Apple TV vs Roku vs Chromecast have been battling it out to be the best streaming media player for a few years now. Apple TV still has the most advanced features, but requires other Apple devices to take advantage of the them. It also will get HBO Now before the others. Roku has the most apps available and makes a range of devices at different price points. Chromecast is still the most affordable and has done a great job of adding apps over the past year and is now competitive with the others. These are all great option, but each has its own pros and cons and some have interesting features that stand out from the pack.
Roku - tons of channels in an affordable package
Roku makes a range of popular streaming media players that have access to 1,000+ apps. With so many apps, a nice search feature is built in that can be used to look up titles, actors, etc across all of the apps. A remote app for Apple and Android can be used to type in searches, launch apps on the Roku, and more. The smartphone app can also be used to stream back content stored on your device, such as music, photos, and videos. More expensive models have additional features such as video gaming and headphone jacks on the remote.
A Roku is probably the best overall streaming media player for most people. The Roku Stick is an affordable option, starting at $50. It is also available free when you prepay for 3 months of Sling TV.
Apple TV - good on its own, better with other Apple devices
The Apple TV is my streaming media player of choice, and that's because I own several other Apple devices. It is ok as a standalone media player, but you'll get more value out of it if you use AirPlay. One of the reasons I originally bought an Apple TV was to wirelessly stream music from my Mac and iPhone to my home theatre system over AirPlay. iTunes is the default and only option for movie and TV purchases or rentals. However, AirPlay can be used to watch titles from Amazon and other apps that support it with the help of an iPhone or iPad. Otherwise, it includes most of the popular streaming apps, but far fewer than Roku. It will also be the only box with access to HBO Now for three months after the service's launch. A Remote App for iPhone and iPad can also be used to control the Apple TV and input text.
The Apple TV is best for people that own other Apple devices and use iTunes. At $70, it's a little expensive compared to some Roku models, so it's hard to recommend unless you'll be using AirPlay and iTunes. A new model with Siri, an App Store, and updated specs is rumored to be coming later this year.
Chromecast - very affordable option with some limitations
Google's Chromecast is the most affordable ($35 or less) and smallest option available. There is no remote available. Instead it is controlled from within an app (Netflix, for example) on a smartphone, tablet, or computer with the Chrome browser. This keeps the price down, but wasn't the best experience for me. I frequently use my phone while watching TV and would rather pick up a remote to quickly hit pause than navigate back to the correct app on my phone.
If cost or size is your primary concern then Chromecast works well and supports all the popular streaming apps except Amazon, and it works with both iPhone/iPad and Android.
Fire TV - for Amazon lovers only
The Amazon Fire TV and Fire TV Stick are good devices for Amazon Prime or Amazon Instant Video users. They also have apps for Netflix, HBO Go, and many more. Voice search is one of the main features. It is available on the Fire TV out of the box, or with the Fire TV Stick through a mobile phone app or by upgrading the remote. Video games are also available with an optional controller.
At $40, the Fire TV Stick is a nice alternative to the Chromecast that comes with a dedicated remote. At $100, the Fire TV doesn't do enough to stand out from Apple TV and Roku except for Amazon Prime lovers, in my opinion. Get the Fire TV Stick free or 50% off the Fire TV when you prepay for 3 months of Sling TV.
Local streaming, DVRs, and other devices
The WD TV can stream content from an attached USB drive, computers on the same network, or network attached storage. However, there are some major holes in the apps available: no Netflix, HBO Go, or watchESPN. This will work best for people that already have a box for Netflix and want a simple device to stream their local media.
My top picks for DVRs include streaming apps. Tivo has the most with Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, Vudu, and a few others. The Channel Master DVR+ has no subscription fees, but only a Vudu app.
More and more devices are coming with wifi and streaming apps, such as game consoles, bluray players, and TVs.
Apple TV vs Roku vs Chromecast
All of these streaming media players are available under $100 and each has most of the popular apps. Roku will likely be the best overall streaming media player for most people, with a good balance of content at an affordable price. Amazon Prime users will be best with a Roku or Amazon Fire device, while Apple/iTunes users will get the most out of the Apple TV. Chromecast is the most affordable device, but doesn't have a remote. It really comes down to what streaming services you use and what brand of phone/tablet/computer you own.