Cable companies offer subscriptions with hundreds and hundreds of channels, but how many of those do you really watch? A handful at most, which says a lot about the state of cable TV.
With so many different ways to consume media, there’s no better time to cut the cord and seek asylum in the sweet embrace of set-top boxes.
The problem? There are a lot of really good options out there, making it tough to choose just one. Here’s what you need to know: All of them serve the same basic purpose, which is to act as a gateway for content, whether it’s streaming Netflix or renting movies.
What your final decision comes down to depends on what ecosystem you want to live inside. Something like the Apple TV will give you access to Netflix, HBO Go and a ton of other services, but it’s largely meant to steer you toward the company’s iTunes ecosystem. Same goes for devices running Android TV, which tap into Google Play. There are many others, too: Fire TV, Chromecast, Roku 4, and even gaming consoles.
Say you don’t feel like going out this weekend. Say you met someone and just want to stay in and binge watch Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. Then these are the set-top boxes to consider.
The Roku 4 is easily among the best set-top boxes out there, plain and simple. While it’s not quite as flashy as the Apple TV, it offers a well-rounded experience and access to over 3,000 channels. I’ve been using a Roku XS for the better part of two years now, and I have no complaints, but I’m ready to upgrade to the Roku 4.
Beyond Roku 4’s abilities to serve you channels, it comes with a few extra features that users will appreciate. The remote, for example, has a headphone jack, allowing you to watch Tokyo Drift without disturbing the people around you. Additionally, you can cast your phone or tablet to your TV, expanding the range of what you can watch.
Perhaps the best part about the Roku 4 is that it’s platform agnostic, and pretty much exists solely to feed the people what they want: content. And that’s good! It can’t tap into iTunes, and doesn’t have access to Google Play. But Amazon more than makes up for that, and the myriad of other channels will ensure you’re never without something to watch.
The Apple TV is one of the more well-known devices on the market, one that’s becoming increasingly important in Apple’s arsenal. While it exists to shuttle people toward the land of iTunes, it also offers up access to some important channels, such as HBO, SHOWTIME, Hulu, Netflix and more.
The biggest selling point of the Apple TV is its AirPlay capabilities. If you own an Apple device—iPhone, iPad, Mac—you’ll be able to wirelessly beam videos, photos, music and more directly to your TV. You can also mirror your devices, and take advantage of a dual screen feature, which is particularly useful for gaming.
Unfortunately, the new Apple TV doesn’t support 4K, which is a big deal for a lot of people. Still, the device offers a great experience, UI, and ecosystem, all for $149.
Similar in execution to the set-top boxes mentioned above, what makes the Fire TV different is its emphasis on sheer power, offering insane processing power, a responsive interface, and instant search results. And, yes, there is an optional gaming controller to turn the device into a micro-console.
While you have access to the streaming stalwarts—Netflix, Hulu, WatchESPN and more—the Fire TV’s standout feature is it voice search capabilities. Though, in order to really take advantage of this feature, you’ll have to live inside Amazon’s ecosystem (and it definitely helps to have a Prime subscription).
The Fire TV’s remote has a built-in mic, allowing you to instantly search TV shows, movies, actors and genres using nothing more than your voice. “Show me movies with Jack Black.” Voila, the actor’s catalog will show up in a matter of seconds.
You’ve probably already seen the insane Fire TV commercials featuring full-time Joker impersonator, Gary Busey; it’s that magical. In addition to big specs, 4K support, and awesome voice search, the Fire TV also features expandable storage, private listening and more, all for $99.
If that price tag is too much, there’s also the Fire TV Stick, which retails for $39.
Hands down the most powerful Android TV device on the market, the NIVIDIA SHIELD offers 4K support, immense power, and the ability to connect to GeForce NOW, which gives users the ability to stream popular PC games. In that respect, the NVIDIA Shield is easily the most capable set-top box of the bunch
With Android TV, users have access to things like Sling TV, Hulu, Netflix, and more. But it’s really just to steer users toward Google Play, which offers movie rentals, TV shows and more. However, whereas something like the Fire TV gives a library of movies to stream for free (assuming you have Prime), Google Play is fairly limited, so it’s ecosystem is not quite as strong as Amazon’s.
That said, the interface of Android TV is gorgeous, and the voice search is top notch. You can also cast stuff from Android, iOS, Mac, Windows and Chromebook devices, extending the device’s capabilities quite a bit. All things considered, the NVIDIA SHIELD is hard to beat though it’s $199 price is certainly hard to justify for casual users.
If you don’t really need all the fluff of the NVIDIA SHIELD, you can also opt for the Chromecast, which is just $35 (and often goes on sale for much lower).
This is the wild card option. If you own a current (or last) generation console, you’re already good to go, and probably don’t need to buy an additional device. You’ll get access to the usual suspects (Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc.) while getting the perks of having a PS4 or Xbox One. Great, right? The only downside is that you don’t get extensive voice search, nor do you get AirPlay/Cast support. If you already own a console, your best bet might to simply go for a streaming stick, which are fairly affordable.
There are a lot of solid options out there, and many of them are fairly affordable, too. It’s just a matter of what you’re looking to get, and which ecosystem you want to live inside.