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Six Clicks: The best Internet TV gadgets of 2014

There is no single best device, but here's the best of the best.
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1 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Picking the best Internet TV device

Today, "cord cutting" — switching off from cable or satellite TV to over-the-air (OTA) and the Internet for your television — still isn't common. But it's getting there.

Adobe recently found that Internet TV watcher hours increased by 388 percent in the last year. On top of that, TV networks, such as HBO, CBS, and Univision are all bringing their offerings to Internet-only customers. I fully expect at least half a dozen other networks to follow these first three to Internet in 2015.

So, what are the best devices to bring Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Netflix, and all these other Internet TV video broadcasters to your home? Well, it depends.

You see, I've been watching commercial video on the Internet and Digex's ISP TV since 1995. For the last three years, the only TV I've been watching has been either OTA or over the Internet. In that time, I've used — and still use — numerous devices, but I have yet to find a perfect one for all my needs.

What I have found, however, are six devices that do a darn good job. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

You'll notice that one kind of device I don't recommend is any kind of "smart" TV. In my experience, none of them are that smart. Specifically, no one seems to do a good job with their user interfaces (UI). I could live with a yucky interface, but what I can't live with is that they all do a lousy job of updating their firmware. That means, for example, that when CBS, HBO, and Univision start coming to Internet screens in early 2015, I don't expect any smart TV to support them immediately.

That said, here's my personally tested best of the best TV media extenders for 2014. When possible, I also give the best Black Friday deal I've been able to find for each one.

More Black Friday 2014

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Amazon FireTV Stick

At first glance, the Amazon FireTV Stick, $39 list price, looks a lot like the Google Chromecast. However, they have very different purposes. The FireTV Stick is primarily for watching Amazon Instant Video.

Like a Roku device, you can also use it to watch Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus, and Watch ESPN, or listen to music channels such as Spotify and Pandora. There's no question, however, that the FireTV Stick works best with Amazon's video selection. As such, it's best if, like me, you're an Amazon Prime subscriber. With Prime, at $99 per year, you get access to Amazon's large free Amazon Prime Video collection and other goodies like free two-day shipping.

Amazon also offers a Roku-style streaming box, the Amazon Fire TV, but at $99 and with nothing else in the way of functionality, I can't recommend it over its cheaper stick brother.

The only real downside to the FireTV Stick is that except for Amazon's own shows, the Roku does it better. Still, if you rely on Amazon first and foremost for your video entertainment, the FireTV Stick is a must-buy.

Getting a FireTV stick might prove to be difficult. I've heard reports from some people ordering it from Amazon that they're looking at delays until 2015. On the other hand, others have said that they're getting theirs on schedule. Mine came within Amazon Prime's usual two-day delivery period.

Amazon, at this point, hasn't announced a Black Friday price. You will be able to find it at some retailers, such as Best Buy and Staples, for $24 or $25.

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3 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Apple TV - third generation

Do not, I repeat, do not believe any rumors that there will be a new Apple TV that will actually be a TV. That rumor's been going around for years, and there's nothing to it. Instead, what we have is the same third-generation Apple TV, with a list price of $99, that we've had since 2012.

On the plus side, this streaming-only device enables you to stream iTunes Store rental and purchased videos, which are stored on iCloud. You can also store the ones you buy on a local Mac or PC and stream them with iTunes.

In addition, you can use HandBrake to transcode your DVDs into a format that you can stream to the Apple TV box from iTunes. Apple TV has an excellent user interface (UI)

Apple supports Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, MLB.TV, and a few other online media services. It does not, however, come close to supporting as many as Roku.

You can also use the iPhone's or iPad's AirPlay to stream music, videos, and photos to Apple TV. Finally, AirPlay Mirroring lets you stream any web video to the Apple TV if you have a newer Mac running Mountain Lion or Yosemite.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Apple TV locks you into the Apple ecosystem. While the iTunes Store offers a wide selection of TV shows and movies, I've always found that they cost $1 more than the ones you find on another Internet TV network, such as Amazon. That adds up after a while.

Rumor has it that Apple will be offering a $25 iTunes gift card with the Apple TV on Black Friday. Outside of Apple, the best deal seems to be from Staples, which will be offering it for $20 off. Best Buy will be selling it for $10 off, but the company will be throwing in a $10 gift card on top of that.

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4 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Chromecast

Where the Google Chromecast differs from the rest of these devices is that it will let you "cast" anything you can view on your Chrome web browser to your television. For $35, that's more than enough. As I've said of the Chromecast before, it only has the one trick, but it does it really, really well.

That trick is to take whatever you're watching on an Android device, iPhone or iPad, or any PC running a Chrome web browser, and broadcast it to your TV. In addition, Chromecast supports some TV video sites directly, such as Amazon Instant, HBO Go, and Netflix.

Unlike the other Internet TV devices, you can also use a Chromecast at work. I've used it for video conferencing and to replace laptop projectors for small meetings. For me, Chromecasts have become not just a great entertainment toy, but an essential part of my travel work kit.

A Chromecast stick doesn't cost much to begin with — I almost consider them stocking stuffers — but this Black Friday, you can get them for $24 at Best Buy, or $25 at Costco, Target, Staples, RadioShack, and Walmart.

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Roku 3

There are several different kinds of Roku streaming devices, including the $49.99 Roku Steaming Stick, but for my money — $99 to be exact — the Roku 3 is the best of the lot.

If you have an older TV, or just not enough HDMI ports, the Roku 1, list price $49.99, is also worth considering. It supports composite cables, which means it will work with all but the oldest TVs.

Whichever one you get, Roku comes with three big advantages. First, its interface is simple and easy to use. Second, it has the largest selection, 1,700 at last count, of online TV channels to choose from. Maybe Grateful Dead concerts, how-to billiard shows, or Tamil TV aren't for you. But with so many choices, I'm sure you'll find something you'll like to watch that you can't get easily with any other device.

Finally, but by far most important, unlike any of the other devices, Roku players enable you to search for a movie or TV show across multiple online channels. These include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, Crackle, and HBO Go. This feature is incredibly handy.

If I had to have just one Internet TV streaming device, it would be the Roku. It's as simple as that. It may not have Chromecast's ability to cast anything and everything or Apple's rental library, but it does everything else better than the others.

The best Black Friday price I've found so far for the Roku 3 is at Best Buy, for $85. Other models, especially the Roku 1, will be available at prices as low as $28 at Walmart.

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6 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

TiVo Roamio OTA

What's that? You want an OTA DVR and Internet? Well, then TiVo has a deal for you. The TiVo Roamio OTA gives you a 500GB hard drive — good for about 500 hours of SD recordings — and access to the major Internet TV channels, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, YouTube, and others, all for a low price of $49.99.

However, you'll also need to pay TiVo $14.99 a month for updates and your personalized channel guide. Me? I've found it to be worth the price.

The reason is the TiVo remote. It's easily the best remote that comes with an Internet device. Of course, what you really want is a Logitech Harmony remote, such as the Logitech Harmony Ultimate One, but you have to be a serious TV fan to pay $250 just for a remote. For everyone else, the TiVo remote will do just fine.

If TiVo's subscription prices are too high for you, but you want still want an OTA DVR, I recommend the Channel Master DVR+. Yes, it lists for $249.99 and it has only a tiny selection of streaming apps, but it has no additional fees. Combine it with, say, a Roku 3, and you may get all the OTA and Internet TV goodness you crave.

I haven't seen any Black Friday deals for the TiVo Roamio OTA. Its big brother, the TiVo Roamio, which can do both OTA and cable and usually lists for $199.99, is available for $50 off at TiVo and most retailers.

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XBox One

I've never been crazy about using gaming consoles for streaming TV. Most of the time, it's hard to get the gamers off the console, so you can't use it for streaming! Lately, though, I've changed my mind, and my current pick for a combination gaming console/Internet TV streaming device is Microsoft's Xbox One, with a starting list price of $399.

I've selected the Xbox One over its rival, Sony's PlayStation 4, for several reasons. First, Microsoft finally dropped requiring an Xbox Live Gold subscription for basic streaming. Second, it has a slightly better selection of media apps over the PlayStation (PS). And last, for some reason Sony dropped DLNA streaming so that the older PS3 is actually better for streaming than the PS4. What were you thinking, Sony?

Moving on, the Xbox One supports a fair number of the most popular Internet media channels. In Europe, but oddly enough not in the US, you can also watch OTA TV with an extra attachment: The Official Xbox One Digital TV Tuner.

Personally, I'd still use another device in addition to the Xbox. But if your first love is gaming and you want basic Internet TV functionality, then get an Xbox One.

There are so many Xbox One deals out there that it's hard to keep them straight. The maximum savings seem to be from the Microsoft Store, where you can get $70 off any Xbox One console and get one of these games for free: Forza Motorsport 5, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, or Titanfall from November 27 to 29.

Other noteworthy deals include the Assassin's Creed Unity Xbox One Console Bundle for $329, plus a $50 gift card from November 27 to 29 at Target. Another good deal is the Halo Master Chief Collection Xbox One Console Bundle, a 12-month Xbox Live Gold Membership, and a game of your choice for $379 on November 27, only at Walmart online. As a Halo fan, this one strikes me as the most attractive offering.

In addition, there are Assassin's Creed Unity with Kinect Xbox One Console Bundle packages for $429 from November 27 to 29 at GameStop, Amazon, Target, Walmart, and Toys R Us. Best Buy is offering the same package plus a free controller for $429.

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