Our viewing habits have changed a lot in recent years. Whereas once we were content to sit down in front of the telly and all watch the same thing, now we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want. And it’s all thanks to the growth of streaming services.
Of course you can access most through a browser on your laptop, but for the full TV experience you’ll want a dedicated streaming device. So which should you go for?
So kick back, relax, and put your feet up, as we see which streamer is right for you.
This is your first interaction with the device, so it’d be nice if it could be simple rather than complicated. Thankfully, streaming box manufacturers have got their act together in recent years, and made it a doddle to set up their devices.
The Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV are a doddle to set up. Just plug them in, log in using your Apple ID/Amazon account, and you’re ready to start watching. The Chromecast and Roku require you to enter a code that appears on-screen, but they’re still a cinch to get up and running.
Remember, for almost every streaming device, you’ll need a TV with an HDMI port to plug it into. Which makes them compatible with pretty much every TV around, except that knackered old set your parents insist on hanging on to.
Ease of use
So, you’re all set up. Now which is the easiest to use, day-to-day?
The Apple TV 4K’s tvOS operating system is very user-friendly, with plenty of visuals to draw you in. It also organises apps quite well, with categories like Productivity, Music and Video streaming all on offer.
Roku too has plenty of visual appeal, and makes everything very easy to find. It has a channel store, which makes finding something to watch as easy as flicking through an on-screen TV guide.
The Amazon Fire TV’s interface looks great, but it has one usability flaw: some content costs extra. While Amazon Prime members have plenty to watch (including Amazon exclusives like ‘The Grand Tour’ and ‘The Man in the High Castle’), you’ll have to shell out extra for some films. And it’s not immediately clear which. Frustrating.
Google Chromecast doesn’t actually have a user interface. Instead, it ‘casts’ (i.e. beams) content from your smartphone to your TV, be it films and TV shows from Google Play, or pretty much anything on the internet, streamed through the Google Chrome browser. It’s simple to do so, but could turn off some tech novices who just want to watch telly.
Each devices has a decent selection of content, though annoyingly there’s not one that has every big show. So it’s not as simple as buying a TV licence and getting access to all the main channels.
That’s because these services pay for the rights to a show or film, and when they expire, they have to renegotiate. If Apple decides a show is worth more to it than Amazon does, Apple can licence it exclusively, which means it’ll only appear on Apple’s streaming service.
Every major streaming service is also making its own shows and films, which of course it retains the exclusive rights for. So you won’t see Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ on any other service, for example.
The good news is that most of these devices let you watch more than one service. They all offer Netflix, and all apart from the Apple TV 4K offer Amazon Prime Video (though it will come to Apple’s streaming box later in the year). That means you’re not locked in to just one service per device.
Apple’s exclusives are a little thin on the ground, and what there is isn’t fantastic. ‘Planet of the Apps’ is a reality show about app developers, while ‘Up Next’ focusses on a different emerging musician every month. There’s also ‘Carpool Karaoke’, a spinoff of the segment of the same name from ‘The Late Show with James Corden’. But these are all only available through Apple Music, which costs £9.99 a month.
Otherwise, there’s a good spread of content, with new films like ‘Wonder Woman’, and TV series like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Twin Peaks’.
If you have an Amazon Prime subscription (which costs £79 a year), you’ll get access to Amazon Originals through its Fire TV range of streaming devices. These include shows like the Golden Globe-winning ‘Transparent’, ‘The Grand Tour’ and ‘Bosch’, and films like the Oscar-winning ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and ‘The Salesman’.
Other content on offer includes ‘Paddington’, ‘Suits’, ‘Pacific Rim’ and ‘Vikings’.
Roku brings film services like Sky Store and Wuaki to your TV, along with the usual catch-up services like BBC iPlayer and All 4. There’s little in the way of exclusives here.
The same goes for Google Chromecast. But because it pulls in pretty much anything from the web, you won’t be short of something to watch.
4K and/or HDR content
As the name suggests, the Apple TV 4K is the first Apple TV equipped for 4K viewing. That means that iTunes finally offers 4K films and TV shows.
There’s plenty to get your teeth into. Films like ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ and ‘Wonder Woman’, are available in 4K. But the selection is a little thinner on the TV front. It doesn’t help that there’s no dedicated 4K/UHD section to browse. Hopefully Apple will add one when it has a bit more 4K content to show off.
Be careful though – the standard Apple TV (which is still on sale) isn’t compatible with 4K content. So don’t buy it thinking you’ll be able to watch in the higher resolution.
4K films from iTunes cost no more than high definition ones. And if you’ve already bought the HD version, Apple will gift you the 4K version (if there is one) at no extra charge. It’s a nice extra.
Out of Amazon’s streaming devices, only the new Amazon Fire TV is compatible with 4K. If you buy the standard Fire TV Stick, you won’t be able to watch in 4K.
Amazon’s 4K content selection isn’t great. It consists mostly of Amazon’s own shows like ‘Transparent’ and ‘Mozart in the Jungle’, but it’s let down on the film side. The only 4K films we could find were space and nature documentaries – films like ‘Suicide Squad’ and ‘San Andreas’ do appear when you search, but they’re not included with Prime, so you have to pay for them.
Similarly, only one Chromecast device can handle 4K: the Chromecast Ultra. Roku doesn’t sell any 4K-compatible devices in the UK, which is a shame. Its 4K streaming devices are the Roku Ultra, Roku 4, Roku Premiere and Premiere+, which are all available in the US.
Google doesn’t offer any 4K content through Google Play in the UK yet, though hopefully this will change soon. There’s plenty of 4K content on YouTube to ‘cast’ to your TV using your Chromecast, but again, no films or TV shows. Disappointing.
Roku also doesn’t offer 4K content in the UK. Technically, you should be able to watch Amazon and Netflix’s 4K content on a Roku device, as both apps are offered in Roku’s Channel Store. But because Roku doesn’t sell any 4K devices on these shores, there’s no 4K content on offer in the UK.
The Apple TV 4K, new Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast Ultra all also deliver HDR content. HDR stands for high dynamic range – it’s technology originally used in photography that enhances the difference between light and dark parts of the picture, with more gradual ‘steps’ in between. It results in a more lifelike image that has more depth.
The Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV 4K can be controlled with your voice, which is handy as it means no laborious typing on screen. The Roku 3 has a headphone port built into the remote control, so you can enjoy your viewing without disturbing everyone else in the room or house.
The Chromecast uses your smartphone as the remote control. But it doesn’t only work with Android phones (Android is made by Google, who also makes the Chromecast) – it’s also compatible with iPhones and iPads using the Google Home app.
You can also control your Roku device from your phone using the mobile app, if you tire of using the controller.
The All-New Amazon Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD and Alexa Voice Remote (to give it its full name) also has Dolby Atmos onboard. This is an audio technology that gives you cinema-style sound without requiring a pricey speaker set-up.
All four platforms offer games to download. However, for each, you’ll have to buy the games individually, as they don’t come as part of any streaming package.
For our money, the Apple TV has the best selection of games. This is thanks to the quality and diversity of the App Store, which stocks everything from throwaway time-wasters to first-person shooters.
Others may have more games, but they can’t match the Apple TV in terms of quality.
There’s quite a range here. The Apple TV 4K is the most expensive, starting at £179 (the standard, non-4K model costs £149). Next priciest is the Roku 3, which will set you back £79.99. But its less feature-heavy models cost £69.99 (for the Roku 2) and £39.99 (for the Roku Streaming Stick).
The new Amazon Fire TV costs £69.99. The Fire TV Stick, which does have Alexa voice controls but doesn’t have 4K, costs £39.99.
And then there’s Chromecast. The 4K-enabled Chromecast Ultra costs £69, but if you’re not fussed about 4K, you can get the standard Chromecast for just £30. Which is quite a bargain.
It all comes down to what you want to do. If you’ve already bought into the Apple ecosystem, the Apple TV 4K is a fantastic – albeit pricey – device.
The new Fire TV is also great, but to get the most out of it you’ll need a subscription to Amazon Prime Video.
Chromecast is an excellent option if you’re a bit more tech-savvy, and are happy ‘casting’ content to your TV. But traditional telly addicts might be turned off, finding it too complex.
Roku is perhaps the best all-rounder. While it doesn’t – yet – offer a 4K model in the UK, it does have a great selection of channels, with bags of content. And it’s simple to use.
Remember, to really take advantage of what these streaming devices can do, you’ll need a subscription to at least one streaming service (or to buy content on a pay-as-you-go basis, like with iTunes). So don’t forget to factor in that cost when you’re choosing which is right for you.
Hopefully that’s helped you decide on a streaming device. All that remains is for us to wish you happy viewing!