Whether you are looking to add Netflix and Hulu Plus to a second television in the bedroom or perhaps outfitting all the televisions within your home with multiple set-top box streaming devices after dropping expensive cable or satellite television service, it’s extremely helpful to understand the differences between the large amount of set-top box options currently available to consumers. Set-top boxes typically differ when it comes to internal hardware, user interfaces, device functionality, volume and type of streaming video applications, compatibility with other devices on your home network and price.
Trying to figure out which set-top box to buy after turning in all those old cable boxes to your service provider? Check out our 2013 category breakdown of the five most popular streaming set-top box platforms:
Price: WD TV Play
It’s tough to compete with this nifty media streamer from Western Digital, purely on the basis of price. While the minimum price of admission for 1080p streaming video is around $100 on set-top boxes like the Roku 3 and Apple TV, Western Digital accomplishes the same feat at a $70 MSRP.
In addition, the recently released device can occasionally be found on sale between $60 to $65. While the WD TV Play doesn’t offer the same amount of streaming application support as a Roku 3 or Boxee Box, it could be perfect for a secondary television in a bedroom or office that simply needs access to popular applications such as Netflix, Vudu or Hulu Plus. Here’s a quick overview of the prices for these streaming set-top boxes:
WD TV Play: $69.99
Apple TV: $99
Roku 3: $99.99
Vizio Co-Star: $99.99 (Google TV)
Boxee Box: $170
Sony NSZ-GS7: $199.99 (Google TV)
Supported Video Applications: Roku 3
Without a doubt, the Roku 3 offers a significantly higher volume of streaming video applications when compared to the other set-top box alternatives. Boxee Box is the only device that comes close enough to match the Roku 3, but the lack of support for major applications like Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video is definitely disappointing.
The lack of Hulu Plus on Google TV set-top boxes like the Vizio Co-Star is also an issue, despite the thousands of applications that can be installed from the Google Play store. In addition, other set-top boxes, like the Apple TV and WD TV Play, have similar issues with content selection as well as app availability.
The Roku 3 currently offers access to over 750 different entertainment channels including popular apps such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu Plus, Vudu and HBO GO. The only major player that’s absent from the device is Google’s YouTube, however YouTube can easily be streamed to a Roku 3 utilizing an Android and iOS mobile application called Twonky Beam. Other content from the Web can also be streamed to a Roku 3 set-top box utilizing the Plex server application on the device as well as running on a PC on the home’s network.
Overall Hardware Functionality: Roku 3
Ideal for high-definition televisions, the Roku 3 offers 1080p video playback with 7.1 and 5.1 surround pass through over HDMI and dual-band wireless connectivity (Wi-Fi b/g/n compatible) with WEP, WPA, and WPA2 support.
In addition, Roku includes an Ethernet port for direct connections to a router, a USB port to connect a flash drive or portable hard drive and a MicroSD slot to expand the internal memory for storing applications downloaded from the Roku channel store.
The main drawbacks to the Roku 3 hardware design are lack of support for standard definition televisions, absent DNLA support and limited file type support. However, the hardware does offer a well-rounded set of features that will be useful to a modern, high definition household that’s more interested in streaming content over the Web rather than playing local content.
If your needs are more specialized when it comes to local content, check out the Boxee Box as well as the WD TV Play. Both support an expanded number of video and audio formats, ideal for streaming content from a portable hard drive or over the home’s network. If you are purchasing a set-top box with a separate home theater system and prefer to run the video over HDMI directly to your high definition television, both the Apple TV and the WD TV Play include an optical audio output.
User Interface: Roku 3
If you had asked me this question a month ago, there’s absolutely no way I would have awarded the Roku 2 the prize for the top user interface. The old, horizontal row design of the Roku device was painful to navigate, especially after installing tons of applications. In addition, the hardware made the interface feel slightly sluggish and unresponsive. However, the recently released grid-based design for navigation and the dual-window design for information pages is absolutely fantastic.
Due to the upgraded processor, the Roku 3 offers a very snappy experience when navigating between pages. It feels faster than all other devices and applications seem to respond more quickly. In addition, the universal search function has a wonderful focus on simplicity. Search results are based off the applications that have been installed on the device and listings pop up almost instantly. Roku has essentially beaten Google at it’s own game, specifically getting rid of duplicate results and providing a user-friendly method of locating content between services.
Remote Control: Apple TV
Simplicity wins out over increased functionality at the televisions around my home, especially with other members of my household and guests. While keyboards on the back of remotes can be useful when typing in search queries to locate content, the majority of set-top box manufacturers offer smartphone support which includes a keyboard within the mobile app. I often mistakenly press keyboard buttons on the back when operating the front of the remote as well.
The lack of dedicated buttons for popular video applications isn’t an issue for me either, nor the lack of any motion controlling capabilities. I much prefer the sleek design of the Apple TV remote based off the way it feels in my hand, specifically the heavy weight and cool temperature. In addition, the simple method of navigation and functionality accomplished using minimal buttons on the remote is ideal for the Apple TV interface. It’s a shame that companies creating set-top boxes don’t invest more in simplistic remote control design.
That begin said, the headphone jack on the Roku 3 remote control can be highly useful if you don’t already own a pair of wireless headphones. Ideal for working out on a noisy piece of exercise equipment or attempting to avoid disturbing someone else in the same room, a user can plug a set of headphones into the remote and privately listen to the streaming video’s audio track.
Mobile Device Integration: Apple TV / Roku 3
The inclusion of Airplay mirroring is enough of a reason to think seriously about purchasing the Apple TV. The ability to send video, games or other applications from an iPod, iPhone or iPad is a feature that’s undeniably valuable to a household that’s already invested in Apple products. However, the previously mentioned Twonky Beam can accomplish the same feat with the Roku 3.
Regarding the design and functionality of the mobile applications supplied by Apple and Roku, it’s really a toss-up. The Roku application is more efficient at launching applications quickly as a “second screen” while the Apple application is more useful when browsing content libraries on the home’s network. Both offer virtual remote controls on the touchscreen, but I prefer using the actual remotes.
But what should I buy?
Not surprisingly, the Roku 3 is definitely one of the best bets for someone that’s relatively new to streaming technology, wants a way to kick start a cord-cutting lifestyle without breaking the bank and is looking for a large amount of streaming video content as well as solid support for the major streaming video services. The device is easy to use and the interface is superior to competitors in regards to streaming content. If you have existing first generation Roku hardware, stepping up to the speedy Roku 3 will be extremely helpful. If you already have Roku 2 hardware, it’s a good idea to wait for the user interface upgrade coming to your Roku 2 device and test the software before looking into a Roku 3 purchase.
For more experienced users with an extensive library of local content, consider the inexpensive WD TV Play or the Boxee Box before making a purchase. The ability to natively play a significant amount of files can be pretty useful. In addition, the low cost of the WD TV Play can help reduce total hardware costs when switching from premium TV service. Also, be aware that Boxee is currently pushing a new product, the Boxee TV DVR system, thus updates to the Boxee Box are less frequent due to a shift in development.
As always, if you are already invested heavily in iTunes content and the Apple ecosystem, the Apple TV will be more useful to you than other video streamers. The same can’t be said for the Google TV boxes and Android users, but Google continues to iterate on the design and seek more vendor support. If you do plan in investing in Google TV, the Sony NSZ-GS7 is likely a better choice for hardware than the Vizio Co-Star based off most online reviews. However, be wary of the significantly higher price tag.