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.

6 Comments

  1. I have a Chromecast and a Now TV box. The most frustrating thing about these devices is the fact they output at 60hz rather than the UK 50hz output which leads to motion judder.

    However I’m fortunate that I have a LG smart tv which has all four of the services you mention which all output at 50hz.

    I would mention however that the YouTube app works better on Chromecast. (Quelle surprise being a Google product).

  2. Indeed my Samsung TV is fully featured in terms of these apps too. But I was looking for a solution for a second TV. And to be fair, the Netflix and Amazon experience on some of thee boxes is superior to the Samsung TV one.

    I hadn’t come across the motion judder issue – but again that may be due to the TV(s) I have.

    And you’re right, I should have highlighted the YouTube app which works superbly with Chromecast. It’s so painless that I throw many more videos to my TV than I would have done in the past.

  3. I didn’t realise Samsung sets now have the Now TV app?

    The Chromecast YouTube app is worth spending the £30 on one alone. The advantage over using the LG app is that it plays videos in the correct aspect ratio, unlike LG where it stretches 4:3 videos.

    I need to try Netflix on Chromecast too. The LG app for Netflix also stretches 4:3 video.

  4. Actually – I couldn’t swear that Now TV is on Samsung yet. I believe that LG had an exclusive on it for a period of time. (Like phone manufacturers giving networks “exclusives” the idea of offering your money-generating app exclusively to a single TV manufacturer seem utterly insane).

    I tend to use Netflix via my Samsung’s app, although the interface isn’t nearly as nice as that via a mobile device or Amazon Fire. I find myself having to search quite hard to find the massive new series that I know they’re promoting like mad which again is a failure.

    I think a wider issue is that it’s expensive maintaining dozens of variants of these apps designed for different TV/box ecosystems. Amazon or Netflix’s core business is not in software development, yet it’s a massive part of what they need to do.

  5. I’ve noted that the Chromecast on my Samsung TV – how *did* we all get Samsung TVs, Adam?! – is fine, but that the picture quality when using the built-in BBC iPlayer app is smoother. I gather this is because the Chromecast outputs less frames-per-second than it really ought to; you don’t get any motion judder, but you do get more frames-per-second on the built-in app inside the telly. It’s a much worse user experience, though, fiddling around with the remote.

    Like you, I also use Google Play Music (the All Access variant) which works well on the telly. It also works excellently on a hifi built for it: http://media.info/radio/how-to/how-to-make-the-best-connected-hifi (plug)

  6. I must admit that I mostly use YouTube and Google Play Music via Chromecast. I’ve not really used iPlayer via Chromecast because the Samsung app is fine, although my preferred route tends to be via my Sky box. It has a horrible interface, but you can download a show completely to avoid the faintest possibility of buffering.

    The Samsung Netflix app is, however, inferior to versions on Android or Amazon Fire TV, in user experience terms. However in actual playback, I think I again prefer native Samsung.

    My hifi for Chromecast is probably a little pricier than yours, since it uses floor-standing speakers and an A/V receiver collecting audio via an optical input. The good part is that it delivers 5.1 audio to my setup if I watch a film via Google Play. As far as I’m aware, Google Play Music doesn’t utilise surround sound, although I do have a handful of SACD and DVD-Audio discs, so it’d be good to have!

    I do quite like your hack to get HDMI into a stereo though. My current solution for a bedroom stereo is a Logitech Bluetooth adaptor which works fine, although does involve streaming via a phone/tablet.

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