Our 'try harder next time' picks
If you're only here because you want to cut the cord and stop the rich, monopolistic cable overlords from siphoning your hard-earned dollars every month, I only have one thing to say to you: You've come to the right place.
Look, we believe that paying for great TV shows and movies shouldn't cost more than your groceries, and that there's no better way to save some green every month than ripping that money-sucking cord out of the wall and delivering that long-winded "you're fired" speech to the cable company.
We're here to help you make that next buying decision the best one possible by ranking the five best set-top boxes from worst-to-best and, in very clear writing, tell you which one will feel right at home in your home entertainment center. From the gold-standard Roku 3 to the recently released Fire TV Stick, all the set-top players have come out for the final showdown, but only one (OK, maybe two) can leave with the crown.
5. Nexus Player
Coming in at the end of the list is the beautiful, but ultimately barren, Nexus Player. If you're an Android user you'll love the icon-heavy interface and ability to easily send web pages, videos and music directly to the big screen via Google Cast. We liked its ability to play AAA games thanks to its optional $40 controller, as well as its well-groomed storefront. It even has a great search function that makes finding the next show to watch a breeze.
What ultimately hurts the value of the Nexus Player is its lack of an ethernet cable, essential for a steady connection, and missing content services like HBO Go and Amazon Instant Video. At $100 it's not the best value, either. Roku has the market cornered on sheer amount of apps, and Chromecast comes in at the top of the pile for lowest cost. Nexus Player is just a middle child that may one day find success if it manages to set itself apart from its kin.
"Ideally, every set-top box would have access to every streaming service, game library (both iOS and Android) and music collection. Sadly, this is not a perfect world.
Google, however, made the best of the situation with the Nexus Player. It gets full marks for its simplistic, it'll-fit-anywhere design and sharp-looking interface. It does a decent job of putting the right specs in while keeping cost down and making a complementary platform for Android 5.0 Lollipop. But, unfortunately, it takes a huge loss when it comes to streaming services like HBO Go and Amazon Instant Video, which are completely absent on the device."
- Read our Nexus Player review
4. Amazon Fire TV
There's a soft-spot in my heart for the Amazon Fire TV - a set-top player from the e-commerce giant that single-handedly thrust the concept of cord cutting into the limelight.
It scores full points for having some of the best internal components this side of a game console (which, I'd be remiss if I didn't tell you that both the PS4 and Xbox One make for fantastic streamers, too), and plays very nicely with everything sporting the name Amazon in the title.
The Fire TV is snappy, fun and probably the best bet if all you want from your system is content from Amazon Instant Video. It has more games and apps than you can shake a Fire TV Stick at, but most of them aren't worth the five to ten seconds it takes to download. And worse, while it works wonderfully with an Amazon Prime account, take it away and you're left with a lifeless plastic shell that can access Netflix and peruse the endlessly expensive Amazon Video Store.
"The Amazon Fire TV is simple to use and works well. If you are significantly bought in to Amazon's services, it's hard to go wrong with this box. However, if you are not an Amazon customer or even an Amazon customer who doesn't have or want Amazon Prime, then you might think twice. The device is clearly tilted toward Amazon customers, and nothing short of a full UI overhaul is going to change that. We'd like to at least see Amazon allow some kind of user customization in the interface. Until then, we're calling this device great, but not perfect."
If you want everything the full-size player has to offer (minus the remote with a built-in mic) at half the price, consider picking up the Amazon Fire TV Stick instead.
- Read our Amazon Fire TV review
Our top 3 picks
3. Google Chromecast
Too often, there's a discrepancy between a product's price (what it costs) and its value (how much it's really worth). Thankfully, Chromecast isn't one of those products: it's worth every penny.
Coming in $32 (£30), the petite, USB-powered Chromecast offers all of the functionality of boxes three times it price at half the size. Like other pint-sized streamers - the Roku Streaming Stick and the Amazon Fire TV Stick - Chromecast hides behind your entertainment center by directly plugging into the TV's HDMI and USB ports. Once seated, all that's left is to pull out your phone, install the Chromecast app and before you know it you'll have HBO Go on the big screen.
Plus, if you're an Android user, you'll even be able to mirror your screen via the built-in cast functionality. The product's biggest weak spot is its failure to support every app natively, and while most of the big names are all here, you won't find Amazon Instant Video or any of the niche programming that Roku has available on its platform.
"Chromecast is an inexpensive, easy-to-use way of accessing streaming on your TV. All the major video streaming apps are compatible and you soon find yourself using it on a daily basis.
If it cost more, we'd say it might be worth looking at the Amazon Fire TV or the Nexus Player, but at this price how can you possibly argue? Chromecast is fun enough, robust enough and has enough potential that thoroughly recommend it to anyone without a smart TV."
Read our Google Chromecast review
1. (Tie) Apple TV
OK, OK, it's kind of a cop out by giving two products the top spot, but hear me out. If you've bought into the Apple ecosphere - i.e. owning a Macbook Air, iPhone 6 and/or iPad Air 2 - then the Apple TV is the only way to go. It simply works flawlessly with Apple's name brand-tech.
In combination with any of the products mentioned above you'll be able to peruse selected Internet content natively like YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix, iCloud and Podcasts and, thanks to Apple's AirPlay system, mirror any other content you'd like to see from a Mac, PC or iOS device and play it on your television.
Unlike the other sets, though, it's not the best stand-alone solution. Apple hasn't opened app development to anyone outside of the company, which means that third-party content is practically non-existent. You're essentially stuck in Apple's walled-garden (sound familiar?) until they see fit to give you more viewing options.
"If you've already got some Apple devices in your home then Apple TV is a natural fit and at this price you should really consider getting one because it integrates wonderfully with your current setup. But until Apple sorts out integrating iPlayer, 4OD and ITV Player into the menu system and makes AirPlay a little less restrictive, the Apple TV isn't a must-have product for everyone."
- Read our Apple TV review
1. (Tie) Roku 3
When it comes to channels, more is always better. Sure, I may never watch a spaghetti western on the Six Gun Cinema channel, but it's great that Roku gives me that option. And if the niche movies aren't your scene, you'll find every major player here as well - Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Instant, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Sky News, ESPN, MLB.TV, Spotify, Pandora...the list goes on and on. But, best of all, you're not limited to one ecosphere: Roku is the agnostic Switzerland of streaming sets. It doesn't care whether you download a video from Amazon, Google Play Movies & TV, or spend your money somewhere else, all it wants to do is get you the content you want to watch.
The Roku 3 isn't perfect - it's missing apps from the ABC network as well as a decent game library. But between the almost ludicrous amount of content available out of the box and the subtle tweaks like a remote with a built-in audio jack for private listening, if you haven't bought in to any one service, there's no better player around than the Roku 3.
"At the $100 level, the Roku 3 is your best option, unless you're significantly bought-in to Amazon or Apple's proprietary content ecosystems. It's responsive, simple and not beholden to a proprietary content library (system-level emphasis on M-Go notwithstanding). Whether you're looking for a streaming box to help you cut the cord, or augment your cable subscription, the Roku 3 has the features, build quality and simplicity you're looking for."
- Read our Roku 3 review
What's your favorite set-top box? Should Amazon Fire TV be the king of the castle or was Roku the way to go? Let us know what you think in the comments below!