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How to Buy a Streaming Media Player

Sitting in front of the TV is as popular as it's ever been, but network and cable TV do not have the hold over viewers that they once did. Whether or not you "cut the cord," streaming content onto your TV screen from services like Netflix, YouTube and Pandora is one of the best ways to access your favorite media. There are many ways to get online video to your living room screen. Here are your options:

Smart TVs

First things first: If you have a smart TV, you probably don't need a separate streaming device, and if you have a streaming device, you probably don't need a smart TV. Smart TVs can run dozens of streaming apps, including such perennial favorites as Amazon Video, Hulu and Netflix, which may render a separate streaming device redundant.

For those who are in the market to buy a new television set, check out the Tom's Guide primer on smart TVs. That article explains what these devices do and how to choose the best one for your home.

MORE: Smart TVs: Everything You Need to Know

One advantage of smart TVs is that if they support 4K resolution, they probably support a handful of 4K apps as well. Most mid- to high-end smart TVs come with built-in support for 4K resolution on Amazon Video, Netflix and YouTube. For more niche UHD channels, however, you'll need to employ a set-top box.

Set-Top Boxes

Still the gold standard for streaming devices, set-top boxes are gadgets that look like extremely small video game consoles. Generally, you'll need to carve out a little space in your entertainment center and use a cable to connect your set-top box to a TV's HDMI port.

Popular set-top boxes include theAmazon Fire TV (2015) ($100), Apple TV (2015) ($150),Google Nexus Player ($100), Nvidia Shield TV ($200) and the Roku 4 ($130). Exact features vary by device, but every set-top box runs apps that provide access to dozens of video and music channels, such as Amazon Video, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Plex and Spotify.

One advantage of set-top boxes is that they're usually large enough to pack fairly powerful hardware. Such devices as the Apple TV, Fire TV, Nexus Player and Shield TV support a wide variety of games and controllers.

Furthermore, set-top boxes are the only way to view 4K content, outside of built-in apps on UHD smart TVs. So far, the Fire TV (2015), Roku 4 and Shield TV are the only boxes to support 4K video.

To learn about each box's strengths and weaknesses, read the Tom's Guide list of best streaming devices.

MORE: Best Streaming Players: Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV & More

Streaming Sticks

The term "streaming stick" is a bit of a catchall, as it includes everything from tiny set-top boxes to devices that cannot function without the assistance of your mobile device or computer. The only common factor is that they all plug in directly to your TV's HDMI port rather than using a separate cable.

The top models are the Amazon Fire TV Stick ($40),Google Chromecast ($35) and Roku Streaming Stick ($50). The first two are essentially smaller, simpler versions of the Fire TV and Roku 3 boxes, respectively.

The Chromecast, however, is an unusual beast. Rather than providing its own interface and remote, the Chromecast relies on users "casting" content and controlling playback from compatible apps running on their phones, tablets or computers. Our primers explain why Chromecast is unique.

MORE: How to Use Google Chromecast

Technically speaking, dongles that mirror content from phones and computers via Miracast and similar wireless protocols are also streaming sticks. A Miracast dongle is not a replacement for a full-featured streaming device, but it's a handy way to mirror content from a PC or an Android or a Windows phone to your TV. Miracast sticks vary wildly in quality, but we've found that theMicrosoft Wireless Display Adapter ($50) is the best of the bunch.

If you have an Apple computer or a mobile device, the Apple TV set-top box doubles as a handy Miracast alternative.

MORE: How to Stream Video to a TV from a Mobile Device or Computer

What to Stream

You'll want to put your streaming stick or box to the test right away. We've done the digging for you and recommend you start with our list of the best shows to binge watch list. That'll take you at least 38 days, 3 hours and 15 minutes to get through (assuming no breaks for sleep or food). To get local news and weather you're going to want to pick up an HDTV antenna. We have rated them and selected the best of the best.

Game Consoles

Statistically speaking, video game consoles are the way most people watch streaming video services on their TVs, according to a December 2015 Limelight Networks study. All of the modern consoles can access Amazon Video, Hulu and Netflix. However, past that, the selection varies by console. The Wii U ($300) has the fewest video apps (five), while theXbox One ($350) has the most (66). Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 ($350) also let you stream content from your PC or mobile device wirelessly via DLNA media server technology.

It's not worth buying a game console just to watch Netflix, but if you also want to play the latest games and watch Blu-rays, a game console is probably the right investment. Check out the Tom's Guide comparison between the Xbox One and the PS4 to see if one of them should be your streaming solution. It’s worth noting that the PS4 is one of only a few systems that supports PlayStation Vue ($50 to $70 per month): a comprehensive cable replacement service that's currently available in more than half a dozen cities, and supports almost 100 channels.

MORE: PS4 vs. Xbox One: Which Console Is Right for You?

Blu-ray Players

A smart Blu-ray player lets you enjoy both top-notch HD video recordings and streaming TV in one device. App selection on smart Blu-ray players tends to mirror the selection on a manufacturer's smart TVs.

However, there are dozens of Blu-ray players on the market, and no hard-and-fast rules about which ones include which apps. As such, it's hard to pin down just a few recommendations. If you collect physical discs and are in the market for a new player, look for models from brands you trust that also have the apps you want, and buy the most recent model that fits your budget.

For starters, check out players from Sony, Samsung and LG, which tend to produce the most reliable devices. Viewers with UHD TVs can also check out the emergent 4K Blu-ray players from Samsung, Panasonic and Philips, which will launch as 2016 progresses. The Samsung model will cost $400, so expect the others to be somewhere in that neighborhood as well.

Related Buying Guides:
Best Streaming Media Players
Amazon Fire Stick vs. Roku Stick vs. Chromecast: Face-Off!
Best Streaming Video Services
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  • Recycled
    Why did the author choose not to include coverage of typical HD Media Players? Is this being saved for a future article?I'm sitting in front of an old 37" Sharp Aquos LCD with an eGreat R300 HDMP plugged in via an HDMI cable. That HDMP has x5 2TB USB HDDs holding every TV show, movie, song, and audio book I would ever want. I have decided that Friday is Vampire Movie Day.No mention of the (low-end) solution of storing videos on USB devices, or the (high-end) solution of a NAS. Isn't this what most NAS units are used for?How do You search for a video without a QWERTY flip-out keyboard on Your remote? Android does support most arimice (is that the plural of airmouse? airmouses?)
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  • Jody_6
    Need to know what channels are what like Okanogan kelowana news and the soap channels too you can't search on there can you????
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