En español | Streaming devices — those Internet-connected gadgets that play online content on your TV screen — are a booming market: Annual sales of streaming devices are expected to double to about 330 million by 2017. Consumers already have many options, and with tech titans like Amazon and Google reportedly prepping new products for 2014, you'll soon have even more.
While most TV manufacturers now offer smart TVs, which integrate online streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu Plus right into your flat screen, they charge a hefty premium for it. In many cases, connecting a streaming device to your TV set may be a more sensible option, offering a broader range of choices — and often for under $100. Before you start shopping, make sure you have a speedy Internet connection and an open HDMI port. Got those? Then read on.
If you're looking for quantity from your streaming device, meet the most robust offering on the market. More than 1,000 choices are listed on Roku's channel store, from popular services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant and Watch ESPN to more obscure services. With a little digging and research, Roku users can download channels that play nothing but B-movies or classic cartoons. Other channels offer local newscasts and weather from across the country, which can be nice for travelers or transplants who miss home.
Until recently, Roku was the only major streaming device that didn't have a YouTube app, but a new update added that feature. The Roku also lets you stream your own pictures and video from your mobile devices to your TV. The top-of-the-line Roku 3 features a motion sensor remote that turns the Roku into a rudimentary gaming device. There are a few fun trivia apps, and it is pretty cool to toss Angry Birds across your screen with a simple flick of the wrist, but the game selection is limited.
The Roku 3 (and the newly updated Roku 2) offer what's perhaps my favorite feature on any streamer: a jack on its remote that mutes your TV set and sends audio directly to your headphones. It's a perfect solution for anyone who wants to watch TV without disturbing others, such as a sleeping partner.
Price: $49.99 (Roku LT) to $99.99 (Roku 3)
The first incarnation of the Apple TV streaming box, released at the start of 2007, predates the iPhone. The jump Apple got on its competition has paid off as the tech giant still owns more than half of the streaming device market.
More apps and channels have been added over the years, and many of the biggies are here: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and YouTube. Recently added apps include Watch ESPN and the Smithsonian Channel.
Apple curates its offerings more stringently than some others — at least for now, you won't find Amazon Instant video. IPhone, iPad or Mac users already in the Apple ecosystem will benefit the most from Apple TV, as it seamlessly integrates iTunes and App Store purchases across all devices. Its AirPlay function, which allows content from iDevices to be streamed to your TV screen, is the most intuitive and smoothest mirroring option available.
Google's new streaming device is different for two reasons: its diminutive size, and its similarly small price. Instead of a box or console, Chromecast is a small dongle that fits in the palm of your hand and plugs directly into an HDMI port on your television. This eliminates one wire from your setup (from device to TV), though you'll still need a connection to power your Chromecast through an electrical outlet or — if your TV has one — a USB input.
At $35, it's roughly one-third the cost of Apple TV or the Roku 3 (Roku also offers a dongle streaming stick, and it retails for $69.99), and its July release was an immediate sellout. Supply is no longer a problem, but there's a bit of a you-get-what-you-pay-for caveat. The Chromecast is a nifty little device, but for now it streams only a few apps from your device or PC: Netflix, YouTube, Hulu Plus and HBO Go. That's a far cry from the streaming options found on Roku, and far short of even Apple TV's inventory. You can also play movies, videos and music from the Google Play store, and unlike Apple's proprietary device, the Chromecast integrates with both iOS and Android. It allows those using a Google Chrome browser to mirror content to the TV screen — which it touts as a workaround for nonsupported streaming services. But my experience with mirroring from Chrome has been frustrating, with lagging, blurry video. Apple TV's AirPlay is far superior.
Google may debut Nexus Play, a set-top streaming box of its own, in 2014. Meanwhile, the Chromecast, given its low price and Google's promise to add apps and services, is an easy device to recommend despite its limitations.
Many Blu Ray players now double as streaming devices, offering a range of features, including a majority of the most popular services and apps. It's a great option for people who have already invested in Blu Ray and DVD collections, or who simply still like watching films, TV shows and other content on disc. You'll pay more for a Blu Ray player with streaming capability than for one without it, but it's possible to find streaming Blu Ray players for under $100, and it's an efficient way to bundle two devices into one.
If you're a gamer or have kids or grandkids who like video games, most gaming consoles — including the recently launched Xbox One and PlayStation 4 — now include streaming services, offering the standard lineup of apps and channels including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and YouTube. These are pricier options, though, as the Xbox One retails for $499, and the PS4 goes for $399.
Austin O'Connor covers television, film, gaming, gadgets and all kinds of entertainment for AARP.org. Follow him on Twitter: @austinjoconnor.