This comparison takes a look at the top digital media players and we pick our winners for best receiver for 2014. Included in this review are: Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, Boxee, Amazon Fire TV, PlayOn, WD TV Live, TVersity, and Chromecast, as well as a few others. We share our top 3 picks for best digital media player and, for each, we share the pros and cons so that you can decide which ones might fit your budget and entertainment needs best.
Best Streaming Media Player for 2014
Hands down this company offers the widest range of access to media. It can stream from virtually any media service you can imagine. It’s one downfall is that it lacks internal storage and streaming straight from a computer (you will need a separate hookup for computer to TV streaming). However, Roku says that streaming directly from a computer is in the works. But since it has so many streaming options available directly through it, this will rarely be needed. The Roku 3 has one of the fastest processors and most intuitive user interfaces of all, making it our #1 pick for best streaming media players. The newest Roku device, Roku Streaming Stick HDMI, plugs directly into the HDMI port and is very discreet. (But make sure you pick the right version for your TV – the newer versions 2, 3, and HDMI (obviously) only support HDMI)
Apple is known for its secure and streamlined, user-friendly interface and this is no exception. It took a few versions to get it just right but the latest version allows almost as much access to media as the Roku and even allows you to access your iTunes account for convenient access to your existing music and videos as well as easy downloads of new movies and other entertainment. But the coolest part might be that you can show your Mac or MacBook screen on your TV, wirelessly (requires OS X 10.9+ Mavericks). If you are an Apple addict, this is the box for you.
Chromecast is popular due to its cheap pricing of only $35 and that it is compatible with many devices. The Chromecast dongle plugs right into the HDMI port on your television set. Users like being able to use their smartphone, tablet, or computer as a remote for their Chromecast dongle and they can stream video from any of them and still use that device for other uses. The downfall to Chromecast is that it currently only supports a limited number of apps including Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play.
Streaming Media Player Comparison Charts
If you know about streaming players already and want to jump straight to the comparison charts:
Streaming Media Player Reviews
To jump straight to the in-depth reviews:
Amazon Fire Stick | Amazon Fire TV | Apple TV | Boxee TV | Chromecast | Google Nexus Player | Google TV | PlayOn | Playstation 3 | Roku Streaming Stick HDMI | Roku 3 | Roku 2 | Roku XDS | Smart TV Box | TVersity | WD Live TV | XBox 360
Discounts and Promotions
Every now and then, a given media player will go on sale. To keep the discount codes from cluttering up the article, we’re posting them in the comments section below.
Because the digital media player space is so competitive, there are frequent price drops. We’ll try to post the new prices below in the What Can I Watch On It Chart as they happen but bear with us and please leave comments to help us out.
What is a Digital media player?
First off, if you’re new to the whole media player thing – a digital media player (or digital media adapter) is basically a set-top box that you can use to stream television shows and movies (some free with ads, some paid) to your television set or projector. They typically include an interface that is easier to use and more reliable than if you were to simply hookup your PC or laptop to your television set.
Does a Media Player Offer Everything my Cable Service Does?
A media player offers access to pre-recorded TV shows and movies. Only a small number offer the ability to view or record live TV (although with access to pre-recorded shows, this might not be a feature you’d miss terribly).
You can read all about media players, how they work, pros and cons, and how to get up and running with an antenna and digital tuner (to view and record Live TV), in our digital media player review.
We should point out that we are more or less at the beginning of the media player revolution. That means they’ll likely be more supported (ie. a solid sports offering) and offer more features (more shows, more movies, etc.) in the years to come. That being said, we’re miles from where we were last year, and there’s some solid offerings on the market that offered enough to make it a no-brainer for us to cut the cord on our cable subscription and save $80/ month in the process.
Media player Comparison Charts
This first chart outlines the media streaming services (that stream television shows and movies to your box) that are supported by each media player – ie. does the receiver support Hulu Plus, Amazon, YouTube, HBO Go?
|Media Player||Apple TV||Google TV||Roku Streaming Stick||Boxee Box||WD TV|
|PlayOn (PC Based Service)||PS3||Chromecast||XBox 360||Amazon Fire TV||Amazon Fire Stick||Google Nexus Player||Smart TV Box|
|Video Calling||Costs Extra|
|NBA Game Time|
It’s important to point out that even though a particular media player might support a service, it might not be supported as fully as with another box. That’s because some network providers are blocking access to certain shows (for example, if you sign in to Hulu Plus with Roku, you’ll see some shows, such as Top Chef, marked with “web only,” which means they didn’t obtain the rights to stream full episodes over the media player, and you’ll need to use your PC to view these). Read our detailed reviews below for details on what you’ll get with each media player.
DLNA stands for (Digital Living Network Alliance) – basically allows entertainment devices within your home to communicate with one another. So DLNA enabled media players are able to stream content to and from each other. This is a huge advantage if you want to share photo slideshows, home videos, etc. from various PC’s and gadgets in your household on your television set or projector.
This chart outlines the accessories and goodies you get with each media player. Some come fully loaded with remote control (Via App = you use your Apple iOS device as the remote control via a free app), keyboard, and wireless-N connections, while others come stripped down to save costs. As a note, because Google TV comes in so many varieties, you should be sure to double-check your particular smart TV or Buddy Box. For this review I’m using the Hisense Pulse.
Finally, there’s a row for VPN Support – this is primarily for accessing streams from countries outside the United States. While the media players don’t have VPN support built-in, you can find ways of configuring your network so the media box will be able to access content over your VPN.
|Media Player||Apple TV||Google TV||Roku Streaming Stick||Boxee Box||WD TV|
|PS3||Chromecast||XBox 360||Amazon Fire TV||Amazon Fire Stick||Google Nexus Player||Smart TV Box|
|Remote Control||Via App|
This chart outlines the technical specs of each media player. What kinds of inputs and outputs does each box have? Will you be able to play videos you’ve stored on your USB drive or SD card? Will you be able to use component cables to connect it to your projector?
|Media Player||Apple TV||Google TV||Roku Streaming Stick||Boxee Box||WD TV|
|PS3||Chromecast||XBox 360||Amazon Fire TV||Amazon Fire Stick||Google Nexus Player||Smart TV Box|
|Resolution||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||1080p||720p and 1080p up to 60fps||720p and 1080p up to 60fps||1080p||1080p|
It’s important to point out that few of the digital media players have on board storage. (The PS3 is an exception which has a MicroSD expansion capability.) That means, unlike your DVR or hard drive on your PC, you’re not going to be able to record shows locally. But then again, in most cases that’s not necessary because the services that you’ll be getting, from Hulu Plus to Netflix, do that for you. That’s the beauty of a media player – no need to stress over having remembered to record a particular show or not, and no need to worry about the day (and it will come) your DVR hard drive will crash and you’ll lose all your recorded shows and movies.
Apple TV vs Roku Vs Chromecast vs Amazon Fire TV vs Google Tv
The Amazon Fire Stick is another addition to Amazon’s arsenal of streaming services to compete with the popular Chromecast, but with more memory and a dual core processor for quicker searches and better gaming. The cool thing about the stick is that it is a low-cost, low-risk way to currently take advantage of Amazon’s content. With mainstream Smart TVs on the horizon, the need for a stand alone streaming device may become unnecessary, making the Fire Stick an appealing option. The portability and ease of startup is a definite plus, and their ‘ASAP’ (Advance Streaming and Prediction) will personalize the experience for you with recommendations based on your screening habits. This also helps with a quicker media turnaround.
The system comes with a remote, but if you want a voice activated system, there are (2) choices: add a remote upgrade for $29.99, or download a free app on your phone to voice search for the shows you want (sort of like if Siri had a remote control).
- 8GB storage and 1GB of memory + add’l 5GB with Amazon Cloud free
- 30 day free trial of Netflix and Amazon Prime
- Prime Member Pre-order for $19
- Same media content available as Amazon Fire
- Voice search is additional cost to include on remote- only works on Amazon content
- Content lacking if not an Amazon Prime customer
- No HBOGo app, but you can access many HBO shows through Prime
- Not available until 2015
It’s kind of shocking that Amazon just came out with their first media streaming device in 2014. Although, they’re late to the game they have hit the ground running and offer a large variety of apps. At a price of $99, that puts them at the mid to upper price of other competitors. What sets Amazon Fire TV apart from the rest is the voice search feature. Simply say what show, movie, or song you want and it will come up. They also offer a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime which includes 2-day shipping on all products purchased through Amazon. The instant streaming is really cool too – it predicts what you’ll want to watch and pre-buffers them for instant playback.
- Over 200,000 TV shows and movies
- Millions of songs
- 100+ games
- 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime
- Voice search to find what you’re looking for
- 2 GB memory
- Lack in the sports section (only NBA Game Time and Watch ESPN)
Apple fans will flock to the Apple TV because of their brand loyalty. If you have a MacBook, iPhone, iPad, etc. you know just how solid and good Apple products can be. Does the same hold for the branded TV box? Let’s just say that the first iteration didn’t exactly blow Apple fans off the stage. But the latest iteration of the AppleTV comes at a time where the industry in general has caught up to the idea of being able to bypass your cable television service and stream, in high quality HD with surround sound, television shows and movies directly into your living room. But the coolest part might be that you can show your Mac or MacBook screen on your TV, wirelessly (requires OS X 10.9+ Mavericks). This is a great feature for hosting content on your Mac but viewing it on your HDTV or Home Theater/ Projector.
The second generation Apple TV improved on the earlier iteration by coming in a much smaller size, with a more powerful processor, updated and more reliable software, a slicker user interface, more support for services and apps, and the ability to use your Apple device (iPhone, iPad, etc.) as a remote control. And while the first generation Apple TV focused on syncing up with content in your iTunes account, the 2nd generation Apple TV is more about streaming content to your television.
In addition to the above mentioned Apple TV 2, the new third generation Apple TV has improved to support 1080p.
Please comment below if you have any insight or experience with the first gen or third gen Apple TV.
- Competitive $99 price point
- $0.99 HD movie rentals (cheapest of any provider, most charge $2.99 and up for HD quality) can also access your Netflix and HuluPlus accounts
- Solid, clean, easy to use and familiar (to Apple users) user interface
- Can be controlled via your Apple device (iPhone, iPad, etc.)
- Can be controlled on the TV via WiFi
- Smallest media player, very light weight and portable
- Third generation offers 1080p support
- iTunes has a limited selection of TV shows compared to Amazon VOD (only supported networks are ABC, Fox, Disney, PBS, and BBC) – hopefully offerings will expand in the near future – we’ll keep you posted.
- The PC-based iTunes store has a bigger selection than the Apple TV iTunes store (i.e. they’re not the same, which can be confusing)
- Doesn’t support as many apps (i.e. Pandora) as the competition
- Can only connect via HDMI, Micro USB and infrared.
First we should point out that it’s also possible to install simply the Boxee software on a machine (PC or laptop) of your choosing. So if you have a PC or laptop lying around you don’t use on a daily basis, you might want to consider turning it into your own Boxee Box.
Boxee Box sold to Samsung and is not longer selling their product. Boxee Box discontinued July 10, 2013. We are keeping Boxee Box in this large comparison review for those who purchased the product before it was discontinued.
- Very user configurable
- Supports a large number of audio and video formats
- With the right amount of patience, can be setup to stream just about anything
- Customizable user interface – download different “skins” (layouts and colors) to suit your preference.
- Hulu Plus is blocked
Chromecast can stream movies, TV shows, music, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, HBO Go, Google Play, Pandora, and other web content via Chrome from the Cloud. All you need is a television with an HDMI port. Chromecast works with many devices including Android tablets and smartphones, iPhones, iPads, and Chrome for Mac and Windows.
Some of the main attractions to Chromecast are its low price of $35 and it’s remote free. Chromecast allows you to browse for what you’d like to watch, control playback, and change volume all from your choice of device. Once you have Chromecast setup, you are ready to stream from your computer, phone, or tablet as a remote. A Chromecast button will appear in the app you are on. By clicking the button your video or music will stream instantly. Videos aren’t streamed directly to the Chromecast dongle so after the video is streaming from your device you can then turn that device off or use it for something else.
Chromecast has the ability to use on-screen mirroring through the Chrome browser to stream apps it doesn’t partner with currently. However, when using this mirroring feature you must remember whatever is showing on your device will be showing up on your TV so you cannot switch screens or turn it off. Where Chromecast lacks is streaming any sports channels.
- Cheap, only $35
- Works on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, and Android
- Chrome browser mirroring is simple and effective
- Only supports a limited number of apps
The Google Nexus Player comes with a small sleek device that plugs into your HDMI TV input. With an automatic voice activated remote and quick setup, this may be a good option if you are an Android user. There are limits to content since this is mainly focused on Google/Android games/apps, but the cool thing is that the unit can also act as Chromecast (where you can project from your tablet/phone your entertainment apps to your TV). Although Google Nexus does not have HBOGo, you can use the Chromecast functionality to watch your phone app on your TV.
- Voice-activated remote included in package
- Can also act as Chromecast to replace any apps you can’t directly get from Nexus
- May use Bluetooth gaming controller or controller sold separately
- Syncs content across multiple media
- Expensive with fewer features than competitors
- Low storage space- may not work for gamers
- Limited content
- Does not include HDMI cable in package
- Complaints of lower resolution when using HDMI cable
Google TV brings the Internet to your TV and allows users to access their favorite content online. With an unbelievable amount of apps, there is an endless amount of possibilities. Unlike other services in this review, this product is pre-installed on certain TVs and buddy boxes.
- A plethora of web apps including Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go and many others
- Picture in picture, which allows users to surf the web on the same screen that a television is on
- With Google’s amazing search engine, users can search for shows they want to watch and determine what service they would like to watch the program with
- Ability to watch shows directly from the network’s website
- Not designed to incorporate local content like AppleTV does with Airplay
- A licensing issue with Hulu means no Hulu Plus, at least for now. Hopefully they’ll get this sorted out in a hurry.
Google TV Hardware Options
Hisense Pulse – View Hisense Pulse on Amazon
Hisense Pulse debuted to many of the same compatibility problems as NeoTV Prime. The remote has a full QWERTY keyboard on the back and a simple, streamlined UI. At $79 it’s more of a bargain than some other options.
NetGear NeoTV Prime
NeoTV Prime stumbled a bit out of the gate. Many customers complained about compatibility problems with cable or DVR remotes, but a recent firmware update has helped to resolve some of those complaints. One highlight is the bluetooth remote, which doesn’t require direct line of sight. At $129 this is one of the more expensive options.
Sony Internet Player NSZ-GS7 – View Sony NSZGS8 on Amazon
The Sony NSZ-GS7 Internet Player is $129. What really sets it apart is the intuitive touchpad remote with a built-in 3 axis motion sensor for gaming.
VIZIO Co-Star is a great value at $99 and also features a touchpad remote, although much smaller than the Sony version and does not feature a 3 axis motion sensor. Vizio did put their own UI on this product, so some users complain that the Google TV interface is not as fast as they were hoping.
Visit Website – PlayOn
The PlayOn service is unique to this review. PlayOn doesn’t actually offer a physical media player, in other words, you’ll need to download and install & run the software on a PC with a Windows operating system. The advantage of PlayOn is that you can stream content from network channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, TBS, The CW, CNN, MTV, HGTV, the Food Network, ESPN3 (which includes live sports and replays of just about everything ESPN covers) and more. There are “plug-ins” for television stations available (made by third-party developers) that give you access to the Internet feeds various networks provide on your PC. These feeds are accessible through PlayOn, and typically not the media players listed above (ie. content is blocked). You get a 14 day free trial so make sure you can get it up and running and enjoy it before cutting the chord on your cable bill.
Playone Price: $49.99 for lifetime service
- Good price point given what you get and the quality of implementation (which keeps getting better).
- PlayOn is very well supported – there’s constant updates.
- Network channel access (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, TBS, The CW, CNN, MTV, HGTV, ESPN3, the Food Network, and more).
- Supports Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Chromecast, Moxi HD DVR, NETGEAR Digital Entertainer Live, and Roku.
- ESPN3.com support (for Time Warner customers, this is a huge plus, since the Xbox 360 functionality is not yet working).
- The software is somewhat buggy. Some channels work, others do not.
- Getting your firewall configured to let PlayOn through can be a daunting task.
In an earlier version of this review we included the Sony SMP-N200, a device that is no longer sold or supported by Sony. Part of this is certainly their Google TV box, but another factor is likely their popular Playstation 3. Like TVersity and PlayOn, it’s not a traditional streaming media player, but it serves many of the same functions. The most popular streaming video services are fully integrated and it also includes a fully functional Blu-ray player. The PS3 lacks support for most audio services (no Pandora or Spotify) but it will stream audio directly from your PC. It comes at a much higher price point than the other devices on this list, but if you have an interest in gaming the PS3 could certainly fill your streaming media needs and help consolidate boxes.
With the Roku Streaming Stick you have access to more than 1,200 channels including movies, TV shows, music, news and sports. Roku Streaming Stick came out in March 2014 and is available for $49.99. It is available for international users for $59.99. The device comes with a small dongle to plug-in to the HDMI port on your television as well as a WiFi Roku remote. The video streams in 1080 HD and there are free Roku apps available on Android and iOS devices for those who want mobile access.
The key difference between the Roku Streaming Stick and other Roku devices is that it is much more compact. This device is perfect for those TVs that are mounted on the wall. It’s one less box sitting under the TV somewhere. It’s small and discreet and has all the features of the other Rokus.
The Roku 3 came out in March 2013 and it’s a vast improvement (unlike the minor changes from the XDS to the Roku 2 XS, see below). It is a slicker design and offers a vastly improved user interface which translates into a much more intuitive user experience and screen layout. The new box also features a faster processor which means you will not have to wait so long from one action to the next. The old interface forced you to scroll through each channel one-by-one (and it was slow thanks to the slower processor) but the new on-screen display shows several channels at once for you to select the one you are looking for right away. This new interface rolled be = out to all Roku users in April 2013.
The other updates include a more rounded, slicker designed product look and the added ability to plug a headset (provided with the system) right into the remote so you can listen without bothering those around you and very conveniently too. And, for those that don’t know already, Roku offers more than 750 channels including Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon, Pandora, Spotify and even HBO Go.
Roku 2 offers a tiered line-up based on pricing and features. There are just a few minor differences from the Roku XDS to the Roku 2 XS. In fact, we don’t really need to do a “review” of version 2, but rather a simple add-on to our existing branded review below. And if you are thinking about getting a Roku, you are better off just going with the new and WAY improved Roku 3 over any of its predecessors.
So, what are the key differentiating features of the Roku 2 over the original boxes?
- The Roku 2 supports gaming. The first game it comes with is the ubiquitous Angry Birds. As a result, the Roku 2 controller has been upgrade to include a few additional buttons. How is the gaming experience on the Roku 2? From early testing, less than stellar. It takes the games a while to load, and they won’t perform any better than they do on your iPad. We’re going to keep an eye on the gaming development, considering that if the significantly improve in this arena, the Roku 2 could turn into a viable inexpensive HD gaming platform.
- The Roku 2 has SD card support. If that’s important to you, you may want to consider upgrading. But before you do, consider this: the most common reason to have SD card support is to play your local media files. If you’re thinking photos, you should be aware that there are channels (that you can get on any Roku box) that let you stream your Picasa, Flickr, and other photo services into your living room.
- Bluetooth support.
First we should point out that while we review the Roku XDS Streaming media player here, the Roku also comes in two lesser expensive models, the Roku XD ($79) and the Roku HD ($59). What’s the difference? These two products do not come with:
- Dual-band wireless (if you have many wireless devices connected in your home, this can improve efficiency and throughput/ performance – by placing some devices on the second band, they won’t slow down when other devices hog the first band)
- Component video and optical audio outputs (the component video is important if your television or projector doesn’t have HDMI). The component video will give you the next best “HD” resolution after HDMI.
- USB port – without this, you won’t be able to load and play local music and audio files.
The Roku HD additionally lacks the following:
- 1080p support (the highest quality resolution for HD, requires an HDMI connection)
- The enhanced remote control with instant replay functionality
- Extended range wireless-N (b/g/n compatible)
In our opinion, the Roku is one of our favorite media players. Why? Because it offers a good combination of price, easy setup and easy to use interface, streaming provider support and regular updates to improve their player (it appears to be better supported than Sony, for example).
- Low price point ($99)
- Easy setup (15 minutes or less)
- Lots of inputs and outputs (composite, component, HDMI, etc.)
- Full Amazon and Netflix support – you can search, browse, and add movies to your queue (including your instant watching queue).
- Doesn’t support 1080i (only 1080p). This means if your projector (like our Optoma DV11), only supports resolutions up to 1080i, you’ll be stuck with 720p instead.
- Syncs content across multiple media. In order to use the component out on the XDS, you need to purchase a special component cable from the company ($10) (it has an 1/8″ connector on one end).
Visit Website – Smart TV Box
Smart TV Box has just about everything you could want. So why didn’t it rank in our top 3? We had never heard of this product until one of our readers pointed it out to us. It worries us that Smart TV Box hasn’t made a name for itself in this category yet. So we questions whether all the features work or not.
- Costs $99
- Most features you want are available
- Not a lot of information from customers online about them
- An outdated looking site so they don’t seem up to date on things and a little unprofessional
Visit Website – tversity
The TVersity service is similar to PlayOn, without much of the “plug n play” functionality. Starting at $4.99, you can get a license to use the software on one PC. From what we can tell, TVersity is not quite as mature as PlayOn at this time. It offers similar capabilities to stream video and audio locally and from the Internet, with the note-able absence of a streamlined user interface, plug-ins, apps, and Netflix support. We plan on adding more details as the service improves and we learn more.
We should also point out the differences between the WD TV Live (which replaced the Live Plus) and the WD TV Play. The main difference at this time appears to be that the WD TV Live supports a broader range of multimedia formats (including MPEG). That and the price of $79.99 (the Play is $50.00). WD TV is produced by Western Digital.
- Small set-top box that supports more audio and video formats than just about any other streaming device at this time.
- Large number of inputs and outputs.
- Netflix – you can now search and modify your queue.
- Doesn’t have as many widgets (apps) or “plug-in” functionality as other media players.
- We’ve received reports that the unit loads somewhat slowly and the menu isn’t as efficient or easy to use as on other players.
You can stream music, pictures and video with your XBox 360. You must connect your console to your network through a computer though. XBox 360 has Hulu Plus, Netflix, Crackle, HBO Go and many other apps. However, to take advantage of these things you must have the Live Gold membership, which just adds on to the costs.
Which media player Do you Like Best?
We hope you enjoyed our media player show down. Feel free to comment below, add your opinion, and let us know which media player is your favorite. With all the developments happening in the “streaming content” world (that has cable tv companies scared silly), it will be interesting to see what contracts/ relationships/ developments come out of the digital media player revolution over the next few years.
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