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Media streamer buyers guide: Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Nvidia Shield Android TV & Roku compared

Jared Newman | July 28, 2015
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.

Remote controls

The remotes that come with most streaming boxes are exercises in minimalism compared to the traditional cable-box clunker, but each of the remotes we're comparing is unique in its own way. The Apple TV remote is the slickest looking, but lacks voice search and dedicated fast forward/rewind buttons.

Both Roku's and Amazon's remotes have voice and playback controls, but the Roku 3 goes further with dedicated buttons for launching Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and Hulu. It also has a headphone jack for private listening, whereas the Amazon Fire TV requires a set of Bluetooth headphones.

Nvidia's Shield Android TV is a different beast altogether, as it ships with a game controller instead of a standard remote. You can still voice search and plug headphones into it, but a less-intimidating remote for non-gamers costs an extra $50. Alternatively, the Shield supports full HDMI-CEC controls, which means you can control it with your existing TV remote.

The line-of-sight requirements of infrared remotes can be an issue if you're planning to hide your set-top box inside your entertainment center. The Apple TV uses infrared, and therefore must be in plain view, though the use of IR means you can program other remotes to control it. Signals from an RF (radio frequency) remote can penetrate cabinet doors, although their range is not unlimited.

Phone and tablet controls

As couch potatoes become more likely to have a phone or tablet in hand, controlling your TV from that device is becoming more important. However, each media streamer handles this differently, so they're not all compatible with the same devices. Check out the chart below for which streamers offer the following features:

  • Screen Mirroring: The basic act of duplicating your phone or tablet display on the television. It's a battery hog, but can work for watching certain apps or showing off some photos from your phone.
  • Casting: The phone or tablet tells the set-top box to start streaming music or video from the Internet. Doesn't affect battery life, and content keeps playing even if the casting device disconnects, but may not work with all apps.
  • AirPlay: The iPhone or iPad beams music or video to the television, but doesn't mirror its own display. Works with nearly all apps, but can affect battery life and prevents sound from playing on the phone or tablet.
  • Touch-based remote: Duplicates the buttons of a physical remote control. Works in a pinch when the real remote's gone missing.

Streaming Hardware specs

Nvidia's Shield Android TV wins the specs battle, but it's also the most expensive streaming hardware you can put in your entertainment center (shy of a video-game console or home-theater PC, that is).

Box vs. stick

 

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