Seeking video-streaming platform advice
April 21, 2014 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I am considering a set-top box for commercial video-streaming. An Amazon Fire TV + Amazon Prime + Netflix subscription sounds pretty good. Should I be looking at other hardware or services?

I have a Linux-only house and an HTPC with a tv tuning card running XBMC; the proprietary, commercial video-streaming world is something I know about pretty much only from MeFi comments.

I'd like a better/easier way to watch tv and movies than recording broadcast and playing physical DVDs. I'm not interested in games or a million gewgaws, but being able to play my existing video and music from a network-share drive would be good.

The Amazon Fire TV seems like good hardware at a decent price; $100/year for Amazon prime and $8/month for Netflix seem like pretty good bang for the buck. (Checking shows a bunch of things I'm interested in.) Anything else I should consider?

(I'm not interested in copyright-violating approaches.)
posted by Zed to Technology (19 answers total)
None of the reviews of the Amazon Fire TV I've read have been very positive. The general theme is that it's great at Amazon services, but clunky for third-party stuff, such as Netflix.

Roku may be a better choice.
posted by aubilenon at 11:14 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I like the roku because if i get another tv, all I have to do is plug it in. You will have to upgrade your entire tv.
posted by desjardins at 11:18 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Chromecast? Considerably cheaper than the Amazon box.
posted by jbickers at 11:19 AM on April 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a Roku 3 and I have been very happy with it. I primarily use it for streaming Amazon Prime, and I have never had any problems with it. Plus, you can use it for any of the other major services such as Netflix, HBO GO, etc. You can even do a cool universal search for a movie you might be interested in and it will show you if it is available on any of the many other available channels and what the price might be for it (for example, a new release may be cheaper on the channel Vudu than it is on Amazon). There is a YouTube app, and that also allows you to push video from the youtube app on your phone to the Roku for watching on your tv. There are also a bunch of options from streaming data off a USB drive or your own server (I have heard a lot of people use it for Plex, but that is beyond me). I just found that I can even stream stuff from my Synology through their app, but I haven't set that up yet.

So, it has definitely been super easy to use, without any problems and seems to be as versatile if not more so than the other boxes (for example, Amazon's box doesn't do HBO Go).
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 11:22 AM on April 21, 2014

Oh, and I should add that my favorite feature about the Roku 3 is that there is a headphone jack in the remote, so I can listen to the audio from whatever I am watching on the TV late at night without bothering anyone!
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2014

You will have to upgrade your entire tv.

um, I don't understand -- why would I need to upgrade my TV?
posted by Zed at 11:26 AM on April 21, 2014

We've been very happy with an Apple TV. It supports movies and TV via iTunes of course, but Netflix as well. No Amazon support, but we figure we'll just use the AirPlay feature to play Amazon video content from one of our laptops. The direct connection to the TV is via HDMI.

There are a fair number of other built-in streaming sources as well. Some are free (PBS), some are paid (MLB baseball). Some are a mixture of both.
posted by jquinby at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2014

Given that I already have an HTPC, the Chromecast does seem worth trying -- I'm not out much if I don't like it. I'm definitely looking at the Roku 3, too -- I'm glad I asked.
posted by Zed at 11:34 AM on April 21, 2014

If you already have a HTPC, have you tried using that for Amazon Video and Netflix? You could also install Plex to take care of your network share content.
posted by FreezBoy at 11:53 AM on April 21, 2014

It's a Linux HTPC and I'm tired of jumping through hoops to set up fragile workarounds to get at content whose providers are deliberatly trying to make hard to watch on an open system. (Speaking of which, it looks like Chromecast is a bust with a Linux box, where it can only play through a Chrome extension, which Google describes as offering "limited performance.")

I've already got the network-share-playing; I commented on it to say that I hoped a set-top box would also have it so it could replace the HTPC entirely.
posted by Zed at 12:03 PM on April 21, 2014

The Roku is a perfect little puck. All the video services - Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO Go, plus a ton more.

Add Plex and you got an elegant solution to local streaming... and Plex has a whole bunch of channels on its own (The entire South Park series is there, for example).

Just a rundown: Apple TV lacks Amazon; Amazon lacks HBO Go. Roku has everything (and is getting a dedicated YouTube channel soon.
posted by General Malaise at 12:05 PM on April 21, 2014

um, I don't understand -- why would I need to upgrade my TV?

It's my fault. Based on some pictures I'd seen, I thought that the Amazon Fire TV was an actual TV, so that when you wanted to get a bigger one, you'd have to either buy another Amazon TV or lose the streaming functionality. So, never mind.
posted by desjardins at 12:38 PM on April 21, 2014

nthing the Roku 3 here. I've been doing the HTPC thing for years, everything from MythTV to Sage to XBMC to Plex to yadda yadda. It's been fun, but for the cost and time put in to it, I've been astounded by how well that little black and purple hockey puck works. I have an Amazon Prime membership, and while you won't find most current things for free, there's a plenty big back catalog. It integrates seamlessly with Plex to give the best front end for my own local media that I've ever used. Some of the other channels are really nice, too -- my wife uses Spotify and SomaFM all the time, and the PBS Kids channel is good for some babysitting every now and then. Plus, as mentioned above, the headphone jack on the remote of the 3 (not present on the older models) is a godsend if you like to watch TV while the spouse is asleep.

(Also worth noting, if like me you've put a fair bit of money into a decent home theater system with big screen, amp, lots of speakers.... the quality of video on Vudu, if you can get their HDX streams working, is the first streaming video I've seen that actually doesn't feel like a waste of thousands of dollars of A/V equipment. It's still not Blu Ray quality, but it's pretty darn close a lot of the time.)

I just picked up a FireTV to play with last week, and I'm liking it, but I agree with the previous comments: it's a box with a lot of promise, it definitely has better performance than the Roku does, and I'm eager to see what comes of it. But it's very focused on trying to funnel you into the Amazon eco-system. The voice search is slick, but only works with Amazon video; it also doesn't really have the unified search Roku has which is very nice. However, the Plex app for the Fire is the full Android app, which is a lot nicer than the app for Roku. Right now I'm using the FireTV for Amazon video and some Plex streaming. There's a problem with the DLNA profile that the FireTV uses that causes the Plex server to only send two-channel audio, so surround doesn't work. If I want 5.1 I have to stick with the Roku. The Plex guys are working on that, though.

So yeah, if you want an appliance that just works, and works well, I wholeheartedly recommend the Roku. If you want something a little more ragged, but with a lot of promise (some of which may not be fulfilled for commercial reasons), the FireTV is nice. Or buy both... they're cheap enough!
posted by jammer at 1:17 PM on April 21, 2014

I have recently acquired a Chromecast, and I've found the quality to be (surprisingly) high for Netflix instant streaming. It also does a great job on the HD youtube content that I try to keep up with. I haven't given it a really thorough evaluation, but so far it's been well worth the $30. And it's hard to get any easier to use.
posted by Lafe at 1:37 PM on April 21, 2014

An even cheaper Roku option is the new streaming stick.
posted by O9scar at 2:25 PM on April 21, 2014

I’ve been happy with my Roku as well.
posted by bongo_x at 3:14 PM on April 21, 2014

Well, a half dozen Roku fans have spoken; the zero Amazon Fire TV fans spoke for themselves. Roku 3 it'll be. Thanks, folks.
posted by Zed at 8:38 AM on April 22, 2014

I picked up some flavor of Roku from about 4 or 5 months ago and I've been really enjoying it. It handles netflix and amazon prime and pandora, provides output either by HDMI or regular rca-jack a/v. The UI for both netflix and amazon isn't awesome for manipulating the queues or doing involved searching, because you end up entering letter by letter on the screen using the cursor, but I just do that sort of thing in an actual browser. It also handles hulu+, which I'm subscribing to in order to watch the new Cosmos, and has some other free-content "channels" like the Animal Planet cable station's channel which includes easily reachable footage of puppies and kittens. When I was looking to buy it I was mostly choosing between the Roku and the Apple TV, but I figured the extra cost for the Apple TV just to be able to stream content from my phone/tablet wasn't really worth it.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:57 AM on April 22, 2014

rmd1023 - Assuming you have a smart phone of some kind, I wholeheartedly recommend the Roku app (which lets you type on a keyboard) to avoid the letter-by-letter using the remote. It's a real lifesaver.
posted by General Malaise at 12:07 PM on April 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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