Gone are the dark days of low-res entertainment. Banished to the bin of bad telly be the buffering disappointment of 720p. Next-gen streaming sticks and bandwidth-busting TV boxes are here – and they signal the arrival of a hi-res revolution.
Whilst a world of from-the-web telly awaits, choosing the right box for your TV takes a bit of thought. After an Apple? Want to stream some games? One device most certainly does not offer all these features.
Thankfully, we here at Stuff know a thing or two about what makes a streaming box brill – and we’ve put the cream of the connected content crop up against each other.
Amazon Fire TV stick (2017) (₹3,999) : Winner
What's the story?
Amazon’s newest Fire TV Stick might look familiar, but it’s got a lot more going on on the inside than its predecessor. Which we all know is where it counts.
For a start, it now features a quad-core processor, which works with its 1GB of RAM and 8GB of built-in storage for a claimed speed boost of 30%. Plus, the faster, more stable connections offered by its upgraded 802.11ac Wi-Fi means it’ll take buffering in its stride.
The UI has had a big facelift too, which is now easier to use and much more helpful in the way it surfaces the content you’re looking for.
Of course, the big news here is that it has Hindi voice recongition built in and at your beck and call. Just hold down the microphone button on the streamer’s now-included remote while you ask for a show, actor, genre or even the weather. Then sit back and watch your Indian accent work like magic.
A streamer is only as good as the stuff you can watch on it, and thankfully the Fire TV Stick is chockablock with high definition content for you to enjoy. No, it doesn't support 4K resolutions but then if you've got one of those tellies you shouldn't be bothering with this product anyway; the full-fat Fire TV Box will be a better bet.
The speed boost in this new incarnation really shows, which is saying something as its predecessor was no slouch. Moving around the menus is smooth and stutter free, while the improved UI looks great. It might lack the finesse of Netflix’s recommendations, but it’s simpler than ever to find something you actually fancy watching, and there’s a lighter emphasis on Amazon’s content to boot.
Being able to use voice search to accurately pull up stuff you want to watch is a much nicer experience than wrestling with an on-screen keyboard. That addition here helps to give the Amazon Fire TV Stick a real edge over many of its rivals.
Storage: 8GB ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB (power only), Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 1GB ● Dimensions: 85.9mm x 30.0mm x 13.6mm
Roku 2 (₹5,499)
What’s the story?
Roku is an old pro at this game, and this new middle-range offering is its most compelling yet. The Roku 2 is essentially identical to the snappy top-end Roku 3, but without that model’s fancier remote, which has a headphone socket (for top-secret streaming) and gyroscopic motion control (for gaming like it’s 2006). It’s not a big deal – you’re not missing out on much, and you save a tenner.
As well as the many streaming services on-board you can add your own content on USB sticks, and expand the Roku’s app storage by plugging in a microSD card.
The latest update focuses on content discovery: a customisable feed that lets you know when theatrical releases hit the streaming world. There’s also a cross-platform search function. It’s currently limited to Netflix, which is a little pointless, but it will be super-handy when more services are made compatible (which is very much the plan).
The core Roku service hasn’t changed much in years, which is a good thing. What it offers is by far the biggest collection of apps around – ‘channels’ in Roku parlance – all arranged in a simple, neat, fluid interface.
You get most of the best sources, such as Netflix, Google Play, YouTube, and all free catch-up services, and in 1080p where possible.
Having an app collection this big is a double-edged sword. On one hand, most of your streaming needs are catered for. Then again, you’ll find a lot of useless and/or weird stuff, such as The Ringtone Channel. You can simply not install that stuff, though, and you can rearrange the interface to prioritise the stuff you use most.
And unlike the others here the Roku has no service of its own to constantly push on to you. It’s just unbiased, slick and simple - and we love it.
Storage: 256mb (expandable) ● Connectivity: HDMI; ethernet; USB ● Video output: 720p and 1080 up to 60fps ● RAM: 256mb ● Dimensions: 88.9x88.9x25.4mm
Google Chromecast (2015) (₹3,399)
What’s the story?
The old Chromecast was a thing designed by engineers and, as a result, looked like a chunky USB stick. The new model is a much more exciting neon biscuit.
As with the previous Chromecast, plugging in and setting up takes about a minute. It still needs USB power, but it'll run on the 5V from a regular USB socket, which your TV almost certainly has.
The original Chromecast was set up through a browser; this time you use the app – and it’s in there that you can see the way Google wants you to use its Chrome-y contraption. Different services are gathered into the same app, making it a hub for all the possible things you can play.
The new Chromecast is faster. Loading isn't instantaneous, but it still starts streaming a Netflix episode faster than most websites load on a phone.
We'd say waiting time has halved – but it's halved from about eight seconds, so you'd have to be incredibly impatient for this to matter. Adding to the new ‘Cast’s charms is the fact you can use your phone as a games controller - albeit a big-buttoned, semi-proper one, rather than a mirrored display.
More importantly, Wi-Fi reception has been improved. If you've tried ‘Casting in an upstairs bedroom and found the router out of reach, this model could well be your saviour.
Thought that was everything? You thought wrong. Google’s new dinky disc also packs Photos integration. If you're fed up with looking at the default photography your old Chromecast was displaying as a screensaver, you can now set it to show your Billericay '14 Lads On Tour snaps whenever it's idle.
Storage: 256mb ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 512mb ● Dimensions: 124x124x43mm
Apple TV (2015) (₹17,900)
What’s the story?
Like its predecessor, the new Apple TV is a small black puck, albeit one that’s thicker and heavier than before. It retains HDMI and Ethernet ports, but loses optical audio – gaining, instead, a USB-C port for ‘service and support’.
Closer than ever to a headless iPhone, the device’s innards have received a power push to make it suitably nippy – though it’s still limited to 1080p: no 4K here. Users of the last-gen fruity streamer will find Apple’s updated zapper a reason to rejoice. The Siri Remote is a six-button bluetooth beast with a built-in mic for talking to your TV, complete with glass touchpad and Lightning charging port.
Addition of an App Store, finally offering third-party software, should also get Apple-fans all aquiver – though discoverability is dreadful. You either choose from Apple’s recommendations or perform searches, with no categories to explore and no way to browse elsewhere, even in iTunes.
When watching, Siri shines. Ask “What did she say?” and it’ll rewind and turn on subtitles. It doesn’t talk over everything, either, so you can watch in blissful, Siri-free silence.
Set-up is simple, too. If you have an iPhone, simply turn on Bluetooth and plonk it next to the Apple TV, then wait for the two to get pally. On the apps front, Apple’s box fares badly next to the competition.
Whilst the launch line-up is quite impressive, there are a few crucial holes: there’s no Amazon Instant Video, and the retail behemoth's continuing ban on Apple TV sales suggests that’s unlikely to change. Even though such an app has been rumoured.
As gaming goes, the Siri Remote can be a literal pain. Its cramp-inducing form works for quick, occasional interaction, not extended controlling – though some developers have deftly dealt with its limitations: Geometry Wars 3 has become a super single-stick avoid ’em up. Still, if you’re really into games, you’ll want to pick up a ₹5,499 SteelSeries Nimbus controller.
Storage: 32/64GB ● Connectivity: HDMI; ethernet; USB-C ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 2GB ● Dimensions: 98x98x35mm
Roku Streaming Stick (₹5,499)
What’s the Story?
Like the majority of its dongle-shaped rivals, the Roku Streaming Stick isn’t much to look, but its striking purple hue at least makes it stand out from your TV’s back panel.
It doesn’t boast any fancy tricks like Amazon's Alexa, but does come with a dedicated remote control and an absolute wealth of content to treat your peepers to.
Roku claims it’s got over 2,000 channels, but all you need to know is that every major service you’d want is bundled in here. That includes the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, plus the full suite of catch-up services too.
Its app has also been spruced up recently so it’s a doddle to find what you’re looking for.
While the States has seen a faster, updated Roku Streaming Stick at the end of last year, we’re still rocking with the one from 2014. It’s good, but its spec sheet starting to show its age.
It shows in its performance too. Moving around the interface is just a little slower than you’ll spot on the now much speedier Amazon Fire TV Stick. Load times are longer and scrolling through the interface just isn’t as slick.
There’s certainly no knocking its offering though, and its handy dongle design and cheaper price could appeal to some more than the Roku 2.
It's nice to have the remote included at this price too, which comes with buttons allowing you to skip directly to Netflix, YouTube and the Google Play store.
Storage: 256MB ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB (power only); Wi-Fi 802.11 (a/b/g/n) ● Video output: 1080p ● RAM: 512MB ● Dimensions: 79 x 27 x11mm