What is a Media Streamer?

Roku Express (top) - Roku Ultra (bottom) Media Streamers
Roku Express (top) - Roku Ultra (bottom) Media Streamers. Images provided by Roku

The term "media streamer" is commonly used to describe both media streamers and network media players. However, there is a difference. 

Media is streamed when the video, music, or photo file is saved outside of the media-playing device. A media player plays the file from its source location.

You can either stream media from  

  • Online sources — that is, websites or streaming services like Neflix, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Rhapsody, and more....

    OR

    • Your home network — such as downloaded or personally created music, still images, or video stored on a computer, network attached storage (NAS) drive, or media server.  

    All Network Media Players are Media Streamers, but not all Media Streamers are necessarily Network Media Players.

    Network Media players can stream content from both online sources and your home network right out the of the box, and some can also download and store content. On other hand, a Media Streamer may be limited to streaming content only from the internet, unless it features accessible downloadable apps that allow it to access content from your home network - such apps have to be downloaded and installed in order to provide a media streamer with this capability.

    Examples of Media Streamers

      Popular media streamers include boxes and streaming sticks from Roku, Amazon (Fire TV), and Google (Chromecast). All these device can stream video, music and photos from services that may include Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Vudu, Flickr and hundreds, or thousands, of additional video, music, and special interest channels.

      However, these devices cannot download content to memory for later playback. On the other hand, some streaming services do provide the option of Cloud Storage in lieu of downloading. Some Network Media players have built-in storage to store streamed or downloaded content.

      The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Generation Apple TV could also be called media streamers, especially when comparing them to the first-generation Apple TV.

        The original Apple TV had a hard drive that would sync — that is, copy the files — with iTunes on your computer(s).  It would then play the files from its own hard drive. It could also stream music, photos and movies directly from open iTunes libraries on your computers. This would make the original Apple TV both a media streamer and network media player.

      However, subsequent generations of Apple TV no longer have a hard drive and can only stream media from other sources. To view media, you must either rent movies from the iTunes store, play music from Netflix, Pandora and other internet sources; or play music from open iTunes libraries on your home network computers. So, as it stands, the Apple TV is more appropriately described as a media streamer.

      A Network Media Player Does More Than Stream Videos and Music

      A network media player may have more features or capabilities than simply streaming media.  Many players have a USB port to connect an external hard drive or USB flash drive directly to the player, or they may have a built-in hard drive. If the media is being played from a connected hard drive, it's not streaming from an outside source.  

      Examples of Network Media Players include the NVidia Shield and Shield Pro, Sony PS3/4, and Xbox 360, One and One S, and, of course, your PC or Laptop.

      Networked Devices With Media Streaming Features

      In addition to dedicated media streamers, there are other devices that media streaming capabilities, including Smart TVs and most Blu-ray Discs players. Also, a growing number of home theater receivers have media streaming capabilities which are dedicated to music streaming services. In addition, the PS 3/4 and Xbox 360 can also copy media files to their hard drives and play the media directly, as well as streaming it from your home network and from online.

      Also, some Smart TVs and Blu-ray Disc players can stream content from both the internet and your local network devices, but some are limited to just internet streaming.

      The same goes for home theater receivers that incorporate streaming functions, some can access internet radio and online music service streams, and others can also access and play music files stored on your home network.

      When Shopping for a media streaming capable device or network media player, check the features to see if it provides all the access, playback, and any storage capability that you might need.

      When looking to buy a device that can stream media to your TV, be sure to if it has access to the streaming services you desire.

      The Bottom Line

      The most important thing consider when purchasing a media streamer or network media player is to not get caught up on whether it is marketed or labeled as network media player, media streamer, TV box, Smart TV, or Game System, but that it will be able access and play the content you desire, whether streamed from internet and/or the file formats in the content libraries you have stored on your home network-connected devices.

      If your main focus is to stream media from online sites like Netflix, Hulu, and Pandora, a media streamer, such as Roku/Amazon Box/Stick or Google Chromecast, or if you are buying a new TV or Blu-ray Disc player - consider one with streaming capabilities built-in that will do the job.

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