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A consumer's guide to streaming TV devices

Story highlights

  • Amazon's Fire TV further crowds the market for streaming devices
  • Apple, Google, Roku and Samsung are also key players
  • Report: 7.6 million U.S. households exclusively use Web streaming and downloads
  • We compare details on some of the field's top devices

When Amazon released its Fire TV system this month, it propelled the company into the increasingly competitive marketplace of devices that stream Web content into the living room.

The set-top box now competes with Apple, Google and Samsung, as well as early innovator Roku and even the gaming world's top consoles for the eyeballs of people who stream services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube onto their televisions.

These devices are relatively new innovations: Roku first announced a simple Netflix-streaming box in 2008. But in recent years, more and more people have begun using devices that harness the Internet's bountiful offerings and send them, usually via Wi-Fi, to a TV set.

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According to Experian, almost half of all U.S. adults and 67% of young adults now watch streamed or downloaded video at least once a week.

And 7.6 million households in the United States have "cut the cord," using Web streaming and downloading exclusively instead of cable, satellite or broadcast, for their television viewing, the company said in a report this week.

But it's still a new concept for a lot of folks. And with so many players in the game, not to mention a new wave of "smart TVs" that hook up to the Web on their own, it can be hard to pick a favorite.

    If you own a smart TV, you may not need a separate device for streaming. But the software on many smart TVs is still clunky, and most Web-streaming gadgets offer a larger menu of apps and channels.

    Here, we break down the top players in the Web television market and compare details about their products.

    Amazon Fire TV

    Price: $100

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Amazon (obviously), Spotify, YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Watch ESPN, Showtime

    Works with: Android or iOS devices

    Storage: 8 GB

    Notes: No HBO Go, but a new deal offers limited HBO programming (Sorry, no "Game of Thrones"). Features voice search for shows, movies, actors or genres. Doubles as a casual gaming device with titles like "Minecraft."

    Apple TV

    Price: $100

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, HBO Go

    Works with: Apple mobile devices

    Storage: None on device

    Notes: No Amazon. Streams music and video from iTunes, as well as content from iPhones and iPads. Ideal for someone who owns several Apple devices.

    Google Chromecast

    Price: $35

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Go, Pandora, MLB.tv

    Works with: Android, iOS

    Storage: None on device

    Notes: No Amazon. Easy setup; this little dongle basically works like a thumb drive.

    PlayStation 4

    Price: $400

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Hulu, Netflix, Amazon

    Works with: Android, iOS, PlayStation Vita

    Storage: 500 GB

    Notes: Also features a Blu-Ray player. More expensive but obviously a more diverse device.

    Roku 3

    Price: $100

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Spotify, Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon, Showtime

    Works with: Android, iOS

    Storage: None on device, but you can expand it with a memory card

    Notes: Wide app selection. With more than 1,000 channels, offers perhaps the widest variety of content. Not compatible with 4K televisions.

    Roku Streaming Stick

    Price: $50

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Same as Roku 3

    Works with: Android, iOS

    Storage: None on device

    Notes: An answer to Chromecast, this little stick offers more content than the Google product. Some reviewers have said it's slow loading some popular apps (but they work fine once loaded).

    Samsung Smart Media Player

    Price: $150

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key apps: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon

    Works with: Android, iOS

    Storage: None on device, but you can expand it with a memory card

    Notes: Replaces the user's cable box. Includes browser for Web surfing. Pricier than other dedicated media players.

    Xbox One

    Price: $500

    Resolution: 1080p

    Key Apps: YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, Skype, ESPN, NFL

    Works with: Android, iOS, Xbox Smartglass

    Storage: 500 GB

    Notes: Includes Blu-ray player. Allows users to watch live television. Also more expensive but more diverse.