I am a TV junkie. I watch way too much television. I know I have a problem. Rather than going the 12-step route, I've decided to embrace my addiction and make my television-viewing experience as full-featured and immersive as possible. Flat-screen TV: check. Surround sound: you know it. Heck, I even have customizable LED back-lighting on my TV to set just the right mood for my "House of Cards" binges.
One item that is essential for any self-respecting TV addict's living room is a media streaming device. Some of the best television being made today is not hitting the traditional airwaves at all but is being released directly to the consumer via the Internet. For example, "House of Cards," "Alpha House" and "Arrested Development" were all released exclusively on the Internet in 2014. Services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO Go provide you with enough content to binge endless weekends away.
Media streamers come in many sizes and shapes. I have been fortunate enough to use many different platforms, some of which are reviewed below.
--Apple TV. Apple TV was one of the first consumer products around that targeted the online-streaming-to-a-TV market. At the time, it was revolutionary. Offering access to many streaming libraries (Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and iTunes to name a few), it is an excellent choice for the TV enthusiast. An added perk of newer-model Apple TVs is the ability to use AirPlay to display your Mac or iPad on your TV wirelessly. However, due to Apple's insistence on controlling the user experience as much as possible, Apple does not have the breadth of lesser-known apps other platforms do.
--Amazon Fire TV/Fire Stick. Amazon.com's large library of free-to-stream digital video titles is featured heavily on the company's streaming platforms: the Fire TV and Fire Stick. In addition to Amazon's own library, the Fire platforms provide access to the Amazon app store, which has a large selection of streaming apps. While the ability to install any app is a nice feature, differing app designs can lead to a less than cohesive feel for the overall platform.
--Raspberry Pi and Kodi. Kodi (formerly known as XBMC) is an open-source software package that plays your personal digital media library on a variety of platforms, including the Raspberry Pi. Raspberry Pi is a tiny computing platform that boasts low energy consumption and a variety of configuration options. While Kodi is excellent for consuming your own digital media, it falls short on online streaming options because of platform restrictions. I would only recommend this option to a DIY-inclined individual.
It should be mentioned that I have not reviewed many streaming platforms available, including the Roku line of devices and Google's Chromecast. I have not had hands-on experience with either devices, but I am sure they share many strengths with the platforms mentioned above.
All of the big-name platforms provide the same access to the core streaming libraries and provide excellent user experience. All mentioned platforms can be purchased and set up for under $100. In the end, your choice in a streaming device should come down to what you want to do with it.
If you own Apple devices and want something that will integrate well in the Apple universe, an Apple TV may be right for you. If you already have Amazon Prime and want to easily watch their library on your TV, give a Fire Stick a try. If you're into DIY projects and have a few hours to spare, check out the Raspberry Pi and Kodi.