Welcome to our first annual Editor’s Choice Awards.
While we can offer standalone badges in our reviews to represent the overall standard of a product or service, the Editor’s Choice Awards allow us to drill down in to more specifics and offer a comparative view on certain facets of performance that we feel will likely influence buying decisions. Our reviews are intended to act as guides for our members when looking at certain product sectors, however we now think it’s time for us to introduce an annual best of the year awards where we will explain our reasoning as to why we’ve chosen a particular product and why you should perhaps consider our choices when looking to demo or buy a device.
In the case of these awards, we’re concentrating our efforts on just the last twelve months of releases, since developments have been so rapid, thus taking into account of the ever-changing and evolving nature of the video player market. All the products or apps here have been thoroughly soak tested by the editorial team over the last year so we can confidently and honestly present our choices to readers. In this article we look at the Best AV Streaming Services & Devices of 2017:
We’ll probably take some stick for choosing the NVIDIA SHIELD TV as our overall Editor’s Choice, particularly since competition in the latter half of 2017 has become incredibly intense. The SHIELD TV isn’t without its shortcomings and it doesn’t feature quite as many of the most popular streaming apps as some, either. However, we do feel the SHIELD TV offers the best marriage of mainstream apps and local and networked media player capabilities and, if gaming is something you want, then the NVIDIA also has you covered with ‘console quality’ 1080p 60fps titles on offer, thanks to the power under its hood. The SHIELD TV comes in three varieties: remote control only 16GB; remote & games controller 16GB; and the Pro which has both controllers and 500GB of storage. It offers 4K without HDR from YouTube and 4K with HDR from Netflix, Amazon and Google Play Movies & TV. Plus it offers iPlayer and ITV Hub for the UK market. But the SHIELD really sets itself apart from most of the pack in its media playback capabilities. There’s excellent integration with KODI and SPMC (and other forks) as well as the ability to act as both a PLEX Server and Client. NVIDIA has also provided (mostly) excellent software support to the SHIELD, too, and continues to add new features some two years after release, including growing integration with Smart Home tech and Google voice search and control. It might not be the best in any one category – gaming aside – but we think the NVIDIA SHIELD TV is the one to beat for most scenarios.
For the time being, at least until we all start using voice control wholesale, the handheld remote control unit is our primary interface with AV devices so we feel there should be some recognition when the manufacturer gets it right. In all honesty, most remote controls we get with media streaming device samples leave something to be desire but the one that comes with the Zappiti 4K HDR devices – Duo, One & Mini – is much better. It curves in to the middle from either end, which makes it comfortable to hold, and features a backlight which automatically triggers when you press a button – it shouldn’t be underestimated how useful an illuminated remote can be when you’re watching a movie in dimmed conditions, especially when the remote has a lot of buttons as the Zappiti does. There are dedicated buttons for powering on and off, launching the Zappiti Media Center app and Zappiti Explorer, all the usual playback and transport controls, barring a dedicated stop button and ones to set aspect ratio and engage/disengage the 3D output mode. In the centre are the navigation buttons for menus while, just above those, are a mouse pointer function, Back, Menu and Home keys. Towards the bottom are genuinely useful number buttons – you can numerically enter a percentage point at which to join the video content and, below those, are some basic controls for your TV (Power, Volume, Input Selection) which can be used with the IR learning function of the remote.
Media Player for KODI 2017 – Vero 4K
The Vero 4K is a purpose-built streamer running on OSMC (Open Source Media Center) which is a free and open source media player using Linux and it’s actually based on KODI. There are several features built-in to OSMC, and therefore the Vero 4K, that sets it apart from regular KODI. OSMC has its very own ‘App Store’ including a dedicated TV Headend Server, a Transmission Client and both FTP and SMB Server software options. OSMC also comes with built in support for a variety of popular infra-red remote controls, an easy to access log uploader, in case of issues, and the software also receives monthly updates, like clockwork, which is a feature very much not to be underestimated; the Vero 4K has been promised to be supported for 5 years from release which is much, much better than most, if not all, of the competition. The result of this marriage of custom hardware and software is that the Vero 4K runs super smooth (and fast) and comes with very few limitations. There’s effortless playback of HEVC Ultra HD content, up to 60 frames per second, including HDR 10 (High Dynamic Range) content. The Vero 4K also possesses a rare, and extremely useful, ability to automatically switch video output between Ultra HD and Full HD resolutions, leaving the scaling to your display, rather than the chipset, which is always the better option; it will also dynamically adjust the video refresh rate to complement the frame-rate of the content which, while not so unusual, is equally welcome. There’s also support for High-res (192Khz/24-bit), HD surround and object based audio, including Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. In fact, the only thing really lacking, for the time being at least, is playback of frame-packed 3D video but that’s being worked on right now and should hopefully follow in a software update soon.
Roku is back with a bang in the UK and the Streaming Stick Plus offers, almost inarguably, the best selection of streaming apps on the market. There are 4K/HDR versions of Amazon (no HDR), BBC iPlayer (beta), YouTube and Netflix plus, in terms of UK centric services, there's also ITV Hub, All 4, Demand 5 and TVPlayer on the roster. The Roku Streaming Stick+ is also now setting the standard for video playback with near faultless, system wide, automatic refresh rate switching – matching the frame rate to the video signal to ensure smooth playback of all content and the Roku also effortlessly switches between High and Standard Dynamic Range, when called upon. Roku also boasts the best dedicated mobile app in the business with a (flawed) Private Listening option, a keyboard that makes signing in to services a breeze, casting features and voice search. What is does lack is a Voice Assistant like Alexa or Siri, whilst local media playback isn’t to the highest of standards, either, and the UK market doesn’t quite get the same treatment the US counterpart does but the Roku Streaming Stick + is still a very comprehensive proposition.
Media Player App of The Year 2017 - KODI
There are a few contenders that could have won this one. Other strong candidates include PLEX, which is very similar to KODI in many ways but is arguably easier to set up and offers more bells and whistles, out of the box. We could have also chosen Netflix or Amazon Video that are both increasing the amount of 4K HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos content available to view while offering refined user experiences and content recommendation features. iTunes would also have been a decent shout with its highly attractive pricing for 4K/HDR movies but we’ll stick with KODI. Obviously, KODI has received plenty of bad press recently over piracy concerns but used as the official developers intend you to use it, it’s perfectly legit. KODI is a free, open source media player software offering unrivalled flexibility and customisation options thanks to the multitude of developers who have worked on it. Used to manage your own local and networked media collections, it’s also incredibly powerful and potentially beautiful to look at. It takes a small learning curve but once you get to grips, there is no substitute.
This selection has been made almost entirely on the basis that iTunes has done/is doing more for the advancement of Ultra HD/HDR movie viewing than any other service out there. Apple have been surprisingly slow to the 4K party but, now that they've finally arrived, have done so in style. In terms of its design the new Apple TV 4K looks identical to the previous generation and comes with the latest Siri Remote included which uses both Bluetooth 5.0 wireless technology and an IR transmitter. The remote has a built-in microphone for interacting with Siri and an accelerometer and three-axis gyro for using with games. In terms of video formats it supports H.264/HEVC SDR (Standard Dynamic Range) video up to 2160/60p and for High Dynamic Range it supports HEVC Dolby Vision and HDR10 up to 2160/60p. The Apple TV 4K uses the tvOS operating system which delivers a slick and effective user interface, along with Siri voice assistant which was good but not as intuitive as Alexa and particularly Google Assistant. In terms of video streaming apps that are important for the UK there's Netflix, NOW TV, YouTube and BBC iPlayer, with Apple planning to add Amazon Prime by the end of 2017. As we said earlier, however, it’s the 4K support from iTunes that has nailed this award for the ATV 4K, with the best selection and most competitive prices in the market and, not only that, Apple will upgrade any content you’ve bought from iTunes in HD, as and when it comes available in Ultra HD. Apple has also just introduced automatic refresh rate and dynamic range switching which makes the Apple TV 4K HDR an even stronger proposition than it was on release.
Best Video Streaming Service 2017 – Netflix
Could there really be any other winner? Whilst both Amazon and the BBC can claim to give Netflix a run for its money, there's no denying that the latter is synonymous with video streaming. In fact Netflix haven't just changed the way we stream content, they've changed the way we watch TV entirely – adding 'binge watching' to our language in the process. No other video streaming service has been more influential and no other service has done more to drive TV technology. Netflix have, in a very short period of time, gone from Full HD to 4K Ultra HD before adding High Dynamic Range, Dolby Vision and, most recently, Dolby Atmos. Once you include Netflix's superb user interface it's a tough act to beat but, as if that wasn't enough, they also produce some of the best original content. In fact with shows like Mindhunter
, Stranger Things 2
and The Punisher
being added in the last two months alone, Netflix is creating TV shows that are better than many films in terms of quality and production values. We can't wait to see what they do next!
The Auralic Aries Mini wasn't the prettiest product we looked at in 2017 but thanks to the flexibility it offers and the superb quality of its Lightning interface, it was certainly one the best. This is a cost effective streaming platform that can operate as a server thanks to its hard drive bay and also as a very clever digital transport into an external DAC. With bulletproof streaming services support built in too, this is an outstanding basis for a streaming audio system that is a cut above the competition.
Best Music Streaming Service 2017 – Spotify
In all the excitement about lossless (and even high res) streaming, many services have forgotten some of the basics – ease of use, stability, content and compatibility. Spotify might only be a 320kbps Ogg Vorbis stream but the ease of use, flexibility and sheer range of devices that it runs on is enough to ensure that this remains the best all-round means of augmenting your music there is.