Would you like to make your old TV “smart”? Or do you want to display images from your mobile phone on your TV? Media players are convenient and versatile while simultaneously being easy to use. We tested most of the current models, and Google’s third-generation Chromecast came out as our best in test.
Extremely easy to use and cheap, but with few new features.
CPU: No data GPU: No data RAM: No data Software: Google Cast Width: 51.8 mm Height: 51.8 mm Depth: 13.8 mm Weight: 40 Connections: WiFi, USB (2.0), HDMI Remote control: iOS/Android app
The third generation Google Chromecast is as efficient as it is cheap, and is therefore our best in test. But while it’s great, it’s also a bit of a disappointment and not really a traditional media player. More about this below.
A Chromecast consists of a small puck-shaped device with an HDMI cable that you can neatly conceal behind your TV and connect to your home Wi-Fi network (an optional adapter for wired internet is available). After that, it simply works as a receiver for anything you send to it from your telephone, tablet or computer.
There’s no direct interface to speak of and no specific remote control. This may sound confusing, but because the entire interface can be summarised as “You press a Cast button in an app on your telephone”, it’s actually very simple.
The Cast button appears in the apps that support it, which is pretty much every app for streaming films that’s currently available. You can also display the entire screen from a computer or Android mobile if necessary.
Youtube, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport and many others have support for Chromecast and it's rare that a streaming service isn’t available. Is it worth buying the new generation?
At the same time there are relatively few reasons for anyone who already has a second-generation Chromecast to upgrade it. Google claim that the new generation is 15% faster than the second one, which becomes apparent when video clips start a few seconds more quickly than the previous version. In other words, it’s barely noticeable.
The biggest technical novelty is that 1080p resolution content can be displayed at 60 Hz, but if this was something you found annoying you've probably already invested in a Chromecast Ultra that provides both this and 4K resolution.
You can also use your TV as a speaker if you’re running Google Assistant via Google Home speakers. Here, the video-dominant Chromecast has loaned the function from Chromecast Audio, which means your TV can form part of a multiroom solution for music.
The standard function is still the same and it’s just as stable as before. This makes Chromecast probably the cheapest and definitely the most convenient solution for anyone who wants modern smart TV functions on an older TV. But if you’ve already got the previous version, there are few reasons to upgrade.
Small, innovative, low price media centre that’s very easy to use
CPU: Marvell 88DE3006 GPU: GC1000 RAM: 512 MB Software: Chrome Width: 51.9 mm Height: 51.9 mm Depth: 13.49 mm Weight: 0.391 kg Connections: WiFi, USB (2.0), HDMI Remote control: iOS/Android app
Google’s Chromecast is a media player that’s cheap as it is small and innovative, so we name it as our best in test. When the first generation Chromecast was launched in 2013, it quickly became a great success. The second generation has a more efficient processor and a better antenna, which is claimed to give 2-4 times higher performance. The result is that films start more quickly and there is less buffering. You insert the Chromecast into an HDMI outlet on the TV, after which you can connect it to a smartphone, tablet or computer with the press of a button. The idea is to easily create a smart TV from a “dumb” TV by giving it access to Android apps. In other words, the Chromecast is like a Google version of the very popular Apple TV, but for a much lower price.
The Chromecast app is now quite good, and we primarily tested YouTube, Spotify, HBO Nordic and Netflix. “Casting” these video on demand services by using your mobile or tablet as a remote control actually works really well. We’d have liked it to be possible to stream locally stored content to your TV via the Chromecast. Thus far, even if it’s possible to do this on a purely technical level the copyright mafia have put the kibosh on this particular functionality. Unsurprisingly, the film industry is terrified that such a cheap and easy to use gadget will make it far too easy for the general public to stream pirated videos to their TVs. This is definitely a disadvantage for the Chromecast, but hopefully it will be possible in the future. In any case, what’s certain is that increasing numbers of Android apps will be accessible for Chromecast in the future and as the Android platform is so enormous, this means almost unparalleled opportunities. This is the market’s most practical and affordable streaming solution and we think every TV deserves a Chromecast.
Affordable 4K and Chromecast in one
CPU: Quad core Cortex A53 1.6GHz GPU: Mali-450 RAM: 2 GB Software: Android TV Width: 95 mm Height: 16 mm Depth: 95 mm Weight: 147 g Connections: WiFi, HDMI, optical sound, USB Remote control: Remote control with voice control, Android and iOS app
If your home is full of Apple products, an Apple TV makes a good complement to your collection. But what’s the Android equivalent? There are lots of different media players with both different versions of “normal” Android and the more TV oriented system Android TV. However, they're rarely exactly alike, which can mean a number of bugs and error codes in the apps you want to use.
Xiaomi’s Mi Box S stands out from the crowd because it's an Android TV box with Google certification. This brings a number of advantages, primarily fast updates to the latest version of the system (something many other media players entirely lack) and the apps you find in the Play Store working as they should do without annoying error codes. The relationship with Google also provides advantages such as a built-in Chromecast Ultra for casting content from your phone in 4K resolution, and Google Assistant built into a special button on the remote control.
Did you get all that? The Mi Box S is a media player with Android's TV version, and all the apps and games that brings with it. It works with all the major streaming services except Amazon's. Other than a generally broad range of apps, games and streaming services, the device also contains the equivalent of a Chromecast Ultra (in other words the version with 4K support). And that gadget alone only costs a little less than the price for Xiaomi’s media player.
Other than that, you have the entire Google Assistant ecosystem at your fingertips. It isn’t the same voice-activated version as separate speakers with the voice assistant, but you’re only the touch of a button away from all the functions. And if you get tired of the standard remote control (which, it should be said, is very good), there are apps for both Android and iPhone to control the unit.
Because it’s Android, this doesn’t involve anything more complicated than connecting Bluetooth accessories such as speakers or game controllers to the unit – and the latter gives you a pretty reasonable games library to play with. But this is where the disadvantages start to emerge, as other than support for playback of content in 4K resolution, it’s not the most powerful machine in the world.
Most games work without problems, but the biggest ones have a tendency to be rather slow. The built-in memory gives you about 5 GB of storage, which can start to be an issue if you have several large games installed at the same time. You can expand this with USB memory, but that’s a slower solution.
You may also want to use the USB port for an adapter to wired internet, because the Mi Box only has Wi-Fi built in, which can be a bit tight for streaming large video files. The 4K support also includes support for HDR10, but if you’re looking for the very latest technology, it’s lacking both Dolby Vision for images and Dolby Atmos support for sound.
But if that’s what you need, you probably need to look at media players over the £100 mark. The fact is that the Mi Box S has enough positive characteristics to more than outweigh the negative ones. It’s simply a very good value for money media player.
Update with luxury functions in the same format as the last version
CPU: Apple A10X Fusion GPU: Apple A10x Fusion RAM: 3 GB Software: Apple tvOS Width: 98 mm Height: 35 mm Depth: 98 mm Weight: 425 g Connections: WiFi, HDMI Remote control: Remote control with voice control, iOS app
Apple TV 4K is the fourth generation Apple TV, and it introduces the App Store, Siri, Homekit and a completely new interface for the media player. This is a huge step from the third generation’s simple and relatively locked-in system. The Apple TV 4K feels more like a plus model of its predecessor, although the outside is almost identical.
This time there’s no USB-C port on the back, but the remote control is the same. The biggest new thing for this generation is obvious from the name. Apple TV now supports 4K resolution and HDR for really good image quality. The latest update to the tvOS operating system also gives the unit support for the Dolby Atmos sound format.
But other than these technical delights and faster hardware to back it up, it’s the same machine for a higher price tag.
Many of the new features consist of updates to tvOS, which the previous generation also benefited from. The most recent of these include Apple’s TV app, which allows you to continue watching content on your mobile in a similar interface as on Apple TV.
The number of apps for films, TV series and music is now so extensive that you really can’t complain. At the same time it feels like the entire App Store is marking time somewhat, particularly the games section where there are long intervals between interesting new titles.
The remote control is the same and is still good, even though the trackpad is a bit clumsy to use compared with a normal D-pad. Siri does the best she can, but talking to your TV has probably never been your highest priority. The passive function where Apple TV acts as a home server to devices connected to your Homekit is still worth its weight in gold if you’re running that system, and Airplay from an iPhone or Mac works just as well as it always has.
At the same time, it can’t cope with YouTube in 4K resolution, and Netflix interactive series (like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch) don’t work at all on the unit. There are several reasons for this, but one of the most expensive media players on the market shouldn’t be limited like this.
As a pure media player for streamed video, it’s still a good bet. But because games have never really got off the ground on Apple TV, it’s only worth upgrading if you have a 4K TV and want to fully exploit it. If you don’t (or if you don’t care either way), the previous generation Apple TV is a much cheaper option.
Small and innovative media centre with a powerful processor for a low price
CPU: Rockchip RK3188, four core GPU: Cortex A9 RAM: 2 GB Connections: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, USB (2.0): 2 x, HDMI (v1.3) Remote control: No
The MK802IV from Rikomagic is a clever little media player and is very similar to the Chromecast, its much better-known competitor. For example, the Rikomagic is no bigger than a USB stick, so doesn’t require any special stand to hold it. This is particularly useful if the TV is wall mounted. Unlike the Chromecast, however, the Rikomagic requires a separate power adapter which makes it slightly less convenient. The idea of the Rikomagic is to create a smart TV by giving a normal “dumb” TV access to the Android operating system with its many apps. In practice, this sadly doesn’t work as well as you’d hope. Partly because many of the apps are compatible with the hardware, and partly because the Wi-Fi reception isn’t good enough.
Interest in media players has increased exponentially in recent years. A media centre acts as the hub of your home cinema system and means you can transfer and play films and music on your TV from a computer, external hard drive, USB stick or fileserver. The media centre interprets and translates sound and images into signals your TV can understand. These devices often have other names, particularly because a media centre can be part of several other products. Other common names are media player, media extender, HTPC (Home Theatre Personal Computer), media streamer and media server.
Lots of people already use their computer as a media centre by connecting it with their TV through their Xbox or PlayStation. This can work OK if you’re technically minded, but if you want the best possible media player with good performance and reliability that the entire family can use, you should buy a dedicated media centre that’s as easy to use as possible. As it happens, these days this isn’t merely possible but also amazingly cheap. But there are a range of different media centres/players, which often makes it difficult for the uninitiated to make the best choice. So we’ve selected the best and most popular models on the market and tested them thoroughly. We want to help you find the best media centre for your needs and your budget. As price is an important factor for most buyers, we’ve divided the models into different price classes. The test therefore includes everything from budget models costing around £50 to top-of-the-range premium models for more than £400. All media centres have a user-friendly interface, app support, offer the possibility of streaming sound and images, and support for the most common video and audio formats.
Our tests to find the best media centre/player show that they've come a long way in just a couple of years. Not only in terms of better hardware performance, but also better user-friendliness in the software and more functions. For example, apps for Facebook and YouTube are now standard, and support for other popular apps such as Spotify, Skype and Netflix is increasing constantly. The prices have also fallen, and now you can get a really good media centre for less than £100.
Our best in test is D-Link's now well-established Boxee Box media centre, which has a number of strengths for a very competitive price. A Boxee Box is so user-friendly the whole family can use one. It has excellent format support and plays the majority of video, sound and text files. The performance is sufficiently good to play back big files at a high bitrate without stuttering. There are plenty of connection options, including an SD slot. And last but not least, the innovative remote control has a qwerty keyboard that’s worth its weight in gold when it comes to entering passwords, internet addresses etc.
For the more advanced user who's prepared to spend a few hundred for a high end media centre, Xtreamer’s Ultra 2 Deluxe is an excellent choice. As well as top class performance, it comes pre-installed with XBMC, possibly the world's best media player. As well as a really attractive design, XBMC is extremely easy to navigate and has plenty of options for user customisation. Format support is excellent and performance amazingly good.
Media centres have many different applications, and consequently many different characteristics to take into account when doing a comparison. Here we list the characteristics we used in our comparison.
Video and sound format compatibility: How many different types of video and sound format the media centre can play. This is a very important characteristic, as there are so many different formats today.
Video playback performance: How high a bitrate the media centre can play at without stuttering. To handle uncompressed Full HD, the media player must be able to cope with a very high bitrate.
Ease of navigation: How easy it is to navigate the interface. If you have large collections of films, music and images, you need to be able to easily find what you're looking for.
Support for subtitles: If you enjoy watching foreign films and series, you’ll want English subtitles. There are several different formats for these subtitle files, and a good media player will cope with the majority of these.
Option to install an external hard drive: Even if you can stream content direct to your TV via your media centre, many people also want to be able to store content on an internal hard drive. So the fact that a media centre has a built-in hard drive (or the option to install one) is an advantage.
Wife acceptance factor (WAF): “Wife acceptance factor” is a somewhat sexist term referring to the characteristics that ostensibly make a gadget more attractive to someone who isn’t into technology, increasing the chance that they won't resist the purchase. This includes aspects such as how aesthetically appealing the product is, how easy it is for the uninitiated to use, the price and so on.
App support: As well as watching video (YouTube, Netflix) and listening to music (Spotify, Deezer), demands to support more apps are increasingly constantly. For example, social media (Facebook, Twitter) and news apps (BBC News, Now TV). The media centre’s app support is thus becoming an increasingly important characteristic.
Remote control: The quality of the remote control is really important, because you use it the whole time and a poor remote control can negate the entire experience of an otherwise good media centre.
Connections: It’s important to be able to connect your media centre to many different types of unit (such as your home computer, NAS (network-attached storage), external hard drive, USB memory, SD card, camera...) via a range of different connections (e.g. Ethernet, Wi-Fi, HDMI, USB, eSATA etc.), because it increases the opportunities to choose the connection that works best for each user.
Value for money: The price is almost always the most important factor when you’re buying something. But cheapest isn’t always best. One media centre can be more expensive than another one, but at the same time can offer more functions for your money. So we’ve used value for money in our assessment, instead of just price.
Streaming performance: Even if all media centres in our test can stream, some of them are better at it than others. For example, this may involve transfer speed or the ability to stream direct from a USB hard drive to the media centre for playback on your TV.
Sound level: Media players often have at least one fan to counteract overheating. How loud this is can be important, as some people find a noisy fan very irritating.
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