Newer, cheaper ways to watch entertainment
Television used to be so simple. Five channels, maybe a VHS machine and just a couple of remote controls. If you wanted to watch EastEnders, you either had to be on the sofa at the right time, or make sure you'd set the VCR properly - if the recording failed or the machine ate your tape, well, that was just tough luck. Your only hope was to make sure you caught the omnibus on Sunday, or that you had a sympathetic friend who could lend you a tape of the episode.
The dawn of the TV digital age changed everything: the old analogue system was finally switched off in 2012 and broadcasting moved over to digital. With so much more spectrum, that also meant an explosion in the number of TV and radio channels available: instead of having just five channels to choose from, there were hundreds, ranging from kids' and cookery channels to shopping channels selling unusual kitchen implements 24 hours a day, not to mention a wide range of religious radio stations.
Everyone in the UK can get the free-to-air basic package of 60 TV channels and 25 radio stations provided by Freeview via the aerial on their roof or via Freesat if you have a satellite dish. Today, every new TV receives Freeview without a need for a separate box (when Freeview first launched in 2002, most people had to buy a separate Freeview box).
That basic package includes all the BBC channels as well as the assorted Channel 4 and Five offshoots, plus Sky and Al-Jazeera's news channels, several shopping channels and others that repackage older content and US content such as Drama, Yesterday, Pick and Really.
Many people want more than the 60 channels offered by Freeview because, let's face it, most of them are of limited interest: there are not many people who would settle down for an evening's viewing of a shopping channel. That's where other providers come in: the best known are, of course, Sky and Virgin. The former delivers some 600 channels via satellite dish, while the latter offers around 250 channels via a fibre-optic cable network although not every home, even in central London, can get cable.
Sky and Virgin are not the only providers: many of the internet service providers (ISPs) also bundle TV channels with your internet connection. It makes financial sense for them to do so: once an ISP is connected to your home, the cost to them to pipe films and old episodes of Dad's Army down the connection that you use to pick up your email, Skype family abroad and read Moneywise.co.uk is marginal.
If BT is your ISP, for example, you can add a further 70-odd channels to the Freeview offerings, including several Sky film channels, premium sports channels, documentary offerings, such as Discovery and Animal Planet, as well as kids' channels. All of those providers – Sky, Virgin, BT and the other ISPs – will give you a box that connects to your TV to deliver the additional channels and services.
Depending on your package, the box your provider gives you will also offer catch-up TV, the ability to watch a programme you've missed without having to record it, and 'box sets', entire popular series packaged so that you can “binge-watch” episodes.
For many people, a package from Sky, Virgin or their ISP is sufficient. However, not everyone wants to be tied to one provider and instead are turning to devices that offer many different services in order to put together their own package: more like a buffet than the set menu of dishes offered up by the big providers.
Apps ranging from big, well-known content providers such as Netflix and HBO to niche providers offering, say, French documentaries mean that one of these devices can pretty much provide whatever you want whenever you want to watch it. By and large, whether it's a stick you plug into the back of your TV, aconsoleor a dedicated TV box, they more or less all do the same thing: they provide a platform upon which apps created by content providers can run.
Each device requires you to have an account: thus Google's Nexus Play device requires you to have an account with the Google Play store; similarly, you won't be able to use the Amazon Fire Stick or Fire TV without an Amazon account; and an Xbox One won't work without a Microsoft account and you need an iTunes account to use an Apple TV.
On top of that overarching account, any services you use, such as Netflix, Blinkbox or All 4 (Channel 4's catch-up service), will require a separate sign-in, and not all those services are free. And of course, some apps aren't free.
Not all content boxes are created equal: they may all do more or less the same thing but complicated licensing deals and historic rivalries mean that not every app you want is on every box. So before you make any other decisions, work out which apps you must have.
As a minimum in the UK, I'd suggest BBC iPlayer, All 4, ITV Player, BBC News, BBC Sport and Sky News. Then think about your niche interests: there are myriad apps covering everything from fitness and gaming to golf and cooking available via all the boxes but it's worth checking if the service you want is on the platform you're looking at.
Don't assume that all the devices will have all the big providers, either: Google's Nexus Play looks great until you realise that there's no BBC iPlayer or All 4 app for that device. And if you watch a lot of content from Amazon's instant video service, the Nexus Play is no good for you as there is no Amazon app for that device.
Similarly, Amazon's Fire TV and Fire Stick don't offer the Google Play store, nor can you get any Channel 4 content on the Amazon Fire devices, and Apple's iTunes store is only available via the Apple TV. Check online which apps and channels are on which device before you take the plunge.
Most of the boxes also offer gaming. Some are obviously better at that than others: if gaming is important to you, this is where technical specifications become important.
You won't be able to play the latest blockbusters such at Grand Theft Auto V on an Apple TV or a Nexus Play: if that's your priority, you need either an Xbox One or a PS4.
Some devices are more limited than others: the Chromecast looks neat but is a bit of a one-trick pony as all it can do is send something that's playing on your laptop via the Chrome browser or a dedicated app to the TV screen. The Nexus Play has lots of casual games, such as Cut the Rope, that will keep kids and adults looking for a short distraction but it's surprisingly lacking in mainstream content providers - no BBC iPlayer could be a dealbreaker for some, for example.
The form factors (the size and shape of a device) vary considerably, too. Have you already got a lot of wire and hardware under or behind your TV? Do you have enough space to add another bulky box to a Sky or Freeview box and a Blu-ray player or would you prefer something smaller? One thing to bear in mind is that all this kit requires a lot of sockets.
Another point to consider is that all of these devices need to connect to the internet. Most can do so wirelessly but a wired (Ethernet) connection might be a better option as it provides faster, more stable transfer rates: it is very annoying when watching a film if it stutters because your home wi-fi network is getting clogged up.
If you do want to use a wired connection, you'll need to think about how you will manage that. I use Powerline plugs that use your home's electrical wiring to put devices on the network as I prefer a wired connection if possible. A bit of expertise in home networking is very helpful with these devices, too.
While most of them will join your wireless network without too much fuss, if you can set up fixed IP addresses and perhaps a separate network on the faster 5Ghz Wi-Fi band that will markedly improve your experience of these devices – however, you might need to be more technology-aware than many to make that work perfectly.
Also, is your broadband fast enough? You will need a reliable connection speed of at least 2Mbps (megabits per second) to watch standard definition TV, and the faster and more stable, the better.
You will also need to consider which 'ecosystem' you have already invested most heavily in. For example, if your household is full of Apple devices and you already use the iTunes store a lot, the obvious choice is an Apple TV as it will fit in seamlessly.
Those devoted to Google's version of Android should start by looking at Google's own Nexus Play as that similarly integrates seamlessly with most Android devices. However, if you use Amazon's Prime video on- demand service a lot, you're out of luck with the Nexus Play. Similarly, big users of Google Play should give Amazon's Fire TV and Fire Stick a miss as there is no access to the Google Play store on those devices.
Most of the devices can 'cast' - that is, send what's on your computer or tablet screen to your TV - but not all devices can cast everything. The Apple TV, for example, can cast anything from a Mac, iPad or iPhone to your TV but unless you are prepared to start fiddling around with third-party apps that might not work, if you want to cast from a Windows or Android device to an Apple TV, you're out of luck.
Meanwhile, the Chromecast is picky about what it will cast: in theory you can cast, say, a video stored on your laptop's hard drive to the TV with a Chromecast but in practice it's not a great experience and, again, requires some fiddling about.
If none of these devices are right for you, you might consider another option, which is to put a fully-fledged computer under your TV. There are many small, quiet computers that you can plug directly into the TV – examples include the HP Stream Mini, which costs about £250 depending on specs, or the Asus Vivo Mini, also from about £250. Many Apple devotees have placed a Mac Mini, which starts at £399, under their TV.
The benefit of a full computer rather than a dedicated device is that you can access most, if not all, of the services such as the iPlayer, Google Play and the Amazon store, via a browser, and you can add a Bluetooth keyboard with a trackpad so that you can navigate from the sofa.
Another option is the Intel ComputeStick, which, like a Chromecast, a Roku or Amazon Fire stick, looks like an oversized USB thumb drive and which plugs directly into an HDMI port on the TV. The Compute Stick comes with either Windows 8.1 or with Linux Ubuntu. The Compute Stick is due for launch in the UK later this year but similar devices on Amazon are around £120.
Or if you want to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in, a Raspberry Pi, the tiny computer-on-a-board hobbyist device that costs around £30, makes a surprisingly good media device if you install the Kodi media centre software on it.
None of these options is perfect but taking the time to pick the right device will mean you will have an undreamed-of variety of children's programmes, documentaries, dramas, films, sport and just about anything else you could imagine at your fingertips.