If you're ready to cut the cord and ditch cable, two new low-cost streaming video devices that hit the market this week are worth a look.
Roku, maker of one of the first popular streaming devices, has updated nearly all of its products, and the new Roku Express costs just $29.99. Amazon also updated its Fire TV Stick, a USB dongle that plugs into the back of your TV, with new voice recognition features. The price of the new Fire TV Stick is the same as the last generation stick: $39.99.
Roku Express, Amazon Fire TV Stick vs. Google Chromecast, Smart TVs
Both devices compete with Google's popular, $30 Chromecast, and they offer some real advantages over Google's streaming device. Roku Express and the new Fire TV Stick, for example, offer direct access to a huge variety of programming, compared to the limited number of apps and services Chromecast supports.
The search interface on so-called "smart TVs" is often terrible. An onscreen menu typically appears and forces you to scroll through a bunch of categories, or even worse, spell out search terms one letter at a time using the remote to hunt and peck. Make a mistake, and you have to start all over again.
Roku Express and the upgraded Fire TV Stick both offer voice search, but Amazon's version, based on its Alexa voice assistant, is more sophisticated. Amazon's device "lets you easily search across more than 90 apps and channels," the company said in a press release. "Just say 'find suspense thrillers' or 'launch Hulu' and Alexa will respond."
Roku Express doesn't support voice search on its own, but if you download the free Roku app for iOS or Android, you can use the voice capabilities of your smartphone to control the streaming gadget. More expensive options in Roku's product line support voice search directly.
Roku also found a clever way to listen to your TV without bothering other people around you or running a headphone cord across the room. You simply plug a set of headphones or earbuds into your smartphone. The Roku app diverts audio to the phone and mutes the TV, but also directs the video to the larger screen.
Roku a streaming box, Fire TV Stick a dongle
Unlike a Chromecast or Fire TV Stick, Roku Express is not a dongle, though it is quite small. It's a small box that connects to your TV via an HDMI port (a compatible cable comes in the Roku package), and it uses USB for power.
The updated Fire TV Stick is available for preorder today and is expected to ship on October 20. If you activate the device before the end of October, Amazon will give you a free month of Sling TV's streaming service, two months of Hulu's Limited Commercials plan, and a $10 credit for Amazon video.
You can order the Roku Express today. It is expected to ship by October 7 and will also be available at Best Buy and Walmart stores.