Turn your television into a smart TV

October 22, 2014

Turn your television into a Smart TV using Roku

The 3D television fad came and went, but the current fad of having ‘smart’ televisions seem to be here to stay. Loading up a DVD or Blu-Ray disc seems so old-fashioned when you can now stream movies and shows via Netflix and YouTube. The question now is: How do you get them to show on your large television screen? No longer do we want our online shows to remain confined to our small computer monitors. There are expensive smart TVs invading the market today, but for the rest of us, we have to make do with our ‘dumb’ TVs.

Thankfully, with the help of one of the many devices today, your traditional TV can now be made more intelligent. Let’s take a look at some of these devices today.

Roku / Apple TV / Amazon Fire TV / Google Nexus Player

I have grouped these devices together because they all function pretty similarly. Priced at about $100 each, these devices are basically Internet set-top boxes. Paired with a remote control, you can easily purchase, download and stream content over your television. In a nutshell, it’s like cable TV but with far more channels.

What’s the difference between these four players? Simply put, it’s the ecosystem.

Let’s start with Roku. It’s the only contender in this list that’s not associated with any prominent mobile ecosystem. As such, it functions most like a traditional set-top box. You control the Roku with a supplied remote control, to access the plethora of content it offers. You get access to free channels such as Vimeo and Crunchyroll, and there’s support for numerous premium channels such as ESPN, Hulu Plus and Netflix. You also get access to music channels like Spotify, and can play games such as Angry Birds. With the Roku 3, you can even cast YouTube and Netflix videos from your mobile phone. Roku touts its main selling point as having 1000 more channels than its competitors.

The remaining three options are more ecosystem-centric. Apple TV, for example, works the best when you have an OS X computer, an iOS device, and make full use of the iTunes Store. This is because apart from the usual channels (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo et al.), you can also stream movies and music from iTunes. If you have an iOS device, you can also use it as a remote control to navigate the Apple TV. Not only that, you can also use AirPlay to stream presentations, photos and other content from your MacBook or iOS device. Apparently, certain games also run on the Apple TV in tandem with an iOS device much like how a Nintendo Wii U works.

The Fire TV, meanwhile, is heavily focused on Amazon content. Certain reviews on the Internet have complained that it’s too focused on Amazon content, so be forewarned. The remote control comes with a voice-activated search to facilitate navigation, and an optional gamepad turns the Fire TV into a game console. Similar to the Apple TV, you have access to a wide variety of channels, and you will be able to mirror content from your Fire OS or Android device. Apparently, you can also sideload certain Android applications like Firefox on the Fire TV, so you could potentially turn your television into a couch surfing device.

Nexus Player, on the other hand, has yet to be released, but seems to be Google’s answer to the Fire TV. It has a similar voice-activated remote and an optional gamepad to run Android games, allows you access to a wide variety of channels, and enables you to mirror content from an Android device.

At about $100, one of these four devices will turn your television into your digital media hub. Which of the four to get probably depends on your channel preferences and your existing buy-in to any particular ecosystem.

Google Chromecast

Down the price range, we have Google’s $35 Chromecast device. It fits into the HDMI port of your television inconspicuously like a thumbdrive, though it requires a USB port for power. Unlike the $100 players, the Chromecast doesn’t come with a television interface. This means that your Android or iOS device becomes the remote control instead. Apart from that, it does most of what the $100 players do: stream content from various channels, and mirror content from your device to the television. With a laptop running the Chrome web browser, you can even cast websites to the television, making for some delicious large-screened browsing.

At its price, the Chromecast is selling like hot cakes today, and coupled with its compatibility for iOS and Android devices, it may be an even better choice than the Apple TV.

Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter (Miracast)

This really isn’t a Chromecast nor a Apple TV, but the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter could get the job done for you. What it does is really simple: it uses Miracast technology to mirror whatever is on your device’s screen to the television. Think of it more as a HDMI cable without wires. All you need is a Windows 8.1 computer or Android 4.2.1 and above device that supports the Miracast protocol.

The Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter is a little pricey at $60, but you can easily find other Miracast devices for half the price and they will serve the same purpose.

Why get a Miracast adapter as compared to a Chromecast or Apple TV? Well, the main advantage is because it simply mirrors whatever is on your device. This means that you’re not restricted to the number of channels the Chromecast or Apple TV provides you with. Whatever your device supports, it mirrors. You could, say, play a game on your PC and have it show on your television seamlessly. Or, load up a PowerPoint presentation on the big screen. The possibilities are endless.

The downside is that your device will be the one doing all the processing, so battery life will be an issue. In addition, since data needs to continuously flow wirelessly from your device to your television, you may encounter the occasional lag or choppiness if your wireless connection isn’t strong.

MHL / HDMI Cables

Last but not least, we have the ‘el cheapo’ alternative of using MHL / HDMI cables to mirror your device to the big screen. If you have a supported tablet or smartphone, you can purchase a MHL adapter for about $5, enabling you to plug in a HDMI cable. I have used this combination at least a couple of times before, and it works really well on my Samsung Galaxy S4. Of course, there’s the hassle of cables, but you get what you pay for. There are HDMI cables out there that are 5 metres and longer, so distance should not be much of an issue.

What should I buy?

For its price, the Chromecast is probably the most value-for-money. At just $35, it does most of the things its higher-priced competitors do. Chances are, you probably already have a smartphone or a tablet, so the lack of an on-screen interface shouldn’t bother most. For maximum versatility, however, Miracast might be a better option especially if you don’t mind the battery life. Or, if you’re on a really tight budget, perhaps going wired might be the best option.

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