If you're like most folks, the back of your home entertainment center is a hive of HDMI cables, USB cords and power adaptors, not to mention the HDMI switchers necessary to cope with this cornucopia of entertainment providers. Thankfully, there is a solution: The increasingly popular streaming stick.
These Internet TV streaming devices will be the savior of every gadget-obsessed, cable-cluttered geek out there. These chewing gum-sized streaming devices can pipe the whole wide, weird and wonderful Internet into your television, with a lot less of the cable mess than you're dealing with now.
Currently available in one of three flavors--Roku's Stick ($50), Google's Chromecast ($35), and Amazon's Fire Stick ($39)-- these three devices can deliver pretty much any online content you could wish for directly to your living room. Here's a look at what these sticks have to offer:
* Less Cable Clutter. Each streaming stick fits into an HDMI port on your TV and can be powered similarly through those ports. That means no wires dangling down behind your TV, and no need to call the drywall guy. For those of us who still cling to cable TV, an extra long HDMI cable such as the CE Tech 15 ft. Premium Super Slim HDMI Cable, enables you to tuck your cable box completely out of sight--even in a different room if your provider offers a remote app on your smartphone (which don't need line of sight to operate).
* Enhanced Functionality. Beyond the simple design, all three streaming sticks provide previously unrealized functionality. The Roku offers more than 1,800 channels (the same as its set-top box big brother, but at half the price and size), and the Fire TV stick effectively turns your TV into a giant tablet with the addition of over 200 mobile games (there goes my Wii) and lifestyle apps for cooking, education and finance, as well as entertainment. The Chromecast allows you to watch anything you can find online on your TV by virtue of casting from your tablet, laptop or phone to the TV.
Roku is the granddaddy of Internet TV, boasting the largest complement of content sources, making the Roku Stick a must have if you want to keep your content options as open as possible on as small a device as possible. By way of comparison, the Fire Stick doesn't support HBO Go and Chromecast doesn't support Amazon Instant Video content. Roku, on the other hand, supports just about any content you can dream of (as well as some you really don't want to). There are also some free apps available for Roku that are paid options on Fire, and Roku is the only device to offer cross-platform content search.
The argument for getting a Chromecast is the price point and ease of use. Just plug it into the HDMI port on your TV and "cast" anything you can pull up in your Chrome browser (on any device) to your big screen. This works for streaming movies, but also for making presentations or providing demonstrations, giving Chromecast a strong use case in the business world. If a device has an HDMI port you can stream to it--there are no compatibility issues to worry about. There are also a large and growing number of apps for Chromecast, thanks to the open source API, and a cool screensaver feature that turns your television into a beautiful backdrop you can customize with artwork, personal photos, weather, date and time.
The Fire Stick is the newest entrant and boasts some impressive specs: a dual-core processor, 1GB of memory, 8GB of storage, Dolby Digital Plus certified surround sound, and a dual band Wi-Fi antenna. While you can watch all the Internet TV you want via Amazon Instant Video, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Showtime et al, you can also do many of those things we've become accustomed to turning to our tablets for: play games, listen to music, display personal photos and videos, and download apps to help us with things like cooking, getting fit and teaching our kids math.
Fire also integrates voice search, which addresses a huge hurdle with Internet TV streaming on televisions -- the hunt-and-peck disaster of current search capabilities. With a Fire Stick you just pick up the remote and say "Dexter" and up pops all the available ways to watch (currently search is limited to Amazon, Showtime, Crackle, Hulu Plus and Vevo). Voice search also launches any app on the system, so you can fire up Spotify from your phone and play it through your TV without typing in a single letter. Voice search can be used for free via the smartphone remote app or you can buy a remote with the capability built in for $29.99.
What really sets the streaming sticks apart from their set-top siblings is portability. Carrying one of these around on a business trip or a visit to grandmas is as easy as popping a flash drive in your pocket. This makes a streaming stick more than just a way to turn your dumb TV smart--it sets these devices up to be reliable counterparts, or even replacements, for many common scenarios where we currently reach for our tablets. While you can take your iPad to grandma's to show off pictures of the kids, or to the conference to display photos of your new project, it's way cooler to just plug your stick into a nearby television and be up and running with a big-screen slideshow in seconds.
Jennifer Tuohy is a self-avowed tech geek who writes about the latest home technologies for The Home Depot. To learn more about streaming video stick options, visit The Home Depot home electronics pages.