Want to stream content from the Internet to your TV? There’s a new player in town, Google’s Chromecast. It’s super easy to use and priced to move. What’s not to like? If you’re happy with just Netflix, you’re good. If you want Hulu or HBO Go, paying a bit more for Roku or Apple TV may make sense, unless you don’t mind using your laptop. Then again, for only $35, maybe you’ll decide Chromecast is worth being a second device.
Chromecast is entering a space where two other major Internet-to-TV devices already exist, Apple TV and Roku. Xbox, a gaming console, can also double as a streaming media device. Here’s a quick look at the players:
Chromecast: About the size of your thumb, Chromecast plugs into the HDMI port of a TV, and you power it using the supplied USB charger or using a USB cable plugged into a spare USB port on your TV or receiver. It connects to the Internet through your wifi.
Chromecast is controlled via your smartphone or tablet, via apps that are enabled to send to the Chromecast device. You pick a video you want to watch, tap to queue it to your Chromecast, and it’ll start playing. You can do the same for anything you’re viewing using Google’s Chrome browser, when on your desktop computer.
At $35, Chromecast is the cheapest of the devices.
Apple TV: About the size of your hand, you run an HDMI cable from Apple TV into your TV. It connects to the Internet through wifi or ethernet. You control it through a small remote, and it allows you to flip through various apps — think of them as channels — on the device. Select the content you want to view from within the apps, hit “Play” and off you go.
At $100, Apple TV is the most expensive of the dedicated streaming media devices, other than the highest-end of the Roku models. Apple TV, however, also features AirPlay, the ability for you to stream content on your iPhone, iPad or Mac to your TV.
Roku: Also about the size of your hand, Roku works just like Apple TV. It connects to your TV through an HDMI cable (some models also offer an analog connection). Roku connects to your wifi or via ethernet, with the high-end version.
You select channels you want to have on the device, and various content providers will stream their material through it. Pick content you want to watch from those channels, hit “Play,” and lean back.
Roku ranges from $50 for the low-end 720p-only model to $80 if you want the 1080p-version that matches what Chromecast and Apple TV do. Step up to $100, and you can play games.
Xbox: You can do more than just play games on Xbox. As with the other players, it will stream internet content to your TV. However, it’ll cost at least twice the price of Apple TV and even more compared to Chromecast and Roku, running from $200 for the basic Xbox 360 to $500 for the forthcoming Xbox One.
The high cost is because the Xbox is also a gaming console. That’s why initially, I didn’t include it in this round-up. My view is that anyone looking for a dedicated streaming media device isn’t going to consider the Xbox, because of the price and because it may provide them with more on the gaming side than they really want.
For more about that, see my column at CNET: Now that we have Chromecast, is it time for Xbox TV? And for those who want to know how it sizes up, you’ll find the chart below now includes Xbox.
NOTE: The cost is even higher than currently listed on the chart, because you also must have an Xbox Live subscription, which costs $60 per year or more, if not purchased for a full-year at a time.
The Content Comparison Chart
What can you watch on these devices? Lots of things! But the chart below has what I consider to be the major options. Anything marked as “Yes” is natively supported by the devices through apps (also called “channels”) on them or, in the case of Chromecast, through your smartphone.
Chromecast and Apple TV also support viewing content through mirroring, which requires opening a laptop to stream to your TV. I don’t consider that to be what most people are looking for when purchasing an internet-to-TV device. However, I have listed these options on the chart, and they’re explained in more depth below.
The chart above is based off one I did a few years ago, when Google TV first came out. At the time, it seemed like Google TV might be a rival in a space where Roku and Apple TV, much less Boxee, were still relatively new. But Google TV ran into an immediate problem. The promise that you could stream TV from any site on the Internet died quickly, as networks blocked it. A promised solution for Hulu still has never arrived.
Since that time, my view is that there are three major “channels” (in the US) that have emerged that, if supported by an Internet TV device, make the device a compelling choice. These are Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go.
I describe these on the chart above as being “Subscription” services. That’s because they allow you to watch anything you want for flat monthly subscription (with HBO Go, you effectively pay this to your cable or satellite TV company).
Here’s more about each of them, as well as Amazon Prime, a strong Netflix rival:
Netflix: For $8 per month, Netflix allows you to stream any of the movie or TV content it has. Of course, it doesn’t have everything. But there’s an amazing selection of TV content, especially, for the “binge viewers” out there. Netflix also has original content such as House Of Cards and Arrested Development. All players support Netflix.
Hulu Plus: Hulu offers a huge amount of content from the major US television networks of ABC, Fox and NBC, all of which are investors in the service. On the Web, you can watch some of this for free. But through an ITV (Internet-to-TV) device, you need Hulu Plus, for $8 per month. Roku, Apple TV and Xbox support Hulu Plus; Hulu says it’s working with Google to come to the Chromecast. We’ll see. Three years ago, Hulu said it was working on a Google TV app. That still hasn’t arrived.
HBO Go: Want to catch up on that HBO show you missed? HBO Go is great and comes with your cable or satellite subscription, allowing you to use Internet-to-TV devices to stream content. One caveat. Some providers like DirecTV might not allow HBO Go to work on particular devices (like the Roku). Hollywood can be weird. Google’s device doesn’t have HBO Go support through an app; the rest do.
Amazon Prime: If you’re an Amazon Prime member, for $80 per year, you get unlimited two-day shipping. But beyond that, you get access to tons of TV and movie content to watch for free, similar to the type of offerings that Netflix has. All players but Chromecast support this through apps or channels.
Rental & Purchase Options
Beyond the subscription channels, the device needs some type of rental facility, so that you can buy premium content: TV shows and movies that are not offered by the subscription services. Without a rental option (or purchase, if you want to own the content), I don’t feel a device will be that compelling. In my experience, the pricing and availability of content from any of these rental services is about the same.
Something to keep in mind about each of these services is how “locked” your content might be. If you’re just renting for the night, you probably don’t care whether what you’ve bought will play on your laptop versus your TV or your smartphone.
However, if you’ve purchased content to own, that might be a bigger deal. For more about that, see a story I wrote for CNET earlier this year, which has a handy comparison chart: How trapped are your digital movies and TV shows?
On to the rental options:
Apple iTunes: Surprise, Apple only offers TV and movie rentals through its own service, iTunes.
Google Play: Surprise again, Google offers TV and movie rentals through its own service, Google Play.
Amazon Instant Video: Just like Apple and Google, Amazon offers TV and movie rentals through Amazon Instant Video. It’s one of two choices that Roku offers to its users. Xbox will allow you to play video you’ve purchase from Amazon, but only if you purchase that on Amazon itself. You can’t buy through the Xbox, so I’ve listed this as a “View but can’t buy” on the chart.
Vudu: Backed by Walmart, Vudu has a huge offering of TV and movie rentals. It’s the other choice on Roku. Xbox also supports it, allowing for direct purchases.
Xbox Video: Microsoft’s own rental service, offered on the Xbox.
There’s also YouTube out there for video content. While YouTube serves as an alternative face for Google Play rental content, my focus in listing it on the chart above is whether you can stream “free” YouTube content through your device, everything from your personal videos to whatever’s going viral at the moment.
You can, other than for Roku — which is the main weakness of that player. On Apple TV, the weakness I’ve found is that the search capability for YouTube content often seems poor. With Chromecast, it’s pretty awesome.
Remote Apps & Cross-Channel Search
It’s awesome because, unlike with Apple TV and Roku, you’re actually finding the content you want on your smartphone or your computer, making use of its keyboard, then telling the Chromecast what you want. After that, Chromecast itself fetches the content. With the other players, you’re using a “dumb remote” with no keypad (though you can get apps for Roku and Apple TV to help).
Roku is outstanding among the devices in offering a “cross-channel” search feature, which I might revisit in more depth later. Basically, you can search across various channels on your Roku to see which has the content you want and for how much. Xbox also offers this, though I haven’t used it much.
Google TV had this and still does. It’ll be interesting to see if somehow this gets turned into an app that can work with Chromecast. The problem with Google TV’s search, however, was that you couldn’t “tune-in” to some of that content that it pointed to on the Web, because of network blocking.
Mirroring, Chrome & Chromecast
That’s where Chromecast shines. It supports mirroring from Chrome on a desktop computer. Whatever you see in Chrome, you can send to Chromecast. That includes any content you might find on a TV network’s site. So, if you don’t mind opening up your laptop to get that show, Chromecast has you covered.
Will the networks be able to block this? Nope. Well, not easily. Google tells me that all the content fetching comes from your Chrome browser itself. That means the networks can’t block Chromecast in the way they could block Google TV. To block Chromecast, they’d have to block anyone using Chrome. That’s a huge audience to alienate.
Initially, I didn’t list Chromecast mirroring support on the chart above, because as stated earlier (and as I’ll cover again), it’s not something I consider core to whether a typical consumer may want one of these devices. In the interest of completeness, however, I’ve added it.
On the chart above “Via Laptop” indicates where you can stream content using Chrome for the Mac or PC to Chromecast. In these cases, if you don’t mind using a laptop, then you can watch this content (iTunes & Xbox Video content remains a “No,” as you can’t view these through a browser). With the other devices, no laptop is required for anything marked “Yes.”
Mirroring, AirPlay & Apple VT
Like Chromecast, Apple TV can do mirroring with its AirPlay feature (see The Verge’s comparison here). Unlike Chromecast, you’re not limited to just want you can see in your browser. However, AirPlay only works for iOS and MacOS devices.
The chart lists content you should find available for streaming to Apple TV, if you want to go the AirPlay route. Xbox Video, according to my testing, isn’t an option AirPlay or not.
The Limitations Of Mirroring
My assumption with this comparison is that most people looking for an internet-to-TV streaming device do not want to open up a laptop to watch video content on their televisions. If that’s the goal, they might as well watch that content on the laptop itself. Alternatively, they can buy a $6 HDMI cable to run video from many laptops to a TV.
So, while you can mirror using Chromecast or Apple TV, I don’t see this as a major advantage for these devices, not if your primary desire is to sit on your couch and watch internet-to-TV video with as little effort as possible. Instead, I think you have to focus on what’s natively supported in the apps, if that’s your goal.
They’re All Pretty Great
In terms of major video content choices, I’d say the Roku gives the most options for the least price. Still, at $35, you’re not risking much with a Chromecast — and it can be pretty fun to have various people sitting around “flinging” YouTube videos at it.
As someone with all of these devices, I’ll say that you’re not going to make a bad choice whatever you decide. All offer great value and make getting video content from the internet to your TV much easier.