Great gifts: 5 best TV streaming devices of 2018
Becoming a cord cutter
I've been a cord cutter for almost a decade. I hated my large cable and satellite bills. And many of my favorite shows are only available on streaming services. But I'm not the only cord cutter.
According to Hub Entertainment Research's Conquering Content report, 52 percent of people now watch streaming video over 48 percent of those using set-top boxes. Of these folks, two-thirds of them subscribe to at least one of the big three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Of these, over a third subscribe to two or more services.
In another Hub study, Decoding the Default, while 78 percent of people are still subscribing to cable or satellite, 70 percent of those subscribers are subscribing to a streaming service. It appears people aren't so much cutting the cord as they are adding streaming networks.
It's easy to understand why. To watch such popular shows as Stranger Things, The Handmaid's Tale, orThe Man in the High Castle, you must subscribe to their streaming services. Traditional over-the-air (OTA) networks, such as CBS, ZDNet's parent company, are also moving to streaming. Star Trek: Discovery, for instance, is only available on CBS's streaming service: CBS All Access.
To watch any of these you need a streaming device. True, most TVs now come with embedded streaming services, but I've yet to find a "smart" TV that's that smart. Even the best of them, such as the LG OLEDB8P or LG OLEDC7P, don't keep up with the ever-changing streaming TV networks.
Of course, if all you ever watch are shows from the big three streaming services, you may not need a separate set-top streaming gadget. But, if you're like me and you have a collection of videos you stream from a Plex server or you like more obscure streaming channels such as Pluto TV and Freeform, then you need a streaming device.
Here's my pick of litter for your TV-watching pleasure.
best gift picks
See it now: Roku TV streaming devices at Amazon
Every year, Roku builds the best streaming devices. But, this year, things are a little confusing
This year's top Roku device is the latest model Roku Streaming Stick Plus. In a single stick it supports 4K video, High Dynamic Range Video 10 (HDR10) and 802.11ac WiFi for $59.99. Like all Roku devices, it supports more streaming services than any two of its competitors. If you, like me, enjoy exploring the hundreds of video services out there, this makes it a must buy.
I also like Roku's simple interface. Sure, it's not flashy, but I know what's what with it and it's a pleasure to use.
On the other hand, the new Roku Premiere+ has most of the Stick Plus features and a surprising good voice interface with audio control built into the remote. That's the good news. The bad news is it only supports 802.11n at 2.4GHz. That means, if your Wi-Fi is shaky, it may not work well for you. The Premiere+ is currently only available from Walmart for $49.99.
Finally, if you have an older TV in need of new life, the Roku Express+ for $39.99 can give it a new lease on life. This device uses composite A/V ports to work even with some 20th century TVs.
best gift picks
Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice
See it now: Amazon Fire TV devices at Amazon
Mea culpa, I'm an Amazon Echo user. So, my favorite Amazon streaming gadget is the new Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice. With either its remote or any nearby Alexa-enabled device, you can order it to start showing The Marvelous Mrs. Maiselwhenever you wish.
Like earlier models, it supports 4K and HDR-10. It stands out from the rest of the streaming devices with its support of Dolby Vision, an HDR format alternative to the more popular HDR-10.
In theory, Dolby Vision HDR is superior to HDR10 because of its potential to display more colors. I don't buy that you'll be able to see the difference. Besides, if you're an old video fan like me, you'll remember how Betamax really was better than VHS. And you'll recall how much good did that Betamax in the long run.
Besides Amazon Prime, it supports most of the other popular streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. At $39.99, it's an affordable, high-quality streaming gadget.
My one complaint about it is that, along with the rest of the Amazon video-streaming family, it really, really pushes Amazon Prime video. I get it, you're from Amazon, but it gets old quickly.
best gift picks
Nvidia Shield TV
See it now: Nvidia Shield TV at Amazon
If you want to both stream video and play games, you have many good choices including Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro or the Xbox One X, but for streaming, I prefer the Nvidia Shield (2017) with its far cheaper $179 price-tag.
That's largely because it does a great job of showing 4K and HDR video to my screens. You can use it to stream many services including Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu.
It also supports Google Assistant. That's no surprise since under the hood it's running Android TV. Unlike earlier releases, the current model comes with a microphone, so you won't need to buy an accessory to use Google Assistant.
Best of all, if you like have your own video library or an over-the-air (OTA) antenna, you can use open-source Plex or Kodi to watch your own movies and shows or watch and record local network television. It's not as easy as using TiVo BOLT VOX for OTA DVR, but then it does a better job of streaming than the TiVo box.
best gift picks
See it now: AirTV Player at Amazon
Do you love the most popular thin TV set-top service, Sling TV? Do you also use an OTA antenna for local channels? Want to combine with with a OTA DVR? Sling TV already comes with a built-in cloud DVR for its shows. If so, do I have a deal for you: The Android TV-based AirTV Player.
Besides Sling TV and local channels, it works with Netflix and YouTube. It also comes with Google Chromecast functionality. It doesn't, however, support Amazon or Hulu. It also will never ever support -- I'm sure -- Playstation Vue, DirecTV Now, or Sling TV's other rivals.
It also supports 4K, 802.11ac, but not HDR. To use its DVR functionality, you'll also need a USB drive to attach to it
So, with all those caveats why do I still recommend it? It does have one outstanding virtue for Sling TV fans like myself: It gives you an all-in-one Sling TV/local channel/Netflix experience. If that sounds good to you, give this $99.99 device a try.
I should also note it almost always comes with a $50 credit toward a Sling TV subscription.
best gift picks
Apple TV 4K
See it now: Apple TV 4K at Amazon
Do you love Apple gadgets? Do you buy and rent videos from the iTunes store? Do you use iTunes for your personal media library? Then you'll want the latest Apple TV: The Apple TV 4K. On the other hand, at a starting price of $179, it's more expensive than your other choices.
As always, the new Apple TV's biggest salest point is it lets you buy or rent content from the Apple Store or your own iTunes library. It does support more third-party streaming services than it used to, but it still doesn't support Amazon Prime Video.
Technically, unlike the others, Apple TV 4K supports not only 4K and HDR10 video but also Dolby Vision HDR. The latest and greatest Apple TV 4Ks also boasts Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11ac Wi‑Fi connectivity.
Some people love the Apple TV interface and remote. I think it's good, but not all that. Still, if what you really want this holiday season is an iPhone XS Max with all the trimmings, you'll love the latest Apple TV.