Some of the world’s biggest tech companies are fighting over your TV set. Google, Amazon, Apple, and tiny little Roku are locked in The Octagon, wrestling for the loyalty of cord-cutters: the 5 million or so Americans who’ve ditched cable, or are trying to, and who are getting their video entertainment via the Internet.
Amazon has the newest bruiser in the ring. On Wednesday the company announced the Amazon Fire TV. It shows video, plays games, and makes cord cutting more compelling than ever. Here’s how it stacks up:
Size and shape
Streaming media boxes come in essentially two formats: the wallet-sized set-top box (Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Roku) and the cheaper, albeit somewhat slower and funkier, thumb-drive variety (Google Chromecast, Roku Streaming Stick). All of them rely on WiFi and a broadband connection to work; all of them make your old cable box look like some hulking relic from the previous century.
Each of these devices costs $100 or less, not including extras like gaming controllers. Roku offers three versions ranging from its $50 Streaming Stick to its $100 Roku 3. None of these include the cost of video-on-demand or subscription services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, or Amazon Prime.
But remember, the money you save by axing Comcast or DISH Network may end costing you more, as you spend $2 for à la carte episodes of How I Met Your Mother or $4+ renting new movie releases. Love sports? Subscriptions to professional baseball, basketball, and hockey events can run hundreds of dollars a year. And, so far, the NFL is a no-show on all these boxes.
The biggest, and most important difference between these devices is the type of content they let you access. Most of the big video brands (Netflix, Hulu, Disney, PBS, ESPN) are available on every box, but others vary. Amazon Fire TV lacks HBO GO and VUDU, for example.
Roku has the largest number of content providers by far, but you probably haven’t heard of 95 percent of them (and you’re not missing much). Chromecast has the fewest, but that number is expected to grow rapidly, now that Google allows anyone to integrate the technology into their apps.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s Fire TV distinguishes itself with a large selection of games, something the other set-toppers don’t yet match. Roku offers a few dozen simple games like Angry Birds that can be played via its remote.
The Amazon, Apple, and Google devices are all designed to drive you to rent or buy content via their associated stores (Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, and Google Play). Roku is a little different; most of its 1,200-odd channels are free (if also deeply obscure), but some require subscription fees, from which Roku collects a percentage.
Amazon, Apple, and Roku all offer a slim remote and a friendly onscreen interface to navigate among different entertainment options. Google Chromecast is a different animal entirely; you control it via your mobile device, and it integrates inside specific mobile apps like Netflix or Pandora. You need a phone or tablet to use it, and there is no central interface.
Roku on a TV
Amazon Fire TV adds voice search, which is unique among set-top boxes. Like Roku, it lets you search across multiple video services to find the best price for a particular show; at launch, though, it works only with Amazon’s own videos and Hulu Plus.
If you want to restrict access to media to kids in your house, Amazon also adds what it calls FreeTime parental controls, which allow you to set up profiles for each child to limit what he can watch and when. Roku lets you set a PIN to limit what new channels can be added; Apple TV lets you restrict access to various features via a PIN.
Amazon claims that its box is three times faster than the competition. We have not had a chance to test that claim, but we suspect your video viewing experience may depend as much on the speed and reliability of your broadband connection and your WiFi network as anything inside the box.
Fire TV makes it more tempting than ever to cut the cord, but it doesn’t overcome the two biggest obstacles to kissing Comcast and DISH goodbye: Like every streaming media device, it lacks local news and a broad selection of sports.
If you do make the jump, the option you choose will probably depend in part on where your product loyalties lie. If you’re all in for Apple, you’ll probably find the Apple TV easier because of its seamless integration with iPhones and Macs. Chromecast has a stronger appeal to people who love all things Android and don’t use a ton of different video services. If you’re shopping for your mom, Roku is probably the simpler option, while the kids might like to give Amazon Fire’s library of supercheap games a spin.
As they say in the TV biz, stay tuned for further developments.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.