The Apple TV Crash Course (2015)

Part Four: Cutting the Cable Cord

Digital Media Players

If you want the most channels possible and don’t mind paying a little bit (not cable prices), then this section will talk about “Digital Media Players.”

A Digital Media Player is basically a stripped down computer. Its main function is playing movies and TV shows—although some play games and do other things. This section will break down the cost of each, as well as the pros and cons of each.


Roku

Roku was one of the original media devices; the first device came out in 2008; while some manufacturers are playing catch up, they have pretty much nailed their user interface, creating something that is easy to use—and affordable.

Roku Interface

Roku is currently selling two devices: one that’s $100 and one that’s $50 (many stores discount them frequently, so look for sale prices). There are also older models that are always on sale, so if you want the best, then make sure you are being sold the current model. Some stores just say it’s a Roku, but don’t say which model, to mislead you into purchasing the lesser model. If you happen to have an older TV, the original Roku 1 has composite inputs that are compatible with older TVs (by older, I mean non-HDTVs).

Both models are compatible with iOS and Android—meaning if you have a smartphone or some tablets, then you can control the device with a native app. You also have the ability to send photos and pictures from your phone to the device.

What’s the difference? It’s all about preference. The $100 player (the Roku 3 Streaming Media Player) has an Ethernet connection, USB and Micro SD (for adding things like music and pictures), a remote control with a headphone jack (so you can listen to TV with no sound coming from the TV), a fast processor, and motion control for games.

Roku 3

The $50 player (the Roku Streaming Stick) is basically a barebones HDMI stick. That means the device itself plus into the back of your TV in the HDMI slot. A lot of promo images make you believe that’s all you need. Don’t be fooled! Unless you have a newer TV with HDMI power, then you will also need a power adaptor (which is included). So if you buy it thinking no dangling cords, then you might be misled.

Roku Streaming Stick

So what should you get? If all you want to do is watch movies, the cheaper stick is all you need. If you want to play games, listen through a headphone, or simply want the best, then go for the more expensive model.

The Roku promises 1500+ channels. That’s impressive, right? Your cable might not even have that many! But this is a bit of upsale. For starters, not all these channels are free. On top of that, many of these channels are not free. There’s no service out there that will let you cut the cable cord for nothing—but that doesn’t mean you won’t be saving a fortune by switching over to one of these devices.

In the next section, I will be looking at the different apps on each of these devices. This section is only about the hardware and who it is good for.

Pros

Cheap and sleek, there’s plenty of content here to keep you busy for months. Many of the channels on Roku are in different languages, which is a plus if you are not a native English speaker.

Cons

Roku relies on other content providers to get content. There’s no Roku channel with free content, like you will see on some of the other units. Roku also doesn’t have the same muscle as larger companies like Apple and Amazon—which means there’s a good chance they won’t have the same staying power. What does that mean? It means, a year from now, they could sell their company and leave you with a box that no longer gets updated.

Who’s it good for?

People who want the most amount of channels. It has a higher learning curve than some of the other devices.


Apple TV

Apple TV ambitiously burst onto the scene a year ahead of Roku in 2007 with a $299 device for storing videos, music, and photos. It’s come a long way since then—both in price and function.

The original device had users storing all content on its hard drive; with later devices, all content would be streamed wirelessly—no storage needed. The Apple TV is not more than a third of the price at $69.

Apple TV

Unlike some Apple products, like the Apple Watch, Apple TV does not require any other Apple products. You need a free iTunes account to purchase content, but everything can be managed from the device itself.

Apple products have always been billed as devices that “just work.” That is certainly true with Apple TV. I’ve tried all the devices in this book, and Apple TV is the most slick and bug free. Apps and movies open quickly, and its interface is easy for anyone to use.

Apple TV Interface

While Apple TV does not require any other Apple devices, Apple users are the ones who will get the most out of this device. Your Apple iPhone or iPad can double as a remote control. And if you have a Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you can “mirror” it on the TV screen; what does “mirror” mean? It means whatever your phone/tablet/computer screen looks like is exactly what your TV screen would look like.

Apple TV has not been updated in several years; it’s due. So if you want the latest and greatest, it might be worth it to wait a few months. Current rumors suggest a new TV will launch soon and include Siri integration.

Pros

Apple continues to be the company people look to for cutting edge; it’s no surprise that the first company to get HBO as a stand-alone subscription package was Apple TV; as more companies look to attract cord cutters, they will most likely roll out first on the Apple TV, then everyone else. Just as app companies typically build for iPhone/iPad then Android, TV content providers will likely come to Apple first. It includes a network adaptor if you prefer to stream content using a LAN connection instead of Wi-Fi.

Cons

Apple arguably has the best software, but Roku offers more channels; Apple channels, however, are more of the channels you would actually want to watch. Unfortunately, many of them require cable subscriptions to use; this will likely change in coming months. There are no composite inputs (only HDMI), so if you have a non-HDMI older TV, then this is not for you.

Who’s it good for?

While Apple TV is best for Apple users who know their products, anyone can use it. If you want the best quality for the price, it’s a good option. If you prefer quantity to quality, then there are other options.


Google Chromecast

Google first came into the media market with Android TV; it took them several years to develop an actual box to go with the platform. At the start they were letting developers create devices using their software.

In 2013, Google announced an affordable media device called Chromecast ($35). The device is frequently discounted and bundled; I’ve seen them as cheap as $15, so if this is the device for you, look for deals.

Google Chromecast

Like the Roku and Fire stick, Chromecast is a HDMI device; it’s limited in features, but for the price, you can’t complain.

Pros

It’s cheap! It’s pretty developer friendly, which means it will continue to grow in number of apps.  It also supports many games, but to play them you’d either need a smartphone or tablet or a Bluetooth device.

Cons

No physical remote. It’s all controlled by your smartphone or tablet. Don’t have one? This device isn’t for you.

Who’s it good for?

The app is pretty easy to use, and the installation instructions are clear—still this probably isn’t the best device for people who want no learning curve. If you like more control over the content displayed and don’t mind using your phone or tablet with the device, then this is a great deal.


Amazon

Amazon had long been rumored to be working on a media device, and in 2014, they finally announced it: The Fire TV. It was $99 and featured everything you’d expect from a streaming media device—but it also had a bit more: free movies and TV shows for Amazon Prime customers.

Fire TV

In November of the same year, they released a $39.99 Fire TV stick—which is basically the Fire TV stripped down. It plugs directly into your HDMI input, and requires a power adaptor if your TV doesn’t power HDMI devices.

Fire TV Stick

What’s the difference? There are a lot of differences under the hood—mostly with regard to memory and processing speed. Are they noticeable? Not to most people. The more expensive unit does include a LAN connection if you don’t want to use a Wi-Fi connection, and also has USB input and digital sound input. The biggest difference to most people will be the remote. On the surface they look pretty much the same. But the Fire TV remote includes a mic, so you can tell the device what you want to see. Hold the mic button, say “Watch Netflix” and the Netflix app opens. It’s cool and slightly gimmicky than anything else—probably not worth the extra $50 if you aren’t concerned also with memory.

Fire TV Interface

Pros

The HDMI stick is one of the cheapest on the market. Prime selection is growing every month, and includes “some” HBO shows at no extra cost. Amazon Original shows are also growing in number, and are winning awards for quality. Amazon also sells a wireless game controller ($39.99); ideally, this would be used to play games downloaded from the Amazon app store, but games are still a bit limited, and, for the most part, not great looking.

Cons

Amazon boasts their specs as being as good—if not better—than anything else on the market. And they are. But don’t be fooled. The software loaded on the device is still new (though getting better). While Amazon’s own selection of content works well, some third party apps are a bit sluggish. The Flixster app, which I use to view Ultraviolet content, took, in some cases, over a minute to load.

Who’s it good for?

Like the Apple TV, Amazon is a perfect fit for people who love the company’s brand. Just like Apple would encourage you to use it with the company’s own devices, Amazon wants you to use it as a companion to Fire Tablets and Fire Phones. You don’t have to, of course, but there are a few more features if you do. Amazon does have an Android / iPhone app you can use as a remote. If you already pay for Amazon Prime, then TV isn’t a bad deal. Prime TV doesn’t have as much content as Netflix, but it’s getting there. If you don’t have any intention of using Prime for anything but TV, then this probably isn’t the best deal for you.


But Wait! There’s More…

It’s fair to note that, while these are the main media players, there are other options: gaming consoles (PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, etc.) have built-in media apps like Netflix and Hulu; so do most newer Blu-ray units. Many TVs are even billed as “Smart TVs” and have the ability to stream media content.

Why get a separate media device? Two reasons:

·         These features are great if you have it built-in—but it’s more costly to buy a new TV than media device if you don’t.

·         Media devices are update more frequently; so you are more likely to find new content and better apps on them.