Smart TVs are rapidly turning into the biggest technological craze of the year. Given the seemingly inescapable shift from regular scheduled TV shows to viewing content on demand, you might be forgiven for thinking that investing in a smart TV is an inevitable and essential upgrade. However, that is simply not the case, whatever the sales and marketing divisions of Apple, Samsung and the like might try to tell you.
Sure, if your TV has seen better days and is nearing the end of its life, then a replacement with smart functionality makes plenty of sense. But if you’re happy with what you’ve got, a streaming box will instantly give any TV the smarts. Even if you already have a smart TV, you’ll almost certainly find that one of these boxes provides enhanced performance and functionality, not to mention more viewing options.
The streaming revolution
Before we look at the hardware on offer, it is worth taking a moment to think about what has brought us to what could be a watershed in leisure and entertainment history. Streaming is about far more than just the TV shows, boxsets and movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like. Streaming services have also revolutionized the way we watch sport.
Just two or three years ago, this was one of the biggest cash cows for the cable and satellite networks, who would charge premium rates for specific sports packages, or even bigger numbers for one-off pay per view events, particularly in boxing and mixed martial arts.
Today, the market has been blown wide open and the TV networks have been left reeling. It’s not just organizers, franchises and teams that provide live streams. There are also sports websites and even sports betting sites providing streaming services. This has come at a perfect time, as more and more states in America embrace sports betting. After all, what could be more convenient than being able to stream highlights of past games to assess form, place a wager on your team of choice and then watch the action unfold, all from the same site and without having to leave your sofa, or indeed your bar stool?
Streaming is here to stay, and traditional TV seems set to follow the same path as radio. It’s unlikely that it will disappear entirely, but its relevance will become of secondary importance to our leisure time. Keeping that in mind, let’s now take a look at three of the most popular devices on the market.
Choosing the right device depends very much on the technology with which you will be operating it. For example, if you mostly use Apple devices, you’ll think differently to someone operating in a Google and Android ecosystem. However, the Roku Ultra is an all-round option that is well worth considering regardless. It requires neither a Google nor an Apple account, but can still give you access to all the major services, including Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO Now, Hulu and plenty more.
If you’ve got a high-end TV, all the better, as Roku supports 4K and HDR, so you’ll get the best possible viewing experience. Internet connection can be through either Ethernet or WiFi, so go for whatever is the fastest to ensure glitch-free and uninterrupted viewing.
As far as convenience is concerned, the Ultra has everything you could need. The remote is simple to use, there’s a companion app that allows you to control it from your phone and there is even a voice control option. At around $90, it’s not the cheapest device on the market, but in the grand scheme of things, you might easily spend that on a nice restaurant meal and a bottle of wine with your nearest and dearest.
Apple TV 4K
Those whose homes are littered with iPhones, MacBooks and all the rest of Cupertino’s most famous exports might eye anything that is not part of that ecosystem with a degree of suspicion. If that sounds familiar, then the Apple TV 4K box is almost certainly the streaming device you will go for.
Like the Roku Ultra is supports 4K TV, and like the Roku Ultra you have the option of ethernet or WiFi to get the most stable internet connection possible. Your old friend Siri will be ready and waiting to provide voice search functionality, and will provide access to your iTunes content, games and other media that is stored on mirrored devices.
Fans and critics of Apple products all agree that this is one of the best streaming boxes available. However, at twice the price of the Roku Ultra, it needs to be, especially given that all in all, there is little to tell between the two in terms of overall functionality. Ultimately, this is one that is aimed squarely at the hardcore Apple fans, and they will constitute the vast majority of buyers.
So much for the Apple community, how about those in the Android camp? The NVIDIA Shield is one of the older streaming devices on the market, but its most recent upgrade brings it right up to date, and like the Roku Ultra and the Apple TV 4K, it is 4K ready. The device is preloaded with Android TV, and gamers will love the fact that it comes with its own Android gaming controller.
Voice control is one thing that is lacking. However, a recent press statement from NVIDIA confirmed that a forthcoming upgrade would bring Google Assistant integration, so this shortcoming is one that will soon be addressed.
Just as the previous device was likely to appeal mostly to Apple devotees, so this one will be the choice for gamers and those who are immersed in the Android ecosystem. For the rest of us, the $188 price tag might seem a little strong.
The above are three of the most popular choices available, and all have received solid ratings from the likes of TechRadar and PC Mag. However, there are others worth considering, particularly if you are looking for a lower cost option. These include the Amazon Fire TV stick, which is a snip at just $25, or the Roku Ultra’s little brother, the $30 Roku Express.