Streaming TV was once something that most of us did only occasionally, and only to our computers or phones when we wanted to catch up on last night’s episode of Outlander or needed a movie to spend time with while stuck in a hotel room. But these days, streaming TV is the new normal – and that’s only taken a few short years.
Increasingly, due to the popularity of platforms such as Netflix UK, Sky’s online service Now TV, and the rapidly-expanding offerings from Amazon Prime Video, more of us are watching our TV via streaming, and that throws up a potential problem. It’s easy enough to download some apps and stream on your phone or tablet, or log in to a web site on the computer and do the same. But TV’s meant to be watched on, well, a TV – that nice big screen in the lounge room that’s positioned in perfect alignment with the sofa for a comfy, warm and hassle-free evening of television viewing. So now that all these shows and movies are available through streaming, how do you get them onto that nice big screen without having to go out and spend big money on a new “smart” TV?
It’s actually a lot easier – and potentially a lot cheaper – than you’d think. With streaming TV such a dominant part of the entertainment world these days, a load of different solutions have appeared to get that streaming data onto your TV, no matter what its vintage. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend and how convenient you’d like the result to be, you could spend a few pounds and get great results – or spend anywhere from 50 to 200 quid to get the streaming equivalent of a swanky hotel. Regardless of which method you choose, those days of squinting at a tiny phone screen to see what Tiny Daenerys and her tiny dragons are doing in Game of Thrones will be a thing of the past.
The HDMI Cable
Yes, our first option has all the technical complexity of a simple cable. And there’s good reason for that – you can pick up a quality HDMI cable just about anywhere that sells electronics for a few pounds (don’t over-pay for supposedly “premium” cables) and that can be the only ticket you need to buy to get your shows and movies onto that big screen TV. All you need is a device with a HDMI output – such as your laptop computer – and a cable long enough to stretch from the sofa to the TV without getting in the way. From there, you’ve got the ultimate remote control, as you can browse and play stuff from all your favourite streaming services right there in your web browser, and watch it all on the big screen. If you’re using a desktop computer that can’t come with you to the couch, don’t worry – just grab a wireless mouse and something solid to use as a mouse mat.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
There’s something really elegant about Amazon’s streaming devices. Looking like oversized USB sticks (though requiring juice from the power supply included in the box) they’re actually miniature computers that plug into a spare HDMI port on your TV, stream video via Wi-Fi and let you take complete control of them with a superb Bluetooth-powered remote with a full on-screen menu interface. That tiny but well-designed remote brings Amazon’s Alexa to your couch, too – there’s a microphone built in that lets you do everything from searches to commanding playback. You have two different options for the Fire TV Stick – the standard model which supports 1080p HD streaming, or the more advanced Fire TV Stick 4K which lives up to its name by letting you stream in full 4K as long as your broadband connection is fast enough.
This one’s the tiny powerhouse of streaming devices, and in our view it’s probably the single best streaming device for your smart TV – as long as you don’t mind spending the money, because while the Apple TV is many things, “cheap” is not one of them. Using a custom TV-centric on-screen interface based on iOS, the Apple TV is essentially an iPad merged with a streaming box. The result is the fastest, highest-quality and most app-laden streaming device on the market, with full support for Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, multiple native frame rates and more. Apps are available for it from pretty much everyone – paid streaming services, free-to-air TV and much more (even games!) In most cases those apps are the best for their respective services. But all this comes at a price – acquiring the 1080p HD model costs a lot, and the newer, more powerful Apple TV 4K costs even more. If you can afford one, though, it’s going to last you for many years.
Originally released back in 2013, Google’s Chromecast devices have become perhaps the most popular streaming devices on the planet – and for good reason. They’re cheap, they’re extremely portable – and they work with not just a few dozen apps, but literally hundreds of them. Currently, Chromecast is available in two flavours – the standard model, which is now in its third generation and will handle video streaming up to 1080p or “full HD”. That one will set you back to a perfectly reasonable price, but if you’ve got a 4K-capable television you can go for the Chromecast Ultra, which can handle 4K content from Netflix, Amazon and many other places (though if you’ve got a 4K TV, it’s probably a smart TV already!) The Ultra model costs more, but can be found cheaper. No matter which one you get, all you need to do is plug it into a spare HDMI port on your TV, set it up via the Google Home app for iOS or Android, then tap the “cast” logo in any supported app (usually the logo appears when a Chromecast is detected on your wi-fi network). It’s cheap, incredibly versatile, and works a treat, which is probably why over 30 million of them have been sold.
Now Smart Box and Smart Stick
Based on designs from the massively popular US manufacturer Roku, this pair of low-cost streaming devices sold by Sky’s Now TV department are well worth putting on your short list – especially the low-cost Smart Stick. Instantly transforming your TV into a smart one with its easy on-screen interface and well-built remote control, the Smart Stick is obviously a go-to solution for accessing Now TV, but it also comes with over 50 other apps – yes, including Netflix as well as all the broadcast TV catch-up apps. It even includes voice search, incredible for such a low-cost device. Those that want 4K, meanwhile, can go for the Smart Box, but it’s comparatively expensive.
Before you rush out to buy any of the devices above, make sure you don’t already have the solution sitting right there under the TV. Modern game consoles – Playstation 4 and Xbox One – are essentially modestly powerful computers designed to plug into a TV, and therefore they’re ideal streaming video. Both consoles have the big-name apps ready to go on them – including Now TV alongside the global players like Netflix and Prime Video. It might seem like a strange device to use as a streaming box, but each console has inexpensive special media remote controls available that turn them into full-featured entertainment devices (they can play Blu-ray discs and DVDs as well) when you’re not playing games.
Alongside the devices listed here, there’s a huge range of smaller-brand streaming boxes that can be had surprisingly cheap – many of them powered by Android TV, meaning they can run hundreds of apps built for the platform. They differ vastly in price and capabilities, though for basic streaming, any of them should do the job fine (the high-end options like the Nvidia Shield TV are really more for those who want to run games on their device as well).
It’s a great time to be getting into streaming TV, though, with such a huge range of devices on the market to turn your reliable old TV into a smart streaming powerhouse for not very much money at all. As a bonus, you’ll almost always end up with a streaming device that’s more powerful, more capable and more flexible than anything that comes built into even the most expensive smart TVs. It’s not a compromise, far from it – indeed, it’s the best way to stream!