It’s no longer a question of whether you would stream TV or movie content over the Internet, it’s a question of when and how.
About four million Canadian households subscribe to Netflix, good for more than 30 per cent of broadband connected homes. Three of the country’s biggest pay-TV companies also offer online streaming options – such as Shomi and Crave, the latter will be available in 2016 without a cable subscription – plus there’s YouTube, Twitch and a whole universe of Internet-focussed video content to watch.
And just as there are many sources of streaming video, there are many ways to get that stuff from your computer to your television, whether you use a video game console, a smart TV or just hook your computer directly to your TV. There are also stand-alone set-top boxes with the primary mission of turning your TV into a portal to the Internet.
We’ve rounded up three of the best set-top options for streaming television: the Roku 3, the Apple TV and the Chromecast. They all do their main job well, streaming video with little problem. But there are other issues to consider. So, to help you decide which one works best for you, we took them all for a test drive.
Roku 3, above
The Roku 3 is a friendly little puck that comes out of its box with some cool features and a decent $100 price (there are sales). But you know what it doesn’t have? An HDMI cable. You’ll need to buy your own.
All these devices require a little more fiddling to install than the average Blu-ray player. With the Roku, the process of signing in was a drag. I had to create a new Roku account on my PC, but it turns out Roku.com doesn’t like Windows 10’s Edge browser, so I had to download Chrome to finish setting up an account. You select your “homescreen” channels from the web browser: stuff like Facebook (for slideshows?), the NHL channel (needs a separate subscription), Crackle and the Cineplex app (which lets you rent recent movies but needs a membership). You need no separate sign-on to watch Britain-based Sky News, and I kind of liked having news on a streaming service. Then I set up Netflix because, yep, that’s what most people stream in Canada (yes, that also requires a separate subscription). The remote paired without difficulty.
It took 40 minutes from unpacking the box to logging in on Netflix. Blurgh.
Roku’s differentiating feature over other streamers is its big library of content partners. There’s almost too much content to summarize here, some of which you pay for with a monthly subscription, while others are ad supported. It goes without saying that U.S. consumers have a much better library of channels than Canadians do.
The remote has quick-start buttons to take you right to Netflix (and also, sadly, the now bankrupt Rdio music service). The remote also has headphones, which pipe the audio from the show into your ears instead of the TV speakers (so you can watch horror movies while the kids are asleep).
The Roku 3 is a good entry-level box that is similar enough to conventional TV or media players that it wouldn’t be a big stretch for someone who’s never streamed content before. On the downside, it doesn’t have a rich array of services and apps beyond streaming TV and movies (there are some games, such as trivia from You Don’t Know Jack).
Buy it if you need a cheap and easy dedicated Netflix box, and consider the rest of its bundled bargain basement content a bonus.
Apple TV, above
Apple calls this the future of TV, which is more of a marketing slogan than a promise fulfilled. To be sure, iTunes is a very rich paid content library, for movies, TV and music, but this device is more about Apple’s app-centric view of the world than an improvement on traditional TV.
This update to its original Apple TV (launched in 2008) actually starts with fewer TV apps preloaded. You have to download Netflix, Crackle and a bunch of new Apple-specific video apps. For instance, there is a pretty weak CBC News app that loads clips of the network’s new shows. Sadly, it’s not live TV, which is sort of the point of news.
Signing in is very fast if you already have an iPhone, and some things are just smoother than you’re used to. For instance, volume controls for the connected TV set required no fiddly setups.
On the downside, I have a long Apple password. I felt like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill when entering my credentials on the new remote and text interface (which instead of a keyboard-like grid is the alphabet laid out in a single line). Also, the old Apple remote app for iOS doesn’t work with the new TV, so you can’t use your phone’s keyboard for typing text. I actually temporarily changed my password to a shorter code because it was so painful to enter it on the Apple TV (after all, you get asked for the password fairly often).
By the time I had downloaded the apps I wanted and was into Netflix and other stuff, just 12 minutes had elapsed. Granted, I started with an Apple ID and an iPhone. This would have taken longer if it was your first Apple device. In theory, you could buy an Apple TV if you had no other Apple devices, but you’d need to set up an iTunes account to download or buy anything, which would be a bit of a pain. Also, like the Roku 3, Apple TV also doesn’t come with the necessary HDMI cable. For $199, it would be nice to not have to also buy an expensive cable.
Any future of TV should have a way to connect to your TV tuner or cable box, and Apple doesn’t. As I said, it’s much more of a living room computer than the old Apple TV, but it’s still not a media centre in the way that the Xbox One tries to be.
The main feature of the new device is the ability to download a bunch of lifestyle apps built on fitness, entertainment, education and gaming. It’s for iOS apps that make sense on your big-screen TV. And from the looks of things, most developers haven’t figured out the killer format for living room apps yet.
At present, Apple TV is no threat to console gaming. Load times were agonizing in my setup; a normal person would give up as the minutes ticked away. And the Disney Infinity 3.0 game wouldn’t even let me save unless I had a separate Disney account.
Some of the more traditional iPad-style games were decent on the Apple TV, but most of the time Apple makes you pay again for a TV version of a game you might already own on your tablet. Considering it’s all the same iTunes account, that’s a little troubling. On the plus side, there are Apple approved game controllers (Xbox knockoffs) so you don’t have to use the remote.
The remote does let you use Siri’s voice controls on the device, which sounds more fun than it ends up being. As in most iOS contexts, Siri is better in theory than in action.
This should not be your first streaming device. It’s better as an extension of all your other Apple gadgets and services.
The Chromecast, above
If you own a smartphone, you should buy a Chromecast. This device was a revelation. The slick little unit is just $45 and is designed to work with iOS, Android, whatever you’ve got. Also, it doesn’t just have an HDMI connector; it basically is one. It’s just a dongle that hides behind your TV with a separate power connection.
Unlike these other boxes, it’s not standalone – you need your smartphone or tablet to connect the apps to the TV. But that doesn’t seem like a drawback when you’re using it.
It only took five minutes to set up and start watching Netflix. Of course then I spent about 20 minutes downloading some of the other apps you can cast to your TV, such as Twitch, Vevo, Haystack TV (which aggregates news videos) and even some simple trivia-type games.
Chromecast is crazy easy to use for the smartphone literate. You can either turn on the cast function when you’re in an app supported by Chromecast (you might not even know until you see a special on-screen prompt) and it fairly magically flips to the TV. You need to use your phone as the remote, to change videos or fast forward or rewind. But you don’t need to stay on the app once it’s connected. Once your content is playing you can go browse Twitter or Facebook, or cue up your next video. It also casts with Spotify and other music streaming services to your TV.
This is more like the future of television, where the mobile computer in your pocket is the key to all your video and music watching, and the devices around it just enhance the experience. The sort of Apple TV app delivery to the big screen can be done on Chromecast, but more cheaply and also using Android apps.
You can also enable guest mode so friends can cast stuff from their phones, too. I am informed this can be hilarious fun at the kind of parties millennials throw.
I flat out loved the Chromecast. I would buy one for every TV set in the house. Why not?
A must own for anyone with a smartphone. You could buy this even if you have one of the other two streaming devices.