Smart TVs – flat panels that include some level of integrated internet-based streaming functionality – have been a reality for years now, with a wide array of approaches and compatible apps built right into your living room TV. In terms of an all-in-one solution it seems like a no-brainer, because if your TV can easily access the streaming services you love, you don’t need any extra remotes, or to cast content from a laptop or phone or anything like that.
When you first buy a smart TV and connect it up to your home internet, that may well be true, but there is a problem. Most smart TV makers aren’t always all that good at updating the apps on their smart TVs.
That’s an issue on two levels. As new services — Disney+, which only launched late last year springs to mind — appear, you may find that you’re not able to access them directly from your TV. The app simply doesn’t exist, and if you’ve got an older but still perfectly good TV, you may find that your TV manufacturer doesn’t have any interest in software upgrades for it.
That can also be an issue even for apps that are present on your smart TV anyway. As the services themselves make changes to their quality options, software delivery or user interfaces, some smart TV access can become a non-starter, even though it looks like they should be compatible. The app launches, you see the logo, and then all you get is an error message when you want something enticing to watch.
It’s why I’ve long been a fan when buying a new TV of making sure that you’re getting the best picture quality above all, because that’s a factor that can last years or even decades if you’re lucky, with everything else being a bit of a bolt-on.
Need better audio? Add a surround sound system or high quality soundbar.
Need better smart TV access? Add a cheap smart TV dongle.
Luckily that’s pretty easy to do. Just recently both Google and Amazon updated their smart TV offerings for Australians, via the quite cheap Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite and the slightly more expensive Google Chromecast with Google TV.
The Fire TV Stick Lite is “lite” because in the US, Amazon offers a range of smart TV appliances, with the Lite being the lowest cost option.
It’s the only model sold here in Australia, retailing at $59. It’s a very simple HDMI-connected stick with its own remote control that mostly focuses around Amazon’s own Prime Video streaming service. Prime Video can be subscribed to by itself, but most consumers effectively treat it as a “freebie” alongside an existing Amazon Prime shipping subscription. Alongside Prime Video, it’s compatible with Netflix, Stan, Disney+ and Apple TV+, as well as the major free to air “catch up” services such as ABC iView, 9Now and SBS On Demand.
Google’s sold cheap Chromecast devices in Australia for a few years now, but to date they’ve all relied on casting and control via a smartphone, tablet or Chrome browser. The $99 Google Chromecast with Google TV steps it up a notch with an included remote and a user interface effectively built on the Android TV platform that you find on some smart TVs.
This means that there’s a wider array of apps you can install on the Chromecast with Google TV. It’s got coverage for all the big hitters – Netflix, Stan, Disney plus and even Amazon Prime Video, although you don’t get Apple TV+. Apple and Google don’t like each other that much, at least for now. If you’re wondering what the difference is between this model and the existing Chromecasts, think of it like a super-sized model; you can still cast to the new Google Chromecast with Google TV from compatible devices, but it’s also got an onscreen menu and a remote control as well.
Having tested out both streaming sticks, they’re fine for their basic purposes, but if I was buying, unless Apple TV+ is really important to you, I’d opt for the pricier Google Chromecast with Google TV. Its response is a little quicker than the Amazon Stick, and critically it’s capable of 4K streaming, where the Amazon stick will never go above 1080p.
While that’s also a matter of your subscription tier for selected services, as well as your broadband quality, the reality for the Google Chromecast with Google TV is that it’s eminently portable, so you could take it with you from TV to TV, or when you upgrade your subscriptions or your broadband improves. The Fire TV Stick Lite will always be a lightweight solution – hopefully Amazon will bring more models to Australia soon.