Whether it's someone looking to "cut the cord" and save money, or just a way to expand your on-demand video options, online streaming video is more popular than ever. But with so many options now available, what's the best solution -- be it for Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon, iTunes, or any of the myriad other online video sources?
As with anything in real life, there isn't one simple, straightforward answer that works for everyone. But we've created a set of different recommendations that should work for nearly anybody, based upon your individual priorities.
The best news for anyone shopping in late 2012? Prices for excellent media-streaming devices now start at just $50, with plenty of other great options (including brand-new Blu-ray players) at less than $120.
Roku: Best solution for less than $50
Forget $100 -- $50 is the new entry-level price point for streaming video. The Roku LT is the only product at this price point, but it's an enthusiastic Editors' Choice. With built-in Wi-Fi and free control apps available on iOS and Android (and, if you're old-fashioned, a regular old remote), the Roku LT delivers Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu Plus, and hundreds of other streaming-video and audio channels to any TV (including older, non-HD models).
Key compatible services: Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Crackle, Mediafly, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NBA Game Time, MLS MatchDay Live, UFC, Pandora, Mog, Rdio, TuneIn Radio, Flickr, Dish World, FoxNews.com, NBC News, Facebook photos, Flickr, plus hundreds of others. HBO Go and Epix are also available, but only for existing subscribers of those channels on compatible ISPs and cable providers. The new Plex "channel" now lets you stream video, audio, and photos from networked PCs and Macs -- a long overdue addition to the Roku feature set. The "Play on Roku" feature lets you stream content from handheld devices as well. And Roku now offers a handy feature that allows you to search for content across multiple services. (Disclosure: CNET and some of its sister CBS-owned properties -- such as Chow and Showtime -- are also available on Roku.)
Who shouldn't buy it? The Roku is best for anyone who does not need iTunes compatibility. YouTube and Spotify are notable no-show apps on Roku. If you've got a big DVD or Blu-ray collection, you'll probably want to opt for a Blu-ray player instead (see below) -- though, for $50, the Roku would still be a great option for a second room.
Worthwhile alternative: The Roku HD is nearly identical to the LT. The list price is $60, but don't be surprised to see that price dip southward as we approach the holiday shopping season.
Apple TV: Best solution for Apple fans (and a great choice for everyone else)
If you want the most diversity of content, the Roku box is the way to go. But if you're a die-hard Apple aficionado, Apple TV may be the better choice. It's the only box that's compatible with iTunes, iCloud, and AirPlay. The latter function allows you to stream audio (like Pandora and other Web- and app-based audio streams), photos, and even some video from your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch directly to your TV by just tapping on the screen.
The latest (2012) version of the Apple TV adds support for 1080p video output (not as big a deal as you'd expect) and an updated home screen. More important, though, are a flurry of feature upgrades that have been rolled out over the past few months: the addition of a Hulu Plus channel and AirPlay screen mirroring. The latter feature allows 2011 and 2012 Macs running the new Mountain Lion OS to "mirror" what's on their computer screens to the TV via AirPlay -- and that includes free Flash video sites such as Comedy Central and Hulu.com.
Key compatible services: iTunes Video, AirPlay, Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Vimeo, MLB.TV, NBA, NHL, WSJ Live, iTunes Match Music, Internet radio, many audio and video podcasts, Flickr, iCloud Photo Stream
Who shouldn't buy it? If you're not an Apple person -- no iPad, no iPhone, no iPod, no Mac -- you won't get as much value out of this device. And if you want services like Amazon Instant Video or HBO Go, you'll need to look elsewhere (namely, Roku).
Worthwhile alternative: If you want more flexibility -- albeit with a far bigger budget -- you could always just attach a Mac Mini to your TV.
PS3: Best solution for gamers
Sony's ad campaign proudly touts that the PlayStation 3 "only does everything." For once, it's a case of truth in advertising. Everyone knows the PS3 is a great game console and a Blu-ray player. But -- thanks to an ongoing series of firmware updates -- it's now a formidable media streamer as well. The PS3 offers Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon, NHL, MLB.TV, and NFL Sunday Ticket -- the same "every out of market football game" package that was previously available only to DirecTV customers. The PS3 is also able to stream music, video, and photos from networked PCs and attached USB drives. Sweetening the pot even more: at $270 (with game bundle), the PS3 is a great deal. Bottom line? The PS3 is far and away the most versatile box to have under your TV.
Key compatible services: Netflix, Vudu, Hulu Plus, Amazon, MLB.TV, NHL GameCenter, NFL Sunday Ticket, Sony Entertainment Network, DLNA (home media streaming); plays DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, and USB-based media
Who shouldn't buy it? If you're not a gamer, the PS3 is somewhat less appealing. You'll also need to invest in a separate remote or remote adapter (if you don't want to use the PlayStation controller), since the PS3 lacks built-in compatibility with infrared remotes.
Worthwhile alternative: The Xbox 360 also does double duty for gaming and online entertainment, offering a recently expanded entertainment slate, including Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Crackle, and Last.fm. Xbox also offers ESPN3, HBO Go, and Epix -- but, as on all other compatible systems, only for existing subscribers of those channels on compatible ISPs and cable providers. And existing Comcast and Fios subscribers can even configure the Xbox to work as a cable box, with a limited channel selection. However, unlike the PS3, to get many of these services you also need to be an Xbox Live Gold subscriber ($35 to $60 per year). And the Xbox can only play standard DVDs, not Blu-ray movies.
Panasonic DMP-BDT220: Best DVD/Blu-ray player under $120
We love the PS3 and the Xbox 360, but we also realize that not everyone's a gamer -- and that the PS3's $270 price tag may be a budget buster for many. Thankfully, there are many Blu-ray players that offer access to several online streaming services (Netflix, Pandora, and YouTube being the most common), as well as the sort of disc playback you won't find on dedicated boxes like the Roku or Apple TV. For 2012, our top Blu-ray choice is the Panasonic DMP-BDT220, which can be had for less than $120.
Key compatible services: Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube, Pandora; DLNA (home media streaming); plays DVDs, Blu-rays, CDs, USB- and SD-based media
Who shouldn't buy it? If you don't need compatibility with discs (DVDs, Blu-rays), or if you don't have the space for a disc player, opt for the Roku or Apple TV above.
Worthwhile alternative: You can find alternatives to the Panasonic by checking out our list of best Blu-ray players. Just be sure you get one with built-in Wi-Fi -- not a "Wi-Fi-ready" model that requires the purchase of an additional dongle.
WD TV Live Hub: Best solution for hard-core tech geeks
As we've shown, all of the products listed above are excellent choices, each with its own strengths. Many of them are also good for streaming audio and video files from networked PCs. But what about the "hard-core" tech enthusiast -- the one whose NAS drive is full of MKV, ISO, and VOB files? (If you don't know what any of that means, don't worry -- it just means you're normal.)
For that consumer, the best choice we've seen to date is the WD TV Live. Advanced users will appreciate that it was able to read just about every file type we threw at it, while newbies will enjoy its fairly slick interface for when you just want to kick back and watch something on Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, or YouTube. It's also the only product on this list that can double as a viewer for Slingbox content (thanks to a recent firmware upgrade). And unlike earlier versions, the latest WD TV Live unit includes built-in Wi-Fi as well.
Key compatible services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, YouTube, Vimeo, Pandora, CinemaNow, MLB.TV, Spotify, Flickr, Mediafly, Live 365, TuneIn Radio, Shoutcast, AOL TV, SlingPlayer, BILD TV (Germany only), Australian Broadcasting iview (Australia only)
Who shouldn't buy it? If you don't have a hard drive full of your own (non-iTunes) movie and music files, opt instead for the Roku or Apple TV above.
Worthwhile alternative: If you like the WD TV Live feature set and would also like a full terabyte of built-in storage (also streamable to other PCs, Macs, and WD TV boxes via DLNA), opt for the WD TV Live Hub. In addition to the roomy onboard storage (which can be supplemented by additional USB drives), the Live Hub offers a nearly identical feature set to its smaller brother -- but it lacks Wi-Fi, unless you invest in an add-on dongle.
A cheap HDMI cable: Best DIY wired PC-to-TV solutionWant a "quick and dirty" solution for streaming video on your TV? If you've got an HDTV, and your laptop has an HDMI output, just get a long cable and call it a day. (This will also work with most DVI and DisplayPort/Thunderbolt outputs, if you have the correct adapters or cables.) And remember: a cheap HDMI cable will work fine -- no reason to pay for so-called "premium" cables. While the gadgets above will cost you $50 minimum, this solution can cost you as little as $6 -- assuming, of course, that you already have the laptop and the HDTV.
Connect your laptop to your TV
What about just buying a Smart TV?
If you're in the market for a new TV, you might think, "These new 'Smart TVs' already have these streaming features built-in. Why don't I just get one of them and forgo the boxes mentioned above? It's no fuss, no muss, and no wires."
Well, sure, you could do that. But you're probably going to end up overpaying for the streaming features, and actually losing flexibility in the long run. We prefer to buy a TV strictly on picture quality, and then spend an extra $50 to $270 on getting any one of the devices above, depending upon your needs (PS3 for gaming; a Blu-ray player if you still want to play your old DVD collection; a Roku if you want maximum value and affordability; Apple TV if you already have a lot of iTunes content). That way, you can always mix and match boxes in the months and years ahead, and still have your TV purchased on maximizing picture quality.
Read "I want my dumb TV"
Worthwhile alternatives: Don't want an outboard box, no matter how small? If your TV has an MHL port, try the Roku Streaming Stick, which shrinks the Roku into a USB-size dongle. There's also the 3M Streaming Projector, a $300 pico projector that includes the Roku Stick. Want a Smart TV without spending a bundle? The Vizio E320i-A0 is a 32-inch TV with built-in Wi-Fi, Netflix, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube, and more -- all for just $300.
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Got a favorite from the list above? Anything we missed? Share your comments below.
Editors' note: This story was originally published on December 15, 2010. It has been updated several times, most recently on November 14, 2012.