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.

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Comments (39)

39 responses to “First Steps: Choosing a Living Room Set-Top Box”

  1. Avatar

    9949

    TiVo is all I need.  Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Go, Cox OnDemand oh yea and all of my cable channels in one device with one search interface.  Set a One Pass (season pass) for a show and TiVo finds it in all of the linear and OTH services.  Once you use SkipMode for skipping commercials on recorded content you will never be able to use a Cableco DVR again.

  2. Avatar

    661

    where would TiVO fit in your list?

     

  3. Avatar

    818

    I love how TiVo keeps adding more and more services together. Yes, MSFT isn't included and I hope they are some day, but I agree with those below: TiVo aggregates really well, the providers, even Amazon, update their apps, and I see some there not mentioned here, like Vudu. It integrates YouTube, too. It's a great solution with an amazing interface and the best remote I have ever seen. I currently have the Romio with 6 tuners, so I never have to worry about conflicts. It doesn't do rss subscriptions as well as it used to, though maybe I haven't discovered the secret sauce, but can still find Vodcasts I like.

  4. Avatar

    305

    Paul, I love my Tivo Bolt.  I know its got a monthly/yearly cost, but it works and works well.  And if the Xbox One S Pass-thru port was truly passthru I have the TiVo passing thru my Xbox One S and use the Kinect voice commands that work great for me for turning on and off, pause play..

  5. Avatar

    127

    Can't MS just buy Roku and get this steaming device malarky sorted!?! Thanks

  6. Avatar

    296

    As someone who spends 150+ nights in a hotel every year, I think about both home and the road.  At home I've got my cable company's Tivo for DVR, and a Roku, as Paul says it's the best.  I also had a Miracast hooked up to my main TV for a while, but moved it to my travel kit - I've just defaulted to renting or buying from Amazon when something I want to watch isn't on one my streaming options (Hulu, Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and local Plex collection - boo for not being able to support Amazon Drive).  Roku's cross service search is killer here (though I've noticed recently more and more of the channels have broken "deep linking" from the search results, requiring searching again once in the channel - annoying.

    For Travel, I got a "WD My Passport Wireless Pro" that way I have my Plex collection with me (as backup when hotel wifi is not suitable for streaming).  This also simplifies wifi access in the hotel room, I use the WD as my access point, so I only have to deal with hotel login-in once, regardless of which device I'm using.  I was using the miracast dongle and the Win 10 Plex app, but as Paul mentions it's unreliable at best, and infuriating at worst.  Towards the end of last year I picked up a Chromecast, however I realized you can't cast Amazon... So I'm not liking that solution, as that's a decent gap.  I'm going to back and revist Roku stick, I know they had performance problems in initinal iteration, but htink ti would be more complete solution for all service providers from the rooad.

    Then I can move my Chromecast back to home and add to my multi device setup (I've got a thrifty man's Sonos with a Chromecast speaker in every room of the house - it really is great when paired with Google Home and Google Play Music) by putting it on the main TV, increasing the experience in the living room, and adding video casting.  I also want to research if they've added the ability to add a Chromecast (Video) to a multi-speaker audio cast group.

    Good luck out there!

  7. Avatar

    1243

    I've tried Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV 4. Fire TV was the quickest and allowed me to access my content easier than any other set top box. Plus, I do most of my digital video shopping on Amazon, so it all just shows up there ready to go.

    That being said, I sold all of my set top boxes when I got an Xbox One, thinking they would be redundant. What the heck happened to Xbox One's app store?? They barely have any cable channel apps (Disney, Nick, Travel Channel, HGTV, Food Network, etc.) The only things I saw were HBO Go, Starz and Showtime. What happened to the days of making the Xbox a one stop entertainment box?

  8. Avatar

    2813

    In our living room we only use Xbox One.  It has everything we use in the living room.  Its biggest downside is the fact that people need to sign-in and we need to configure the apps on every users' account.  I would like to see a fan-less/silent set top box with simplified logon from Microsoft.  With their ever so slowly expanding UWP content it makes more sense.

    At other locations, we use Fire TV.  We used to use Roku, but never looked back after trying the Fire TV.  The additional bonus of the Fire TV was that it was easy to side-load my Silicon Dust HD Homerun software, making it the one stop shop for TV, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and everything else we do. 

  9. Avatar

    5485

    You don't need Apple TV to play iTunes content on the TV wirelessly. There are plenty third party devices that support Airplay.

    The perfect stick for me would be one that supports the 3 protocols: Airplay, Chromecast and Miracast. Unfortunately I cannot find one that support the 3 of them, only Airplay+Miracast+DLNA, or Chromecast + Miracast + DLNA.

    PS: Would it make sense to use any MS service (Music or TV) without a single Windows driven device in the house? Guess not .. so ... I guess one might be stuck with such ecosystem too as well.

     

  10. Avatar

    1777

    You forgot to mention PS4. It's as valid a contender as Xbox, and the fact that the PlayStation Vue service has the best experience on the PS4, it should have been listed.

  11. Avatar

    4796

    I much prefer the Windows version of the Mi Box. There's many to choose from, and reasonably priced (around US$120). Runs ALL services, either via apps or browser, with a choice of a phone app or wireless remote (I use an air-mouse / keyboard combination). And yes it even plays iTunes purchased content, for half the price of an Apple TV.

    After my Apple TV became a doorstop, via the lack of (and requirement for) apps - it has no browser and won't even run youtube! - I swore off relying on apps.  Yes they're nice to have, but if a device doesn't have a standard browser then I'm not interested (bye bye Roku).  And remember that for many outside the US, apps just aren't being built.  With a browser I can access anything, anywhere. You can't watch Thurrott.com videos on an app-only device.  And with Windows 10 being self-managing, these devices are what was needed a decade ago for Media Centre to work.  If only it was still in Windows 10 ...

  12. Avatar

    5592

    I'm pretty sure the various TiVO products qualify as well, at least as much as Smart TVs do.

  13. Avatar

    133

    Lon Siedman seems to like the Nvdia Shield TV. I've never tried it, but it might be worth a look.

    https://youtu.be/8E_ZGhIfV3g

  14. Avatar

    2790

    Not covered in this article is DLNA support in these devices.  Aside from Netflix (and a couple other streaming services) I like to stream content locally from my Windows-based PC's using Universal Media Server.  I could probably setup PLEX but UMS has been great for streaming to all my devices in the house such as my XB1, PS3 and WDTV.  I've been looking for something smallish (not another Xbox) to replace the two WDTV's that I currently have...  

    By the way, I'm in Australia so technically we can't have Roku etc., without VPN's and jumping through hoops - it's ridiculous!

  15. Avatar

    6750

    I have a Chromecast and Apple TV 3 plugged into to my TV primarily so that I (as well as guests) am able to show photos on the TV using via the standard methods (Google Cast and AirPlay) from Android and iOS as needed. The combination of these devices and my TVs Smart TV platform also covers all my streaming needs.

    If I didn't have a need for Chromecast and AirPlay I could get everything I need from a single Roku box. I've had one in the past and think they're great little devices.

  16. Avatar

    691

    I am running a headless Windows 8.1 box running Windows Media Center with a Ceton cable card tuner and Xbox 360's connected to each TV. Despite the age of this setup it is still an awesome solution. It doesn't have the 30 day limit on recorded shows like PlayStation Vue. It is extremely reliable compared to Sling TV and Dish Now. It is cheaper, more flexible and has a much better UI/functionality than a cable company DVR.

  17. Avatar

    7063

    The nVidia Shield TV is probably the best Android TV available. It also makes a decent gaming platform if state of the art graphics aren't a priority. It's a little expensive compared to other streaming boxes, but you could consider it like buying a high end gaming system. Not only does it play games better than a low end system, but even every day tasks are better.

  18. Avatar

    1753

    We have a Sony Bravia Android TV, which comes with integrated Cables, Satellite and Terrestrial tuners. It also runs Amazon Prime, Google Play and Netflix, so the old Amazon FireTV is also pretty much redundant now.

    1 device, 1 satellite cable and 1 power cable, the living room is a lot neater.

  19. Avatar

    5496

    Chromecast and Miracast are not set top boxes. Set top boxes are devices that work independently of your phone or computer.

  20. Avatar

    5496

    The best one is a computer. It plays everything.

  21. Avatar

    9201

    Simple answer : Tivo

  22. Avatar

    10358

    I must have bad luck with Roku devices. I see everyone praise them yet everytime I buy one they are buggier then Windows ME. Bought a Roku 3 a couple years ago had problems with apps crashing. Fast forward to this year have a new 4K HDR TV bought a Roku Premiere+ and have constant problems with HDCP errors. If you look on their subreddit you see plenty of people with this problem with Roku's and HDR TVs its a known issue that Roku hasn't addressed yet. Its basically made the device unusable. Bought a Roku for my parents 4k nonHDR tv and they have to restart the device at least once a week because the Netflix app won't open. Very Disappointed with Roku. Hopefully Amazon will release a fire TV with HDR this year. Have been stuck using the smart TV apps which aren't bad for netflix and amazon but miss some of the TV channel apps like Fox now and comedy central.

  23. Avatar

    5394

    Plus Android Kodi if you can find it.

  24. Avatar

    5593

    I guess I'm, again, in the minority. I try to aggregate.  I can get to everything non-DishNetwork via my computer or smartphone now.  And we purchased a smart TV, so it has apps for things like YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora.  The reason we bought the original Xbox One was because it integrated everything we could already do on our PC & Windows phone AND interface nicely with our Dish box. The big draw for us the Kinect. In fact, this was almost the only real reason we convinced ourselves to give up $500 on a console.  And for the first year, it was awesome. Then Microsoft gutted the Kinect and voice alone just wasn't enough to make it worth it.  The look and usability of the dashboard was horrible after that, and it just made more sense to go back to the smart apps on the TV.  Other than YouTube, we avoid all things Google, and we don't do Apple.  Basically, if it's not already part of the Windows ecosystem or a supported third party (e.g., Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Vudu), we don't have any use for it. It just doesn't make sense to me to have umpteen pieces of hardware to do something a SINGLE piece of hardware should be able to do. No sense at all.

  25. Avatar

    5285

    You've touched a nerve of mine. When is Samsung going to include Roku or Chromecast and abandon their crappy OS? I love their TVs, but this will be a second for the Man Cave and I want, correction need, a new 65" 4K UltraHD TV for the Super Bowl. Can I get Roku or Chromecast built-in?... you bet your arse, but only if you want a Roku: TCL, Sharp, Hisense, Haier, or GoogleTV: Sony, Sharp, Philips, or Chromecast: Vizio, Polaroid... Should I abandon the TV I love for the usage I desire? Probably, but it is still a struggle. Wish me luck!

  26. Avatar

    5349

    Another cord cutter here...

    I have a FireTV stick and a Dell micro pc. Does everything I need.

  27. Avatar

    4800

     I like the Apple TV 4.  It has an easy to use UI and the UI looks pretty to me.  The remote takes a bit to get used to, but it's not that bad.  Plus it's the only one that has Apple Music (My choice for streaming music).  I don't care about 4k since my TV doesn't have it and I don't plan on buying a new one soon.  I also have a older Roku and the original Fire Stick, but for some reason I didn't really care for either one.

  28. Avatar

    6067

    I think Roku has one of the best platforms right now... we picked up a Roku TV and the interface is fantastic.  I love the fact that all your inputs show up as options in the menu... you can event change their icons and label them.  It makes it super easy for the kids to work the TV.  Gone are the days of switching inputs on the TV in my house... they just pick the input like they would an app on the menu (which is what they are used to with their phones and tablets anyway).  I really wish someone would make some kind of open platform single sign in for all the content apps though (or maybe Roku could store your logins in your Roku account) because signing into all the apps separately is a pain.  I haven't tried a newer Apple TV setup with the single sign in but I would bet that makes it a TON easier to use.  Love the Roku interface though.

  29. Avatar

    217

    As a cord cutter for the last 3 1/2 years this is what we use at home:

    1. a Chromecast

    2. Amazon Video and Netflix (built into my TV) (Prime and Netflix membership)

    3. CBS All Access ($6/month) for live TV and news (Android app via Chromecast)

    4. My PC as the media hub with Videostream (chrome extension and Android app) for everything else I already own.

    I use Videostream on my Android phone as my remote control for all other content to watch. Videostream is so good I no longer bother with Plex or Kodi. I've tried using various computing devices to be the living room PC but in the end they just weren't cost effective or feature rich: Raspberry Pis, Living room Win PC, etc, I've tried them all. I find my current combination to be the best solution for me. We saved a ton of money monthly and find Netflix to be the best value overall, their original content has gotten so good over the last couple years. Live sports is the cord cutter's Achilles heel, but we had an NHL TV subscription (too bad my Devils suck these days so I don't bother) and my brother and I have shared an NFL GamePass subscription and it all works great.

    • Avatar

      1777

      In reply to dcdevito:

      We're about to ditch cable TV in my house. Unfortunately, we're in a market where there are no options to stream local channels. My current plan is to use PS Vue for cable channels, combined with Netflix and eventually a rooftop antenna for local channels. Until I get the antenna hooked up, I might subscribe to my cable company's $20 local channels option. Not sure as it's expensive, but I might just as a stop-gap until I get an antenna sorted out.

      We have two Roku 3s, one Roku 4, and a PS4. The PS Vue service is phenomenal on the PS4 and mediocre on the Roku. The PS Vue interface is closer to the PS4 on Amazon Fire devices, so I'm trying to decide between one of them and a new PS4 Pro (which I want anyway if I'm being honest, lol).

      Regardless, I'm going to save between $150-$200 each month on my cable bill by doing this.

  30. Avatar

    5897

    I own more than a few STBs but I've settled on the MiBox/Fire Stick combo. Most of the providers I want to watch have Android TV apps and I can use the integrated Chromecast function for the rest. I can even stream my entire phone display when I want to watch web content or content from apps that don't support Chromecast. I use the Fire Stick for watching Amazon Prime content.

    I think a Roku/Chromecast combo would basically offer the same functionality.

    • Avatar

      217

      In reply to rob4jen:

      I went through 3 Mi Boxes because casting video via Chromecast was awful on a 4K TV. Xiaomi told me firmware updates would fix it, I had it long enough to update once but it didn't fix the issue. Do you cast to the Mi Box? If so how is the performance? When I had it the video played in slow motion.

  31. Avatar

    2585

    Great summary, though many households start with features then hook into one library/source over another.

    One such feature -- the remote control -- is the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Polar opposite to Apple's remote, Roku's somewhat unique ability to offer a headphone jack via their RF wireless remote --  plus a braindead simple interface and a fully featured mobile app in case you've misplaced it and are too lazy to press the "Find" button on the device -- Roku has become essential for late night watching in our household despite myriad alternatives.

    I've helped friends and family replace old school wireless headphone options with the wireless listening feature.

    That, plus ease-of-use differences, make some options (Roku and Chromecast) better than others.

  32. Avatar

    2532

    Time out. I have the Halo 5 Xbox One and the Gears of War 4 Xbox One S (and OMG 4k UHD look amazeballs, The Martian specifically on my 4k TV). I have NOT heard the fan on either one. They are both out in the open. Not in a cabinet of any kind and near my TV. I have not once noticed a loud fan noise coming from either of them. Maybe I'm just lucky. They both work awesomely and I run my cable box (AT&T U-VERSE) through both of them and use cortana to control my cable TV viewing, and of course to play games and stream content. For me the xbox does everything I could want it to do.

    I don't have PLEX, I don't have gigs of video and audio files lying around. I simple don't have the time or the energy to do that. I stream/watch on internet/cable or buy/rent movies I want to watch. Even then I have a hard time finding all the time I need to see everything I would like to see. Or play the games I have today, much less anything new. I'm amazed I finished a run through of GOW4 on easy. That took a few months to accomplish. While I'm all for mass consumption of entertainment. The times I get to sit down for two hours and watch something by myself is rare. I do work full time, and have a family.

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