Google’s much-talked-about $35 Chromecast streaming device is remarkable for its low cost. Its main problem, however: It works with a limited number of video services.
Recently, Roku and a few small startups have come out with low-cost devices that allow you to stream video content from Netflix, Hulu and other services to your television. This relatively new class of device is known as the streaming stick. Each is about the size of a cigarette lighter and plugs in to your TV’s HDMI port.
There are more expensive streaming gadgets, such as Amazon’s new Fire TV, the Apple TV and the Roku 3, all of which cost about $100 and take up more space – as much as a plastic CD case. I believe all three are better deals than cheaper streaming devices. But streaming sticks will do the job if cost or space is an issue.
Here’s a look at four. With all of these devices, separate subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu and other services are required.
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Google Chromecast ($35)
Just take this out of the box and plug it in to your TV’s HDMI port. There’s also a cable to connect to the TV’s USB port for power. But when you turn on the TV, nothing happens. The Chromecast is quite dumb by design and is essentially a conduit between the TV and your mobile device.
You need to download the Chromecast app to your iPhone, iPad or Android device. You then download an app that’s supported. There are more than 50 video, game and other apps to choose from, and the list is growing. But many of them are no-name apps, such as “TicTacToe” and something called “Up Down Fish.” There’s no app for Amazon Instant Video, iTunes or ESPN. But you do get Netflix, Hulu Plus and YouTube.
Pros: Households with multiple Netflix and Hulu accounts can keep them separate by controlling Chromecast with their own phones. That’s not the case with other streaming devices. Chromecast is also one of the few to support video and music through Google Play, and it lets you mirror a personal computer’s browser tab.
Cons: The app selection is small. If your phone loses the Wi-Fi connection with the Chromecast, there’s no way to forward, rewind, pause or stop the video on the TV.
Roku Streaming Stick ($50)
Like the Chromecast, you just connect the device to an HDMI port and a power cable to the USB port. That’s where the similarities end.
The Roku stick comes with a remote, so it’s easier to navigate. Because it’s essentially a Roku 3 in a smaller package, it runs the more than 1,000 apps available for the Roku 3, including games and language lessons. The main exceptions are games that require the Roku 3’s motion sensor remote. Neither Roku device has iTunes or Google Play.
The device’s processor also isn’t as fast as the Roku 3’s, so it may take longer to navigate and open apps. As is common with many streaming devices, expect some audio and video syncing issues, as though you’re watching a badly dubbed foreign film.
Pros: The stick works with lots of apps, and its remote offers excellent control compared with rival streaming sticks. Its apps include Amazon Instant Video, something other sticks don’t offer.
Cons: If you sit on the remote, you may accidentally hit a shortcut button to Netflix or another service, disrupting your viewing.
Plug it in, then control it with the BiggiFi app on Apple and Android devices.
On the TV, you’ll see an Android home page with some apps. You can get others through Google’s Play store.
Here’s where BiggiFi gets frustrating: To tap an icon on the screen, you have to figure out the corresponding position on your phone. Tap the phone too far to the left and you get the app to the left of the one you wanted. You then have to guess where the back button is.
BiggiFi does let you snap a screenshot so that what’s on the TV appears on your phone, but once you tap your selection, it’s out of sync again. The phone ought to constantly mirror what’s on the screen.
There is a mouse mode that turns the phone screen into a touchpad similar to a laptop’s, though I couldn’t scroll with the iPhone version.
Pros: There’s a wide variety of Android apps available, though that still excludes iTunes and Amazon Instant Video.
Cons: The interface is far from friendly. And not all Android apps work.
AwoX StriimStick ($99)
This device resembles the BiggiFi, but comes with its own remote. The remote works like a wireless mouse and lets you control a cursor on the screen. Think of it as a wand you control in the air.
Pros: The remote works well once you get over looking silly waving your arms in the air.
Cons: I had the most performance issues with this one. I encountered video delayed because of buffering and apps that were unresponsive at times. AwoX doesn’t use Google’s app store, but offers its own store filled with apps of dubious quality.
At $99, you might as well buy a Roku 3, Apple TV or Fire TV.