How To Buy a Media Streamer

Before you buy a media streamer or network media player

Various streaming services
Matthew Keys / Flickr

Media Streaming devices make it possible for you to sit in front of your TV or home theater and stream movies and TV shows from the internet, and some also have network media playback features such as access to photos, music, and movies stored on your home computers and other devices.

Many Smart TVs, media streamers, Blu-ray disc players, and some game consoles have a built-in streaming and network media player features.
However, how do you decide which streaming media device is right for you? Here are some things to consider.

What Do You Want to Watch?

  • Do you want to watch streaming movies and TV shows from a variety of services or is there a specific service that you are looking for?
  • Do you also want to view photos, videos, and still images stored on your TV or other devices, such as your smartphone?

Almost every media streamer, video game console, and TV provide access to YouTube, Netflix, and Pandora. Different media player models, even from the same manufacturer, may offer content from other online partners to give you more choice of movies, TV shows, music, and photo sharing.

Netflix, Vudu, Amazon Video offer a large library of films. These services require you to pay a subscription fee or a charge for "renting" a movie, allowing you to stream a film for a limited time.

Vudu also allows you to "purchase" digital versions of films that are saved in the Cloud and can be retrieved for viewing at any time.

What Do You Want to Listen To?

If you are a music fan, look for players with Pandora, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Slacker or Napster (formerly Rhapsody).

If you have an Amazon Account (preferably Prime), look for players that provide Amazon Music. If you are an Apple user, consider an Apple TV media streamer so you can access Apple Music or your iTunes library.

Types of Media Streaming Devices

There are several types of streaming and network media devices.

Media Streaming Box: A media streaming box connects your TV in the same manner as connecting other components via HDMI, and require an additional connection to power and the internet. All media streamers include WiFi, but some also include the Ethernet connection option.

If you want to connect your streaming box to an analog TV, make sure that it has composite video outputs, such as the Roku Express+.

To use network media player features and access content from network-connected devices, such as PCs or NAS drives, you may have to install an additional app, such as Plex or PlayOn. For Roku devices, the Roku Media Player App is another choice.

Roku Premiere Media Streamer
Roku Premiere Media Streamer. Image provided by Roku

Streaming Stick: A very convenient type of streaming device is a streaming stick, which is slightly larger than a USB flash drive, plugs directly into an available HDMI input on an HD or 4K Ultra HD TV. Streaming sticks connect to the internet and your network using WiFi.

You also have to make an additional connection to power via USB or AC.

Amazon Fire TV Stick - Package Contents
Amazon Fire TV Stick - Package Contents. Photo © Robert Silva - Licensed to About.com

Smart TV: You can opt to buy a TV that has streaming and network media player features built-in. Smart TVs connect the internet or home network using either Ethernet or WiFi.

This option is very convenient at it combines a TV and media streamer in the same cabinet, but may not offer as many services as you might like.

Smart TV Platform Examples (LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku)
Smart TV Platform Examples (LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku). Images provided by LG, Samsung, Sony, Roku

Blu-ray or Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc player: Almost all Blu-ray Disc players have streaming and network media player features built-in and connect to internet/network via Ethernet or WiFi.

In a similar manner as a smart TV, a streaming capable Blu-ray Disc player combines two devices in one casing.

YouTube App on Blu-ray Disc Player

Game Console: If you are a gamer, instead of buying a separate gaming console and streamer, the Sony PlayStation 4 and Xbox provide both.

When you aren't gaming, you can stream other content from select streaming services to your TV without adding another device.

Microsoft Xbox One S
Microsoft Xbox One S. Image courtesy of Amazon.com

Picture Quality

If you opt for an externally-connected player, whether you have an older analog TV, HDTV, or 4K Ultra HD TV be sure the player is compatible and offers the best quality picture for those TV types.

Most will provide a 1080p output, while others support 4K Ultra HD playback (look for "4K" or Ultra in the product name, such as Apple TV 4K, Roku or Chromecast Ultra, Fire TV 4K).

 The resolution of the content source is also a factor. If you have a player that provides a 1080p or 4K output, check to see if it also provides upscaling for lower resolution content sources.

The resolution that your streamer sends out is also based on your internet speed. Streaming services, such as Netflix, will automatically adjust the streaming speed based on your connection.

File Format Compatibility

In addition to streaming from the internet, if you want to play photos, videos, and music through your media player, make sure it is compatible with the file formats they are save in.

Most streamers will list the media file formats that it is capable of playing. You can find this list on the box, or in online production descriptions under product features or specifications. If some members of the household have iTunes, be sure the player lists AAC in the file formats. If you use a PC, be sure AVI and WMV are listed.


You can tell the file format of your saved media by looking at the file extension--the letters following the "." in a filename. If you use a Mac or save all of your music and movies in iTunes, consider an Apple TV, as this is the only media streamer that can play copyright-protected iTunes music and movies.

File Sharing

Look for a media streamer that includes, or allows you to add Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook Photos, iCloud, or any other picture-sharing site that you and your friends use. Photos that you have uploaded to these services from your phone or PC would be accessible through these apps if installed on your media streamer.

Most media streamers also provide support for Screen Mirroring and Casting. This allows you to stream content directly from compatible smartphones and tablets to the media streamer for listening or viewing.

For iPhone and iPad users, Airplay lets you stream movies, music, and slideshows from those devices to an Apple TV or other compatible media streaming or network media player.

Social Networks

While it may not seem appealing to connect to Facebook and Twitter on your TV if you are already connected to your computer and smartphone, it is handy to have the option available. For those who are heavy Facebook and/or Twitter users, this may be the deciding factor.
Some media streamers also support limited web browsing or provide access to a media browsing app. Samsung Smart TVs incorporate a pre-installed web browser.

USB

Some media streamers (including smart TVs and Blu-ray Disc players) include a USB port so you can play media files directly from compatible devices, such as a flash drive or external hard drive.

Voice Control and Smart Home Integration

Some media players also allow you to perform other tasks. For example, Amazon Fire Edition Smart TVs and media streamers can interact with Alexa voice control, allowing you to control smart home devices, such as lights, thermostats, and more.

Roku has its own voice control option that can be accessed via select Roku remote controls, the Roku Mobile App, and Google Assistant.

Google Assistant can also be used with select LG smart TVs and Nvidia media streamers.

Apple TV works with Siri and can control select smart-home devices, through Apple HomeKit.

Select Samsung Smart TVs and the Nvidia Shield TV can control smart home devices via Smart Things.

Nvidia Shield TV Ecosystem
Nvidia

Media Streamer Brands and Prices

The main media streamer brands are:

  • Roku
  • Amazon (Fire TV)
  • Google (Chromecast)
  • Nvidia (Shield TV)
  • Apple (Apple TV)

Prices range from $30 to $200 exclusive of any periodic promotional pricing.

All major TV brands, including Hisense, LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL, Vizio, etc... offer Smart TVs in their product line-up. Smart TV prices range from $150 to several thousand dollars depending on screen size and other TV features.

Blu-ray or Ultra HD Disc Player brands that provide media streaming features include LG, Panasonic, Pioneer, and Sony. Prices range from $60 to $300 or more.

Samsung will no longer be making Blu-ray Disc players beyond the 2018 model year.