Streaming Media Dongles: Price and Power in a Tiny Package

Streaming Media Dongles: Price and Power in a Tiny Package

It is a testament to miniaturization that we can now fit an entire entertainment system onto devices no larger than flash drives. Streaming dongles plug into your HDTV’s HDMI port and play content over WiFi. Dongles offer some great entertainment options for those on or off a budget.

Google made the first big splash in the streaming dongle market with its Chromecast. At $35 and with support for streaming media from Google Play, YouTube, Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu Plus, Pandora and the Chrome Web browser, Chromecast is hard to beat as an ultra-affordable home entertainment solution. It doesn’t come with a remote, but you needn’t fret—Chromecast’s menus can be navigated with free Android and iOS apps and the Chrome Web browser for Windows and for Mac. If you’ve already bought into the Google product ecosystem, you’ll feel right at home with Chromecast.

Roku, an established player in the affordable set-top streaming box market, will be releasing the Roku Streaming Stick this April. Its $49.99 price tag buys you the full Roku box experience, including access to over 1000 channels of content for all tastes. This includes all of the services Chromecast boasts, along with other major channels such as Amazon Instant Video, Spotify, and lots of options for news and sports from mainstream networks. The Roku Streaming Stick will ship with an actual physical controller, but can also be used with free apps for iOS and Android devices.  

Now for something different: GameStick. Not “The GameStick”—just “GameStick.” One of a few very successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns aimed at affordable gaming, GameStick is an Android-powered mini-console. Games are played with an included wireless controller featuring a button layout reminiscent of the Xbox 360. When not in use or on the road, GameStick rests in a slot at the bottom of the controller. The largest disadvantage to gaming on this system is that it does not support Google Play. If you have already purchased games from Google Play, they cannot be loaded onto GameStick, and they may not be available through GameStick’s marketplace, either. $79.99 won’t buy you anything approaching a top-of-the-line gaming experience, but it looks like a great solution for casual gamers and children.       

Not to be left out, Amazon should soon be releasing its own streaming dongle. Nothing definite is yet known about this product, including the price. Such a product would have to sell for under $100 to compete in the existing market. It would obviously have to include access to Amazon's Instant Video and MP3 libraries, and, if the Kindle Fire is any indication, options for Netflix and Hulu would also be part of the package.

One unique feature tech journalists have heard rumors of in the Amazon dongle is a streaming gaming service similar to Onlive. Unlike GameStick which plays Android games natively, a system such as Onlive would provide full PC games rendered on a powerful computer in the cloud, with the video from those games piped to the dongle. Playing games in this manner does require a stable and reasonably fast Internet connection with plenty of monthly bandwidth, but it saves you from buying an expensive gaming PC or console. Seeing as Amazon is already a major supplier of cloud computing and Web hosting solutions, I think there is merit to this rumor. 

Streaming dongles are a good compromise of price and features for those who don’t want to pay through the nose for a premium “smart” TV. Keep your eyes on this product category. I expect we’ll see more soon!

UPDATE 4/7/2014: Amazon's device has been revealed as the Fire TV, a set-top box similar to a Roku centered around Amazon's media offerings that provides access to other streaming video services like Netflix and Roku.  It also supports a growing library of controller-enabled Android games sold through Amazon's app store.  Games are played using an Xbox-like controller that is sold separately from the Fire TV.