With the increasing cost and hassle of cable and satellite TV, and the decreasing interest in physical media (DVD, Blu-ray, UHD Blu-ray), an ever-increasing number of consumers have "cut-the-cord" and get most, if not all of their movie, TV, and music content via streaming.
Let's take a look at what you need to get started and some streaming devices you can integrate into your home theater experience.
What You Need
Wi-Fi:To stream content, you need access to the internet. No matter what streaming device you choose, it needs to be connected to the internet via your home broadband router. The most convenient method is with Wi-Fi but some streaming devices also provide a physical connection via Ethernet. Your internet speed needs to be fast enough to stream the content you want to access.
HDMI:If you are using a streaming device that requires a connection to your TV, the TV needs to have an available HDMI input. Plug-in streaming devices also need to be connected to AC power via a provided adapter. However, some "streaming stick" devices can be connected to USB power.
Apps: Apps are gateways to specific streaming services. Depending on the service, you can access music, movies, TV shows, games, and more. A lot of content is free (usually supported by ads), but many services require subscription or pay-per-view fees. Major video streaming apps include Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, and more...
Streaming Devices for TV Viewing
All streaming devices offer a variety of apps, but there isn't one that includes every possible app. Available apps may also vary by country or region. Make sure the streaming device you select offers the apps and content you're looking for.
NOTE: Prices, features, and apps offered by streaming devices may change without notice at the manufacturer's discretion.
Here's a selection of available media streaming platforms and devices that may work for you.
All Roku products have the same on screen menu system and app library. They also provide screen mirroring supportfor Android and Windows devices (iOS devices require an installation of an additional app). Roku also supports Alexaand Google Assistant.
A companion Roku Mobile App is also provided that you can use on an iOS or Android smartphone as an alternate remote control (with voice search), content and app manager, and more...
Express 4K+ ($39.99): If you have a 4K Ultra HD TV, the 4K Express 4K+ provides affordable access to 4K Ultra HD/HDR content, and comes with a Voice Control Remote (also works with Alexa and Google Assistant. Just plug it into your TV with the provided HDMI cable. The 4K Express+ is also Air Play compatible.
Streaming Stick($49.99): If you have a 720p or 1080p TV, consider the standard Roku Streaming Stick (which looks like a large flash drive that plugs directly to a TV HDMI input). It provides access to the complete Roku Channel Store (except for dedicated 4K channels) and supports resolutions up to 1080p along with Dolby Audio and DTS pass-through via HDMI.
Streaming Stick+ ($49.99): If you have a 4K Ultra HD TV, the Streaming Stick+ provides everything the standard stick does but also includes access to 4K Ultra HD/HDR content, and comes with a Voice Control Remote. The remote also allows you to access the TV's power and volume buttons.
Roku Ultra ($99.99): The Ultra is a 4K streaming box that connects to a TV via an HDMI cable. It includes everything the Streaming Stick+ provides as well as an Ethernet Port (handy if your Wi-Fi is unstable), a MicroSD slot (provides expanded memory for storing more apps), and a USB port that allows playback of images, video, and music files directly from flash drives. It also comes with earphones that plug into the provided remote for private listening.
Roku TV: If you're buying a new TV, consider one with Roku built-in. 720p or 1080p Roku TVs, have all the features of the standard Roku Streaming Stick. 4K Ultra HD Roku TVs have all the features of the Roku Ultra (minus a microSD card slot). Prices vary depending on brand/model, screen size, and resolution support.
Amazon Fire TV
Fire TV devices provide access to thousands of apps, but Amazon Prime Video, IMDB TV, and Amazon Music are spotlighted. If you're an Amazon Prime member, you get access to a lot of Amazon Prime Video content and up to 2 million songs on Amazon Prime Music at no extra charge.
Fire TV devices also have built-in Alexa voice control support as well as the ability to use them with compatible Bluetooth headphones.
You can also combine Fire TV streaming devices with Amazon's Fire TV Recast DVR that allows you to record and view over-the-air TV broadcasts.
Fire TV Stick ($29.99): The basic Fire TV stick supports up to 1080p output resolution.
Fire TV Stick 4K ($49.99): The Fire TV Stick 4K has all the features of the standard Fire TV Stick but adds 4K/HDR capability (content dependent).
Fire TV Cube ($119.99): The Fire TV Cube is a box that connects to your TV via an HDMI cable, and includes an ethernet port in addition to Wi-Fi. It has the streaming features of the Fire TV Stick 4K, but also includes built-in microphones, similar to an Amazon Echo. This allows direct voice control of Fire TV features, as well as Alexa-enabled smart home devices without having to speak through a separate remote control.
Fire Edition TV: These TVs (made by Toshiba, Insignia, and JVC) have the same onscreen menu system that provides access to all the apps available on other Fire TV devices. This also includes Alexa support for both TV and smart device control – without having to connect a Fire TV box or stick to the TV. Fire Edition TV prices vary with brand, model, screen size, and resolution (720p, 1080p, 4K UHD).
Google Chromecast is a plug-in device that doesn't have built-in apps but allows casting of streaming apps and other content from most smartphones to the Chromecast device, which passes the content to the TV via an HDMI connection.
Apps can be installed on your smartphone via the Chromecast Apps Store.
There are two versions of plug-in Chromecast devices.
Chromecast ($29.99): Up to 1080p resolution output.
Chromecast Ultra ($69.99): All of the features and apps as the standard Chromecast, but with up to 4K UHD resolution output, HDR support, Ethernet Adapter (if needed), and faster startup time and app response.
Chromecast with Google TV ($49.99): Google offers a version of Chromecast that includes both casting features and on-board Android TV apps and streaming features similar to what you would find on Roku, Fire TV, or Apple TV streamer. Chromecast with Google TV supports 4K/HDR (HDR10, 10+, Dolby Vision) video and Dolby Digital/Atmos surround sound.
TVs with Chromecast Built-in: There are also select brand/model TVs that have Chromecast built-in (Vizio brands its version as SmartCast). This means instead of connecting a separate Chromecast to the TV, you can use your smartphone to cast the content directly to the TV. Once again prices vary depending on brand/model.
In addition to Chromecast, Google offers the Android TV platform. Android TV devices come in both plug-in box form and included in select brand/model TVs from Sony, Hisense, Philips, Sharp, and Skyworth. Android TV is also included in select video projectors from Epson, Anker, and several others.
Unlike Chromecast, Android TV apps reside on the TV and can be added and managed without using a smartphone. However, Android boxes and TVs also include Chromecast so you can easily cast streaming content from your smartphone to the TV as well.
The apps pre-installed on specific Android TV devices may vary slightly, but more can be installed from the Google Play Store. Pre-installed apps usually include Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, YouTube TV, Google Play, and Google Play Music ( currently transitioning to YouTube Music).
There are a number of Android TV boxes available. Here are some examples.
The Mi Box S plugs into any TV that has an available HDMI input and provides both Wi-Fi and Ethernet to connect to the internet.
The Mi Box S is 4K/HDR and Dolby/DTS compatible and provides access to Android TV compatible apps and also has Google Chromecast built-in.
In addition, using the Google Assistant control option, it can function as a Google Home and control other compatible smart home devices.
TIVO Stream 4K ($49.99): TIVO is well-known for its DVRs but has jumped into the dedicated media streaming landscape with the introduction of the TIVO Stream 4K.
Some of the features of the TIVO Stream 4K include Chromecast Built-in, Voice control (including Google Assistant support), as well 4K UHD, Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Digital/Plus, Dolby Atmos, and DTS audio support for compatible content. Pre-loaded streaming services include Sling TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+, and more...
Tivo Stream 4K also supports Sling TV's Cloud DVR service, which allows recording from select Sling live streaming channels for viewing later without requiring physical storage.
Nvidia Shield TV: If you like to stream TV shows and movies, but also desire PC-like gaming capability, Nvidia has two streamers targeted to gamers, the Shield TV and Shield TV Pro.
Nvidia Shield TV ($149.99):
- Unique cylindrical design
- Android streaming apps and games via Google Play Store
- GeForce and AAA gaming compatible
- NVIDIA GeForce NOW™ game streaming service(compatible game controller or keyboard/mouse required)
- NVIDIA GameStream™ (with compatible PC)
- 4K resolution output
- Dolby Vision HDR
- Dolby Atmos surround sound (content dependent)
- AI Upscaling
- Alexa and Google Assistant Support
- 8GB Storage/2GB RAM
- MicroSD Slot
- Wi-Fi and Ethernet
Nvidia Shield TV Pro ($199.99): Includes all the capabilities of the standard Shield TV, but in a larger box housing more RAM and storage capacity for apps, and two USB ports. The Shield Pro is also Samsung SmartThings compatible (extra dongle required), and provides access to PLEX media server software for more flexible content management.
Apple TV is a streaming box that connects to your TV via HDMI.
Except for the Nvidia Shield TV products, it's more expensive than most comparable streamers from other brands.
Apple TV provides access to several thousand apps, but if you are an Apple user, it also integrates very easily with iPhone, and other Apple devices, as well as Apple TV+, the Apple TV app, Apple Music, Airplay, and iTunes, as well as including built-in Siri voice control.
TIP: The Apple TV app, which provides access to Apple streaming services, is available for use on PCs, select Samsung and LG TVs, as well as Roku and Fire TV devices.
Apple TV devices also include storage space not only downloading apps, but music, video, and games.
There are three Apple TV devices available:
Apple TV HD ($149.99): Features 32GB of storage and Bluetooth 4.0 compatibility.
Apple TV 4K ($179.99): 32GB of storage.
Apple TV 4K ($199.99): 64GB of Storage.
An alternative to a plug-in streaming device is a Smart TV. In addition to the Roku, Fire Edition, Android/Chromecast Built-in Smart TV options already discussed, brands, such as Samsung and LG incorporate their own Smart TV platforms (Tizen and WebOS respectively), while some brands may use a third-party platform such as VEWD.
Right out-of-the-box (with connection to the internet), Smart TVs provide access to a selection of streaming content without the need to plug in an additional streaming device. However, unless you opt for a Roku, Fire Edition, or Android TV, the selection of apps is not as comprehensive and the rate at which apps are updated or added may be less frequent.
Blu-ray Disc Players
Almost all Blu-ray Disc players, in addition to playing DVDs and Blu-ray discs, include access to streaming services. The number of services is usually more limited than either a smart TV or plug-in streaming device but provides an affordable and convenient basic streaming experience to complement DVD and Blu-ray disc viewing.
All of the devices discussed are Dolby Digital audio compatible, with select brands and models also providing support for Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Atmos, and DTS – if provided with the content.
Whether the content is accessed via an external media streamer plugged into the TV or from apps installed directly on a smart TV, you can output the sound to an external audio system via a TV's analog, digital optical, or HDMI-ARC (eARC required for Dolby Atmos)connection (check your TV for one or more of these options).
An easy-to-use audio system option is the WiSA Certified Enclave Audio CineHome II or THX Certified CineHome Pro.
Instead of the hassle using a system with wired speakers, Enclave Audio systems come with wireless speakers. A central control hub connects to your TV and decodes the surround sound signals coming from the TV (including sources connected to the TV, such as a media streamer) and sends them to each speaker in your system wirelessly.
Enclave Audio Systems have a simple plug-and-play setup that is quick and easy with the assistance of the Enclave Audio mobile app for Android and iOS. Also, after setup, you can continue using the mobile app as your controller, or for basic functions, such as volume, you can use the TV or Universal remote.