A set-top box gets all of the shows and movies you want to watch up on the big screen, streaming from the internet or from your own movie collection. Trouble is, there are tons of great streaming devices out there worth considering. This week we’re looking at five of the best, based on your votes.
You’ve seen the direct, blow-by-blow comparisons, but as always, the Hive Five is about getting your input, not just independent stats. Earlier in the week we asked you which devices you used for streaming video, whether it was actually a set-top box, or something that approximates its functionality. You responded with tons of great suggestions, but some definitely earned more community support than others. Here are the top five, based on your nominations. (As always, in no particular order.)
The Roku, specifically the Roku 3, earned high praise in the nominations round because of its broad feature set, and for offering hundreds of user-addable channels that let you personalize every box to suit your specific needs. Even back when the Roku was just a box whose sole purpose was to deliver Netflix to your HDTV, it made waves for being tiny and affordable. Over time, it’s added HD support, support for local media on your home network, Wi-Fi, tons of channels from Hulu, Amazon, HBO Go, YouTube, and others, including a whole world of user-created and niche channels that bring you programming like sports and events, music and concerts, news and documentaries, and more, all specific to your interests.
For its part, the Roku 3 is Roku’s high-end device, and packs dual-band Wi-Fi, support for Roku’s mobile apps, a remote with a headphone jack for private listening, Ethernet, USB, and an SD card slot for your own media, the option to send Netflix and YouTube from your phone to the big screen, and more. Those of you who nominated the Roku specifically highlighted the ability to add custom apps from the community (like Google Play Music, for example), and support for media center suites like Plex. You praised its speed, form factor, and-you know, just check out the massive nomination thread here. If you want one, it’ll set you back $95 from Amazon, or you can browse the rest of the Roku family to pick a box that works for you.
Amazon’s Fire TV was only released a few months ago, but the tiny streaming box/console has already earned praise in more than few quarters, including among many of you. It’s a richly featured streaming box, and includes all the channels and services you would expect from Amazon-Amazon VOD, Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, Pandora, ESPN, and more, and even built-in support for Plex. Many of those services also allow you to buy, rent, or stream for free, depending on what’s available through them. Of course, one place the Fire TV definitely wins is in its interface-the box is easy to use, and the voice search can easily find the movies or programs you want to watch or the channels you want to open. Amazon’s actually brought a new feature to bear that solves a problem a lot of people have with set-top boxes: Endless clicking to get to the options you want. If you prefer video games, you can buy an optional controller and fire up a decent selection of titles designed to be played on the big screen. Best of all, the box arrives on your door pre-configured for your Amazon account and ready to go.
Many of you praised the Fire TV for its voice control and light gaming features, and noted that if you do a little sideloading with it, you can install XBMC and get your local content up to it as well. It’s also worth noting that Amazon Prime subscribers, who get tons of movies and TV shows for free anyway, will also get their money’s worth with the Fire TV. You also praised the Fire TV’s easy configuration, and the fact that it comes with half the setup done for you makes it easy to recommend to non-tech savvy users. Some of you lamented the lack of mobile app support for non Amazon devices and the fact that voice search only works with now with Amazon’s own catalog, but then again, the device is about three months old, so there’s plenty of room for it to grow. Plus, it’s only $100, at Amazon of course, and comes with a $15 Amazon Video instant credit, so you can buy some media to watch on it. If you’re interersted in gaming on it, you’ll probably want the $40 game controller as well. Read more in its nomination thread here.
The Google Chromecast made waves when it was released last year, and in no time at all people were arguing its merits, comparing it to other HD sticks, and most importantly, coming up with great apps to make the most of it. As it stands right now, the Chromecast, a tiny HDMI stick that plugs directly into your TV (and is powered either over USB or via AC adapter) can already stream video from your Android or iOS device (especially through Chrome, YouTube, Netflix, and Google Apps), can stream media from a Chrome tab on your computer (and does so even better with the right plugin), and is packed with apps like Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu Plus, Pandora, and more. Best of all, app support is growing every day, and as more people hack and play with the Chromecast, we keep hearing about great ways to extend its abilities.
The Chromecast got a ton of support in the nominations thread, although there was definitely dissent over whether it should be counted as a "set top box." If you can’t tell, we think it counts-form-factor aside (does anyone really keep these streaming boxes on top of their TV sets anymore?) it’s the feature-set that counts, and of course, your votes-and it earned a place in the top five by both standards. You praised it for a number of things-not the least of which its insanely affordable $30 price tag, its portability, support for personal media and tools like Plex, and more. Many of you dinged it for lacking Amazon support, however, but even those of you who didn’t like it admitted to carrying one for specific situations. If you’re interested, snag one for $30 from Amazon, or read more in its nomination thread here.
The Apple TV has been on the block for a while-Apple calls it a "hobby"- but it’s a very popular set-top box that in many cases is hackable, jailbreak-able, and moddable depending on the version you have. It’s been a while since we saw a serious uplift of the hardware (which is essentially the guts of an iPad in a tiny palm-sized box), but it’s still powerful enough to get the job done, features an easy-to-use interface, supports media streaming around your home from iOS devices, computers running iTunes, or any device capable of AirPlay, and has tons of channels and apps for both live TV and streaming video. Netflix, Hulu, the Wall Street Journal, HBO GO, Disney, PBS, YouTube, Vimeo, ESPN, and more are all rolled in. iTunes Match and iTunes Radio are there for music, along with Pandora. Flickr is there for your photos, too. If you live in Apple’s ecosystem, you’ll find it especially useful, since all of your devices will be able to stream to one another, and even the games you play on your iOS device can show up on the big screen while you play. If you’re willing to put some work into it, you can add support for Plex via PlexConnect or install XBMC on your Apple TV as well.
Those of you who nominated the Apple TV did so mainly on ecosystem grounds, noting that you were already in Apple’s garden, so it was the best choice that offered support and special features for your devices, like AirPlay and iTunes support. It’s a popular box for modders-especially if you have an older one that’s easy to jailbreak and install something else on. Some of you noted Apple’s poor support for other devices and lack of Amazon VOD were bummers, but being able to cast media from Safari, other iTunes libraries, or an iOS device (where there is support for Amazon VOD) made up for it. If you’re interested, you can pick one up for $93 at Amazon. Read more in its nomination thread here.
Game Consoles (PlayStation 4/3, Xbox One/360)
Finally, there was a massive split of nominations across game consoles, so we decided to bundle them up and put them into one group here, together. Many of you nominated consoles like the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 because you can get them cheaper now that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have taken the limelight, and others nominated the newer consoles because they come with bells and whistles that many of their older counterparts don’t necessarily offer. When it comes to streaming video from the internet, most of these consoles are more alike than they are different. Plus, if you’re a console gamer at all, it makes sense to save the money on an additional set-top box and just use the console you would use anyway. Microsoft recently did away with the requirement that Xbox owners have Xbox Live Gold accounts to stream services they already pay for, like Netflix or Hulu, which puts them on par with PlayStation owners in that regard, always a good thing.
That’s not to say there aren’t differences feature-wise between the PS 3, PS 4, Xbox 360 , and Xbox One. We went into detail about many of them in our explainer on what next-gen consoles can do in your home theater. Those of you who nominated each praised voice control, OneGuide, and media apps on the XBox One, which work to create a seamless entertainment experience between streaming media and your cable subscription (if you have one.) PS 4 fans noted its out of the box support for virtually every streaming media service. Xbox 360 fans noted its price point and support for streaming media services as well. PlayStation 3 owners were as loud as Xbox One owners, noting that it’s more affordable now than ever, supports tons of streaming apps, is a Blu-Ray player, and with software like the PS3 Media Server (one of our favorite desktop media server applications,) can is capable of streaming media from other sources around the house to your big screen. Plus, many of you already have a console, and love using them, even if they don’t offer all of the bells and whistles of other set-top boxes, and come at a higher price point.
We have a special honorable mention this week: The always popular do-it-yourself home theater PC. The way the votes played out and added up, it didn’t get a spot in the top five, but it was so popular among nominees and commenters that we wanted to include it as a solid option anyway. After all, building your own HTPC gives you complete control over your home theater experience, and depending on the media center software you choose, your options for streaming media from sources like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and the rest versus your own media are virtually endless. In fact, there were many nominations for small PCs that were essentially HTPCs that you planned to install Linux or Windows on and run XBMC or Plex on.
Best of all, you have the power to build a simple streamer, a beefy movie and Blu-ray ripper and player with storage to back it up, torrent media you want to watch, play PC games on the big screen, and more. With an HTPC, you don’t have to compromise-you design and build it yourself. I think reader austin.dacci puts it best in his nomination thread. Because of that, we’re adding it as a sixth option in the poll. HTPC loyalists, vote accordingly!
Now that you’ve seen the top five (er, six), it’s time to put them to an all-out vote to determine the community favorite:
Want to make the case for your personal favorite, even if it wasn’t included in the list? Remember, the top five are based on your most popular nominations from the call for contenders thread from earlier in the week. Don’t just complain about the top five, let us know what your preferred alternative is-and make your case for it-in the discussions below.
The Hive Five is based on reader nominations. As with most Hive Five posts, if your favorite was left out, it didn’t get the nominations required in the call for contenders post to make the top five. We understand it’s a bit of a popularity contest. Have a suggestion for the Hive Five? Send us an email at email@example.com!Tags: concert, movie, music, release, tv