Credit: Jared Newman
Finding the right streaming media player used to be simple, but in recent years the number of hardware options have proliferated, features have grown more sophisticated, and price ranges have expanded in both directions.
At the same time, the number of streaming video apps has exploded, with most set-top boxes opening up their own app stores. That means you're not just considering hardware and software, but ecosystems as well.
Our buying guide will arm you with everything you need to make an informed decision. First, we'll explain all the potential factors for your purchase, then we'll jump into reviews for the media streamers we think are most worthy of your attention: Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Nvidia Shield Android TV, and Roku 3.
Content is king
Without question, apps and services should be the biggest factor in any set-top box purchase, because nothing else matters if you're not getting the content you want.
The good news is that every set-top box covers the basics, like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and YouTube. Still, each platform has its quirks and missing pieces, so you'll want to pay close attention to our app comparison chart at the bottom of this section.
Roku 3, for instance, has the most complete app selection, but like all other non-Apple devices it can't access iTunes purchases. Meanwhile, Apple TV is missing apps for Amazon Instant Video, Sling TV, and Plex. The Nvidia Shield Android TV covers for its ho-hum app selection through Google Cast support, which lets you launch content from a phone or tablet (marked GC on the chart), but it lacks support for Amazon Instant Video.
Inputs and outputs
While a simple HDMI output is all you really need to enjoy streaming video and music (provided your display, sound bar, or A/V receiver also has HDMI), most boxes have at least another port or two to address specific needs. You'll find a chart comparing each device's specs at the bottom of the "Phone and tablet controls" section:
Ethernet allows for faster and more reliable streaming if your Wi-Fi router is not nearby
Digital audio out can connect directly to external sound systems, which is useful if passing the audio signal through your TV isn't an option, or if you want to listen with higher-end speakers than what your TV is outfitted with
A USB port and a MicroSD slot are usefulful for playing media from a thumb drive or a digital camera
If you have an older TV without HDMI input, none of the devices on our list will work without a converter. The only other option is the $50 Roku 1, which has composite video output but is slower than newer Roku models.
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