First Steps: Choosing a Living Room Set-Top Box

Posted on January 31, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Music + Videos with 39 Comments

First Steps: Choosing a Living Room Set-Top Box

Choosing a living room set-top box is a lot like picking any other consumer electronics product, with one important exception: Thanks to low prices, there’s no reason you can’t use two or more of these devices.

In fact, you may have to.

If you have faithfully stuck with a single content ecosystem, of course, the decision is simple: You stick with whatever set-top box places best in that ecosystem. Long-time Apple fans, for example, will want to stick with Apple TV, despite its terrible remote and lack of 4K/UHD/HDR support.

But for the rest of us—most of us, I bet—the decision is a bit trickier. I’m an extreme example because I’ve purchased content from Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, and from a few other smaller service providers, too. But I suspect many people have purchased content from at least two providers.

Further complicating matters are popular subscription streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. For the most part, these services are pretty much available across all set-top boxes, but you’re going to want to make sure that the content you want—purchased content plus whatever subscriptions—is available on the devices you choose.

And for the Microsoft fan, the situation is worse still: There is no living room set-top box that supports Microsoft’s Groove Music and Movies & TV services directly. So you will need to use an Xbox console or perhaps a Miracast-based solution for streaming content from your PC to the HDTV screen.

Here are the main options.

Amazon Fire TV. Amazon offers its Fire TV in traditional set-top box form ($90, it supports 4K Ultra HD at 60 Hz) and as a smaller and less expensive Fire TV Stick ($40). These devices are a must-have for anyone with Amazon-purchased content or an Amazon Prime subscription, as you get the video services—and more—for free with that subscription.

Apple TV. Apple TV has lots of plus and minuses, but the discussion ends if you have already purchased content from this company. If so, you need an Apple TV, which starts at $150.

Google Android TV. Android TV hasn’t taken off in any meaningful way despite regularly attempts by Google to jumpstart this effort. You can get Android TV in some smart TVs and in a smattering of set-top boxes, most terrible. One exception: The Xiaomi Mi Box I wrote about recently. It costs just $70 (a bit more at Amazon) and offers 4K/UHD/HDR capabilities. If you have any Google Play content, this is a great option.

Google Chromecast. Available in both Full HD ($35) and 4K/UHD/HDR ($70) versions, Google’s Chromecast is an intriguing dongle-based solution for those with an iPhone or Android phone, since you can “cast” so much content from mobile apps to your TV. Given the pricing, Chromecast makes for a nice “add-on” capability to a living room that already has another set-top box, too.

Microsoft Xbox. Available for $250 and up, the Xbox One S is more expensive, bigger, and—thanks to a fan—louder than real set-top boxes. But it does support 4K/UHD/HDR for both Blu-Rays and digital videos. That, plus its superior video game capabilities, makes this solution unique. Plus it’s the only standalone solution that supports Microsoft’s content services.

Microsoft Windows 10 + Miracast. Kind of a less reliable version of Chromecast, but aimed at the Windows 10 crowd, this dongle solution is, in my experience, a bit lackluster. But with an inexpensive Miracast device like Microsoft’s Wireless Display Adapter (less than $50), you can “cast” content from your Windows tablet or phone to your TV. When it works. Frankly, an HDMI cable is a better solution.

Roku. Roku is the king of set-top boxes and it supports all the popular services plus Amazon and Google video services, too. Prices start at $50 for the Streaming Stick versions, or up to $120 for the best versions, which support 4K/UHD/HDR. Shop according to the needs of your TV.

Smart TVs (various). Many modern TVs are so-called smart TVs, meaning they ship with some form of embedded OS—webOS, Android TV, Roku, whatever—that supports content apps. The Samsung 4K/UHD set I’m currently using is such a device, and it has onboard apps for Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, and many others. For the most part, these built-in apps are as good as what you’ll find on a dedicated set-top box, and it’s nice not having to fiddle with HDMI inputs.

As you might imagine, my living room is a bit complex. We have an Xbox One S, Roku Premiere+, Apple TV, and the Xiaomi Mi Box connected at the moment, plus the cable box. But this changes based on usage and the passage of time. Right now, the built-in apps (Netflix, primarily) are probably used most frequently.

I’ll dive deeper into living room strategies soon.

Note: A few of the links above are affiliate links. Most are not.

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