Smart Home: A look at media streaming devices

The Apple TV is one of the most solid, low-cost streaming media devices available. Apple, Inc.

TORONTO – Creating a smart or connected home allows you to have a more comfortable, secure abode while giving you control of everything from your lights and thermostat to your front door and window shades. But what if you want your home entertainment to be smarter? In a world full of devices that all offer similar capabilities it can become very confusing as to which one will suit all your movie, music and gaming needs.

Over the course of the last few months, I tested many different media and gaming products to find out which ones offer the most entertainment-value for your buck. Below is a rundown of the devices (in alphabetical order) and what features they offer.

Apple TV

The Apple TV is one of the most solid, low-cost streaming media devices available. Setting it up takes very little time and effort, and the options for content available to stream out of the box is far and beyond that of most others.

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What it can do: Besides giving you access to the huge library of movies and TV shows the iTunes store offers, the Apple TV also has popular streaming services like Netflix, shomi, Crave TV, YouTube and Crackle available, as well as free content from PBS and PBS Kids. You can also get your fill of sports via the MLB, NHL and NFL channels. Streaming music, video and photos stored on your computer to your TV is also very easy via iTunes Home Sharing and if you have an iPhone or iPad you can use that as a remote to control the unit or to share content from.

What it can’t do: Unlike similar devices, there are no apps available to manually add to the Apple TV. Apple decides what is and is not available. There have been rumours of an iPhone-like App Store coming for years, but so far nothing has been made official. This also limits the ability to download and play games on the device, the way you can with some Roku players. With no way of connecting an external storage device you must have a computer running in order to stream your own content (you are also limited to streaming video content that iTunes can play, which means no .AVI or XviD files).

The Roku Streaming Stick. Roku

Roku Streaming Stick

Similar to Google’s Chromecast, the Roku Streaming Stick is a very small device that plugs directly into the back of your television via an HDMI port. Requiring no wires besides a power adapter, it can be easily moved, making it ideal for use when travelling or taking to the cottage.

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What it can do: Don’t let the size of the Roku Streaming Stick deter you from giving it a go. This tiny device comes loaded with features, including upwards of 2,000 channels that can be added. Standard video services like Netflix, YouTube and Crackle are available, as well as PBS and PBS Kids. Music services available include Rdio, Spotify, TuneIn Radio and music video channel Vevo. News updates from NBC, Fox News and Sky News are also accessible. The Roku app for Android and iOS allows you to control the device via your smartphone or tablet as well as send video, music and photos from your phone to your TV.

What it can’t do: Needless to say the Roku Streaming Stick offers a lot of American channels that won’t work in Canada, such as Hulu and Amazon Instant Video. Canadian services like shomi and CraveTV are not yet available. And while you can stream content from your smartphone or tablet, there is no easy way to connect to a computer to stream content. Unlike other Roku devices, games don’t work on the Roku Streaming Stick.

Menu for the Sony PlayStation 4 showing the Spotify app.
Menu for the Sony PlayStation 4 showing the Spotify app. AP Photo/Sony Computer Entertainment America

Sony PlayStation 4

Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s XBOX One are the most recent next-gen video game systems. Both sport similar functions and give users the ability to not only play games, but also watch DVDs and Blu-ray discs, as well as stream content from a wide selection of services.

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What it can do: First and foremost the PlayStation 4 is a video game console and Sony has not tried to market it as anything but. That said, popular streaming apps like Netflix, Crackle and YouTube are available, and Sony’s PlayStation Store offers lots of movies and television shows to rent or buy. For music needs, users can stream songs via Spotify or TuneIn Radio. Being able to use the system as your DVD/Blu-ray player is also a bonus for people who still want to use physical media.

What it can’t do: The biggest downside to the PS4 is the lack of backwards compatibility, meaning you can’t play your PS3 (or PS2 and PS1) game discs on it. You also can’t play CDs or store MP3s on the system’s hard drive, or play video files from an external hard drive or USB stick — features Sony says will be coming in the future. Streaming content stored on a computer is not that easy either and requires a paid Plex account to do so. Canadian services like shomi and CraveTV are also not yet available, and there is no official or universal remote (including the Logitech Harmony One) that will work with it (your TV remote may control some functions via HDMI Device Link).

Vizio Smart TV

Out of all the “smart” TVs on the market, Vizio offers great quality displays packed with features for a reasonable price. I tested a 60-inch E-Series unit, which only took about 20-minutes to set-up out of the box, was light enough to move on my own and looked absolutely beautiful in my living room.

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WATCH BELOW: Rundown of the Vizio E-Series line

What it can do: Besides being a full-featured 1080p LED television, the Vizio E-Series line sports built-in WiFi, allowing you to easily access video streaming services like Netflix, YouTube and Crackle. Vizio also offers streaming music services like Spotify and TuneIn Radio, and has Twitter, Facebook and Flickr apps available so you can stay connected to your social media accounts while couch-surfing. You can also share your Android or iOS smartphone or tablet screen via second screen connectivity, and stream content from your computer via the popular Plex service.

What it can’t do: While the Vizio E-Series is a great television line that offers a lot of “smart” services, you won’t find Canadian services like shomi or CraveTV, and kid-friendly apps like PBS and PBS Kids are absent. Vizio pushes frequent updates and new services and features may become available in the future.

This product image provided by Microsoft shows local TV listings as seen on the Xbox One’s TV guide.
This product image provided by Microsoft shows local TV listings as seen on the Xbox One’s TV guide. AP Photo/Microsoft


The biggest difference between Microsoft’s XBOX One and Sony’s PlayStation 4 is that Microsoft wants the XBOX One to not only be your main gaming system, but also your main media hub (and it does a good job at both).

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What it can do: Having an HDMI input allows you to connect and control your cable or satellite box directly through the XBOX One, and with its always-on capabilities, you can control the unit with voice commands via the Kinect sensor bar. Apps like Netflix, YouTube and Crackle are available, and with channels from CBC, TMN GO and Rogers Anyplace TV it’s one of the more Canadian-friendly systems in regards to content. There are also lots of movies and TV shows to rent or buy via the XBOX Video store and you can use it to play CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs.

What it can’t do: Like the PlayStation 4, the XBOX One is not backwards compatible so you won’t be able to play your XBOX 360 game discs. It also requires a paid Plex subscription in order to stream content stored on a computer. Besides XBOX Music, there are no music streaming apps available and shomi and CraveTV are currently unavailable (shomi is available for XBOX 360). And an XBOX Live subscription is required for many game features.

These are just a few of the popular media streaming devices currently on the market. Let us know what devices and services you use in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

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