Cable cord cutters, take heart: The best streaming devices
Today you have a wide variety of Internet media streaming gadgets
A few years ago when my satellite TV bill went north of $100 a month, I decided I had had enough. So, I looked into cable TV. Boy was that a mistake! Once you took out the "special" introductory rate, I'd end up paying even more. So, by 2009, I started streaming media over my local network and the Internet to my TV.
It wasn't easy. It was often ugly.
Today, however, cord-cutting takes up most of the Internet's bandwidth every night. Best of all, there are a wide variety of devices that make streaming your favorite movies and TV shows easy. Here's my pick of the litter just in time for the holiday season.
I've used all these devices personally and I own many of them. I have yet to find a single perfect media-streaming device. So, I use no fewer than three devices, four counting the smart TV, for my television watching pleasure. You, however, don't need to go to so much trouble.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Do you love your Amazon Prime subscription? I do. Besides fast and cheap shipping it gives you "free" access to Amazon Prime Video. Most devices enable you to watch it, but Amazon has its own family of Amazon video devices: The Amazon Fire TV Stick, which lists for $39.99, and the Amazon Fire TV, $99.99.
I prefer the Fire Stick for the very simple reason that it's a good $60 cheaper. Functionally, there's little difference between them. The Fire TV now supports 4K video, but there's almost no 4K content available on Amazon or anywhere else. For just watching video, the Fire Stick is the best.
The interface is easy to use. The Fire Stick also supports Netflix, HBO Go, YouTube, Hulu Plus, Sling TV, Watch ESPN, Spotify, and Pandora, among others. But, it really works noticeably better with Amazon content. For $10 more, you can get a remote that supports voice search.
For people who use Amazon all the time, the Fire TV Stick is your best choice.
The best Black Friday price I've seen to date is $25. Curiously, besides Amazon, you can also get the Fire TV Stick at that price from Staples, Best Buy, and Kmart.
Apple TV (Fourth Generation)
The latest fourth generation Apple TV has lots of promise, but it also needs a lot of work. As my colleague David Gewritz, who like me has been using Apple TV units since day one, put it, "the new remote is terrible;" "This isn't your iPhone's Siri. This is like a Siri that's still in the lab;" and "To get the other services (like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, CBS All Access, and so forth), you have to go into the app store and download them." Yes, yes, and yes.
I also had to update the Apple TV before it would connect with my media library running on the latest iTunes on my Mac mini media server running El Capitan. What the heck Apple? Didn't you check it with your own gear before you starting selling it?
Unlike the third generation Apple TV, which is available on Black Friday at Target for $52, this is not a great media streamer.
Still, it's also the only media streaming gadget that will work with iTunes and the iTunes store. So, if you're wedded to Apple. I think your best move is to get the older Apple TV.
If you insist on getting the latest and hoping that Apple software updates will take care of the biggest problems, the newest Apple TV lists for $149 for the 32GB model and $199 for the 64GB edition. The only "cheap" Black Friday version I've seen is at hhgreg: $180 for the 64GB model.
Google Chromecast 2 (2015)
It used to be that Google's Chromecast was good just for "casting" your display from your computer, tablet, or smartphone to your TV. I've found that really useful, but since then Google has made it more of a general-purpose media streamer.
You can now stream most of the major TV services with it. With Chromecast apps you can stream Netflix, Sling TV, Hulu and many others. And, of course, you can easily watch Google Video and YouTube.
The best changes in the Chromecast 2 are hidden. It supports now 802.11ac Wi-Fi and features an adaptive antenna system. This gives it a noticeable speed bump whether you're using a streaming service or casting your display.
The Chromecast lists for $35. On Black Friday, your best deal is from Costco. There you'll be able to buy two, plus a $12 Google Play credit for $50. That is $25 each. So, why not buy two? One for you and one for a friend?
You can always gets the pair, but without the credit, from Office Depot, Staples, Best Buy, and Meijer.
If you want just one device for your media streaming, the best you can buy, or give to someone as a present is the latest model Roku 3.
Why? Because for a list price of $99.99, you get access to more streaming TV channels than any other system. Besides the big ones, such as Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, you get access to more than 2,500 (no, really) channels. If you want to watch mountain bike racing, Red Bull TV; business news from Bloomberg TV or all Anime all the time, Crunchyroll, Roku is for you.
The latest Roku 3's updated remote also comes with voice search, which works surprisingly well. Roku is also constantly being updated. With new networks being added all the time, this is not a small matter
The Roku interface is easily the easiest to use of all the media streamers. The interface is also quick and simple to customize, and anyone, including your 85-year old mother can use it.
The feature I've liked best about Roku, search, has no equal. When you look for a movie or show by title, director, or actor, Roku now looks through 17 services and then arranges the results by price.
Roku is currently rolling out a new feature, which makes search even better. My Feed lets you save search for your favorite title, actor or director. Then click "Follow" and you'll receive updates in "My Feed." This way whenever a new show or movie shows up starring, say Benedict Cumberbatch, you'll automatically be notified.
Of course, you can also get most of this from the other Roku models. For example, the Roku 1, which retails for $49.99, uses composite cables instead of HDMI so it can work with all but the oldest TVs. There's also, just for Black Friday, the Roku SE. This seems to be a re-branded Roku 1. It lists in all stores for $25.
The Roku 2 can do everything the Roku 3 does except for searching using your voice. Finally, the Roku 4. $129, can handle 4K video. That's fine, but there's very little 4K content of any kind out there and there's even less available over the Internet. It's just not worth the money.
The best price I've found so far for the Roku 3 this Black Friday is at hhgreg for $79.99. I'll be shocked if this price isn't matched at most other retailers.
A lot of people who cut the cable cord, like me, also use over the air (OTA) antennas to get the major TV networks for free. Wouldn't it be nice to have a DVR for those shows and a media streamer? Thanks to TiVo, you can: The TiVo Bolt.
Like most TiVo models over the years, it's a great DVR and the remote is a pleasure to use. It has four tuners. This enables you to record up to four shows at once.
On the streaming front, it supports Netflix, Amazon , YouTube, Hulu , Vudu, Plex and more. Plus, Bolt is also the first TiVo to support 4K.
The Bolt retails for $300 for 500GB of storage (about 75 hours of HD content) and $400 for a 1TB version (about 150 hours of HD content). Get the one with the most storage. You won't be sorry.
Like the last model TiVo Roamio, which also came in an OTA edition, search is one of the Bolt's strongest features. You can use it to search both your OTA channels and your streaming networks at the same time. I've found this to be really handy.
TiVo's one annoying feature is that you must pay $15 a month, $150 a year, or $600 for the life of the product for its TV guide and DVR functionality. This version comes with a free year of service, but over the years it can add up. On the other hand, it's still cheaper than the cheapest cable or satellite service.
Now for the bad news. Usually, TiVo DVRs don't have Black Friday pricing and it doesn't look like they're doing this year either. On the other hand, it's easily the best device for people who use both the Internet and antennas for their TV watching pleasure.