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The Best Streaming Media Device: Roku, Chromecast, or Amazon Fire

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Let’s be frank: there is probably too much stuff plugged into your TV. A few companies are looking to declutter your media center by selling you an all-inclusive media streaming device with a tiny footprint that plugs right into your screen. Two popular media streaming devices are the Google Chromecast (3rd Generation) and the Roku Streaming Stick, but a few new competitors have joined the fray for your entertainment needs.

Roku has the experience coming into the fight; the company has been in the streaming business since 2008, starting with set-top boxes and introducing the first Roku Stick in 2012. Google followed suit with the Chromecast in 2013. Amazon, the internet bookseller turned one-stop shop for pretty much everything, is also making moves in the streaming media space with its Fire TV Stick. Their hardware initiatives have been uneven, but with a push for streaming video, it only made sense for them to try and carve out a chunk of the TV market.

Photo Credit: Roku

The truth is nobody really cares who makes the things that put content on their televisions, as long as the content gets there in the highest quality with as little effort as possible. Ultimately, what matters are the apps and services that come with the hardware, as well as how easy those apps and services are to use for binge-watching sessions. Comparing Amazon, Chromecast, or Roku streaming media devices really comes down to how you use your television, and what apps deliver the content you want.

Under the Hood

Roku Streaming Stick

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The Roku Streaming Stick comes with a minimal remote that’s basically just arrow keys and a few media streaming service shortcuts including Hulu and Netflix, but you can use the Roku app for iOS and Android so your phone or tablet can be used to surf channels instead. The Roku Streaming Stick is by far the simplest choice on this list, for better or for worse. Your home screen can quickly fill up with channels if you consume a lot of media, and filtering and sorting can be annoying. Not every app follows the same design guidelines, so the experience from service to service can be uneven.

Services like Netflix allow you to go to a website and punch in a short code to authorize the device to your account, while others force you to navigate an on-screen keyboard to log in and start watching. Once you’ve logged in, the Roku Streaming Stick remembers your account details so you shouldn’t have to repeat the process. Plus, you can use your voice to search for your favorite movies and TV shows. The Roku Streaming Stick is available to purchase on Amazon.com.

Google Chromecast (3rd Generation)

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Google’s Chromecast (3rd Generation) works a little differently. The dongle doesn’t store any account information because it doesn’t directly connect to streaming services initially. Instead, when you connect a Chromecast you set it up through a laptop, smartphone, or tablet. That device then hooks up the service and the TV.

That means you need to have whatever streaming app — Netflix, Hulu, Google Play, and so on — installed on that particular device. Once your media is playing, just tap the Chromecast button in the app to switch the stream to your television.

Whatever device you used to start the stream now becomes the remote, which you can use for pausing, volume control, and whatever else. The Chromecast function works exactly the same in every app, so if you’ve done it once you’re already an expert. You will need a Google Home device to activate voice commands, however, it’s worth it if you want to have an easy binge-watching session. Head over to Amazon.com or Walmart.com to buy the Chromecast (3rd Generation).

Amazon Fire TV Stick

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The Amazon Fire TV Stick tends more towards the Roku side of the fence with its dedicated remote, although it offers a few innovative features. The latest model works with an optional remote that listens to voice commands (much like the Echo unit does). Although it supports pretty much all of the same streaming apps that Roku does, the Fire Stick naturally puts Amazon Instant Video front and center. A separate Bluetooth-enabled remote rounds out the package. The Amazon Fire TV Stick can be purchased at Amazon.com.

What’s on the Screen?

Photo Credit: Roku

Roku is by far the winner in terms of sheer volume of content. The service supports thousands of channels, from the big names like Netflix and Hulu down to niche services like The Monster Channel. The system’s search functionality is also extremely well-tuned, letting you hunt down your desired content no matter where it might live.

Photo Credit: Google

Chromecast started out with a fairly limited array of apps that it would play nice with, but that number has increased considerably. The real selling point here is the ability to “mirror” content from your devices directly on your TV screen. Even software that doesn’t have dedicated Chromecast streaming can be pushed to the device — games, websites, and so on. This can be pretty cool.

Amazon Fire Stick

Photo Credit: Amazon

Amazon’s offerings are slightly less diverse than Roku’s, but the service still boasts all of the big players in the streaming space. However, the device is tuned to prioritize Amazon Instant Video, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Like the Chromecast, the Fire Stick can also be used to mirror device screens, but only phones and tablets.

The Final Decision

Photo Credit: Amazon

At the end of the day, it’s between Roku Streaming Stick and the Amazon Fire TV Stick. Although the Chromecast (3rd Generation) is the least expensive option on the table, it’s significantly less user-friendly and requires another piece of hardware.

Which one is right for you? It depends on how tech-savvy you are. The Roku Streaming Stick is a great unit for those new to streaming media devices. The remote is durable, the user interface is time-tested, and the content is robust and easy to search. The Amazon Fire Stick is more cutting-edge and has better performance, but it’s more cluttered and has less content overall.

Our final judgment: the Amazon Fire Stick is the Geek pick for best low-profile streaming device. If you can get past the intense focus on Amazon itself (and paying for Instant Video), it has the best mix of features and by far the more powerful hardware. Failing that, grab a Roku.

Streaming Extras to Consider

Photo Credit: Amazon

You should also keep in mind that as sticks, all of these devices are limited. It’s tough to beat the streaming content they can provide in such small, hidden form factors, and we think they’re enough for most people. However, if you’re willing to upgrade to a bigger, more expensive streaming box, you will get a little more.

Streaming boxes like Amazon Fire TV and Roku Premiere+ are faster than their stick counterparts and have more features, like 4K streaming. Meanwhile, the Apple TV is a great way to access Apple’s impressive, curated ecosystem on your television, and has recently announced its own 4K, HDR model. The Nvidia Shield TV is an Android streaming box with an emphasis on gaming. Or you could just get a full-fledged video game console, like a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, since they all also offer media streaming now.

Your streaming journey doesn’t have to end with these devices, though. There are a wide range of products and services that interact with the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku Streaming Stick, Chromecast (3rd Generation), and others to cut the cord and put the exact content you want on whatever screen you want. Here are some of our favorite streaming TV services and why. Keep checking back for new additions.

DirecTV Now is live TV powered purely by the internet. You have to buy channels in bulk and still deal with commercials, but in return you get the real live TV experience delivered through streaming. (3 out of 4 stars)

Slingbox is more of a utility than a streaming service. But it’s a really convenient utility. If you’re already paying for live TV you can hook up a Slingbox and access that same TV content wherever there’s an internet connection.

Photo Credit: Crunchyroll

Crunchyroll is the definitive anime streaming service. Subs>>>Dubs. (3.5 stars out of 4. Geek Pick)

CuriosityStream has a nearly endless supply of educational shows and documentaries on everything from nature to technology to culture. Learn something! (3.5 stars out of 4)

Boomerang is a solid source of retro cartoons like Looney Tunes or Scooby-Doo. It may not mesh as well with kids’ modern tastes, but it’s a nifty animation time capsule. (3 stars out of 4)

FuboTV is the escape from cable that sports fans are looking for. It’s pricey, but being able to easily stream live sports and more from dozens of channels with only one subscription might very well be worth it. (3 stars out of 4)

Brown Sugar has all of the classic Blaxploitation movies you could want and then some. It’s niche, but it’s one of the most impressive niche libraries we’ve seen. (3.5 stars out of 4)

FilmStruck is for the true cinephile. Its library collects classic films from all eras and countries, including Criterion Collection movies. (3.5 stars out of 4)

More on Geek.com:

1.

Netflix / Hulu / HBO Go Accounts

So many streaming TV services to choose from. Where do you start?

2.

Netflix is still arguably the biggest name in streaming TV.

3.

Hulu trial screen

Although it no longer has a free option, Hulu is a great streaming TV service that is worth paying for.

4.

From buying to renting to subscribing to individual channels, Amazon offers a bevy of streaming TV options.

5.

YouTube Red subscribers can watch original shows from streaming stars, but YouTube TV lets you watch actual live TV.

6.

Hook up a Slingbox and watch the cable and live TV you’re already paying for anywhere.

7.

You have to buy channels in bulk and still deal with commercials, but with DirecTV Now you get the real live TV experience delivered through streaming.

8.

Crunchyroll is the best anime streaming service if you’re all about subtitles.

9.

If dubs are more your thing, Funimation Now is the anime streaming service for you.

10.

If you want to stream shows and documentaries that actually teach you something, go with CuriosityStream.

11.

AMC Premiere just focuses on current AMC shows, but for Walking Dead super fans that might be enough.

12.

With Boomerang, tons of retro cartoons, from Looney Tunes to Scooby-Doo, can all come back to you

13.

FuboTV may be the escape from cable that sports fans are looking for. It’s pricey, but being able to easily stream live sports and more from dozens of channels with only one subscription might very well be worth it.

14.

Brown Sugar has all of the classic Blaxploitation movies you could want and then some. It’s niche, but it’s one of the most impressive niche libraries we’ve seen.

15.

For the true cinephile, FilmStruck has a large collection of classic films from all eras and countries, including movies from the Criterion Collection.

16.

CollegeHumor’s Dropout provides premium streaming online laughs.

17.

DC Universe offers live-action adaptations of less familiar superheroes, like Doom Patrol.

18.

Along with presenting streaming services like Netflix and Sling through one box, Dish AirTV also lets you watch local over-the-air channels with an additional installation.

19.

Get a streaming media device to enjoy these services on your TV. Our favorite is the Amazon Fire Stick.

20.

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Polaroid Lab Turns Smartphone Snaps Into Instant Photos

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Like live theater and paper books, printed pictures provide a sense of presence that movies, e-books, and digital images lack.

It’s that feeling—plus a hint of nostalgia—that keeps Polaroid in business.

Now, the company is launching a portable printer* that turns smartphone snaps into instant photos.

“Unlimited cloud storage can actually be your memories’ worst enemy, causing your digital photos to skyrocket in numbers and end up falling into a void of oblivion,” Polaroid CEO Oskar Smolokowski said in a statement.

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With a camera in every pocket, people are taking more pictures than ever. But it’s easy to lose track of special moments among a sea of online pixels.

Enter Polaroid Lab.

The idea, according to Smolokowski, is to turn precious pictures into tangible photographs, “bringing them into the world as something you can hold in your hand and store on the fridge door rather than in the cloud.”

Simply select an image from the Polaroid Originals app, place your handset on top of the machine, press a button, and voila! An instant photo (that you don’t need to shake).

Using a combination of mirrors, light, and “the unique Polaroid chemistry,” snaps are recast as instant pictures (via Polaroid)

The appliance uses a combination of mirrors, light, and “the unique Polaroid chemistry” to recast snapshots as a leave-to-develop, white-rimmed keepsake.

Starting in October, you can make pictures instead of just taking them with the $130 Polaroid Lab, compatible with iPhone 6S/iOS 11 and above, Android 7 or higher, and current Samsung, Huawei, Google Pixel, and One Plus models.

Sign up for the company newsletter “to get your hands on one first.”

*According to Polaroid, its new device is “not a printer, not a scanner, just an instant formula for timeless images.

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McDonald’s Plans to Serve AI Voice Technology at Drive Thru

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McDonald’s is slowly but surely eliminating humans workers from its fast-food equation.

Following the rollout of self-order kiosks and “personalized” menus, the burger empire plans to automate drive-thrus with its acquisition of Apprente.

The Silicon Valley startup, purchased for an undisclosed sum, was founded in 2017 to create voice-based platforms for multilingual, multi-accent, and multi-item conversational ordering.

Now, McDonald’s wants to use the system for faster, simpler, and more accurate order taking.

“Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental … and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers, while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests,” McD’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a statement.

It’s not entirely clear exactly how the Apprente tech will work; McDonald’s has already tested the automation solutions at select restaurants, but provided no further details.

“Apprente was born out of an opportunity to use technology to solve challenging real-world problems,” according to co-founder Itamar Arel. “And we’re thrilled to now apply this to creating personalized experiences for customers and crew.”

Arel & Co. will be founding members of a new in-house team called McD Tech Labs, expected to grow with the addition of engineers, data scientists, and other experts in the future.

While the initial focus will be to enhance McDonald’s drive thrus, the company aims to incorporate this technology into mobile ordering and kiosks.

“As we all know, technology can change by the day. And with that, so do our customers’ expectations,” a Golden Arches press release said. “We are committed to delivering the best possible experience for restaurant crew and our customers. And this is only the beginning.”

Earlier this year, McDonald’s purchased AI platform Dynamic Yield, teasing upcoming “personalized” menu options related to time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic, and trending items.

The electronic bill of fares even understands current service times, suggesting only those things that are easy to make during peak hours, in an effort to keep the drive thru running smoothly.

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Machine Learning Estimates Risk of Cardiovascular Death

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MIT researchers have developed a machine learning model that can estimate, based on the electrical activity of their heart, a patient’s risk of cardiovascular death.

The system, dubbed “RiskCardio,” was created by the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) with the intention of better predicting health outcomes.

It focuses on folks who have survived acute coronary syndrome (ACS)—a range of conditions involving decreased flow to the heart. Just 15 minutes of a patient’s raw electrocardiogram (ECG) signal can produce a score that places people into different risk categories.

“We’re looking at the data problem of how we can incorporate very long time series into risk scores, and the clinical problem of how we can help doctors identify patients at high risk after an acute coronary event,” lead study author Divya Shanmugam said in a statement.

“The intersection of machine learning and healthcare is replete with combinations like this—a compelling computer science problem with potential real-world impact,” she added.

This isn’t the first machine-learning attempt at risk metrics; previous experiments have used external patient information like age or weight, or knowledge and expertise specific to the system.

RiskCardio, however, relies solely on patients’ raw ECG signal—with no added information.

Say someone checks into the hospital after an ACS: A physician would normally estimate risk of cardiovascular death or heart attack using medical data and lengthy tests before choosing a course of treatment.

MIT’s invention aims to improve that first step.

The team tested their model using data from a study of past patients, separating each person’s signal into a collection of adjacent heartbeats. They then assigned a label—”risky” for those who died of cardiovascular complications and “normal” for those who survived—to each set of beats.

When demonstrated on a new patient, CSAIL analysts were able to estimate whether someone would suffer from cardiovascular death within 30, 60, 90, or 365 days.

Moving forward, the team hopes to make the dataset more inclusive to account for different ages, ethnicities, and genders, and evaluate how their system accounts for ambiguous cases.

“Machine learning is particularly good at identifying patterns, which is deeply relevant to assessing patient risk,” Shanmugam said. “Risk scores are useful for communicating patient state, which is valuable for making efficient care decisions.”

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