We live in the era of streaming entertainment, and it’s easier than ever to start watching whatever new Netflix, Prime Video, or Hulu show that your friends and co-workers are raving about. No matter if you’re looking for movies, sports, live TV, or anything else, you can probably stream it, and that’s why consumers have continued to flee traditional cable and satellite TV in recent years — even now when we’re all spending the bulk of our time at home.
With movies that were intended for theaters now premiering first in the living room, this is as good a time as any to make sure you’ve got everything you need for a good streaming experience. Thankfully, it doesn’t involve spending a ton of money.
Your TV might be all you need
Pretty much any TV you buy nowadays will offer the ability to download and install a plethora of streaming apps. Some might come with the essentials — Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc. — preloaded onto the TV, but whether you’re purchasing a Samsung, LG, Sony, or one of many Roku TVs, there’ll be a way to find other apps you might want.
If you get a Vizio TV, then things work a bit differently. Those TVs come bundled with a number of popular apps (including Disney Plus), but if what you’re looking for isn’t there, you’ll have to stream content from phone apps to the TV using the built-in Chromecast and Apple AirPlay features that Vizio offers. There’s no way to download other apps onto the TV itself beyond those that come preloaded.
Choosing a streaming device
If you’re not satisfied with the software experience on your TV, then it might make sense to purchase a standalone streaming box (or stick). One advantage to doing so is that apps are often supported longer and updated more frequently on a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Android TV streaming gadget than they are on individual TVs. With tens of millions of people using these products, there’s a bigger incentive for companies like Netflix and HBO to keep their apps up to date with the latest features.
If all you’re looking to do is stream video content, the $39.99 Roku Streaming Stick Plus and $49.99 Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K are both easy recommendations. They deliver fantastic-looking 4K HDR picture quality and come with easy-to-use remote controls that include voice search for when you’re on the couch and trying to decide on a pick for movie night. Both Roku and Amazon offer a vast selection of third-party streaming apps, from popular must-have services to more niche options. If you want entertainment and nothing more, that’s the answer.
If you’re willing to spend a bit extra, you can get players that come with unique features. For example, Amazon’s Fire TV Cube combines the features of the aforementioned Fire TV Stick with a tiny Echo speaker, giving you the ability to control your TV and start playing a video using only your voice. Even when the TV is off, you can ask Alexa for the weather or your calendar appointments as you would with other Echo devices. The Fire TV Cube is able to control some soundbars, cable boxes, and A/V receivers in addition to your TV, so you can think of it as a sort of universal remote that’s powered by your voice. (A remote does come in the box if you prefer the more traditional route.)
If you want to stream over-the-air TV
Amazon also tries to appeal to advanced cord-cutters with devices like the Fire TV Recast, which lets you record over-the-air (OTA) TV broadcasts if you’ve got the requisite antenna plugged into your television. You can also watch these OTA live streams remotely from anywhere with your smartphone. So if you’re running late getting home to watch your favorite show on one of the big broadcast networks, you can tune in wherever you are.
The TiVo Bolt OTA is another of these DVRs that can improve the experience of watching TV over an antenna connection. Plus, you get all of the usual TiVo tricks like skipping commercials when you watch a recorded show, movie, or sports game. And the Bolt OTA is itself a streaming device that includes apps like Netflix and Hulu.
You can get an HD antenna for around $40; there are many on Amazon like the Antennas Direct ClearStream Eclipse that should do the job just fine. These antennas allow you to watch live programming (in high definition) from local broadcast networks like ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC for free. Depending on where you live, not all channels will have the same signal strength. The Federal Communications Commission has this helpful website where you can enter your location and see which networks you’ll get best with an antenna in your area.
By the way, most streaming players typically include an HDMI cable in the box, but if you need a spare, never get suckered into paying more than $20 for one depending on the length you want.
Choosing what to watch
Buying a streaming device is the easy part. We’re faced with more entertainment choices than ever before from Netflix, Amazon, Disney, HBO, and other apps — including live TV subscription services like Sling TV and YouTube TV — and the monthly charges can pile up quickly if you’re not careful.
Thankfully, we’ve got a handy streaming guide for choosing which paid apps might be the best fit for your personal taste.