Connected Home Theater Guide: What You Need To Know Before You Buy

Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Roku: Smart TVs And Smarter Streaming Devices

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Last updated: October 31, 2017

What is the best way to stream Netflix, Hulu Plus and other services through your TV? GearBrain has outlined major features and tools you can use to make your home theater smarter.

There are a number of devices that now allow you to stream on-demand video and live TV, as well as music. Many connected home theater systems also support gaming, light Internet browsing, and services like messaging and video chat. We can watch or listen to what we want, when we want to. Some options even include commercial-free media, along with the ability to pause —then replay — on different devices. (Cord-cutting customers might appreciate this option to lower their cable bill or just better enjoy an existing cable service.)

The most important thing to look for in a streaming device is this: Does it supports your favorite streaming services? Most options now link to Netflix and Hulu Plus, with the majority also including Pandora Internet Radio and YouTube as well. Music fans have a bit tougher. Those using Spotify, Google Play Music, Beats Music or iTunes Radio will find only certain devices work with their favorite streaming service.

Streaming Dongles

Smaller streaming dongles are the best-selling smart TV devices on the market today, due to their low cost and high functionality.

Google offers a second-generation version of its popular Chromecast ($35), with a new design that opts for a compact circular look, as opposed to the “stick" form factor of the previous model. The newer Chromecast also includes improved wireless connectivity (802.11ac), new color options and more gaming features.

One thing to know about the Chromecast? It's completely controlled by an Android or Apple smartphone or tablet — inconvenient if the device is plugged in and charging. Plus, some find the experience of using a phone-based remote clunky. The lack of physical buttons makes the dongle more difficult to find in the dark. However, phone hardware now powers games on the Chromecast, and three wireless antennas offer improved wireless signal and faster “casting" than previous models.

The Amazon Fire TV Stick ($39) and Roku Streaming Stick ($39) are Chromecast's major competitors. Both are still in their first generation, giving Chromecast a temporary leg-up in the hardware department. But Fire TV Stick is well-designed for forms and hotel rooms, able to connect to "captive portal" Wi-Fi networks, or those that require a username and password.

Also, both the Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick ship with remotes — a major boon for those of us who like to choose a program, and play or pause without fumbling for a remote. Those looking at the Roku dongle might be better off buying the outdated but more fully-featured Roku 2 ($69). For more details on streaming dongles, check out GearBrain's review of the Best Connected Home Theater Devices.

Video game consoles

Video game consoles like the Microsoft Xbox One ($349 and up) and Sony PlayStation 4 ($399 and up) are the best option for gamers who also want to be able to stream shows and movies. Fans of Blu-Ray discs are also going to like the device, particularly if they want to reduce the number of boxes in their cabinet.

The Xbox One's Kinect (which adds about $100 to its overall cost) has always-on voice controls which allow users to turn on their entire home theater system and navigate apps entirely by voice. Plus the console also features the ability to wirelessly stream games to compatible Windows 10 PCs.

Connected Sound Systems

There are multiple connected sound systems that allow music aficionados to stream tunes wirelessly in rooms without a full home theater setup. Sonos took an early lead, and has been joined by competitors like Denon HEOS and Bose. All three use Bluetooth and require the purchase of a proprietary speaker system, with one small speaker starting at $199.

Google's Chromecast Audio ($35) offers a different way to connect any set of speakers to a wireless streaming system. Whether you have a decent set of extra computer speakers, a shelf system or even an older stereo receiver, the Chromecast Audio can provide streaming music through a WiFi connection with your smartphone, computer or tablet.

Streaming boxes

Streaming boxes are more full-featured devices for the home theater aficionado. Still, the come with a higher price tag, yet fit better underneath your TV — as opposed to dangling behind it and out of view.

One of the best and more popular models is the Roku Ultra ($99). An early streaming device manufacturer, Roku's had years to build up its robust catalog of services and apps. Less expensive Roku models offer similar features, but splurging for the Roku Ultra bring you a powerful remote control with a wireless headphone plug.

This can make your favorite – or frankly any – set of headphones wireless. If you live in a tight space or want to watch a show without disturbing others, like your sleeping spouse, the Roku Ultra's remote is alone, a great value.

Roku recently announced the Roku 4K ($129), an upgrade which can stream at 4K resolution, with faster wireless and computing hardware. The Roku 4's neatest trick is a remote finder button on top of the box, which rings the remote when you just can't find it. (Hint: it's stuck between the couch cushions. Always.)

The Amazon Fire TV ($99) includes voice search – a feature also found on the Roku 3 and 4 – plus a sleek design. While the Fire TV has the biggest gaming catalog to date of any streaming boxes, the device also, annoyingly, pushes Amazon's premium content and Prime Instant Video. Though, if you have Amazon Prime, you'll have access to the company's decent Netflix competitor at no extra cost. (Note that Amazon Prime Instant Video works on all Roku models — but not the Chromecast.)

Apple recently unveiled the long-awaited update to its Apple TV, another favorite on the market today. One of the pricier connected home theater options at $149 (32GB) and $199 (64GB), the new model includes a gaming and Siri-centric remote with Wii-like motion controls and a touchscreen.

The newest Apple TV is also expected to eventually be home to a number of new Apple services — including a rumored live television service. Plus the Apple TV will certainly play a central role in HomeKit, the iPhone-makers “smart home" service.

This means the Apple TV is future-ready for GearBrains who want a front-row seat to the Internet of Things, tying all of their smart home devices, like appliances, light fixtures and thermostats, together.

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