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Streaming Media Stick vs. Streaming Media Box

pete_c

Guru
EH Daily Reprint
 
Streaming Media Stick vs. Streaming Media Box

When adding streaming media services, is a plug-in stick as good as a full streaming set-top-box?

Grant Clauser • January 21, 2015
 

Not everyone wants to buy a new TV just to get access to all the latest smart TV streaming media features. And you don’t have to. A streaming media player, like Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV, Nexus Player or Apple TV can provide nearly all (or sometimes more) of the streaming media services and games that a smart TV includes built in, and they’re only $99 or less.
 
So if you want to add streaming audio and video to your home AV system, you now can choose between a small set-top-box (why do we still call them that when they don’t sit on top of TV sets anymore?) player, or a stick version that connects directly to the TV’s HDMI port.
 
Roku 3 or Roku Stick? Fire TV or Fire TV Stick?
 
If you’re stuck between a stick and box, here are some considerations before you buy:

 
Price

The first thing you’ll notice when comparing a streaming box to its streaming stick sibling is the cost. A Roku 3 box costs $99, as does the Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV (Apple doesn’t have a stick version, yet). The Roku stick is only $50, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is $39, and the Google Chromecast is only $35. On price alone, it seems like the stick is the much better deal.
 
 

Connections

All three of the streaming media sticks require one HDMI port to connect to a TV, plus a free USB port on the TV to connect for power. If your TV doesn’t have an available USB port, then a wall plug adaptor can also be used. To connect to your broadband network for streaming, all three sticks use Wi-Fi. If your Wi-Fi connection is strong, then you may be satisfied with that; however, for more reliable streaming, especially for high-definition movies and games, a wired Ethernet connection to your router is better, and for that you need the box versions of Roku or Fire TV, not the stick. Both the Roku 3 player and the Fire TV box include an optical audio output, which can be plugged directly into your AV receiver. This is useful if you have an older receiver or can’t use the receiver’s HDMI connection, but still want the best sound experience from your system (most audio return channel outputs on TVs downconvert the surround sound audio to stereo).
 
Size

The size of a streaming stick is one of its best features. They’re about the size of a USB thumb drive, so they’re completely out of sight when plugged into an HDMI port on the back of the TV. With a streaming media box you need someplace to place the box. If you rely only on antenna and streaming, you can have a TV with no attached boxes to worry about. The size also makes them easily portable. You can buy one stick and move it around to the various TVs in your house without much trouble. They’re also easy to take with you on trips or visits (you’ll only need to reconfigure the wireless connection).
 
Remotes

Here’s an area where the boxes rule. First, Chromcast doesn’t have a remote. You use your smart phone as the remote, and for some people, the convenience of that will be great. If you like a good remote, though, then you should opt for a streaming box over a streaming stick. Let’s take Roku first, The Roku 3 comes with a small, but very good, Bluetooth remote with an included headphone jack (and some cheap purple earbuds). The remote that comes with the Roku Stick does not include a headphone jack. Amazon’s Fire TV comes with a nice remote that includes a microphone for voice search. The stick version of Fire TV also has a remote, but the voice search feature is omitted. The remote on the Nexus Player also supports voice search.
 
Speed and Power

If you’re an impatient person, the speed factor might be a deal-breaker for you. In order to make the streaming media players small and less power hungry (and cheaper) they don’t have nearly the processing power and memory of a streaming media box. This will make them slower when launching apps and searching content. It can also impact gaming. In fact there are games the Fire TV stick can’t play but the Fire TV box can. Also, if you power your stick with one of your TV’s USB ports, it will need to completely boot up each time you turn the TV on, which could take a few minutes. The box version are always plugged into a wall and always on.
 
Content

With a few exceptions in video games, the content on streaming media sticks vs. streaming boxes is identical. There is one issue that might convince you to purchase that new TV instead, and that’s 4K. Currently there is no streaming media device (except Sony’s $699 FMP-X10, and that’s primarily a hard-drive video server) that can deliver Ultra HD 4K video. A company called Nanotech has been promising one for a year, but it’s still not available. If you want to watch streamed 4K video from Amazon, Netflix or any of the other services that will be coming online this year, you need to use the app built directly into the TV. Will Roku, Apple and Amazon eventually come out with 4K video players? Probably, but not so far.
 
So which wins, the Roku 3 or Roku Stick? The Amazon Fire TV or Fire TV Stick? Google Chromecast or Apple TV? That largely depends on how you use the system and what you want to get out of it, but understanding the factors above should make the decision easier for you.
 
Any comments?
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
Downside to the sticks is no wired network connection.  I really don't like using wireless for heavy duty applications like streaming.  That and it's terribly lacking in decent security.  Sadly most of these gizmos still fail to provide effective and properly documented remote control protocols.  
 

drvnbysound

Senior Member
I picked up an AppleTV about a month ago. I haven't used it much yet, but really like that it's wired (for the reasons mentioned above) and came with an IR remote. I highly doubt that I will make much use of the remote, but another nice feature is that there is a fully capable remove app. I'd assume that I could program a universal remote for control, but haven't bothered to invest the money in one yet.
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
drvnbysound said:
I picked up an AppleTV about a month ago. I haven't used it much yet..
 
I have one but don't use it.  Their arrogance toward other sources, along with their despicable online store practices, make it a non-starter for me.
 
Amazon's FireTV is getting some use, as are Chromecasts, but for the most part we continue to get the most use out of Tivo DVRs.  I have a FireTV stick but have as yet not connected it.  
 
At this point streaming is more of a follow-on to cable.  If there's a show we missed (or was cut off due to inane sports programming) we'll sometimes go find it on streamed sources.  Tivo does a great job of making this a seamless transition.  You can easily explore shows, actors, directors, genres from it and it's results include both cable and streamed sources.  That it's also wired makes it a win-win for us.
 

NeverDie

Senior Member
My family is happy with the Roku3, which we've had for over a year now.  I do like that the remote is RF wireless rather than infrared.  That way everything can sit unseen behind the cabinet doors.
 
I have watched youtube on the Roku3, but the PC browser interface to youtube is much better/faster.  Therefore, for youtube and other stuff (such as typing this post), I just switch over to using a zotac zbox, which is small and sits right next to the Roku.  I'm using an RF wireless keyboard and mouse, again so all the wiring and boxes can remain hidden behind the cabinet doors.    
 
BTW, nice write-up Pete!
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
I had decent luck lately using the browser and youtube client on an Xbox One.  It's surprisingly easy to use with the Xbox game controller.  Which comes in handy when playing games with tedious steps.  Being able to swap to the browser or youtube is nice.  
 

pete_c

Guru
Yeah the "box" that I shut off next to the TV talks to two other boxes in the house.  
 
That "box" today has identical other STB boxes replicated now to the rest of the TV's and does talk to one common database (lately its been mysql this and mysql that for all kinds of stuff).
 
One other "box" is used for live broadcast media  / recorded TV stuff and yet another "box" that is the catch all subscription box. (Netflix, Amazon et al).
 
The STB (set top "box") thus can stream internet media content, stream live or recorded stuff or stream subbed stuff and it depends what I feel like watching or not.
 
I have found replacement stick operating systems which turn the tiny stick into a tiny box which is a neat thing.
 
I have the older style Microsoft Media IR remote for it (well similiar really to the old Tivo remote) and a wireless IBM handheld "do what" and the Logitech remote.  I mostly use the Microsoft Media IR remote controller probably because I don't have to look at it while I am using it.  There is a small combo repeater outside of the shelves / cabinet.  I like wireless RF best though but rarely need the granularity of said remote with the "box"'s media everything based OS and its simple to navigate menu system. (less is more for me).  The future IR remote replacement may be me just gesturing and telling the "box" what to do while sitting a few feet away.  (that would be easier than pushing a button).  Only worry is that the "box" would tell me what to watch rather than the other way around.
 
Well and the cell phone sits in the "off mode" in some other part of the house.  I have shut down the two Tivo boxes that I purchased many years ago.  They are still on the shelves though (procrastinating their removal).  It was difficult initially to quit Tivo-ing without a Tivo though (and going to some imitation of it).
 

drvnbysound

Senior Member
wkearney99 said:
I have one but don't use it.  Their arrogance toward other sources, along with their despicable online store practices, make it a non-starter for me.
 
Amazon's FireTV is getting some use, as are Chromecasts, but for the most part we continue to get the most use out of Tivo DVRs.  I have a FireTV stick but have as yet not connected it.  
 
At this point streaming is more of a follow-on to cable.  If there's a show we missed (or was cut off due to inane sports programming) we'll sometimes go find it on streamed sources.  Tivo does a great job of making this a seamless transition.  You can easily explore shows, actors, directors, genres from it and it's results include both cable and streamed sources.  That it's also wired makes it a win-win for us.
 
I didn't have that issue or experience. It has all of the "apps" for the services I will use pre-loaded (e.g. Netflix and the major networks) - it has the app for Hulu plus too, but I don't subscribe to it so won't use. It also has the WatchESPN app, so yeah, it covers everything I'd want to use it for out of the box. Understand that I'll only use this as a secondary source to my SageTV setup which has 6 tuners to cover recordings as well as my integrated movie library (which is up to about 300 movies now). So, as you mentioned, the only time it would really be used is to find content that SageTV missed based on a recording issue. Even then, many times I just delete the episode (e.g. if improperly recorded or there was an issue) and STV will record the next airing of it which usually comes on late at night within the week.
 

NeverDie

Senior Member
Anyone using a presenter mouse instead of a regular mouse for your mouse-to-TV interactions while parked on the couch?  Example:

http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-910-001354-Wireless-Presenter-R400/dp/B002GHBUTK/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1422047658&sr=1-1&keywords=presenter+mouse&pebp=1422047673112&peasin=B002GHBUTK
 
I haven't been entirely happy  using an ordinary, low-end wireless mouse.  It sometimes gets a bit herky-jerky while tracking on the couch upholstery.  If you doubt it, try playing World of Tanks that way.  I suppose I could throw down a mousepad onto the couch to improve the resolution/tracking, but I'm trying to think what else might be better than just that and which nonetheless works well today.  Probably using a higher-end mouse (one that that can track well even on top of transparent glass) would do much better than the two low-end mice I've been using lately.  Then maybe my couch upholstery would make  a  dandy mousepad without need for anything more?  
 

pete_c

Guru
I use that same Logitech keyboard with my touchscreen tabletops or remote to them.
 
The XBMC alpha numeric data entry pieces are easy to utilize with a standard IR remote; just a bit slow.  The XBMC screen menus while very basic and easy to navigate have all kinds of little tweaks.  That said the device boots to the XBMC GUI and I never see anything else.  You can tweak the screen themes or choose from a multitude of themes.   I can remote the screen via the phone but still would have to look at the phone touch stuff and not be able to remote by touch alone.
 
I do look and update the "box" via SSH.  Takes 5 minutes and I can be streaming a movie while updating the box.
 
If I am in a rush then I use the little IBM wireless remote.  I don't use it a bunch but the mouse is easy as its just a little rollerball that I use with my thumb. 
 
Unrelated / related to the HU CarPC navigation menus; I did just get a space navigator for the older car to use with the CarPC.  The screen though most large icons and its easy to navigate.
 

wkearney99

Senior Member
Gah, I'm sick of Logitech's near-misses!  They just can't get their damned act together and make a useful keyboard.  I've got some of the K400's and their placement of keys is TERRIBLE. Look at the right corner (?, Up Arrow, Shift).  What the Holy F*ck possessed them to put the arrow BETWEEN the ? and the shift?  The feel of the touchpad is less than ideal, it's not awful but it's uneven in very inconsistent ways.  
 
It's 'the little things' that matter and they keep missing the mark!
 
I'm not kidding when I say the Xbox One browser manages to work surprisingly well.  Yeah, it's nowhere near as fluid as using a real browser on a computer, but it's a lot less tedious than past TV/browser monstrosities (like WebTV).  I wouldn't use it for regular activities, but for occasional use it's surprisingly decent.  Coupled with their Smart Glass (tablet app for remote features like keyboard) it's pretty slick.  
 

NeverDie

Senior Member
drvnbysound said:
I've used one of these:
 
http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-Wireless-Keyboard-Multi-Touch-Touchpad/dp/B005DKZTMG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422051196&sr=8-1&keywords=logitech+wireless+keyboard+built+in+mouse
 
Which I'd much prefer over trying to use a mouse, but as I mentioned above I don't like the requirement of a keyboard to operate my TV.
I tried that very model.  I liked the lightweight nature of it, but being a touch typist, the truly peculiar right shift key kept throwing me off so badly I had to ditch it.  
 

NeverDie

Senior Member
wkearney99 said:
Gah, I'm sick of Logitech's near-misses!  They just can't get their damned act together and make a useful keyboard.  I've got some of the K400's and their placement of keys is TERRIBLE. Look at the right corner (?, Up Arrow, Shift).  What the Holy F*ck possessed them to put the arrow BETWEEN the ? and the shift?  
Well said, and exactly right.  I kept hitting the up arrow when I meant to hit right-shift.  
 
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