- This is for those who don’t anticipate buying a 4K TV any time in the near future
Roku Streaming Stick+ $54
- The Streaming Stick+ is a robust version for 4K, HDR, HD streaming with voice remote and TV power and volume.
- Comes with a slightly thinner remote than the Ultra
Is Roku Free?
After you purchase your Roku, you won’t get charged a monthly service subscription or equipment rental fees. If you subscribe to other channels, such as Amazon Prime or Netflix, you’ll get charged the monthly fee for those services, but not for using those services on Roku.
As a note, none of the devices mentioned in this article come with a subscription or fee after you purchase the device. Only the services (or apps) do.
Bottom line: Roku is a solid choice and I like the fact that it offers a number of different devices in their line of products. It’s also a good option for those who want to use an ethernet cable to connect. It’s not as expensive as an Apple TV and if I were in the market for a new device, I would go with the Roku Ultra.
Priciest Version for 4K Streaming
Apple TV 4K $179
- Yay: High-quality streaming for 4K TVs
- Nay: It’s expensive at $179, relative to other devices that offer the same features
I remember my first (and only) Apple TV that I was given as a gift. It was 2012, and at the time, I was using an HDMI cable to connect an extra MacBook that I had to my TV. Getting the Apple TV was such a treat.
It was easy to install (just plug in the power cord and the HMDI cable to your TV). The device was pretty simple — all it did was allow me to easily click on a movie app like Netflix or Hulu to watch TV shows or movies. It also had an iTunes integration, which meant that you could watch purchased or rented movies or shows.
I liked the ease of the remote control, and overall, it was pretty simple. I believe at the time, the retail price was $99, which felt very steep for what it offered.
All it did was connect my Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go accounts. They also offered a lot of random channels, like Bloomberg TV and some YouTube channels — all things I rarely ever watched or found value from.
These days, all you need is an Amazon Firestick to do all that, and it’s way cheaper than an Apple TV.
What About Today’s Apple TV?
Times have changed since 2012 and Apple has joined the ranks of 4K streaming. You can now watch movies and shows in 4K quality, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, ESPN, and Netflix. According to CNET.com, Apple TV delivers the best streaming video available to 4K, HDR, and Dolby Vision TVs.
As with many Apple products, its pleasing to the eye and a streamlined user experience. The Apple TV has a nice remote with sleeker looking controls, more apps, integration of other Apple products and services such as iTunes.
If you own AirPods, Apple TV can automatically pair with them for private listening, which is nice if you don’t want to disturb your family members. You can also pair any bluetooth-friendly headphones with your Apple TV, it doesn’t have to be AirPods, specifically.
AirPlay2 can automatically engage in Dark Room (which means it turns the background of Apple TV’s menu screens from the default white mode to a light gray to darker shade. You can also set this automatically based on your time zone.
It also allows you to connect to your Amazon Prime account so you can access movies and TV shows you’ve purchased or rented.
What Can Siri Do?
You can enable voice search when looking for your favorite movies or TV shows by hitting the mic button on the remote control and asking Siri to look for it. Similar to Amazon’s Alexa, you can ask Siri all kinds of questions about movies, actors, trivia, genres, and more.
This comes in handy if you’re not sure what you want to watch but know you’d like to see in a specific genre or even filter by year.
You still need to make purchases through iTunes, and if you want to buy or rent something on Amazon, you’ll need to do it directly through Amazon first.
Apple TV’s 4K is available in 32GB and 64GB. You may want to get the 64GB if you have a lot of movies and games.
How to Install Apple TV
Set up for the Apple TV is very straightforward.
- Plug the device into the power outlet
- Connect the HDMI cable from the Apple TV to your TV
- Turn on your TV to set up
- Connect the Apple TV remote
- You can also set up using your iPhone or other devices
What Reviewers Had to Say About Apple TV
Reviewers on Amazon said they really liked the fact that Apple TV buffers way less than Roku or Amazon Fire TV when streaming their 4K content. They also gave praise about the picture quality and beautifully designed user interface.
If you use Apple products, you’ll find the ease of device connection and fluidity to come in handy connect to other devices, like your iPhone or iPad.
- Universal remote compatibility with outside remote controls need improvement (i.e. It doesn’t work very well with a Logitech remote control)
- The Apple TV remote control is not intuitive, some called it “useless”
Bottom line: An Apple TV might be a great option if you have a 4K TV, you’re devoted to Apple products and want a seamless way to have your devices “communicate” with each other. Or maybe you use iTunes regularly to rent or buy content and care deeply about picture quality.
Honorable Mentions: Google Chromecast and NVIDIA Shield
Of course there are more streaming devices beyond Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV.
There’s Google Chromecast, which is only $35, but you need your phone or tablet to cast it on your TV, so it might not be a realistic, permanent streaming device. The set up is super simple — all you do is plug the Chromecast USB into the port in your TV and cast it from your phone or tablet.
NVIDIA Shield is great for your Android TV and for gamers. At almost $200, it’s the most expensive option (even pricier than an Apple TV), but it’s a mix between a gaming device (like Playstation) and full TV streamer.
With the expensive price tag, it comes with 16GB of internal storage and is three times faster than Apple TV, 10X faster than Roku 4 and four times faster than Amazon Fire TV. The amount of storage is great for games and entertainment.
It’s easy to set up. All you need to do is set up a language, WiFi password, and account login.
Which Device Should You Get?
Before you make your decision, the following factors should be taken into consideration:
- Find out which apps and subscription services are compatible with the device you’re interested in
- Compare costs
- Find out how fast/slow your internet speed is
- Assess whether you will get a 4K TV in the near future (if you don’t already own one)
As with anything that’s technology-related, you can only do so much research before you buy. Reading through Amazon reviews is a great way to understand how the device works and what problems customers had, but sometimes, buying it and using it for a week or two will be the best way to judge whether you’re happy with it or not.
What’s your favorite way streaming device?