Which is the best movie streaming box for under £100? Fire TV vs Apple TV vs Chromecast and more
The rise in the number of media streaming services has been scarily rapid in the last couple of years. There are now so many ways to have movies and TV shows delivered to your home, at a variety of subscriptions and fees, that you could never be found wanting for something to watch.
Unless you don't have access to them, of course.
Smart TVs most often provide an easy solution, featuring apps for all the major services, Blu-ray players, TV set-top boxes, games consoles and there's always the old practice of hooking up your laptop to a telly. But what if you have none of these, or don't fancy the fuss? What else can you do to ensure you can watch Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Now TV, BBC iPlayer and the other major content providers?
Well, as long as you have a broadband internet connection capable of over 2Mbps speeds you could always invest in a dedicated media streaming box. And they won't even cost you the earth.
For less than £100 - sometimes considerably so - you can buy a small device that gives you all of the content you could ever want and then some. You can effectively turn your dumb TV into a smart one. And these are the contenders you should consider.
What is it?
Apple TV is currently on its third generation and although there are constant rumours that it will be replaced sooner rather than later, it has matured with age. Its primary goal is to give you access to the content you have bought on iTunes, or to stream your additional movie, TV and music files from a PC or Mac running Apple's software.
You can purchase or rent iTunes content straight through the small box, so don't technically have to have another Apple device. However, with Apple AirPlay meaning it can mirror and stream content to a large screen from your iPhone or iPad, it would seem unlikely that you wouldn't have one of those too.
READ: Apple TV (2012) review
App support is scant when compared to some rivals. As well as access to iTunes movies, TV shows and music, there are apps for Netflix, Now TV, YouTube, Vimeo and Sky News among other more specific ones.
Sports coverage is offered to the tune of separate apps for the NHL, MLB and NBA. The NOW TV app also features Sky Sports. All of them require fees or subscriptions.
Like many Apple products, Apple TV is a doddle to set up and use. It is presented in a straight forward, clean way, with bold apps and a very Apple-centric style - the user interface has also been altered recently to more reflect the flat design of iOS 8.
Unlike many of its rivals, much of the content available through the box - specifically the iTunes movies and shows - offer trailers and previews in 1080p, so you can check to see whether you fancy something before paying for it.
Apple AirPlay mirroring is essential too, as the lack of app support for major UK services, such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and 4oD, can be compensated through using an iPhone or iPad to stream them to the box.
It is also capable of 1080p output and much of the content is presented as such. And iCloud support means you can view all of the pictures stored in your Photo Stream.
Although there are several third party apps, they are not as varied as on many rivals and often seem US-centric in nature.
In all other respects, Apple TV is locked to Apple's ecosystem and therefore suffers from the same problems or benefits as the company's other devices, depending on your point of view.
New apps seem to be added once in a blue moon, and there isn't the versatility exhibited on rival boxes. Apple also restricts application user interfaces to ape its own, so although Netflix has profiles and the same functionality as on other devices, it isn't presented the same and can be confusing and awkward to use in comparison. Now TV's app also has it own unique style in comparison to the one on other devices.
It is easy to recommend Apple TV to owners of iPhones, iPod touches and iPads, less so to everybody else. If iTunes is your life, you should consider an Apple TV even if you already own a smart TV.
Its simplicity in use and quality of output is superb, but do be aware that AirPlay streaming BBC iPlayer, for example, gives you a less than HD version of that particular service as it is dependant on the iOS app, which was not designed with TV use as its primary concern.
You also cannot AirPlay Sky Go from an iPad or iPhone, so if you subscribe to that service, you need to look elsewhere (in fact, only the Xbox 360 has support for Sky Go outside of mobile devices). But at least NOW TV is available.
Apple has dropped the price of the Apple TV in recent months, to £79, which does represent good value but could mean a replacement device is on the cards, so you might consider holding on.
Amazon Fire TV
What is it?
Amazon launched its own streaming set-top-box in the US initially with a UK version recently added.
It's built on an Android base, much like Amazon's tablets and Fire OS, and similarly adds a personal touch to the operating system. The box is powered by a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, plus has some interesting features including a microphone in the remote control to allow for voice operated search.
A separate, compatible games controller is available too (for £34.99) which illustrates that gaming is equally high on Amazon's agenda as movies, TV shows and other content.
Like with Apple TV, the Amazon Fire TV immediately offers Amazon-based content as soon as you fire it up. It offers music, movies, TV shows - some to buy and some to rent - and the box is intrinsically linked with Amazon Prime Instant, the company's subscription service. However, other, rival services will also be available in the apps section, including Netflix, Sky News and YouTube. BBC iPlayer and Demand 5 are also available as catch-up services in the UK.
The big draw though, when compared with its closest competitors in box terms, is the vast games library Amazon promises. There are thousands of games already available, many of which offer multi-player gaming across Amazon devices. You can play on a Fire TV against someone on a Fire tablet, for example.
Amazon has used hindsight to create a serious challenger in the streaming box space, one that is capable of so much. It might lack slightly on the content app side at present, but it is only just had a wider launch. There's plenty of Amazon's own content to access in the meantime.
The gaming aspect is an interesting one. Many have tried to enter the microconsole sphere of late and have, mostly, failed. However, as this is not the Fire TV's primary use, it offers a bonus that few others can match - Roku 3 has some games, but not many, and the Xtreamer Multi-Console is more for tech-heads than families.
It offers 1080p video playback and the box, aesthetically, is refreshingly different to the rest.
Like with its Fire tablets, the operating system of Fire TV is closed and task specific. That might put off some, but it's hardly original amongst the company here. You also might not fancy investing all your money in Amazon products, so that would nullify its use somewhat for you.
It will be interesting to see if Amazon manages to get the other major broadcasters (ITV and Channel 4) on board shortly after it finally releases the Fire TV in the UK, especially as they are absent from Apple TV. However, in that case at least you can stream content from the terrestrial broadcasters' iPhone and iPad apps over AirPlay. Not so with the Amazon box.
Amazon has entered the market with a bang. The box looks, on paper and in the flesh, a powerful proposition. It's great if you are a keen Amazon purchaser or Amazon Prime Instant subscriber, and even better if you love dabbling with casual games too.
The retailer has also kept it cheap enough to compete directly with Roku and Apple.
What is it?
The Roku 3 is Roku's top-end streaming box, but there are others in the range for a variety of prices, each with slightly fewer features or technical specifications.
Like the Apple TV, it offers 1080p output through HDMI, but has access to a much larger library of applications, some very useful, many very niche.
The Roku 3 comes with a wireless remote control that is not IR dependant so can be used anywhere and at any angle. It also has motion sensors like a Wii console remote and can double as a basic gamepad.
READ: Roku 3 review
There are hundreds of apps available through Roku's Channel Store, many free but some will cost - especially games. BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand 5 are present, completing the catch-up foursome. There is an app for Netflix, but Amazon Prime Instant Video is absent.
Because BSkyB is one of Roku's investors, NOW TV has a fully-functioning application on the box that gives you access to the entertainment, movie and sports packages. The Sky Store app adds access to day-and-date releases for purchase or rental. Or, if you are a regular Android user, you can now access your Google Play account on Roku boxes to stream bought or rented movies and TV shows. Even if you are not, you can still sign up for an account.
Roku also gives access to YouTube, Vimeo and Flixster for the more casual video watcher. The latter gives access to your UltraViolet digital film library if you've been collecting vouchers from Blu-rays.
Roku has an excellent name around the tech industry and home streaming fans alike. Its boxes are simple to understand and install and the wealth of content available from the off is quite staggering.
Unlike Apple TV, the Roku 3 also has apps that can stream media from your home network servers, including Plex. You don't need to have iTunes installed on a PC - or even a PC. A paid-for Dropbox app will even let you access your cloud files and pictures in a similar way to Apple's iCloud access.
The Roku 3's remote control is excellent. You don't have to point it at the box to use it, meaning you can tuck the Roku device away out of sight (not that it's that large anyway), and because it doubles as a motion controller and gamepad, you can use it to play titles such as Angry Birds on the big screen. It also features a headphone port on the side, which allows you to listen to shows and movies through a headset remotely and wirelessly.
It is capable of outputting up to 1080p visuals and has dual-band Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for direct connection - handy if you plan to use it in a bedroom, far from your wired internet connection.
Like Google's Chromecast, you can cast Netflix and YouTube content from within their respective smartphone apps straight to the TV.
There are a few app omissions, and many of the hundreds of downloadable apps are junk, to be honest.
The user interface is either basic and sparce or simple to use, depending on your point of view, and there are quite a lot of gaps in its file compatibility for native media sharing. However, the Plex app will stream other file types (if you have a system set-up to take advantage of it or a Plex server running on a computer), and some rivals don't even offer the option in the first place.
Roku is an excellent platform if you don't want to lock your content or subscriptions to just one or two places. The Roku 3 box is the daddy of the range, but should you not need the wireless remote come gamepad, or super fast processor and are looking for something more basic, the Roku 2 and Roku 1 boxes are priced at £69.99 and £49.99 respectively at the loss of some features.
Check out roku.com for information on those devices. They each offer just as much in the way of movie and TV show streaming. The Roku Streaming Stick too, but that's an all-new proposition.
Roku Streaming Stick
What is it?
Like the Roku 3 and the other members of the family, the Roku Streaming Stick gives access to the vast library of applications on the Roku store, most of which are free to download. However, it more resembles a Google Chromecast in shape and size. Rather than a set-top-box, it is a dongle-like device that fits into a HDMI port and therefore out of sight.
It also comes with a remote control (that's actually bigger than the device itself), although it's not the wireless motion controller the Roku 3 uses. It still uses wireless technology other than IR though - after all, with it tucked behind a telly, you don't get line of sight.
Like the Roku 3, the Streaming Stick has access to hundreds of apps, including the solid line-up of main movie and streaming services.
Amazon Prime Instant Video is missing again, but you do get Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITVE Player, 4oD, Demand 5 and the others mentioned for the device's stablemate above.
Without the games control aspect of the remote though, it is not compatible with the games titles, such as Angry Birds.
Its stealth design means that a flatscreen can be turned into a smart TV without the need for extra wires or fuss.
It is capable of outputting up to 1080p video and has dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity like its larger cousin (although there is no wired internet connection, so you'll need to be in range of a decent wireless signal).
Like all Roku products, it is simple to set up and get working within minutes. And if you download a dedicated application for your smartphone, you can streaming your video, music and picture files to the stick, in similar fashion to Airplay.
The lack of an Ethernet connection might be a problem for some, especially those who don't have a great Wi-Fi signal throughout the house.
It is sadly not completely wire-free as it needs to be powered through USB. You will either need to plug it into the wall via an included power adapter or, if your TV has a powered USB port, you can hook it up to that to keep cables discrete.
Like the Roku 3, some of the missing apps leave holes in what you can watch - although there is so much else you might not care.
This isn't the first time that Roku has offered a Streaming Stick solution. However, the last one used a specific type of port that is not available on a vast number of sets globally. The new HDMI version is ideal therefore.
It might not be as quick in operation as the Roku 3, thanks to a slightly less powerful processor, but it still offers an ideal way to turn a TV into a smart one without much fuss. Ideal for a bedroom perhaps.
What is it?
The NOW TV box is made by Roku and is therefore similar in size and style to that manufacturer's own-branded devices. Its purpose is to present Sky's NOW TV content in as easy a way as possible for those who don't already own a home entertainment device capable of accessing the service.
It accesses all of the NOW TV movies, TV channels and sport, but since its launch, it has effectively become a basic version of the Roku box service, even presenting the main user interface in similar fashion. A number of key apps, therefore, are included on the box as well as the NOW TV service.
READ: NOW TV box review
Naturally, the NOW TV box's raison d'être is to provide access to NOW TV - Sky's streaming service that offers three separate subscription or pay models for movies, entertainment and sports.
But since launch it has also added apps for BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD, Demand 5, Vimeo, YouTube, Flixster and other streaming services. There is also access to the Sky Store to rent or buy modern day-and-date films as they are released on Blu-ray and DVD. All of these you can access and use, even if you don't subscribe to any of the NOW TV packages.
The main selling point of the NOW TV box is clearly its price. At £9.99 it undercuts all rivals dramatically. You can buy it for £19.99 as well, which includes money saving bundles for sports, entertainment or movies access, but for just a tenner you actually get so much included.
It connects to your network through Wi-Fi only, but is very simple to set up. The user interface design is identical to Roku, with the app store even called the "Roku Channel Store", so it could be considered a very entry-level Roku box in many ways.
There are a few caveats to the price of the NOW TV box. For a start, it can only output 720p video at present and stereo audio. That might change in future, according to Sky staff posting on its dedicated forums, but this puts it at a disadvantage when compared to many rival devices.
Also, because this is a box designed to encourage you to take out a subscription to the NOW TV streaming packages, it is unlikely to ever offer direct paid-for rivals, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Wuaki.tv or others.
Services that Sky doesn't offer, such as music streaming, are catered for however. At present that includes a Spotify app and TuneIn Radio for internet radio stations.
Some might say that with the NOW TV box you get what you pay for. It's only 720p and stereo and has a limited library of apps available for it, but we would argue that you get far more for your money that you can rightly expect.
If video and sound performance are not your biggest concerns - and to be honest, the pictures of streamed video are still much better than normal DVD images - this is a cheap way to ensure you are up to speed with the streaming revolution. As a bedroom machine, it is quite simply perfect.
WD TV Play
What is it?
WD TV Play is Western Digital's answer to the Apple TV and Roku boxes. And although it has been discontinued recently, in favour of the slightly more expensive WD TV, you might be able to find one discounted online. It outputs 1080p and there's a dedicated Netflix button on the remote for those who want to get to their subscription as quickly as possible.
There is also a remote control app for iOS and Android, so you can control it over the network. And you can then utilise your phone's keyboard for entering search commands and such like.
Like Apple TV, WD Play TV's app selection is determined by the manufacturer rather than offer a well-stocked app store. That means you are limited to what you can access and there are clearly holes in the library therefore.
The main app, thanks to having the dedicated button on the remote, is Netflix. BBC iPlayer is also on board, but few of the other services at present. AceTrax Movies is one of those offered, as are YouTube and Vimeo.
Perhaps the biggest focus for the WD TV Play is its ability to play your media files stored on a PC, network drive or through a hard drive or memory stick plugged into the USB port. DLNA connectivity means it natively supports many different video filetypes and in that way acts more like a local media streaming device than many rivals around the same price point.
It can also passthrough Dolby TrueHD audio, the high resolution surround sound standard often adopted by Blu-ray.
That app selection is really limited and will certainly put off those who wish to subscribe to any service other than Netflix. And like Apple TV, you are locked to the apps Western Digital sends you rather than have access to the wealth of choice offered by Roku.
Also, it has been superceded by the £70 WD TV, which might be a better option for support going forward.
WD TV Play is really a media player rather than a substitute for smart TV capabilities. It does have Spotify and some of the big name services tied-in but not enough of the movie or TV show options.
However, should you have a large library of video files on your PC, Mac or stored on network drives, there are few that can stream them better than this device or the newer WD TV box also available from Western Digital.
What is it?
Like the Roku Streaming Stick, Google's Chromecast device is dongle-like in appearance and plugs directly into a HDMI port on your TV.
It's not quite a movie and TV show streaming solution like many of the others listed here. Instead, it works with compatible apps you have on your smartphone or tablet and plays their video or music content on a larger screen. Unlike Apple TV though, that's not done by mirroring a device, using the processing power of the phone or tablet, instead the Chromecast pulls the content from the internet itself. It effectively turns your mobile device into a remote control.
READ: Google Chromecast review
There are more apps becoming compatible with Chromecast all the time, especially in the UK where it'd been around for less time.
It is capable of playing Netflix content, YouTube and any Google Play movies, TV shows or music you might have bought. Android, iPhone and iPad apps that have also added support over the last six months or so include BBC iPlayer, BT Sport, NOW TV, Blinkbox, Wuaki.tv, Deezer and there are plenty of others too.
Plex support also means you can stream your own content through a computer too.
Google Chromecast is cheap and ridiculously simple to use. You just tell the specific app to send the pictures to the device and the rest is done for you.
As the stream is taken by the Chromecast over the internet, not from your phone or tablet, you can carry on using your mobile device as normal.
Chromecast may be a Google product, but it also works with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad as well as Android and computers running Chrome. You can even cast a tab through the Google browser to your big screen, so can watch online video from websites too. That makes up for the shortfall of supported apps, certainly in the UK, but developers are being encouraged to add compatibility all the time, so watch this space.
Even though app support is growing rapidly, there are still some glaring holes, especially with British broadcasters and content delivery services.
You might not have enough space behind a flatscreen TV to plug it into a HDMI port.
Google's Chromecast is cheap - remarkably so - and interesting. It is the most simple solution for getting Google Play content onto a big screen TV and is a great alternative to Apple Airplay.
Price: £61 (plus around £11 shipping)
What is it?
The Prestigio MultiCenter is a similarly-shaped (if a little flatter and smaller) set-top-box to the Apple TV and Roku devices, but its big selling point is that it runs on a slightly skinned Android experience.
That means there is access to Google Play for media content and apps. It can also be loaded with Android APKs from other sources, such as XBMC, although you'll have to switch off the security barrier in settings first.
It outputs 1080p video, has Miracast support to mirror Android smartphones and tablets on a big screen, and the company's dedicated Remote Control application for iOS and Android offers a great way to share content and control the box.
As the Prestigio MultiCenter runs on Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it is compatible with any tablet app available for that platform. That means it can be installed with Netflix, Now TV and other streaming services even though they don't come pre-installed.
There are plenty of other apps already present though, including all of Google's most obvious ones. It's worth noting though that the media playing apps, such as the Movie Player, only access your local content or any on a USB connected external source or microSD card.
You will need to load your own network-streaming apps. But we found that loading XBMC on the box was easy enough, and that gave us access to all our content on the network. Plex is a good shout too if you're happy to pay for the app.
The interface of the MultiCenter is simple to use and clean. The box runs on a 1.5GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, with Mali 400 graphics and 1GB of RAM. This has been ample for the video streaming services we wanted to use with it.
As well as HDMI, connectivity is plentiful. Included are two USB ports, a microSD card slot, Ethernet socket in case you'd rather not use Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0 as you can hook up a keyboard or other input device.
For the former, there are a number of productivity apps and suites pre-installed, such as Evernote and OfficeSuite 7. It also has a full web browser.
Not having a natural network streaming application installed as standard comes as a bit of a surprise, considering the set-top-box's purpose, but that is easily remedied at home.
The fact that it offers a more in-depth and varied experience to Roku, Apple and Amazon means that while it will be more attractive to some, there are many that will find it too complex and quirky for them.
The remote is also more suited to Android navigation than media playback, especially as it doesn't even have play, pause, forward and rewind buttons. But with the smartphone application being so good, you might not mind.
The Prestigio MultiCenter is an excellent little device for those that want a bit more control over the apps and content services they want to install. It works almost exactly like an Android tablet, so that gives you the idea of the scope.
Thanks to in-built Miracast support, it could be argued that it is best coupled with an Android smartphone or tablet, and that's a valid point. However, it stands on its own two feet as an interesting way to make a dumb TV smart.
And for those on a slightly higher budget...
Price: £114.50 (plus local customs tax as it ships from Hong Kong)
What is it?
The Xtreamer Multi-Console is a strange swiss army knife of media streaming boxes. Not only is it an Android equivalent of Apple TV or the Roku boxes, a bit like the Prestigio MultiCenter, but it also doubles as a games console, home office workstation and much more.
You can only buy it from Xtreamer itself, but it will be shipped (from Hong Kong) to anywhere in the world.
It comes with a motion controller, has 16GB of internal storage, access to Google Play and so much more. And if you pair it with a Bluetooth gamepad, such as the Moga Pro or Pro Power, you can play any Android games that have control codes in-built.
It can even be used with Skype for video calling if you add a webcam. It is, quite simply, bonkers.
As the Multi-Console comes with access to Google Play you can install any app that's available for Android tablets on it. That includes Netflix, Wuaki.tv, Blinkbox, BBC iPlayer, 4oD, ITV Player, Demand 5 and the many other movie and TV show streaming apps.
You can also access live TV from around the world through FilmOn or similar apps too.
The XBMC media player is also pre-installed, so you can stream video and other content across your home network, in just about any file type you fancy.
While this is not a gaming round-up, the device's gaming prowess cannot be ignored. Retro emulators are available, as is a portal for Ouya games. And thanks to the presence of Airpin, it can even wirelessly AirPlay content from an iOS device.
If you consider the Multi-Console a tablet without a screen, turning your TV into the display instead, you can imagine the countless possibilities available through the device.
It runs on a 1.6GHz quad-core processor and has 2GB of RAM, so works smoothly and steadily and is capable of outputting 1080p through a HDMI v1.4 port. It can also output 5.1 channel DTS audio.
There's an SD/MMC memory card slot on the side for memory expansion and a USB port can be hooked up to an external hard drive. Even optical audio is supported.
The Wi-Fi is solid, with dual band capability.
Although it is capable of a million and one things, simply operating the Xtreamer and getting its multiple facets to work can be a task and a half. It requires love and attention to get the most from the cranky operating system (based on Android 4.2.2).
App use, other than those already installed, is hit and miss. Android users will recognise some of these faults though and not really care.
And a large Wi-Fi antenna means it might not suit a home entertainment cabinet or rack.
The Xtreamer Multi-Console is not for the faint hearted or those without time on their hands. It is almost the polar opposite of the Apple TV in that it is much more open for customisation and installation, and requires time and effort to ensure everything works smoothly.
It's worth it though, because apart from permanently hooking up a PC to your TV, you're unlikely to find something quite so versatile.
If you think we've missed one or more dedicated movie streaming boxes off the list, please let us know in the comments below. We will be updating this feature as and when we discover new devices that can be added.