Great New Gadgets for Your HDTV

November 2015

If you're watching a movie using the new Apple TV and you miss a bit of dialog, you can ask, "What did he say?" The movie will immediately skip back and replay the previous 15 seconds — along with captions.

If you want to watch a James Bond movie, you can ask, "Show me some James Bond movies," and a list of movies will appear on-screen sorted by popularity. Then you can say, "Only the ones with Sean Connery," and it will filter the list.

Want to watch something funny? Just say, "Show me some funny TV shows," and you'll get a list of comedies.

The new $149 Apple TV set-top device is just one of a number new voice-enabled gadgets that transform your HDTV into a multi-purpose entertainment center connected to the Internet.

The Apple TV now has an app store and, like a smartphone, can be used for almost anything, including listening to music, playing games, and controlling smart-home appliances. It comes with a remote that includes Siri, Apple's voice-recognition assistant, and a touchpad that lets you control your TV by tapping and swiping.

When you search using Siri, it will search across apps such as Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Showtime, and iTunes. (Of course, you'll need to be a subscriber to those services, or to rent your movie from iTunes.) More apps will be added soon.

The Apple TV remote also has motion sensors so it can be used as a game controller. Multiplayer games are available, and players can use an iPhone or iPad as well as the remote to get in on the fun.

You can use Siri in a variety of additional ways during playback, such as asking to skip ahead five minutes, or back 20 minutes, or ask who's starring in the movie. Siri can even understand requests such as, "Show me the Modern Family episode with Edward Norton." Plus, you can ask Siri for the weather forecast, sports scores, and more. If you want to open a particular app, such as a game, you can just ask Siri to launch it.

As I write this, the arrival of the Apple TV is imminent, and I'll be placing my order the day it's available.

Amazon Fire TV — Also available last month was the new $99 Amazon Fire TV, with a voice remote and Alexa as your personal assistant. Alexa isn't quite as conversational as Siri (no skipping back 15 seconds), but is intelligent in her own right. You can request sports scores, weather information, and music.

You can stream movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon Video, HBO GO, and Showtime Anytime, as well as play games. Plus, the Fire TV also has an app store with a variety of Android apps available. Several live-TV apps are available, including NBC News and the $20/month Sling TV service that offers about 20 channels, including ESPN.

The $139 Fire TV Gaming Edition includes a game controller, two console-quality games, and a 32GB microSD card for more storage.

Like the Apple TV, Fire TV lets you search across providers, but doesn't include Netflix and hides search results behind a "More Ways to Watch" link if the particular TV show or movie you want to watch is available from Amazon itself.

Roku 4 — Roku has emerged as the leader in the streaming gadget market, but that could change with Apple's and Amazon's new set-top boxes. The universal search feature may be its most impressive feature, searching across well over 1,500 channels and giving you access to over 250,00 movies and TV episodes. The $129 Roku 4 includes voice search and 4K video.

The Roku 4 is also a gaming device, but with fewer games available than the Fire TV. The voice recognition is much more limited, only able to understand requests related to entertainment. And even there it's limited, in that it doesn't have the ability to search by genre. However, it and the Apple TV are the only boxes that show search results from Netflix.

Android TV — As with Android smartphones, Android TV is the name of the platform, with a number of different manufacturers making the boxes themselves. In general, speech recognition on these devices is more versatile, as with the Apple TV, including weather, sports, and launching apps. Its universal search may be on par with Roku.

The Google Nexus Player, which came out a year ago, was the first Android TV device. The MSRP is $99, but I've seen it online for as little as $49. You can use it to play Android games, but a review earlier this year said that, overall, the biggest weakness was a limited selection of apps compared to the other devices.

I think any one of these would be a good choice.

© 2015 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen