Choosing a living room set top box can be a trying process for the Microsoft technology fan: None of the entries support Groove or Movies & TV, and each comes with its own unique set of pros and cons.
So before getting to the picks, let me take a side-trip down Microsoft lane.
Best living room solutions for the Microsoft fan
If you simply cannot fathom existing outside of the Microsoft ecosystem, you should just get an Xbox. The Xbox One is still far too expensive to buy just for media consumption, in my opinion, but the Xbox 360 is in the ballpark.
The one to consider is the Xbox 360 4GB Console, which costs just $160 at the Microsoft Store. Note, however, that you will also want the Xbox 360 Media Remote, which is just $12 right now at Amazon. (Microsoft Store no longer offers this peripheral.) So the total cost is under $200, and you’ll have a remote-controllable box in your living room that can work with multiple online services, including Microsoft’s, and can connect to media via USB or on your home network. Not too shabby.
If that is still too expensive for you, you can consider the cheaper but far less elegant Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, which costs less than $50 (and is currently cheapest at Amazon.com). This device is a tiny HDMI dongle that uses Miracast technology to let you use your HDTV as a wireless dispaly for your Windows or Android phone, or Windows 8+-based tablet or portable PC. Which means that anything you can access on your device—videos, music, whatever—can be broadcast wirelessly to the best TV in the house. Miracast isn’t perfect—it’s really just a “wireless wire,” so it’s “dumb”—but it does work.
That said, Miracast doesn’t work as reliably as a real HDMI cable, so if you can use that, just do so: You can get long HDMI cables very cheaply (under $10). How’s that for inexpensive?
OK, back to reality.
Best overall: Roku
While Amazon and Apple have both released big new upgrades this season, Roku is still the top set-top box, and the top living room solution overall. There are multiple models from which to choose, with prices ranging from $50 for an low-ball Roku 1 to $130 for the new 4K-capable Roku 4.
We’re still using two Roku 3 units here at Chez Thurrott, and I feel like this model offers the best value, unless of course you really do have a 4K TV set. It costs $100 and provides 1080p video, a great remote, dual-band wireless plus Ethernet, HDMI connectivity for video, and USB and microSD card ports for connecting media. I use a Roku 3 in the living room to access media on my NAS and Windows PCs.
Regardless of which Roku you get, you’ll find the best service compatibility anywhere, with great apps for Roku, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, Google Play Video, and much, much more. All that’s missing is Apple (shocker) and of course Microsoft, which has no excuse.
Runner-up: Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV undercuts Roku on price—it’s just $85 as I write this—and it offers nearly as much content as does Roku (minus Google Play Video, most notably. And the newest version even support 4K video, albeit at 30 fps. (The Roku 4 does 4K video at 60 fps.) So why isn’t it number one?
Simple: Amazon’s interface is too Amazon-centric, and it treats other ecosystems (Netflix, Hulu, whatever) as standalone apps that are outside the main content UI. The Roku is much more agnostic, and treats all services equally, and even lets you search for content across these services from a single place. It’s just better.
But you’ll get great performance from Fire TV, and if you’re already invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, it’s a no-brainer. Regardless, it’s still a top choice. Just not the top choice.
Runner-up: Apple TV
I had high hopes for the new Apple TV ($150 and up), but it’s proven to be somewhat frustrating to use. First, the remote is finicky, and the top navigation touch area is gimicky, and makes it hard to get to exactly where you want to go in a video especially. (Are 30- and 15- second jump buttons too obvious?) And second, and more problematically, the promises of Apple’s open app store haven’t borne fruit, at least not yet. The Apple TV app selection is the worst of all the living room solutions, by far. And it just isn’t getting better. Yet.
That may change, but until it does, I don’t recommend Apple TV to anyone … except for Apple fans, who will want to buy one immediately. There’s no other easy way to enjoy Apple-purchased content in the living room. Talk about a captive audience.
Best media-streaming stick
There are set-top boxes and then there are … sticks. These are the tiny little device that plug directly into an HDMI port on the side or back of your HDTV and provide set-top box-like functionality at much lower prices.
**Note: **On the PC side, we have Miracast, described above, and a new generation of stick-based PCs. I don’t recommend the latter because they are complex and require some combination of keyboard and mouse to be truly useful. This is the living room, not an engineering lab.
Best overall: Amazon Fire TV Stick
All of the streaming sticks promise low prices, but only the Fire TV Stick seems to deliver set-top box-like performance, and that’s what puts Amazon over the top. Yes, you have to deal with an Amazon-centric UI, but it’s worth it. Literally. The Amazon Fire TV Stick costs only $40. You could buy two for less than the cost of one Roku 3.
Runner-up: Roku Streaming Stick
If you are a Roku fan, as I am, you might consider the Roku Streaming Stick. At $50, it’s more expensive than the Fire TV Stick, and the performance is not quite as good. But it comes with an excellent remote—the best of the Sticks—and offers best-in-class media service compatibility.
Runner-up: Chromecast and Chromecast Audio
I’ve really warmed to Chromecast, and with the latest generation of these devices—the new Chromecast and Chromecast Audio—Google has done something wonderful. And at wonderful prices, too: These devices cost just $35 each.
The new Chromecast works like the original version: You can cast audio or video content from your Android or iOS device (using a growing selection of compatible apps) to the device, which is connected to your HDTV. With Chromecast Audio, you connect the device to speakers (either standalone powered speakers or via a stereo system) and cast audio content only.
Both work just great, and offer fantastic performance. And both include a lengthy (and nicely-bound) USB cable and power plug, which is a nice touch in such inexpensive devices.
The only downside to either Chromecast is that your Android/iOS device is required for any media control. So if the doorbell or phone rings, or you’re otherwise interrupted, you may need to wake up your phone or tablet, sign-in, and fumble around for a bit before you can continue. In other words, there’s no dedicated remote control. But I feel the price and functionality justifies this minor inconvenience. Chromecast is wonderful.