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Best media players and streamers (September 2015)
The battle for what, or should I say who, controls your TV has been raging for several years now. This battle isn’t about your actual TV, it is about who gets to put content on your TV. In the Android ecosystem there are several important services that allow you to buy, rent or stream media. The most obvious is YouTube, then there is Google Play Movies & TV, plus there is a range of third party services like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
All of these services can be used with your smartphone or tablet, however 15 friends trying to watch the latest Marvel movie around a smartphone isn’t going to work. So that is where your TV comes in. There are a variety of solutions that let you watch movies, listen to music, or use a streaming service on your TV. Broadly these solutions can be divided into three categories: Android TV based solutions, Android TV alternatives, and standalone generic solutions (i.e. media players).
Android TV and Chromecast
Android TV is a special version of Android that has been optimized for televisions. The interface has been changed to work better with a remote control or a game controller, and there are also voice controls. Right now, there are two ways to get hold of Android TV – either buy a smart TV with it built-in, or buy a set-top box that runs it.
The top two set-top boxes for Android TV are: the Google Nexus Player and the NVIDIA Shield Android TV.
Google Nexus Player
The Nexus Player is kind of the Google’s “official” implementation of Android TV. Nothing extra added, just vanilla Android TV. The “oversized hockey puck” uses a 1.8GHz Intel Atom processor and comes with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage. The internal storage is for installing games and apps including Netflix, Pandora, and TuneIn Radio. Like so many of Google’s offerings, your content is meant to be streamed to the device and little is stored locally. It should be noted that if you’re planning on installing more than a few graphic-intensive games, though, you might want to invest in a microSD card to expand the Nexus Player’s internal memory. 8GB isn’t a whole lot of space, especially for bigger games.
NVIDIA Shield Android TV
The NVIDIA Shield is arguably the most powerful set-top box in the market, as it was made with gaming in mind. That is one of the reasons the unit looks and feels a bit like a miniaturized gaming console! The NVIDIA Shield Android TV can easily blend into the rest of your home entertainment system. The device’s aesthetics are not too flashy, but it definitely has a good look and serves its purpose. The top level performance is due to its NVIDIA X1 processor and 3GB of RAM. You also get 7.1/5.1 surround sound support, 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO 2.4 GHz /5 GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1/BLE, and support for 4K TVs.
If you are on the lookout for a nice set-top box with an emphasis on gaming, the NVIDIA Shield is definitely a product you need to look at. This product won’t come without its downsides, but it’s definitely your best bet. Prices start at $199.99 for the basic 16GB model. If you want 500GB of storage then you will need to pay an extra $100.
Casting is a different approach to getting content on your TV. Rather than needing to build a whole user interface that needs a remote control or a game controller, the idea of casting is that the content you are currently looking at on your phone can be “cast” over on to your TV. Although not running Android TV, I have included Google’s Chromecast here mainly because it comes from the same company.
With a Chromecast all the user interface stuff is handled on your phone. You just sign-in to whatever service it is that are using and then tell the Chromecast to start streaming. The video isn’t streamed to your phone and then re-transmitted to the casting device, but rather the Chromecast is told what to stream and from where.
The Chromecast can current stream media from YouTube, Netflix, HBO Go, Pandora, Hulu, Crackle plus a bunch more. You can see the full list at chromecast.com/apps. You can read the full review of the Chromecast here, and you can see some of the best apps for Chromecast here, too! Plus we also have a Chromecast vs Amazon Fire TV comparison. You can get a Chromecast from Amazon for just $29.99, Google also sells the Chromecast via the Play Store.
Android TV alternatives
If you aren’t enamored by the Android TV offerings then there are alternatives. The most popular alternatives come from Roku and Amazon. Both companies take slightly different approaches, but the goal is the same, to get content on to your TV.
Roku Streaming Stick
The biggest stand out feature of the Roku Streaming Stick is that it provides over 1,000 actual channels to watch (in the USA), not just individual movies and shows. The remote control is glossy black with purple accents, and feels very durable. It features play, pause, forward and back buttons, a directional pad, and even a few dedicated buttons to connect you straight to Netflix and other popular services.
The set up process is quite easy, but requires you to use a computer. Roku’s interface is very simple. A number of different categories can be found on the left, and all of your content on the right. The dashboard is where you go to purchase all of the media content you’d like, and there’s quite a big selection. You have access to free channels like WatchESPN, Netflix, and HBO GO, among others. While its functionality only extends to a few applications, the Roku ahas casting capabilities, similar to the Chromecast.
When using the YouTube app on a phone or tablet, users can “cast” their content straight to the Roku, without pulling up the dedicated YouTube app. Most of the content you watch on the device, though, will be launched through Roku’s interface. Additional settings include theme adjustment, adding additional controllers, and many more. Also, content discovery is extremely easy, thanks to Roku’s huge content-hungry community.
In all, Roku does a great job at mixing paid and free streaming options, which should make it desirable for cord-cutters who prefer an “a la carte” type of system. You can currently pick up a Roku Streaming Stick for just $39.99 from Amazon.
Amazon Fire TV and Amazon Fire TV Stick
Amazon has two offerings in its “Fire TV” range. The Fire TV, which is a more traditional set-top box, and the Fire TV Stick, a HDMI dongle similar in size to the Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick. These two devices have a lot in common, but also have notable differences when it comes to content delivery. Let’s first start with the Fire TV Stick.
Amazon are keen to point out that the Fire TV Stick has superior hardware specifications to the Chromecast, with 4 times of the internal memory (8GB vs 2GB), twice the RAM (1GB vs 512MB) and a dual-core processor. Amazon has also made a fuss about its Dolby Digital Plus surround sound for superior audio and a dual-band dual-antenna WiFi configuration for a more consistent, smoother streaming experience. The TV Stick also comes with its own remote control, giving you control over the system without the need for your smartphone.
As for the Fire TV set-top box, it will blend in well with your existing gadgets and likely go unnoticed. In the box you get the Fire TV device, a game controller, a voice search-enabled remote, and a HDMI cable. The remote is basically the same one that’s included with the Fire TV Stick, but features a voice search button up top.
In terms of the interface, these two devices are exactly the same. You’ll see a big list of categories on the left side, your content in the middle, and you’ll find a list of applications on the right. When it comes to gaming, you can play them on both, but the Fire TV is far superior in this category thanks to its powerful specifications. When it comes down to it, this may be the best way to stream media, just as long as you’re a Prime subscriber. If not, there may be a better product out there for you.
All of the devices listed above are specialist devices, in that their primary function is to stream and play media from services like YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV, Netflix, or Amazon Prime Video. However there is another category of device which can handle media in more a generic way.
Since operating systems like Android and Linux are adept at handling media, it means that a generic Android or Linux set-top box or dongle can be used as a media player and streaming device. There are lots of different devices out there and the list presented here is only a selection of what is available. The entry qualification for the list is simple: we need to have actually reviewed the device!
The CuBox TV is a flexible media player which runs Android or Linux. It offers a lot of flexibility, but it really shines when running the Kodi media player. At just 2 inches x 2 inches x 2 inches the CuBoxTV is a marvel of engineering. On one side of the cube is a set of ports including the power socket, HDMI, Ethernet and two USB ports. While the rest of the cube is fairly bland except for various labels, logos and LEDs. It comes in three variants with different amounts of RAM: 1GB, 2GB and 4GB. All three models pack a quad-core processor and you have the option of adding a Wi-Fi module and buying a IR remote control. My test unit is the CuBoxTV 4GB with Wi-Fi and the remote control.
As the “TV” part of its name suggests, one of the primary uses of the CuBox is as a media player. There are several different ways to achieve this, using either Linux or Android. For example, you could use Android with an app like Netflix, or you can use Linux with a media player like Kodi (previously called XBMC).
SolidRun provides a couple of Linux distros that boot straight into Kodi. One is GeexBox XBMC, the other is OpenELEC (Open Embedded Linux Entertainment Center). OpenELEC is a small Linux distribution that turns the CuBoxTV into a Kodi media center.
Raspberry Pi (and friends)
You might consider this an unconventional approach, but there are a plethora of Single Board Computers available like the Raspberry Pi 2, which can very easily handle video streaming and video playback. The key here is flexibility but at the cost of needing to build the systems yourself. Boards like the Raspberry Pi 2 or the ODROID C1 are available for less than $40 and have massive online communities, plus a large number of pre-baked system images, like OpenElec, which are tailored for multimedia consumption.
Tronsmart has a range of media players which bring vanilla Android to your TV. In my family we use the Tronsmart Draco AW80 to turn our “dumb” TV into something smarter. At the heart of the Tronsmart Draco AW80 is the Allwinner A80 SoC. The A80 includes an octa-core big.LITTLE Cortex-A15/A7 CPU and a 64-core PowerVR G6230 GPU. The hardware video decoder supports MPEG-2, MPEG-4, H.263, H.264, and H.265.
The device comes pre-installed with Android 4.4.2 along with services like Google Play. It also comes with a special remote control that is designed to work with Android. There are buttons for Home, Back, Menu, volume up, volume down, as well as direction buttons. However you will get the best results from the box by attaching a mouse, and optionally a keyboard.
Please do keep coming back to this page from time to time as we will update it when necessary with any new information or any new devices that come along. Did we miss your favorite device? If so, please use the comments below to let us know.