In the early days of streaming, devices like the Google Chromecast and Apple TV were the go-to streaming and mobile connectivity solutions for TVs. As Netflix, Stan and Amazon Prime Video emerged, access was largely limited to smartphones, tablets and computers.
When apps for smart TVs finally came along, streaming dongles and boxes were able to breathe new life into 'non-smart' TVs, and they slowly evolved from a connection point for your phone/tablet into media hubs that support a wide range of services.
But now we're in a world where smart TVs, phones, tablets, laptops and games consoles all support streaming apps. So, does the humble streaming device still have a role to play? Absolutely.
Streaming devices are small dongles or boxes that are primarily designed for two things:
- To stream videos, music and photos from online services like Netflix and YouTube, as well as local storage, such as a home server.
- To act as a link between your TV and devices that support wireless protocols like Google Cast and AirPlay.
They can add streaming capabilities to offline devices, like projectors and computer monitors, or older TVs that may still work but can't run the latest apps or updates. Plus, free-to-air networks simultaneously stream broadcasts on their official apps which gives you the freedom to watch live TV even if you don't have an antenna.
Whether you choose a dongle or more advanced streaming box all depends on your home entertainment needs.
Dongles are the cheaper, smaller alternative that can discreetly sit behind your screen. They're generally plug-and-play, but the compact design means they require a Wi-Fi connection and may lack the processing power for higher-end features such as 4K streaming, surround sound and onboard storage.
Though these are bigger and usually more expensive, boxes tend to support a wider range of audio and video features as well as inputs and outputs. These may include ethernet, optical audio, a remote control, USB and memory card readers. Power requirements mean annual running costs are around two or three times more than a dongle.
Dongles have a built-in HDMI plug and may not require an external power supply. Boxes, however, need an HDMI cable and power outlet to run.
All of the streaming devices in our test support 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) streaming but you can also get HD-only models that cost a bit less. For example, the HD Chromecast costs $59 whereas the 4K version will set you back $99. If you want a streaming device to smarten up your old HD TV, you may decide that the device will stay with the TV and should be happy with an HD device.
However, it's worth spending the extra money on a 4K-capable device as you'll be able to get the best picture out of most screens and projectors and it will future-proof UHD gear that you may buy down the line.
Dongles and boxes are the two types of streaming devices.
In a world where almost all home entertainment tech supports video and music apps, it doesn't seem like there's much room left for the humble streaming device. But there are still plenty of practical applications for these little dongles and boxes.
Update an old TV
After a while, streaming service providers stop updating versions of their apps that were released for older televisions. And when a new service launches, the developers tend to only support the last two or three generations of TVs.
This means that you could turn on your otherwise functional TV only to find that Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime have ended support because it's too old. But you don't need to buy a whole new TV – just get a streaming device for a fraction of the cost.
Here, the TV basically acts as a monitor and speakers while the box or dongle handles the rest of the work. A new streaming device should support most, if not all, of the popular and smaller services.
Bring smart functions to offline devices
Computer monitors, projectors and really old TVs either have limited or no smart functions. A streaming device can fix this problem, as long as there's an available HDMI port.
Add AirPlay or Google Cast
Google Cast and AirPlay (Apple) aren't always built into TVs but plenty of streaming devices support them. They're handy tools to have available, as each streamlines the process of sharing content between your phone or tablet and the TV. They also give you the option to use your phone as a remote to navigate a number of apps.
These devices have unique interfaces tailored for streaming.
Access as many apps as possible
Occasionally, you may find that one of your favourite streaming services or apps isn't available for your TV or games console. Even the biggest names in streaming aren't on every platform for one reason or another – for example, you won't find SBS On Demand on your Xbox or PlayStation.
Although there are some exceptions, pretty much all of the popular services can be found on dedicated streaming devices. Even the smaller ones tend to have widespread support, so it's a quick, easy, low-cost way to retroactively bring these services to your home entertainment setup.
Stream while travelling
Small, lightweight dongles are an effective way to bring a range of entertainment options on the road. While many hotel and Airbnb TVs have streaming apps installed, logging into what is essentially a public device comes with security risks. It's much safer to travel with a dongle, though this does require access to unlimited Wi-Fi or a data hotspot from your smartphone.
Try a different interface
Some people prefer OS X over Windows, others prefer Android over iOS. Streaming devices are no different and in fact, you may find one with an operating system that suits your needs more than your TV or games console.
These devices have a user interface that's primarily designed for streaming content across a range of apps. Some even amalgamate the content of the services you subscribe to so you don't need to open individual apps to jump back into streaming, search libraries or browse what's new.
This doesn't necessarily mean that all streaming devices offer the best possible ease-of-use scenario. But if you find your TV difficult to navigate, then look at what's available on a Chromecast, Firestick or Apple TV.
Remotes are included with almost all new streaming devices.
Most early streaming devices didn't come with a remote. Instead, you could use your smartphones or tablet to navigate various media apps.
But now that these devices have expanded into media hubs, they don't necessarily require a smartphone to get around. Most come with a dedicated remote control.
This is an excellent addition as it frees you up from having to use a smartphone, which is even better if you don't own one. That said, you may need to have a smartphone or access to a smartphone during setup.
There are a handful of important home entertainment features that you should look for while shopping around.
Your preferred apps: The websites for your go-to apps should have a list of supported devices.
Google Cast or AirPlay support: This streamlines the process of connecting your Android or Apple device to cast content from your phone or local network. It also gives you the option to use your phone as a remote.
High dynamic range (HDR) support: HDR expands the contrast levels between the darkest blacks and brightest whites to deliver a more vibrant, lifelike image. There are three HDR codecs in Australia – HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision – and the streaming dongle or box needs to match the ones supported by your TV. All HDR-enabled devices support HDR10, but HDR10+ and Dolby Vision may not always be available.
Surround sound support: Streaming services usually support a number of surround sound options, such as 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. But your streaming device needs to be able to process this information for your surround sound setup or soundbar. While stereo and 5.1 are broadly supported, Dolby Atmos isn't as common.
Audio codec support: You shouldn't have any issues with content encoded in Dolby or music from streaming services like Spotify or Tidal. But these devices may not be able to handle other codecs, such as DTS. You may encounter some hurdles if you're streaming content from a home server.
Parental controls: Most streaming services have optional content restrictions but you have to repeat the setup process for each app. Some streaming devices make things a bit easier with a single set of content controls in the settings, which then automatically applies to your apps.
Weight and dimensions: These aren't features, but it's important to make sure the device fits on your entertainment unit or under your TV.
Try to find a streaming device that fits within your existing entertainment ecosystem. For example, if you own an iPhone, it's best to pick up an Apple TV whereas if you own an Android device, go for a Chromecast.
Staying within a particular brand (or ecosystem) streamlines communication and content accessibility between different devices. This is especially handy if you have an account with Google, Apple or Amazon. It also means brand-specific protocols, such as AirPlay, are supported. This is why you may want to reconsider buying a Chromecast if you own an iPhone.
If you're looking at a third-party option such as Amazon's Firestick or an Nvidia Shield, check the specifications beforehand. Note any features that they share with other devices in your home.
Setting up a streaming device is relatively straightforward. You plug them in, connect to your network, download your favourite streaming apps, log in and hit the couch. However, there are a couple of points that are easy to overlook.
- If you opt for a streaming box, clear a space for it to sit with ample airflow. Don't just leave it on the floor or hanging off to the side.
- Don't use the ARC or eARC port on your TV. Streaming devices only send signals to your TV, so don't need the ARC audio return features that a soundbar or receiver can use. Most TVs only have one HDMI port that's ARC/eARC enabled and you'll waste it with a streaming device.
- If you're using a soundbar or surround sound system, enable passthrough in the audio settings on your TV. This will tell the audio signal to bypass the TV's speakers and go into your external audio device. You may need to enable this on the streaming device as well, which can also be found in the settings where applicable.
- Only sign into the services you want to use and remember to cancel any inactive accounts as monthly fees can quickly add up.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.