Cutting The Cord 2: Streaming Set Top Box Buying Guide

There are many Streaming Set Top Boxes or HDMI sticks that offer great streaming video quality and apps, but its a bit hard to know whats out there. We’ll try our best to keep this list current and updated as new hardware comes out and as prices change. This guide was last edited on 8/20/2017. Its part of our Cutting The Cord series.

If you don’t want to read the whole guide, and you’re not trying to get a 4K ready device, then you really only need to worry about the Roku Express or the Fire TV Stick.

  1. If you want something that just works and has the best value for money, the Roku Express is right for you.
  2. If you’re tech savvy, and doing some homework doesn’t sound too intimidating, then the Fire TV Stick is the right option for you.

A Word On 3rd Part Apps

Something that most folks don’t realize is that 3rd party apps can save you a ton of money, since there are often many free services out there that will give you access to content that you might otherwise have to pay for. There are 2 areas that we’ll try to cover too.

  1. Apps that can be installed easily, which you just have to know about in order to use.
  2. Apps that can only be installed in developer/debugging mode which is a bit more advanced, and requires some technical prowess. Be careful that some of these apps may not be legal depending on where you live. Its important to do your research into anything you try to make sure that you’re not breaking any laws.

Roku

The Roku family has lots of options to chose from which means that you can probably find the exact features you need at a reasonable price. It comes down to a few differences in features. They all either have 4K or they support HD. Only one model has AV cable outputs for older TVs, but otherwise they all support HDMI.

Here’s a list of all the Roku Family devices:

  • Roku Express
    Most users will find this one to be good enough. Doesn’t support 4K. ⇦ Three Broke Guys Pick
  • Roku Express+
    Its just like the Express but it has the A/V cable for older TV’s that don’t have an HDMI port. Doesn’t support 4K.
  • Roku Streaming Stick 
    This Roku is pretty convenient and portable since its an HDMI stick. You can take it with you on the go, or leave it plugged in at home. Doesn’t support 4K.
  • Roku Premier
    This is the Cheapest Roku that supports 4K. 
  • Roku Premier+
    Supports 4k, has an ethernet port, and its remote contains a headphone jack so that you can listen to your shows discreetly.
  • Roku Ultra
    Has a USB port for external hard drives, voice search via the remote, and also has optical digital audio output. Does support 4k.

We chose the Roku Express out of the Roku family because this one is cheap, does nearly everything you would want it to, and it really isn’t all that much different than the other Rokus. We personally don’t find the Roku’s voice remote control that some of the higher end Rokus have to be all that impressive, so we believe this one is the right choice.

3rd Party App Support

Installing Apps and Adding Channels: Roku has a pretty solid guide on how to do this. Using that guide, if you know the codes for the channels you want to install. In terms of installing other apps that are not officially approved by Roku, it is possible to side-load one app at a time, but this isn’t for the faint of heart. In this area, Amazon Fire devices give you more options for sure.

Refurbished units can save you even more money

Amazon Fire

The Fire Stick and Fire TV are fantastic devices. They both come with the Alexa Voice remote control which makes it easy to start play shows and movies by just saying the name, and the voice remote is actually quite useful to bring up your shows fast. If you already have amazon prime, you get access to the Prime Video library with has tons of movies and shows. Generally, most set top boxes or sticks do have the amazon app, but since these devices are made by Amazon, we figure we’d mention it.

Here’s a list of the Amazon Fire Family devices.

We picked the Fire TV Stick because even though it’s more expensive than the cheapest Roku with most of the same features, since you can install your own apps on Amazon devices easily, it really gives you the most bang for your buck.

3rd Party App Support

It is possible to install many apps outside of the Amazon ecosystem on these devices, which makes them pretty interesting. There are some popular apps out there, one of which is called Kodi, that supports some plugins of its own that can give you access to many media streams. Be aware though that this is a legal grey area in some cases, so definitely research this further before trying to go this route.

Refurbished units can save you even more money

Other Products Worth Mentioning

  • Apple TV which is fantastic if you’re already into the Apple Ecosystem, and it also is compatible with most other devices. If you’re in love with your iPhone and Macbook, this is probably the best option for you.
  • NVIDIA Shield TV The Shield TV is interesting, but is quite a bit more expensive. Its geared towards gamers that want very low latency, and high fidelity video. To get the most of out this setup for gaming, you’d also want to make sure that you have a very fast NVIDIA Shield compatible wireless router