Streaming media has opened the floodgates for what's possible in entertainment, and there are now more high-quality options than ever before. With so many ways to enjoy your favorite TV programs, movies, sports, music, video games and more, choosing the ideal streaming media player might take a little bit of research. This guide will help you find the device that best fits your lifestyle.
What is streaming media?
Streaming media is video, audio and video games that are transferred to your TV, laptop, tablet or smartphone via the Internet in real time. Think of it in terms of listening to the radio or watching TV programming, only your signal is coming from the Internet. Just as there are radio and TV stations providing radio and TV signals, there are streaming apps or services that deliver streaming media to your player. If you've ever watched a YouTube video, enjoyed a movie on Netflix or listened to music on Pandora, then you've used a streaming media service.
Not only does streaming media save on shelf space, since the media lives in the Cloud rather than on a disc or hard drive, it also gives you access to your media library virtually anywhere you can connect to the Internet. Whether on the road, in a hotel room or on your living room couch, you can enjoy the movies, TV shows, sports and music you like.
Streaming Media Services
Several streaming media services are complimentary. To offer their content free of charge, many of them display advertisements and/or limit the amount of content you can access in a given time period. A number of these services also offer subscription versions that allow you to use the service without ads or with fewer restrictions.
Free services include YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, Pandora, Crackle, Twitch, PBS and more.
Some services require a monthly or annual fee to access their content. With a subscription service, your content options are limited to what is included on the service, and their offerings are constantly changing.
Subscription services include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Sling TV, Amazon Instant Video and more.
With some services, you have the option to rent a video, paying a one-time fee and having access to that video for a predetermined amount of time. It's like renting a movie from a store, only you don't have to leave home or pay late fees. Many of these rental services give you the option to purchase and download content as well.
Rental services include CinemaNow, M-Go, iTunes, Blockbuster on Demand and more.
Cable and satellite services
If you pay for cable or satellite TV, many channels let you stream their content as part of your TV package. Services that only come as part of a cable or satellite subscription include HBO Go, Watch ESPN, Fox Now and more.
Streaming media services come in the form of apps that are either pre-installed on your streaming device or can be downloaded and installed. Not every app is compatible with every device. If there's a service you feel is essential to your entertainment experience, make sure it's supported on the player you choose.
Your streaming media options are virtually limitless, but keep in mind that many of these services require a rental fee or a monthly subscription. Still, even with a limited budget, you can find a plan that lets you enjoy vast amounts of content geared toward your tastes.
Streaming Media Players
There are several available devices that plug directly into your TV and deliver streaming media services using a wired or wireless Internet connection. While some of these devices have names like Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, they aren't actually TVs; streaming media players have more in common with set-top boxes, only they deliver your content via the Internet rather than a cable or satellite TV provider. (The exception is the Roku TV, which is a smart TV with the Roku streaming experience built into it.) Plus, with streaming media players, you don't have to pay a monthly fee to use the hardware itself, though you may have to pay for some of the included services if you choose to opt into them.
Apple TV is compatible with most of the popular streaming services — like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and YouTube — and is the only streaming media player with iTunes. If you've purchased videos or music on iTunes through a different device, that content will be immediately available on your Apple TV.
Apple TV's remote comes with a sleek, minimalistic design. If you've used an iPod, the interface will be instantly familiar.
Plus, Apple TV pairs well with other Apple devices:
- Stream content from Apple devices to your TV via Apple TV using AirPlay
- Capture a picture or video on your iPhone and display it on your Apple TV to show your friends and family
- Wirelessly mirror your MacBook screen on a TV screen
- Begin listening to a music album while in your car and finish listening to it on your stereo when you get home
Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick
Amazon Fire TV connects your HDTV to a world of online entertainment, including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, low-cost movie rentals, music, photos, games and more. Plus, Amazon Prime members enjoy unlimited, commercial-free streaming of tens of thousands of popular movies and TV shows.
Amazon Fire TV comes in two versions: a streaming stick and a set-top box.
Fire TV Stick
The Fire TV Stick is built for portability, as its small size makes it easy to carry around in a purse or a pocket. It features a dual-core processor, making it exceptionally fast for its its size, and it plugs directly into your HDTV's HDMI port.
While the included remote does not support voice commands, the free Fire TV Remote app can be downloaded on supported smartphones and tablets, and it lets you use your voice to search for your favorite entertainment.
Amazon Fire TV
The set-top box version of Amazon Fire TV features a quad-core processor, which makes it efficient at multitasking. It includes a USB port to expand your storage space, and HDMI and optical outputs. It also features an Ethernet port, which lets you connect to wired networks in addition to wireless ones.
The Amazon Fire TV remote has a built-in mic, so you can instantly search TV shows, movies, actors, directors and genres using just your voice — no more typing with your remote to find what you want.
Roku and Roku Streaming Stick
Roku streaming media players have a wealth of available apps (including popular services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Pandora, YouTube, and video games) and an easy-to-use interface. There are several Roku models to choose from.
Roku Streaming Stick
The Roku Streaming Stick is roughly the size of a thumb drive, making it more portable than other Roku options. It plugs directly into the HDMI port on your HDTV and has the same great apps and interface as other Roku devices. It includes a remote control, and you can also use a compatible smartphone or tablet as a remote with the free Roku app.
The Roku 1 features built-in composite outputs, so it works with virtually any TV, while other Roku models only work with HDTVs. That makes this a great option for anyone who would like to enjoy streaming media on an older TV. Like the Roku Streaming Stick, it comes with a remote and is also compatible with the free Roku app for smartphone and tablet features.
The Roku 2 features all the features of the Roku 1, with the exception of the composite outputs. Additionally, it has a built-in Ethernet port and dual-band WiFi, so you can take advantage of both wired and wireless Internet connections, and a faster processor than the Roku 1. A microSD slot lets you expand storage space for apps and games, and a USB port lets you play media files that are stored on a USB hard drive.
The Roku 3 is the most feature-loaded Roku. It has all of the features of the Roku 2, including the Ethernet and USB ports and the fast processor. The Roku 3 included remote features a headphone jack, which lets your kids enjoy movies, TV shows, music and more without disturbing others in the household. Conversely, you can watch TV late at night without waking the kids. Plus, the remote supports voice commands for easy searching and motion controls for games.
Chromecast is a media streaming device that plugs into the HDMI port on your TV. Simply use your mobile device to cast your favorite TV shows, movies, music, sports, games, and more to the TV you already own. Chromecast works with your iPhone, iPad, Android device, Apple® computer, Windows laptop or Chromebook.
With Chromecast, your phone is your remote. Simply tap the Cast button in your app to start watching on your TV. Search, play, pause and more, right from your phone.
Choose from more than 200,000 TV shows and movies, 30 million songs, plus radio, sports, games, and more. Discover thousands of apps at chromecast.com/apps.
Plug and Play in Three Easy Steps:
1. Plug Chromecast into the HDMI port in the back of your TV
2. Plug Chromecast into a power outlet
3. Connect to your Wi-Fi network
Then, start casting from your phone, tablet or laptop.
Multipurpose Streaming Devices
Smart Blu-ray players
If you want to take the leap toward streaming media but aren't ready to leave your physical disc collection behind, a smart Blu-ray player gives you the best of both worlds in one affordable package. Blu-ray is currently the highest quality physical video format available, and Blu-ray players will also play all of your DVDs. Most of the latest Blu-ray players are smart-enabled, which means they will stream media from a variety of services, including Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Pandora and more.
If you're passionate about video games, the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 are excellent streaming media options. Besides being able to play all the latest games, both of these consoles play Blu-ray discs and DVDs, while offering several of the most popular video and music streaming services (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, Crackle and more).
If price point is a factor, the PS3 or Xbox 360 might also suit your needs. The PS3 offers several streaming services and plays Blu-ray discs. The Xbox 360 offers streaming media services as well, but it doesn't have Blu-ray capabilities.
Note that Xbox consoles may require an additional monthly fee in order to use streaming services.
If you value simplicity and enjoy having all of your entertainment options on a single device, you might want to consider a smart TV. Smart TVs let you stream media and surf the Internet without requiring additional hardware. With a smart TV, the streaming features are built right into the TV itself, and you can use a single remote for changing channels, navigating your streaming content and surfing the Internet.
If you're looking to stream your favorite movies and TV shows in 4K video resolution, Ultra HD Smart TVs are currently the only option for viewing 4K Netflix programming.
Streaming Media on the Go
Your TV isn't even required for streaming media. Since many streaming services are available on laptops, tablets and cell phones, you can enjoy streaming media on the go. You can watch movies, sport events and TV shows while on the bus or train, or virtually anywhere you can find a wireless Internet signal.
Another away-from-home option is the Slingbox, which gives you access to your TV signal on your smartphone, tablet or laptop over the Internet. This means you can remotely view anything that's available on your TV. Watch your favorite shows, news programs or sporting events while they're airing, even if you're not at home. You can even view your recorded DVR content remotely. All you need is an Internet connection.
Other Things to Consider
Since the remote control serves as a link between you and your streaming device, it's important that your remote has the features you want. Several streaming media players come with a remote that looks and acts similar to that of your TV. Smart TV remotes also come with built-in buttons for navigating your streaming services, which can even include a full QWERTY keyboard. Some remotes, like Roku 3's, come with a built-in headphone jack, while others, like Amazon Fire TV's and Google Nexus Player's, come with voice search features.
With gaming consoles, you'll use the gaming controller as a remote. Many consoles offer a remote accessory (sold separately) that let you browse your media with a more traditional control style.
Chromecast doesn't come with a remote at all, and instead lets you use your smartphone or tablet as a remote. This offers additional functionality that many people enjoy. However, if you prefer a more traditional remote style and/or don't own a compatible device, make sure the player you choose has a dedicated remote.
One important factor to keep in mind is that streaming takes place over the Internet. That being the case, your Internet speed will greatly affect the quality of your content. You'll want to check your Internet speed before making a streaming media player purchase. We recommend:
- A wireless-N router or better
- At least 10Mbps download speed when using a single device, or 20Mbps if you plan on streaming 4K content
Without the proper Internet speed from your provider, you might experience lag and stuttering as a result of buffering. If you have several devices sharing a single Internet connection (including smart phones, tablets, computers, etc.) your speed requirement for streaming could increase substantially.
Every streaming media device requires at least some initial setup. Before you begin, you'll want to ensure that you have your Internet password on hand and that you have all the requisite cables. Additionally, your device will likely require you to set up an account, download system updates, and install the apps you want to use.
While it might be hard to determine the difficulty level of the setup process before making a purchase, the initial setup shouldn't be too difficult for anyone who's moderately tech-savvy. If you're at all intimidated, don't worry; Geek Squad® is here to help. Not only can Geek Squad answer your basic setup questions, they can also come to your home and perform the installation for you.
Shop Online or In Store
Find a wide variety of streaming media players on BestBuy.com. Your local Best Buy store also has a wide variety of players and other Smart-enabled devices across all the top brands. Plus, our Blue Shirts are on hand to offer advice and answer any questions you may have.