Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Purchasing a video streaming box

Raspberry Pi

I’m planning to purchase a video streaming box – i.e. a thing that you plug into your TV to watch streaming video services. Now that we have Netflix I’d like to be able to watch films and TV shows on our TV, without having to run them through my Mac (which is also connected to the TV).

Things I’ve already tried

Last year I bought a Raspberry Pi, and for a while I used that to watch BBC iPlayer, but it’s not a great experience. It’s a bit slow and as I had XBian on a different SD card to everything else I had to shut it down, swap the cards and reboot it. And the BBC iPlayer interface in XBMC leaves a lot to be desired, plus I’d been using a smartphone app as a remote which is a bit clunky.

Our Freesat box and Blu-Ray players also technically support BBC iPlayer, and the latter also supports YouTube, but they’re so fiddly and slow that they’re not worth using. In particular the remote control for our Toshiba Blu-Ray player is awful – it’s often unresponsive and the buttons are confusing.

Comparing video streaming boxes

A couple of weeks’ ago Pocket Lint did a good review of several boxes available in the UK. They looked at the Apple TV, Roku, Roku Streaming Stick, Sky Now TV, Google Chromecast, WDTV Play, Amazon Fire TV (not currently available in the UK), plus a couple of less-known Android-based boxes.

As much as I like Apple, the Apple TV is out of the question. It’s one of the most expensive boxes on the market, at £99, and doesn’t support many UK streaming services – iPlayer and 4oD are missing, for example. Though Apple does add new channels from time to time, there’s no schedule and no way of adding custom apps without jailbreaking. Apple really needs to consider creating an app store for the Apple TV if it’s going to be more than a niche product.

I also think that the Google Chromecast is a bit too basic. It’s useless without a smartphone or tablet, but it is cheap. And the WDTV Play, as you’d expect from a company like Western Digital, is more about playing content that you already have on your own hard disks, although Netflix is supported.

Sky’s Now TV box is by far the cheapest at £10, and is basically a re-branded Roku box, but without the ability to (easily) add other apps. Indeed, there’s no Netflix because it competes with Now TV, but it does offer the main British streaming services like iPlayer and 4oD. And Amazon’s Fire TV box is US-only at present.

Rockin’ the Roku

So that basically leaves the Roku devices. They support the largest range of streaming services, including all the big British ones. The only notable omission is Amazon Instant Video, which we don’t subscribe to. And you can easily add extra services with custom apps if needed.

The Roku 3 offers more features, such as both ethernet and wifi (and not just the latter), as well as a remote control that can be used with headphones. But it’s larger and needs its own power supply. The Roku Streaming Stick, though less powerful, can run from a USB port and can be hidden away behind your TV. It’s also significantly cheaper at £50, versus £100 for the Roku 3.

So, it looks like I’ll be buying a Roku Streaming Stick soon. In my opinion it offers the best platform support and the best value for money.

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