Buying Guide for Streaming Media Devices
Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Roku: Smart TVs And Smarter Streaming Devices
Home theater systems have changed almost beyond recognition in the last decade, first with the switch to HD and then Ultra HD, while audio got a serious surround sound upgrade with Dolby Atmos, and physical media like DVDs were replaced by digital streams.
Televisions have matured too, with screens growing ever larger and thinner, picture quality leaping to 4K and even 8K, and the TVs themselves gaining internet connections and apps. Today, in early 2021, the television can arguably be seen as command centre for the smart home, thanks to platforms like Alexa and Google Assistant, as well as Samsung's SmartThings and LG's ThinQ.
In this article we will walk you through today's home theater system, paying particular attention to streaming devices like TV sticks, set-top boxes, games consoles and connected speakers. If you want to know more about TV tech, then check out our jargon-busting buying guide.
Streaming dongles, sticks and boxes
When it comes to streaming dongles, sticks and boxes, there are four main options to pick from. There's the Fire TV system from Amazon, the Apple TV, the Chromecast from Google, and a range of products by Roku.
These all broadly work in a very similar way. They connect to a spare HDMI socket of your television (or sound bar or amplifier) and to a wall outlet or USB port for power. They then connect to your Wi-Fi router to stream content from service like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV+, YouTube, Spotify and more.
Each of these systems runs on its own operating system, but there are very few differences here. They all provide simple access to streaming apps and make it easy to navigate to find the content you want. Chromecast used to be controlled via a smartphone app, and while you can still 'cast' content from a smartphone to a television with a Chromecast connected, the latest model comes with its own dedicated remote (and new Google TV operating system, too).
Despite their differing form factors, streaming sticks and boxes do the same thing, just with the latter hidden behind your TV and the latter sitting below it to the side, like a traditional cable box. Some, like the Roku Premiere, are very small and can be sat next to whatever normally live below your TV. Roku also makes a pair of sound bars, called the Streambar and Smart Soundbar; these act as sound bars to improve your TV's audio output, but also work just like other Roku streaming devices.
We like Roku because, unlike the others, it doesn't have a streaming service or video production company of its own to promote. Instead, it offers a more impartial view of what is available from all sources, and what everything costs. Whereas Apple TV is more likely to promote Apple TV+ shows, and a Fire TV device shows Amazons own Prime Video content front-and-centre. Thankfully, all have remotes with voice control functionality that makes it easy to ask for exactly what you want.
When it comes to video and audio quality, all four companies sell devices capable streaming Ultra HD (4K) video with HDR10 and Dolby Atmos audio. Roku and Amazon also sell cheaper devices that can only handle HD, which could be suitable for a smaller bedroom TV. That said, the price difference between a Fire TV Stick capable of HD and one with 4K is only $10, so in our view it is worth paying extra to future-proof yourself.
Video game consoles
Game consoles like the new Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 also have access to all of the most common streaming services. Their reach isn't quite as broad as dedicated streaming boxes, but they have all of the most common apps and can handle video in 4K with HDR – something the cheapest sticks and boxes miss out on.
Navigating streaming apps with a gamepad isn't as intuitive as using a conventional remote or voice command, but it works and means if you have a console you don't necessarily need a media streamer too. Consoles are also the most future proof of streamers, given their huge power and 8K (and 120fps) capabilities, even if that's something Netflix and others aren't offering just yet.
Smart and connected speaker systems
Smart speakers have quickly become a cornerstone of the smart home ecosystem. They are often many consumer's first introduction to a voice assistant like Alexa and Google Assistant, and they form the foundations on which to build a smart home.
They also play a key role in home entertainment, by streaming music from services like Spotify and Apple Music to every room. but also hooking up to the TV. Amazon, Apple and Google all have a facility where smart speakers can be connected wirelessly to their respectively media streamers. That way, you can have a TV system with an Apple TV and a pair of HomePod speakers, or a Chromecast and a pair of Nest Audios, or a Fire TV Stick and a pair of Echo speakers. Amazon also gives the option of creating a Dolby Atmos surround sound system when using its Echo Studio speakers.
These speakers can also be used to control media content on the TV. For example, you can ask the Alexa of a nearby Echo speaker to control your Fire TV, or the Google Assistant on a nearby Google or Nest speaker to play something on a Chromecast connected to your TV. Just say: "Hey Google, play the next episode of The Crown and Netflix" and it'll do it.
Although it doesn't offer a smart speaker or voice assistant of its own, Roku sells a pair of wireless speakers and a wireless subwoofer for connecting to its streaming devices. You can create a complete system with these and one of its smart sound bars.
Sonos also allows for this, by connecting a pair of its One speakers to the Arc or Beam sound bar. These all have access to Alexa and Google Assistant (although only one can be used at a time). And while Sonos does not interact in any way with TV and movie streaming services, you can use its speakers to create a voice-controlled sound system, or a movie system connected, via the Arc or Beam sound bar, to a TV which in turn is connected to a streamer from Roku, Apple, Google or Amazon.
Almost all televisions sold today, in 2021, are considered as 'smart' TVs. This means they have an internet connection (usually with the option of Wi-Fi or Ethernet), an operating system and access to streaming applications like Netflix, Spotify and YouTube, plus a basic web browser and more. There are several different smart TV operating systems around, including Tizen by Samsung, webOS by LG and Android TV on some Sony models. These all work in a very similar way, and are also similar to the systems of the aforementioned streaming devices and game consoles.
It could be argued that many televisions don't need connecting to a streaming stick or box, because they already have their own applications. This is certainly true in some cases, but often the operating system of a streaming box works better than that of a TV, with access to more applications and a more appealing interface. In the case of some systems, like Apple TV, the device also provides access to games and smart home systems not accessible via your TV's own software.
Hisense 55-Inch Class R8 Series Dolby Vision & Atmos 4K ULED Roku Smart TV with Alexa Compatibility and Voice Remote (55R8F, 2020 Model)