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Best gifts: 5 best TV streaming devices of 2019

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Roku

I stream. You stream. We all stream. By March 2019, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reported streaming video subscriptions passed cable television customers for the first time. There were over 613.3 million streaming subscribers compared to cable’s 556 million subscribers. 

But how do you get to all that content? Here are my suggestions.

Also: Black Friday deals at CNET

Getting started with streaming video

Before launching into this, I should mention I’ve been a cord-cutter for a decade. I made the jump because I hated my large cable and satellite bills. And, these days, many of my favorite shows are only available on streaming services. I know a thing or two about streaming gadgets.

But cutting costs alone isn’t reason enough to make the jump. The cable light services, like Hulu with Live TV ($44.99), Sling TV ($25 to $40 for basic packages), and YouTube TV ($49.99) have been going up in price. If you add in such old favorites as Amazon Prime Video ($8.99) and Netflix ($8.99), and the popcorn entertainment powerhouse of Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and Disney, Disney+, your streaming bill will start to rival your cable or satellite costs.

The real reason to switch to streaming these days is choice. Online streaming services offer the best of the old. For example, if you like art house and classic movies, you should check out Criterion for $10.99 a month, while 90s television shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friends will soon only be able to stream on HBO Max for $15 a month. 

They also offer your only choice for the best of the new. For such popular shows as Stranger Things, you must have Netflix. For The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s Hulu. For The Man in the High Castle, you must subscribe to Amazon Prime. Traditional over-the-air (OTA) networks, such as CBS, ZDNet’s parent company, are also moving to streaming. Star Trek: Discovery, for instance, is only available on CBS’s streaming service, CBS All Access, which costs $5.99.

In theory, you can get all these on a smart TV. In practice, smart TVs are a poor choice. That’s because, generally speaking, TV manufacturers do a poor job of supporting streaming services. For example, starting Dec. 1, older smart TVs from Samsung and Vizio will no longer support Netflix. I am dead-certain other smart TV lines will no longer support Netflix, as well.

Some smart TVs also don’t support newer channels. For example, if your kids are demanding Disney+ and you have a Vizio TV, you’re out of luck. You can’t stream it. Workarounds are coming for some Vizio models, but try explaining to your five-year-old when they want to watch Frozen right now,

Although true streaming devices can become obsolete, it’s a lot cheaper to buy a new one than it to buy a new TV.  So, before you buy any of these, if you like a particular, non-mainstream streaming service, make sure your device supports it. Only Roku supports pretty much everything and anything. 

All that said, here’s my pick of the 2019 streaming devices.

Best video streaming devices 

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn a commission from some of the products featured on this page.

2019 Roku Ultra

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2019 Roku Ultra for $100

Roku builds the best streaming devices. At the top of the list, if you have the 4K and a High Dynamic Range Video 10 (HDR10) TV to support it, is the 2019 Roku Ultra. It doesn’t, however, support Dolby Vision HDR. Since very few videos come with Dolby Vision HDR enabled, I don’t see that as much of a problem. 

It comes with a handy remote with programmable shortcut buttons and a headphone jack. The last is nice when you want to watch TV and not bug anyone else in your bedroom. While the old-style Ultra box supports 802.11ac for Wi-Fi streaming, it also comes with an Ethernet port. 

Like all Roku devices, it supports more streaming services than any two of its competitors. If you, like me, enjoy exploring the hundreds of video services out there, this makes it a must buy.

I also like Roku’s simple interface. Sure, it’s not flashy, but I know what’s what with it and it’s a pleasure to use. At a $99.99 list price, it’s not cheap as streaming gadgets go, but I like it. 

But, if you hurry Walmart is offering a Black Friday deal for Ultra streaming box. It’s available for $48 on Black Friday. This deal comes with  $5 in Vudu credit and JBL headphones. The Roku Ultra deal will be available online starting Wed., Nov. 27 at 7 pm PT.

Roku Express+

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Other Roku models (starting at $29)

Last year’s Roku Premiere+ has most of the Stick Plus features and a surprisingly good voice interface with audio control built into the remote. That’s good news. The bad news is that it only supports 802.11n at 2.4GHz. That means, if your Wi-Fi is shaky, it may not work well for you. You can only buy the Premiere+ from Walmart for $39.99.

The most affordable Roku, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, is also one of the best. It has all the Roku 4K and HDR goodness with voice control to go with its remote. You can find the Streaming Stick Plus for as little as $29 from Amazon.

Finally, if you have an older TV from the days before HDMI became the standard, the Roku Express+ for $39.99 can give it a new lease on life. This device uses composite A/V ports to work even with some 20th century TVs.

Amazon Fire TV Stick

Amazon Fire TV Sticks (starting at $29)

Mea culpa, I’m an Amazon Echo user. So, my favorite Amazon streaming gadget is the new Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice. With either its remote or any nearby Alexa-enabled device, you can order it to start showing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel whenever you wish. As you might imagine, with Alexa behind it the Fire Stick is the best voice-controlled streaming device. 

This Fire Stick supports 4K and HDR-10. It stands out from the rest of the streaming devices with its support of Dolby Vision, an HDR format alternative to the more popular HDR10. 

In theory, Dolby Vision HDR is superior to HDR10 because of its potential to display more colors. I doubt you’ll be able to see the difference. Besides, if you’re an old video fan like me, you’ll remember how Betamax really was better than VHS. And you’ll recall how much good did that Betamax in the long run and the difference between Dolby Vision HDR and HDR10 is far smaller. 

Besides Amazon Prime, it supports most of the other popular streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. At $39.99, this Fire TV Stick an affordable, high-quality streaming gadget. If you don’t have a 4K TV, there’s a $10 cheaper Fire TV Stick for HDTVs. 

Apple TV 4K

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Apple TV 4K (starts at $179)

I haven’t been happy with the last few Apple TV generations, but Apple finally got its groove back with the 2019 edition of the Apple TV 4K. For example, it finally supports 4K  streaming, HDR, and applications for most of the major streaming services.

That said, the Apple TV 4K is heavily Apple-centric. That’s great if you have your own iTunes or Apple TV app-based media library. On the other hand, it can’t stream at full 4K HDR video from such external services as Netflix, YouTube, or Vudu. It will play them, but it downscales them to 1080p HDTV.

At $179 for the 32GB version or $199 for the 64GB version of the Apple TV 4K, like all Apple products, is not cheap. You can save some money by simply getting the $179 version. Unlike earlier models, the Apple TV only uses its onboard storage for applications and games. It streams all its videos.

The Apple TV 4K’s bottom line is it’s great for anyone whose life is built around Apple products or the new $4.99 Apple+ streaming service. Others can spend far less to watch the same shows.
 

Google Chromecast

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Google Chromecast (starts at $35)

Google’s Chromecast isn’t for everyone. The main difference between it and other streaming devices is that it can mirror your Android device’s screens and Chrome web browser display to your television. That’s it. Doesn’t sound like that much does it? 

Ah, but screen mirroring is a darn handy feature. It enables you stream to your TV any web video content. Not everything, after all, is available on YouTube. You can also use it to throw video-conferences on a TV. Or, by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN), you can stream content you can’t usually stream to your TV. For example, I use mine to watch UK television shows like His Dark Materials via BBC iPlayer.

Unlike the other devices, it doesn’t have a remote. You must use an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet to set it up and control it. Once ready to run, you can also control it with your voice using any device, like a Google Home, which supports Google Assistant. So, for example, I can say, “Hey Google, watch The Umbrella Academy on Chromecast,” and it starts playing.

Last, but not least, I carry a Chromecast with me, so I can use most hotel TVs to watch the television I want instead of the hotel’s selection. For a mere $35, the third-generation Chromecast is a nice addition to any serious streamer’s gadget collection.



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GM is throwing even more money at EVs and autonomous vehicles

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General Motors plans to dramatically increase its spend on electric vehicles and autonomous driving, pledging $35 billion through 2025 as it races to bring new EVs to market. The company had previously said it would spend $27 billion in the same period, and will now pull forward battery manufacturing plans for its Ultium platform.

The goal now is to build two battery cell manufacturing plants in the US by mid-decade, to join the first plants that are currently under construction in Tennessee and Ohio. Right now, GM isn’t saying where it expects the new facilities to be located, or how much capacity they’re likely to have, with those details still to be confirmed.

As for the vehicles that will actually use those batteries, there GM is expanding its goals too. In November 2020, the automaker had said it planned 30 new EVs by 2025 globally; two-thirds of that range would be available in North America. Now, though, it’s adding new commercial products.

“GM will add to its North America plan new electric commercial trucks and other products that will take advantage of the creative design opportunities and flexibility enabled by the Ultium Platform,” the automaker said today. “In addition, GM will add additional US assembly capacity for EV SUVs.”

That US manufacturing component is key, given signs from the American government that future incentives and credits available to electric vehicle buyers will be dependent – in part – on where the car, SUV, or truck was built. According to the latest proposals, the maximum incentive of $12,500 would only be accessible for a vehicle priced at under $80,000, built in the US, and in a factory where workers are part of, or represented by, a labor union.

Location isn’t the only issue there. Although GM has revealed two Ultium-based vehicles, the GMC Hummer EV and Cadillac Lyriq, only the Cadillac looks set to come in at under that $80k ceiling. For GM to continue benefiting from the maximum incentives, it needs to figure out a way to make more affordable electric vehicles.

On the autonomous side of things, there GM has a number of fingers in the pie. Cruise, of which GM is the majority owner, already announced this week that it had secured $5 billion in credit from GM Financial in order to place a bulk order of the Origin AVs specially designed for its ride-hailing service. Revealed early last year, Origin – which has no traditional car controls – will be among the first Ultium-based EVs to go into production.

Cruise is also working with Honda, which co-developed the Origin, on an AV testing program in Japan. Honda, meanwhile, is co-developing two electric EVs with GM that will be based on Ultium. One of those will be branded as a Honda in the US, and the other an Acura.

It’s a time of big promises for automakers right now, as they tool up to try to carve out space in the growing electric vehicle category. Recent chip supply-chain struggles have threatened to put a dampener on those efforts, at least temporarily – GM said earlier this month that it would be cutting some features from its current vehicles, to work around shortages in hardware – but the reality is that none of the car companies can afford to slow down if they’re to meet both their self-imposed efforts and the requirements of legislators around things like emissions reductions.

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BMW X5-based hydrogen fuel cell prototype begins testing in Europe

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BMW has begun testing an X5-based prototype running a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Affectionately referred to as the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT, the prototype is an all-electric vehicle fueled by the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen in a fuel cell. The German automaker firmly believes that hydrogen fuel cell technology can replace internal combustion engines, plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) as the future of mobility.

“Hydrogen fuel cell technology can be an attractive option for sustainable drive trains – especially in larger vehicle classes,” explained Frank Weber, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG responsible for Development. “That is why road testing of near-standard vehicles with a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain is an important milestone in our research and development efforts.”

BMW has unveiled plans of releasing a limited series of hydrogen fuel cell SUVs in 2022. The carmaker is on track to debut a small production run of hydrogen-powered BMW X5 SUVs by later next year. Proof of this is the launch of a real-world testing program for the BMW I Hydrogen NEXT.

Unbeknownst to many, BMW’s been dabbling with hydrogen technology since the early 2000s. The automaker released a limited production run of the BMW Hydrogen 7 luxury car based on a V12-powered 7 Series limousine. But instead of having a fuel cell and electric motors, the Hydrogen 7 had the same 6.0-liter gasoline V12 engine that runs on both hydrogen and gasoline, officially making it the world’s first production-ready hydrogen vehicle.

However, BMW only built 100 examples of the Hydrogen 7, and all were available for lease to selected high-profile clients only. BMW will aim for more than 100 private lease clients for its next-gen hydrogen fuel cell SUV, and the proof is in the pudding.

BMW claims the i Hydrogen NEXT prototype combines hydrogen fuel cell technology with BMW’s fifth-gen eDrive technology, the latter also found in the BMW iX3 and incoming iX and i4 models. Capable of generating a maximum of 374 horsepower, BMW’s hydrogen fuel cell prototype is churning out the same power level as the brand’s six-cylinder inline petrol engines.

Similar to Jaguar Land Rover’s Defender hydrogen prototype, the i Hydrogen NEXT has a performance battery pack that boosts power when accelerating while recovering energy from braking and coasting. The prototype has two 700-bar storage tanks made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) that collectively hold six kilograms of hydrogen.

BMW has partnered with Japanese auto giant Toyota in developing the fuel cell for its i Hydrogen NEXT prototype. The two carmakers have been working since 2013 to study and optimize the scalability of hydrogen fuel cells in future vehicle offerings.

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Lincoln pledges full electrification by 2030

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Lincoln will electrify its entire range by 2030, the automaker has announced, joining the industry shift toward ousting combustion engines in favor of zero-emissions. It comes after launching plug-in hybrid versions of several of its SUVs, with Lincoln promising to debut its first all-electric model in 2022.

By midway through this decade, meanwhile, Lincoln says it expects half of its global sales volume to be of zero-emissions vehicles. That’s ambitious, given right now the company doesn’t even have one such car to sell. Models like the Corsair Grand Touring offer a PHEV drivetrain, but the reality is that you only get 25 miles of electric range before the gas engine kicks in full-time.

Lincoln’s answer will be a new platform. It’s a newly flexible architecture, the automaker says, capable of underpinning rear-wheel drive and all-wheel drive battery-electric models: Lincoln plans to use it for four “new and distinct” EVs. This is, it’s worth noting, different from the Rivian skateboard platform; Lincoln had originally intended to use that for its EV, but that project has been put on hold.

Exactly what form its first electric model will take, Lincoln is coy on. The obvious option would be an SUV or crossover, of course. Not only is that the direction in which the market – and Lincoln’s existing sales – is trending, bigger cars offer more space to accommodate larger battery packs.

However Lincoln has been flirting with other possibilities, at least in concept form. The Zephyr Reflection was a design exercise with the tastes of the Chinese market – a huge one for the automaker – in mind, revealed at Auto Shanghai 2021 back in April. Evolving the recognizable cues of the discontinued Lincoln Continental, but with altogether bolder styling, it was billed as a preview of what the brand could do in the future. Lincoln’s exterior tease of the new EV’s front light graphics seems to line up with what we’ve seen from Zephyr Reflection.

Meanwhile, that concept’s approach chimes with what the automaker is saying about its upcoming EV. “Evolving Lincoln’s design, the fully electric Lincoln will deliver a more spacious interior that creates the ultimate expression of the Lincoln sanctuary,” the company promises. “On approach, the exterior presents a striking, modern aesthetic, while the iconic Lincoln star evolves to meet an electrified future. Thoughtful details inside create a truly rejuvenating space for all, with clever storage solutions and minimalistic panels, while a larger, expansive panoramic vista roof enhances natural light and provides a more open, airy feel throughout.”

That’s a whole lot of design-speak, but there’s no denying that EVs do have clear advantages in luxury vehicles. Instantaneous torque but from a quieter drivetrain, along with less intrusion from mechanical components into the cabin, all make a lot of sense for a high-end vehicle.

Lincoln’s target is more aggressive than that of corporate parent Ford, it’s worth noting. Ford expects to have around 40-percent of its models electric by 2030, though it does a commercial range of work trucks to consider. Lincoln, in contrast, has a much more focused portfolio.

As for charging, Lincoln plans to borrow Ford’s strategy of collating other providers into a central interface. That’ll be the Lincoln Charging Network, with partners like Electrify America and others included into the Lincoln Way app. You’ll presumably also be able to access that through Lincoln’s new infotainment system, which it is building atop Android.

Finally, there’ll be Lincoln ActiveGlide, a hands-free highway driving assistance system. Like Ford BlueCruise, it’ll use driver-attention cameras to make sure the person behind the wheel is paying attention to the road, even if their hands aren’t on the wheel. However it will only operate on stretches of pre-mapped, divided highway. Ford plans an over-the-air update to deliver BlueCruise functionality to Mustang Mach-E and F-150 models with the right hardware package later in 2021.

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