Streaming Devices – Everything You Need to Know
The way we watch TV has come a long way in a very short time, and now almost half Australia’s population regularly spends time watching TV, movies or even sport on a streaming service. But how you enjoy your streaming TV can depend on what device you choose to stream it with – and there’s a an increasingly large and diverse range of them to choose from.
If there’s one thing that the smartphone era has done, it’s to bring the idea of “apps” into the mainstream, to a point where we expect a people-friendly interface when we browse and watch things on streaming services. Gone are the days when you’d navigate through a static list of movies and shows on Netflix with your 2nd or 3rd-generation Apple TV, if you were adventurous enough to have bought one. Netflix on your phone is colourful, exciting and slick, and increasingly, people expect to use that familiar interface no matter where they’re watching.
And not surprisingly, it’s the big screen TVs at home where we do most of our streaming. Nobody wants to sit at a desk in front of a computer for hours to watch Stranger Things or balance a laptop on the couch while struggling to hear what’s being said through tiny speakers. We want to watch streaming TV on a TV, and that’s where these clever devices come into play.
We Stream A Lot!
It’s hard to imagine that only a few short years ago, only a very small group of people in Australia were using streaming services at all – and most of them were using internet trickery to make the then-US-only Netflix think they were in the same country. Once Stan and then Netflix arrived, though, TV in Australia changed forever and typically for Australians, we took to it like a duck to (streaming) water.
These days, there’s a wide range of different streaming services on offer, large and small. Along with Netflix and Stan – the big guns of streaming with over a million users each – there’s Amazon’s Prime Video, niche services like hayu (for reality TV), OvoPlay (for fringe sports), DocPlay and Curiosity Stream (documentaries) and more. For live premium TV, movies and sports there’s Foxtel Now and Fetch TV, for on-demand movies and TV there’s iTunes, Google Play Movies and Bigpond Movies – and now for all things sport we have Kayo.
All these services need apps, and those apps need a device to run on.
What About Smart TVs?
If you’ve bought a brand name TV in the past few years, you’ve almost certainly got what’s known as a “smart” TV – basically a TV with a small dedicated computer built in that can run apps. This can be great for streaming – after all, Netflix is on almost every device and Stan isn’t far behind. A capable “smart” TV can run apps for these services fairly well and get the job done. But what happens when you want to stream from a service that hasn’t got its app on your TV – like with the new sports streaming service Kayo? You could wait for a miracle to happen and an app for your smart TV to arrive, but those apps tend to be an afterthought for most services and older TVs often miss out completely.
And then there’s the millions of TVs out there that aren’t quite so “smart” – but still deliver a stunning HD picture for their owners, who don’t want to have to replace a perfectly good television just to get one with apps on it. There’s got to be a better way of streaming – one where apps are constantly updated, and new apps quickly added when new streaming services come to the market. The answer is a dedicated streaming device – and broader app support isn’t the only advantage these clever little boxes can offer.
Advantages of Streaming Devices
Especially if you already have a smart TV, it might seem a little counterproductive to “double up” by adding a streaming device – but there are some very definite advantages to doing so. For one thing, there’s almost infinite upgradability. If a new streaming service arrives, or an existing one decides to overhaul its apps with new features, it’s the popular dedicated streaming devices that usually get the latest apps first.
There’s also often improvements in the actual user experience, even with apps that also exist on your smart TV. While very capable, the processors in smart TVs are mainly there to actually run the TV itself, and demanding streaming apps can run a little slowly as a result. It’s not uncommon, as well, to see a smart TV streaming app take a lot longer to reach full HD picture quality compared to dedicated streaming devices, regardless of the speed of the broadband connection.
And then there’s sound. With high quality multi-channel audio being included much of the time – and new formats like Dolby Atmos and Dolby Digital Plus supported by some – having to listen to sound through those tiny TV speakers can feel a bit underwhelming. You can run audio from your TV to an external amplifier or even a sound bar, but those advanced formats won’t work that way. A streaming device plugged into your AV receiver gives you high definition sound to go with the HD (or even 4K) picture, for a proper cinema-like experience streamed on demand.
The Top Streaming Devices
There’s been a vast range of different devices used for streaming, especially overseas, but as a country that’s a relative newcomer to streaming it’s only now we’re starting to see a real increase in the amount of quality devices available to choose from. Alongside the ones we mention here, there’s quite a few niche ones making their way here from countries like China (mostly Android-powered boxes that are more for the technically minded).
And bear in mind that streaming devices don’t have to just be a tiny box that does streaming and nothing else. As you’ll see here, the computing power and HD video support of some other devices can make them ideal for streaming as well. You may even already have one in your living room!
Apple was one of the first companies to introduce a dedicated streaming device, with the Apple TV released in Australia years before full-scale streaming was a thing here. By the time Netflix and Stan arrived to kick things off properly, the 4th-generation Apple TV was on the horizon and it’s this model – along with the 5th-generation Apple TV 4K – that’s still the benchmark today that other streaming devices can aspire to. With comprehensive app support for almost every streaming service you can imagine, big and small, it’s a true “one device to do it all” purchase that just gets better and better as you find more apps to add to it. The 4K model supports Dolby Vision (alongside HDR10) and Dolby Atmos, too, with tons of iTunes Store movies available in that format. Using the same CPU as the iPad Pro, the 4K model is powerful enough to run demanding apps like Kayo smoothly. Oh, and it also plays games. It may be expensive (around $249) but it’s well worth it.
On the other end of the pricing scale we find the much-loved Chromecast, which is a streaming device with a difference. Available in two versions – regular and “Ultra” (the latter supporting 4K streaming) the Chromecast is a little circular device that plugs into a spare HDMI port on your TV or amp. To use it, you load up an app on your phone or tablet and tell it to “cast” to your Chromecast device. Then everything you play is sent to your TV with your mobile device acting as the remote control. Chromecast is supported by thousands of apps and is usually available with new streaming services from day one, while other platforms have to wait for dedicated apps. With the regular Chromecast around $49 and the Chromecast Ultra about $99, they’re an easy (and very portable) way to get into full-scale streaming.
Based on the popular Roku range of streaming boxes that have sold millions in the US (with the familiar interface even integrated into some popular TVs there), the Telstra TV is, as the name suggests, available only from one place – Telstra. The version currently available is the second generation of the box, which added support for 4K streaming, live TV (via an antenna) and an interactive program guides and suggestions. At its heart, though, this is a solid and reliable piece of kit that may not win any awards for its user interface, but which makes up for it by being incredibly easy to use. Telstra TV can be had for free on the right Telstra broadband plan, or bought for $192 outright (though you need a Telstra broadband connection to activate its advanced features).
Amazon Fire TV Stick
Amazon’s hugely popular Fire TV devices have a long pedigree in the US, and it was only a matter of time before they started arriving here as well. So far, Amazon has opted to release only one model in Australia – the “Basic Edition”. This is actually the latest-model standard stick sold in the US, minus support for Alexa voice control – and there’s a lot to like about it. It’s fast, it’s well designed, it’s got a great little remote control, and it doesn’t cost very much (usually $79, it’s frequently sold a lot cheaper).
Foxtel Now Box
It hasn’t made much of an impact in the market overall, but Foxtel’s specially-made streaming box is a terrific piece of kit – but only if you’re a Foxtel Now subscriber. You need to at least subscribe to the free two-week trial to activate this $99 box, and can then use it without Foxtel Now if you like – but its user interface is built around the Foxtel experience. Outside of that it’s a quite powerful and well-equipped Android TV based box that does all the right things, including providing access to the Google Play store. But there’s one more catch – it’s not a Netflix certified device for some reason, so there’s no Netflix support to be found here.
Sony Playstation 4
The multi-multi-million-selling game console that currently dominates the gaming world also happens to be a very capable media device, just like its predecessor. With wide app support, the PS4 is ready to be put into action for streaming, and its operating system includes a special TV Streaming section where all your streaming apps live. One of the very few third-party devices with full HD support for Foxtel Now, the PS4 offers a comprehensive range of streaming apps and the purpose-designed TV menu gives you constantly updated highlights and suggestions. It also happens to play games. A “Pro” version is available as well which enables 4K and HDR for both streaming and gaming – if you’ve got a 4K TV, go for the Pro version. A low-cost media remote control is available to make streaming more couch-friendly.
Microsoft Xbox One
Notorious for being more focussed on TV than gaming at its launch a few years back, the Xbox One has long been a great device for streaming – especially because even its base model (the $299 Xbox One S) supports 4K output for both streaming and Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. App support is as expensive as you’d expect – though there is no support for Foxtel Now – but organising all those streaming apps into a collection away from all your games is something that Microsoft leaves you to do yourself (fortunately, it’s intuitive and easy). Hard to beat for the price, if you want something for streaming that can also play the latest games. A far more expensive high-powered version (Xbox One X) is available as well, but for streaming video it’s effectively no improvement. As with the PS4, you can buy an inexpensive media remote for the Xbox One and if you’re streaming, we highly recommend you do so.
Fetch TV Mighty
Winning loads of fans since its launch, Fetch TV’s superb Mighty device is basically streaming on steroids. This box – available for a $15 monthly charge on a Fetch TV plan from supported ISPs, or for $399 outright – contains a 1TB hard disc, four free-to-air TV tuners to enable the recording of six shows at once, comprehensive streaming support for Fetch’s own service as well as all the major streaming services, full 4K output, one of the best remote controls in the business and much more. As a central entertainment device, it’s hard to beat.
Broadband Plans with Streaming Devices
If it’s an all-in-one solution you’re looking for, you could consider going for a broadband plan that comes with a streaming device in the bundle, basically getting you all set up with everything you need to start streaming. Here’s a couple of plans we recommend.
Telstra Unlimited + Streaming Bundle
At $99 per month, this bundle is superb value for those getting into the world of streaming for the first time. It comes with everything you need for the one price: a 50 Mbps NBN broadband connection with unlimited data, the latest Telstra TV box with two years of free access to Foxtel Now, a Google Home smart device, a home phone line with all national calls included, Telstra’s latest smart modem with 4G backup, and a bunch of extras including free access to the AFL and NRL streaming apps all season long.
iPrimus Entertainment Bundle
Offering 50 Mbps NBN broadband with unlimited data, this plan from iPrimus includes the Fetch TV Mighty box with your choice of one premium channel pack, along with a home phone line with unlimited national calls. At $110/month, if you were thinking of getting set up with Fetch TV this could be just the bundle you’re looking for.
No matter which device you choose to use, you’re going to find it rapidly becoming an integral part of your leisure time – so think about what you want from a device and the services you’re likely to spend a lot of time with, and decide accordingly. If you can stretch the budget to afford it, the Apple TV 4K is still the one to go for – though if you’ve got a collection of movies and TV shows that you’ve purchased in the Google Play ecosystem, Chromecast or an Android TV powered device may be the way to go.