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There’s no need to dump your television on the nature strip just because it can’t access the latest streaming services. Instead, you can easily give your television a smart overhaul with an affordable streaming device.
A smart TV is a great way to get the best of streaming video at your fingertips, all controlled via a single remote to keep things simple. The problem is that new streaming services keep launching, meaning that even the latest and greatest smart TV might not be smart enough to feature apps for everything you want to watch.
That’s where a streaming device is a smart investment, plugging into one of your television’s HDMI ports. When a new streaming service arrives in Australia, its app is far more likely to be available on a streaming device than it is to be added to your current smart TV.
Even if you end up spending a little money on a new streaming device every few years, it’s still a lot cheaper than buying a whole new television.
It’s also easy to move a streaming device between different screens around your home, or even throw it in your travel bag when we’re once again free to roam.
Know your streaming devices
Streaming devices which plug into your television come in two main categories: HDMI dongles (or TV sticks) and set-top boxes.
HDMI dongles, or TV stick, streamers
HDMI dongles tend to be cheaper than set-top boxes and offer much the same content but have more limited features. They may not, for example, provide access to a store for downloading new apps, have sufficient memory to store new apps, or be able to receive OS version updates. The small form factor, however, makes them easy to stash in your holiday luggage, and a good fit for uni dorms, caravans or other spaces where higher cost solutions might be hard to justify.
The main contenders are the Google Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV Stick, with several options available for each. They’re not the only game in town, however, with models from EKO, Blaupunkt, Xiaomi and Laser also available. All but Fire TV Stick run a version of the Android interface, which will be familiar to many Smart TV owners.
Keep in mind that, unlike set-top boxes, some HDMI dongles, including select Google Chromecast models, don’t come with a physical remote control. Instead, you need to control everything from your smartphone or tablet.
Controlling video from your handheld gadgets is useful, but not having a remote can be a hassle if you don’t always have a smartphone or tablet at hand when you sit down to watch television. It’s particularly troublesome for children or elderly relatives who might not have their own handheld gadgets – unless you’re happy to hand over one of your own when they want to watch television.
Set-top box streamers
There’s more variety when it comes to streaming set-top boxes, which all come with remote controls. The main contenders are the Apple TV, NVIDIA Shield TV, Telstra TV, Fetch TV, Foxtel Now box and Foxtel’s iQ4. Some Blu-ray players, Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and games consoles from Microsoft and Sony also feature streaming video apps.
While they’re usually more expensive than HDMI dongles, in return set-top boxes tend to offer more advanced features. They’re also more likely to get software upgrades that add new apps and help extend their lifespan.
Set-top boxes also usually support both Wi-Fi wireless and Ethernet wired connections, with the latter generally more reliable for streaming video.
When it comes to physical remote controls, they’re not just for pushing buttons. Some also let you call up a voice assistant like Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant. Available on many HDMI dongles too, this feature makes it much easier to search for content than pecking away at the onscreen keyboard on your television.
Many streaming devices also let you connect a Bluetooth keyboard, which is handy for searching for content and entering passwords. Some devices also let you connect Bluetooth headphones, which lets you watch late-night movies without waking the house.
Choose the right streaming device for your home
It’s best not to worry too much about specific devices and brand names. Start by thinking about what you want to watch and how you want to watch it. Then make a shortlist of the brands and devices which meet your needs.
For example, Netflix is available on practically every streaming device, but support for Apple TV+, Disney+ and Foxtel Now are more hit-and-miss. If they’re important to you, you need to choose your streaming device with care.
There are plenty of other streaming services to consider, including Stan, Amazon Prime Video, Binge, Kayo, Hayu, Paramount+, YouTube, BritBox and others. If that’s not enough to keep you entertained, you can also check out the free catch-up and livestream services from the five major free-to-air TV broadcasters.
Meanwhile, apps like Plex let you stream your own video library across your home network. You can send video from your computer or Network Attached Storage drive to your computer, smartphone, tablet, smart TV or streaming device.
If you’re an Apple-centric home, then you should certainly check out the Apple TV set-top box. Likewise, Android fans should look at the set-top boxes which run Android, like the NVIDIA Shield TV. Choose with care, as some set-top boxes which run Android or the Roku operating system found on Telstra TV come with a few pre-installed apps but don’t have access to an app store for adding more.
Fling video between your devices
If your streaming device lacks an app for your streaming service of choice, all is not lost. Some streaming devices also let you mirror content on your smartphone, tablet or computer to your television, via your streaming device. Just tap the streaming icon in the video app, like Netflix, and then choose your streaming device from the dropdown menu.
This is a handy way to fling video around your house, but once again choose with care as not all apps work with all devices.
The Apple TV works with Apple’s AirPlay 2 streaming, which is only built into Apple’s iOS and macOS devices. Meanwhile, Google’s Chromecast dongle works with Chromecast streaming, which is supported by a wide range of apps on iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. Unfortunately, Amazon’s Fire TV devices don’t have an equivalent to AirPlay 2 and Chromecast streaming.
A few third-party streaming devices also support Chromecast streaming, such as the Fetch TV Mighty and Mini, but this can still leave you in the lurch. Some Chromecast-compatible apps only show Google’s own streaming devices when you tap the streaming icon, and not third-party devices like a Fetch TV.
Traditional broadcast television has fallen out of favour in many homes, but you’ll still find a few set-top boxes which feature an aerial input and TV tuner, such as the Fetch TV Mini, Fetch TV Mighty, Telstra TV, Foxtel iQ4 and Foxtel Now box. Of these, only the Fetch TV Mighty and Foxtel iQ4 let you actually record live broadcasts.
Consider sound and vision
If you own a 4K television, or you’re likely to upgrade in the next few years, then you’ll definitely want a 4K-capable streaming device to make the most of it.
These days, most 4K televisions also support High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Dolby Vision. These video formats enhance the colours and boost the details in the brightest highlights and deepest shadows. Meanwhile, high-end audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X offer enhanced surround sound.
The main streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and Apple TV+ all support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Yet you won’t see or hear the benefit unless your television, speakers and your streaming device all support these formats. So, choose your streaming device with care to make sure your favourite streaming shows look and sound their very best in your lounge room.
Streaming device shopping checklist
- The apps you want
- Store access for downloading additional apps
- Upgradeable to new OS versions
- Remote control, with dedicated content buttons
- Voice assistant
- Chromecast and/or AirPlay 2
- 4K resolution support, with HDR
- Dolby Atmos, DTS:X audio support
- Free-to-air TV