Providers and Devices
Picking the right devices and solutions for a solid cord cutting experience can be tough.
"Cutting the Cord," the process of ditching traditional cable and satellite content providers for cheaper online-based services, is nothing new. For years, consumers have cancelled their cable subscriptions (or declined to even subscribe in the first place), opting instead to get their entertainment from companies like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.
But the recent introduction of online streaming TV services like Sling TV, new technologies like HDR, and the slow online adoption of live local channels has made the idea of cord cutting more complicated. While cord cutters who are happy with just Netflix and YouTube need not worry, what are the solutions for those who don't like the idea of high cost cable subscriptions but also want to preserve access to things like local channels and the latest 4K HDR content?
This article is the first in a three-part series that will look at this "high-end" cord cutting scenario. We'll be taking a look at the options for online streaming TV, access to local "OTA" (over the air) channels, and the devices that can handle it all, including DVR support, 4K output, and HDR compliance.
There are two approaches that you can take when considering the cord cutting process. The first is to focus on capabilities: Do you want 4K? HDR? Lossless surround sound audio? Voice search? Gaming?
The second approach is to focus on content: Do you want live TV or à la carte downloads? Can you live without ESPN or must it and your other favorite networks still be available? Are you heavily invested in iTunes content? Perhaps most importantly for those concerned with the "Spousal Acceptance Factor" (SAP), do you want the majority of your content contained in a single app, which can prevent you and your family members from having to jump between apps or devices to find what they want?
While most people on the cord cutting path will consider both approaches to a certain degree, it's easier to focus on the one that's most important to you, as that will make other choices involving devices and content easier. Of course, there are those of us out there that are open to purchasing and using multiple devices and content sources at once, giving us everything at the expense of increased complexity. But most cord cutters, especially those with families, will want to pursue a setup based around a single device that accommodates most, if not all, of their needs. And that's exactly what we set out to find.
Whatever you prefer to call them — set-top boxes, streaming devices, media players — there are a huge number of devices currently vying to be the center of your home's entertainment. These devices come in multiple form factors, from HDMI "sticks" that plug directly into your TV to powerful "home theater PCs" (HTPC), and at a variety of price points.
We're not going to examine every possible media player in this article, but we will take a look at the most popular options.
The NVIDIA SHIELD (a.k.a. Shield TV) is arguably the most powerful and versatile media player currently available. Powered by a Tegra X1 processor, the SHIELD is capable of supporting full 4K content with HDR and, while running certain media applications, it can handle audio passthrough of uncompressed formats like DTS-HD Master Audio, Dolby TrueHD, and even Dolby Atmos.
The NVIDIA SHIELD is also attractive to gamers, as it offers gaming features that aren't found in many other media devices. These include GameStream, which lets you stream games from your PC to your living room, and GeForce NOW, a cloud-based service that lets you remotely play the latest PC games with the power of a GTX 1080 graphics card.
As an Android TV device, the SHIELD has a huge library of Android-based apps and games, including must-haves like Plex (both as a client and server), Amazon Video, and Netflix. The SHIELD of course also has access to Google's own à la carte selection of movies, TV shows, and music via the Google Play store. As we'll discuss later, you can even connect a USB or network TV tuner to the SHIELD and enjoy access to live TV without the need for any other device or service.
The NVIDIA SHIELD is available in three models: a $179 base model with 16GB of built-in storage and the voice-enabled SHIELD remote, a $199 version with 16GB, the remote, and the SHIELD gamepad, and a $299 "SHIELD Pro" with 500GB of built-in storage plus the remote and gamepad. If you're just planning to consume streaming content, or if you already have an existing Plex server that you're happy with, the $179 model is a good option. If you want to game, but mostly via streaming services that don't require local storage, grab the $199 model which includes the gamepad. If you'd like to run a Plex server on your SHIELD, or if you want to install lots of apps and games, the $299 model's 500GB of storage will give you a clean and integrated setup without the need to rely on external or network drives.
For Apple fans, the just-announced Apple TV 4K is a compelling option, even if it does have a fair amount of drawbacks. The Apple TV is powered by Apple's custom-designed A10X processor (claimed by Apple to be the same as the one that powers the iPad Pro) and runs "tvOS," an offshoot of iOS. From a technical perspective, the new Apple TV supports up to 2160p60 video with HDR (both Dolby Vision and HDR10) but is limited to Dolby Digital Plus audio.
Content-wise, there are a number of Apple TV apps and games, but these must all be specifically designed for tvOS, meaning that your favorite iOS apps may not be available. In addition to movies and TV shows from Apple's own iTunes Store, users can find apps for Plex, Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV, and many other popular services.
This new Apple TV is definitely a step forward for Apple (the previous models were limited to 1080p and were based on the older A8 processor), but its lack of expandability and capability with third party apps (such as the ability to run a Plex server or act as an HDTV tuner), limited gaming support, and inability to handle lossless surround audio formats makes it a less than ideal choice for all but the most dedicated Apple fans. Make no mistake, if you have thousands of dollars sunk into iTunes content the Apple TV is your only option, but most everyone else likely won't want it to serve as the sole or central device in a cord cutting setup.
The Apple TV 4K is currently available in two models, a 32GB model for $179.00, and a 64GB model for $199.00.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon entered the set-top box market in early 2014 with the launch of the Fire TV. It has since diversified its product line, adding a cheaper "stick" model as well as integrating its Fire TV software platform directly into some televisions.
In addition to providing full access to Amazon's à la carte and Prime media libraries, Fire TV also features a number of third party apps, including the usual options like Plex, Sling, Hulu, Netflix, HBO, and ESPN.
The Fire TV operating system is based upon Android, but it's Amazon's own custom version of the operating system. This means that, at least out of the box, you'll have a very limited selection of third party apps and games to choose from, and there's no advanced features like the ability to run a Plex server or directly connect a TV tuner.
Amazon's new Fire TV dongle can output at 4K and finally adds HDR support, but early reviews show some performance issues. Its form factor also means that you'll need to keep it attached to the back of your TV or receiver (or rely on an HDMI extension cable) and it lacks a wired Ethernet port. Like the Apple TV, it's also limited to Dolby Digital Plus audio. It can be picked up for $69.99. The Amazon Fire TV stick runs only $39.99, but maxes out at 1080p resolution.
Amazon has a great library of third party and original video content, and Fire TV is an excellent way to enjoy that content. But considering that Amazon's apps are available on so many other devices, the Fire TV's relatively low price is probably its only advantage.
Roku is one of the older companies in the media streaming device industry, having thus far successfully remained independent even as larger companies have jumped into the market. Roku also offers the most complex product lineup, with six Roku models currently for sale ranging from legacy models that can support standard definition output via composite video all the way to models with quad-core processors that can handle full 4K 60fps HDR content and bitstream lossless DTS and Dolby surround audio.
As an independent company without a video streaming or subscription service of its own, Roku has attracted the support of many third party services, and there currently more than 4,500 options (or "channels" as the company calls them) available, including Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, DirecTV, Spectrum, PlayStation Vue, and the usual lineup of network apps.
Although quite capable from a technical perspective when it comes to watching TV shows and movies, the Roku line of products still lack certain features like robust gaming support, large amounts of storage (users are limited to a microSD card slot on certain models for "built-in" storage options), and direct TV tuner support.
The Best Media Device?
As mentioned earlier, there's no absolute "best" choice for all cord cutters, and even after deciding on the desired technical capabilities of a device, users must still weigh their content preferences. That said, our experience puts the NVIDIA SHIELD clearly at the top of the list of devices that should be considered.
The SHIELD's raw power, storage options, and flexibility make it a great option for most users. Its ability to access multiple subscription streaming services, all of the major on-demand services, and a huge selection of other apps and games means that SHIELD owners probably won't be missing out on anything good. Add to that the ability to run a Plex server directly on the device without the need for other hardware, and the option to directly connect a TV tuner, and you end up with one versatile device.
Apple fans who are absolutely dedicated to that company's platform and already have hundreds or thousands of dollars in iTunes content may be better off sticking with Apple TV (the only platform where Apple's content is officially available) but others looking to start the cord cutting adventure will appreciate the power and capabilities of the SHIELD.