chromecast

Amazon Echo – A Longer Term Test

Amazon Echo

I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.

The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.

But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.

I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.

The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).

With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.

I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.

But how about some specific use cases?

Radio

There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.

At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.

One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.

I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.

I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.

Lights

This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.

Alarms and Timers

I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!

I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.

Weather

I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.

The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.

News

I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.

The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.

Sport

Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.

Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.

Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.

They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.

A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.

Music

Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.

That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.

It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.

The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.

Bluetooth Speaker

I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?

The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.

Travel

Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.

The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.

There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.

Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.

Podcasts

In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.

If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.

Other

I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.

The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.

There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.


Amazon Echo Speaker Grill

Alexa Summary

Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.

The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.

It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.

So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.

I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.

And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…

Google Home

We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.

Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).

Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.

Conclusions

What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.

Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.

As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.

Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).

Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.

However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.

Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.

Chromecast Audio – Initial Thoughts

buy-audio-chromecast-lightbox

At Google’s recent devices launch, they announced a new version of the Google Chromecast – a £30/$35 device that plugs into an HDMI socket and lets you stream video via WiFi, using a phone/tablet/laptop as controller. It’s a neat device.

They also announced Chromecast Audio – essentially doing the same for audio for your existing speakers. Why go out and replace your perfectly good audio set-up with something bespoke like Sonos, when for £30/$35, you can stream directly?

Amazon is behaving like a stroppy teenager right now, and has taken away its ball and refuses to sell the new Chromecast devices. They say that it’s to avoid confusion with its customers who might expect to be able to watch Amazon Prime with them. The fact that there are dozens of no-brand streaming devices still available for sale on Amazon, and in any case, Amazon could easily add Chromecast to its Android app, is seemingly neither here nor there. In fact you can currently buy the older version of Chromecast – but I assume that’s while stocks last. The only real improvement I can see with the new version is multi-band WiFi meaning that you might get a better signal if you had problems before.

And despite Chromecast Audio not competing at all with Amazon Prime, I can’t find it on the UK site.

However, the good news for UK customers is that PC World seems to have loads of new Chromecasts. I popped by the Tottenham Court Road store yesterday and found them stacked up all over the place. Furthermore, they had an equal number of the Chromecast Audio devices. The devices can also be bought direct from Google, and I note that Argos also stocks the regular Chromecast, but seemingly not the Audio version.

I bought one and thought I’d write about my initial experiences. Inside the smart box is the device itself, circular and designed to look a bit like a vinyl record, with grooves around the outside. There’s also a very short and very yellow 3.5mm-3.5mm jack lead, and a micro-USB charger.

The Chromecast on my TV is able to power itself from a USB socket negating the need for a charger, but my ancient JVC mini-system (20 years old and still sounding great) obviously doesn’t have a USB socket, so I needed to use the charger. Since I was replacing a perfectly serviceable Logitech Bluetooth adaptor, this didn’t prove a problem, switching out one power adapter for another.

The device obviously has a 3.5mm jack socket, but it also has an optical out, but you’ll need to supply your own mini-TOSLINK to TOSLINK optical cable for connection to an AV receiver or amplifier. I used an existing 3.5mm to RCA cable.

The only slight issue I have with the design is that the device wont’ lie flat. Broadly speaking Chromecast devices are designed to be hidden away behind TV’s and audio devices, the new TV adaptor coming with a short length of flexible connector to ensure it can safely “hang” from any recessed HDMI port. However, I suspect that Aux sockets of audio devices are even more variable in positioning, and being able to pop it someone it won’t move would be useful.

Hooking it up to your WiFi is easy. You open the Chromecast app on your phone (or do it from the web), let it have your WiFi network and password, update software as necessary and you’re away. Unlike the TV device, you obviously have no screen to make sure that everything is working properly, but it took me about two minutes to get set-up, and it’ll play an audio test signal to ensure you’re connecting it correctly. You can also enable a guest mode to allow visitors who may not have access to your home WiFi network, to stream from their devices.

Once up and running you have the new Chromecast app to help you both discover Chromecast compatible apps, and direct you to ones you already have.

Now unlike my Bluetooth adaptor, which essentially sent all my phone’s audio to the speakers, Chromecast does only work properly with apps that have embedded its functionality. In audio terms for me, the key two are Google Music and PocketCasts for podcasts. Aside from live radio, the vast majority of my listening comes via these apps, and they’re completely compatible.

Obviously the key difference is that streams come direct from your router to the Chromecast device rather than router to phone, and then onwards via Bluetooth to the speakers.

That’s one fewer places for the audio to fall down, and it should also mean that the audio will sound better, not being passed through potentially lossy Bluetooth compression. I should say that I’ve been pretty happy with recent iterations of Bluetooth though, but then I wouldn’t classify myself as having “golden ears.”

This system also means that your phone’s notifications don’t come through and interrupt your audio. That’s handy if your phone is regularly pinging away with email and social media updates. On the other hand, you do have to pro-actively send you audio to Chromecast, whereas you may have a set-up currently where your phone automatically latches onto Bluetooth without any assistance on your part (I tend to turn that off, since my phone ringing in the bedroom while I’m in the lounge actually with my phone isn’t all that helpful).

The key part of Chromecast Audio is really the apps. Spotify, which I rarely use, has recently had Chromecast added, but it’s not yet included in iPlayer Radio [Update 21 October: iPlayer Radio now supports Chromecast!]. It is in TuneIn, but not in Audible (owned by Amazon of course).

You can “mirror” your phone’s audio, as you can with its screen with the regular Chromecast, and that allows you to stream audio from those apps currently without Chromecast support, but that obviously eats battery and processing power of your device. Whether that’s worse than Bluetooth streaming I couldn’t say as I’ve not run comparative tests.

We’re promised that multi-room is coming soon – allowing you to synchronised audio across multiple Chromecast Audio devices. That would lead it to competing head-on with the likes of Sonos, at a significantly cheaper price.

Overall I’m pretty happy. I’d certainly like to see Chromecast support in more apps, but I appreciate that adding lots of bespoke systems to apps like Sonos and Chromecast, is an expensive proposition. You really can’t complain for the price, although it’s possible for some people a Bluetooth adaptor might remain a simpler solution. But if you already have a perfectly good audio system, then I’d certainly suggest giving it a go for such a low price.

Streaming TV Boxes

So here’s a question. You live in the UK, and you want to buy a cheap streaming box to pop under your TV and get all the main channels. Perhaps you don’t have a smart TV, or it’s not smart enough and doesn’t have the features you really want. There’s a plethora of devices hitting the market. Which should you get?

For the sake of this piece, I’m going to suggest that you’re particularly interested in having access to:

– BBC iPlayer
– Netflix
– Amazon
– Now TV

That’s not a complete list by any means, but a device that worked with all of those services would be really useful and I would suspect cover most people’s bases. iPlayer is free for licence fee payers. Netflix and Now TV let you subscribe for short periods of time – binge House of Cards or watch Super Sunday on Sky Sports. And Amazon bundles Instant Video with Prime, or will sell you films on a pay-per-view basis.

Well there’s a problem, because there’s not actually a box or stick that natively supports all of those devices (at time of writing). There are workarounds involving laptops, tablets or phones. But I’m after something that natively streams from all four services.

I spent a bit of time and came up with this table. You’ll note that I’ve actually looked at a wider number of apps/services. You’ll also note that it’s not all black and white.

DevicePrice (RRP)WiFiEthernetBBC iPlayerITV Player4ODDemand 5NetflixAmazonNow TVPlexYouTube
Now TV£19.99Single BandNYYYYNNYY (hack)Y
Amazon Fire TV£79.99Dual BandYYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Amazon Stick£35.00Dual BandNYN (STV)NYYYNYN (web)
Chromecast£30.00Single BandNYN*N*N*YN*YYY
Nexus Player£79.99Dual BandNY*NNN*YN*YYY
Roku 3£99.99Dual BandYYYYNYNYYY
Apple TV£59.00Dual BandYN*N*NN*YN*YN (partial hack)Y

* You can access services using screen-sharing technology either using AirPlay Mirroring or by Casting a tab in Google Chrome. However this can mean slower response times and reduced battery life. It also means having access to third party devices within the same ecosystem.

Obviously, if you live within a single ecosystem such as iTunes or Google Play, then devices within those ecosystems work well. But I’m going to assume that not every TV show or film you want to watch is in iTunes or Google Play. You’re going to need a variety of options.

Perhaps the closest any of these devices gets to meeting my not-unreasonable needs is the most expensive – the Roku 3. But it fails the Amazon hurdle – I have Amazon Prime, why wouldn’t I want access to that?

Now TV is great and very cheap – the price quoted here will come bundled with some limited vouchers for films or entertainment (watch all of Game of Thrones for example). It’s actually a Roku box built to Sky’s specifications. But Sky, who owns Now TV, isn’t interested in supporting rivals Netflix or Amazon. There is hack which allows you to get into the box’s development mode and install things like Plex. You really can’t complain about the price – they even bundle an HDMI cable. Note that they will make you register with a credit card for their services, but you can cancel these afterwards.

Amazon’s Fire TV would be a good bet, but it fails on Now TV. That might just be a question of Sky not having produced an app for it yet. Were they to do that it might become the winner! However, other UK channels have been slow supporting it. iPlayer was late to the party but is there now. However for ITV Player you have to hack around and use the Scottish STV player. On launching it, the first thing it asks is for a postcode – give it a fake Scottish one or you won’t get access. There’s no bespoke YouTube app which is poor, and the Vimeo app that is there is a bit rubbish compared with the same offering on Now TV.

The real question must be why you would buy it ahead of the upcoming much cheaper Amazon Stick which is half the price. Indeed it was available for a couple of days for just £20 as part of a limited deal. Well the included remote doesn’t have voice search, and it has less memory and a lower-powered processor. But it looks like a bargain if they can get those other services working.

Chromecast works in a slightly different way to the rest of this set in that it requires an Android device (phone or tablet) to properly use. Some apps have Chromecast built in – meaning that throwing programming to your TV is easy, and the data actually streams direct and not via your device saving you battery power. For non-optimised apps, it’s possible to cast your entire tab. But that’s not a great experience. While I’d be happy to do it for a presentation or something, I wouldn’t use it to watch Bosch on Amazon Prime video. Chromecast works really well with the Google ecosystem of course, and things like Google Play Music work wonderfully.

Apple TV also talks wonderfully to Apple devices. But it’s nobbled by the lack of British apps. There’s no iPlayer which is critical, and nor is there Amazon. You can use AirPlay Mirroring, but that requires another device, and is sub-optimal. But it’s perfect for iTunes of course, and even on a PC, you can fire off music or video to it directly. But if you’re about to buy one, you should know that there’s a much updated model due later this year. (I did laugh recently when someone moaned that the recently announced HBO Now app was US only. Er, well Now TV has a native app, and you can watch nearly everything from HBO via that for less than HBO Now will cost a month.)

The upcoming Nexus player would seem to have the same set of apps as Chromecast, but removes the requirement for an Android device to control it – you get a remote. And like some of the other pricier boxes, has an ethernet port in case WiFi near your television isn’t what you’d want it to be.

The Roku 3 is the most expensive device here, and I included it just to compare it with the rest. There are cheaper Roku options though. It is fully featured but bizarrely fails the Amazon test as mentioned.

For me personally, none of these devices actually meets my needs as I’ve alluded to. I’ve managed to accumulate three of them over time, usually taking advantage of special offers. I have them all attached – via an HDMI switch – to my smaller TV.

Now TV does well with UK channels like ITV Player and 4OD (soon to be All4 for reasons that still escape me), where others fail, and it curiously has the best app for Vimeo. Amazon Fire TV is beautifully made device, and voice search works well. The games are all rubbish and all seem to be “freemium” – stick to mobile or consoles. But it works great with Netflix as well as its own Amazon service. It talks nicely to my Plex server too. And I have some music on their cloud courtesy of CDs and downloads I’ve bought over the years. But most of my music is on Google, so Chromecast wins there. It also has the best YouTube functionality, and it’s very portable. Throw one in your bag when you’re travelling (although Amazon’s newly announced hotel-friendly WiFi signing in update sounds very useful practically for travel).

What this does all show is that however good the hardware is, and however cheap you make it, it’s really about who you’ve done deals with. I think this is the difficulty that largely American tech firms have in the UK. Have they made enough effort to get services on board? Apple would probably have shifted a lot more Apple TVs if they’d ever properly integrated BBC iPlayer into it. But they haven’t.

Depending on your use case, different boxes might work for you. I’ve completely ignored games here for example. And as I’ve mentioned, where you keep your music might make a difference to you (I have my music duplicated locally on iTunes and in the cloud with Google Music. I use the latter almost exclusively). I’ve not talked about Spotify or Sonos for example. Or your TV, games console or BluRay player might do the trick, and you don’t need one of these boxes. But keep an eye out for special offers as nearly all of these devices have been sold at lower prices than presented here.