The Best Gear for Building Your Home Theater

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Everyone loves watching a great movie on a big screen with a great speaker system, but few would complain about losing the sticky floors, uncomfortable seats, and kids with smartphones (unless they’re your own kids). Our A/V team spends thousands of hours each year to find the best looking and sounding home theater equipment. Whether you have a dedicated theater room planned or are thinking of upgrading your weeknight living room movie night, we have recommendations covering whatever space and budget you have.

Almost all of these recommendations (and more) are available in our Home Theater section, but we understand that it’s not totally clear how everything fits together. This guide compiles everything you need in one place, along with some new reviews of stuff like projector ceiling mounts and TV wall mounts not covered elsewhere. You’d be surprised at how little it can cost to upgrade your at-home movie-watching setup from functional to enjoyable. For less than $1,000, our $500 TV and budget soundbar will offer a huge step up in quality from most existing setups and leave enough money in the budget for a Blu-ray player and universal remote. The same goes for the cost of a high-performance dedicated theater compared to what home theater enthusiasts would have you believe. Our best home theater projector, screen, receiver, and speaker system cost less combined than the street price of a single 4K projector (as of January 2016).



How to Set Restrictions on The New Apple TV

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Take Control of What People See on Your New Apple TV With This Simple Guide

Best Media Streamers | 2016

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From Netflix to iTunes and everything in between, there’s now a plethora of services for delivering video over the web. Those TV shows and movies don’t look their best on your 13-inch laptop though, which is why we’ve also seen a rise in the number of boxes, dongles and streamers built to get content from the internet up on the big screen in your living room. Join us as we break down the best streaming boxes and other streaming devices of 2015.

Gizmag breaks down the best streaming devices of 2015

Picking through the different options for set-top boxes and streamers is no easy task. All these bits of gadgetry have slightly different approaches and capabilities, so we’re here to help you make some sense of the market and identify the best hardware of 2015. We’ll start off with a broad look at the features you need to consider, then list specific products that are worth putting on your shopping shortlist.


All of the devices we’re considering here get video from the web to your television screen, usually via HDMI cable. Outside of that basic similarity, there’s plenty of variety: some streamers are sticks you plug straight into the back of a set, while others are small boxes that sit underneath; some dongles need your phone to work, others can operate independently.

It’s worth considering what else you want your new gadget to do besides video streaming. Some add music, photo viewing and even gaming to the mix as well as video from the usual providers, so if you think you’ll find these extra features handy then go for a device that includes them. A number of devices let you view locally saved files (via a memory card or external hard drive) which is a feature many users will find helpful.

Some of the top-end devices are now starting to offer 4K streaming as well. While there’s only a smattering of 4K content available on the likes of Netflix and YouTube at the moment, if you want to future-proof your purchase then it might be worth spending a little extra to get it. You’re also going to need a speedy web connection fast enough to support it, of course.


A nice new set-top streaming box or dongle isn’t much use if you don’t have anything to watch on it. Apps such as Netflix, iTunes, HBO Go, Google Play Movies & TV, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu and others are crucial to your viewing experience, and not all boxes offer all of these apps. If there are official news catch-up TV services in your part of the world, like BBC iPlayer, then some of these may be supported too.

If there’s an app you’re particularly tied to, you’ll want to check to see if it’s supported on each device (we compiled a handy list for you, that we’ll get to in a second). With the exception of the Roku kit, all of these streamers are focused primarily on one main ecosystem (Amazon, Apple or Google) with varying levels of support for apps and content falling outside of those walled gardens – something else to bear in mind if you’ve already bought a lot of movies and shows on one particular platform.

As we’ve mentioned, some devices are platform agnostic, but even if you buy a box based on Android or iOS, it’s not quite as simple as installing any of the apps you can run on a smartphone or tablet – the app stores on these devices can be quite limited in some cases, so make sure you’re getting access to the apps you use most frequently before choosing those boxes over others.

With that in mind, here’s the current state of play regarding the most popular apps on the most popular streamers:

* The YouTube app for Amazon’s streamers is made by Amazon and is essentially just a wrapper for the web interface.

** Videos can only be cast from the Vimeo app for iOS; there’s no support yet on the equivalent Android app.

*** There’s no full Spotify app for Amazon streamers, but there is Spotify Connect, which lets you beam tunes from another device (such as a smartphone).

**** Google Play TV & Movies is AirPlay compatible from iOS devices, but there’s no standalone Apple TV app.

There are a few points to bear in mind: this doesn’t factor in apps that are “coming soon” (like the app Vimeo has promised for Android TV) nor does it consider third-party hacks and workarounds which can turn some of these red crosses into green ticks. Where HBO and Showtime are listed, the ticks refer to both the on-demand apps included as part of a cable subscription (HBO GO, Showtime Anytime) and the standalone apps that work exclusively over the web (HBO Now, Showtime).

Compatibility and connectivity

As with most purchases of electronics these days, you need to weigh up how well your streaming device is going to work with your other bits of kit. It’s no surprise that Apple TVworks best with mobile iOS devices and a well-stocked iTunes library, for example, while Google’s Nexus Player relies heavily on the Google Play stores for apps, music, movies and more.

The gadgets we’ve listed below should work with most TVs bought in the last five years or so, though it’s worth double-checking with the specs of your existing set. A spare HDMI port is usually all you need, though if you need something beyond this (like audio streaming to a separate set of speakers) check the small print for details of each device’s compatibility.

Most of the time you’re going to need a solid Wi-Fi connection coming into your living room, though some of the pricier set-top boxes come with an Ethernet port as well (a more reliable option if you’re streaming high bandwidth video). A remote control is usually bundled with each box, and you may get extras such as game controllers too.


The prices of these devices fit broadly in line with their various capabilities. At the lowest end of the range, Google’s US$35 Chromecast is a simple dongle that relies on your smartphone to do anything. It pulls content straight from the web, but you need a connected mobile device (or laptop) to launch or control what’s on the screen.

At the other end of the scale is the $200+ Nvidia Shield. With some impressive hardware specifications, online gaming and 4K streaming capabilities, you get a lot more for your money. Ultimately it’s a question of deciding which features you want to be able to use and setting your budget accordingly.

Amazon Fire TV

Like most of the other big names in the market, Amazon launched a new version of its set-top box this year. The headline features are support for 4K video and more processing power under the hood, though you have to make do with Amazon’s proprietary Fire OS interface rather than familiar variations on iOS or Android. There is a microSD card slot for loading local media, and the bundled remote enables some smart voice control. An optional game controller is available and apps like Netflix and HBO sit alongside Amazon’s own video offering. The price is reasonable too: $100 for 8 GB storage.

Amazon Fire TV Stick

That’s right, Amazon does a streaming dongle as well as a set-top box. It’s simpler and cheaper, and unless you’re a fan of playing mobile games on your TV or you have to play files you’ve saved to a memory card then it’s probably the better choice. You get a smaller range of games and apps because the hardware is less powerful, but all the key video and music services are still present and correct, and there’s even 8 GB of integrated storage for saving files locally.

The Fire TV Stick is available for $40 and if you can afford $10 extra on top of that you get a voice-enabled version of the remote control.

Apple TV

An obvious choice if you already have a house full of iPhones, iPads and Macs, the recently revamped Apple TV focuses mainly on iTunes content but also offers third-party apps such as Netflix, HBO and ESPN (and the just-added Google Play TV & Movies). Siri plays a big role, so you can shout out instructions if you don’t want to use the remote, and developers can now code apps specifically for the Apple TV. That should mean more games, apps and possibilities in the future, although the rumored live streaming video channels haven’t appeared yet.

The Apple TV sells for $149 with 32 GB of storage and $199 with 64 GB of space on board.


The original Chromecast was a huge success for Google (sales topped 20 million) andversion 2 wants to hit the same magic combination of affordability and functionality. The dongle plugs into the back of your TV and everything is controlled via a phone or tablet: that means you need Chromecast-compatible apps, but fortunately there are plenty of them (on both Android and iOS). It can’t work on its own like the more expensive kit here, but it’s slick and simple enough to make you wonder why you would need to spend any extra.

The new Chromecast is available for $35.

Nexus Player

More or less Google’s answer to the Apple TV, the Nexus Player is also a small black box that sits under your TV and pipes content to it over HDMI. In this case prime position is given to Google Play’s various stores for apps, music and movies, but you can get apps such as YouTube, Netflix, Vevo and various others on here too. A remote control (with voice search) and a console-style game controller (sold separately) are the official accessories, and the Android TV interface looks stylish on a big screen.

You can pick it up for $99 with 8 GB of internal storage but without the $40 gamepad.

Nvidia Shield

If you like the look of the Nexus Player but want something more sophisticated, more powerful and more expensive, there’s the Nvidia Shield. As well as all the searching and app functionality you get with Android TV, there’s also support for 4K video, the option of 500 GB on-board storage and compatibility with Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming service. External hard drives packed with content can be hooked up via USB as well if you need access to locally saved files as well as online streaming services.

Prices start at $200 with the Pro (500 GB) option costing $300.

Roku 4

Like Amazon and Google, Roku offers a choice of a cheaper streaming stick or a more capable set-top box. The Roku 4 box brings with it support for 4K streaming and a wide choice of apps (more than 3,000, despite its not being built on either of the major app stores). There’s also a headphone jack on the remote to make it easier to listen to something quietly, and you get a voice-enabled remote as you do with many of these other devices. The interface is slick and appealing and it’s an appealing choice if you don’t want to be tied to one particular platform.

The Roku 4 will set you back $129.99.

Roku Streaming Stick

The Roku Streaming Stick, meanwhile, ditches 4K playback, the voice search capabilities and the headphone jack while keeping just about everything else found with its more expensive alternative, including the same appealing interface layout and the same selection of apps (or “channels” in Roku parlance). As with the Roku boxes there are accompanying smartphone apps to make use of, though you can use it independently of other devices with just the remote (something you can’t say about Google’s Chromecast).

You can get your hands on the Roku Streaming Stick for $50.



Bad press for Nest.

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The Mess at Nest Echoes the Mess in the Smart Home

Nest isn’t alone in its challenges.

In January 2014, Google (now under the parent umbrella corporation Alphabet) said it would purchase Nest for $3.2 billion, which validated the hopes and dreams of hundreds of startups that were also building connected products for the consumer home.

After the deal was announced, the VC world went mad searching for investments, while larger companies searched for potential acquisition targets. At industry events that year, everyone I ran into with a connected product or a KickStarter was in talks to sell out or score more funds.

But two years later, the reality has set in as entrepreneurs in the space are dealing with a skeptical customer base and the challenges of seeing their grand vision for a connected home get mired in rival standards. Meanwhile, economic concerns are leading tech companies to prepare for everything from a nuclear winter to a mild recession.

If you want to understand the almost insurmountable challenges facing one of the hottest sections of the tech world today, see The Information‘s profile of connected-thermostat company Nest and how it has failed to execute on much of its promise. The story, which focused heavily on Nest co-founder and CEO Tony Fadell, exemplifies how an Apple-like attention to product, and a focus on building a platform instead of ecosystem can halt a promising vision.



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Houzz Study: Automated Outdoor Lighting Is Hot for 2016

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Houzz study reveals nearly two thirds of U.S. homeowners (57%) who are planning outdoor renovations in 2016 are looking to upgrade their exterior lighting. Also, 11% plan to add outdoor security features, 10% outdoor A/V, and 8% smart irrigation.

Houzz Study: Automated Outdoor Lighting Is Hot for 2016

More than half of homeowners (52 percent) are hiring a landscape contractor or designer/architect in new outdoor light projects this year. Specifically, five percent plan to hire a lighting designer.

Jason Knott · March 25, 2016Automated outdoor lighting is one of the hottest exterior technologies among homeowners today, according to new data from Houzz, a leading consumer home improvement website.

The 2016 U.S. Houzz Landscaping Trends Survey interviewed nearly 1,000 U.S. homeowners who are in the midst of, are planning, or who recently completed an outdoor project. Nearly two out of three (57 percent), plan to make upgrades to their exterior lighting in some fashion.

Specifically, a quarter of outdoor upgraders are installing motion-sensitive lighting (24 percent), while 11 percent are installing outdoor security systems, 8 percent are installing precipitation-sensitive irrigation, and 2 percent are installing smartphone-connected plant sensors.

Upgrades in exterior lighting to LEDs, for example, rose to 32 percent of homes compared to 28 percent last year. Also, 10 percent of homeowners report they are adding outdoor media (audio or video). Nearly one in four (23 percent) are installing solar lighting.

Among the outdoor features that homeowners plan to illuminate are:

  • Pathways — 60 percent
  • Decks/Patios — 57%
  • Trees/Shrubs — 53%
  • Steps — 32%
  • Home Architecture — 28%
  • Driveway — 26%
  • Water Features — 24%
  • Outdoor Structures — 24%
  • Pots/Plants — 21%
  • Swimming Pool — 10%
  • Art/Sculpture — 9%

Another positive sign from the study for integrators is that homeowners are not shying away from hiring professional help. More than half of homeowners (52 percent) are hiring a landscape contractor or designer/architect. Specifically, 5 percent plan to hire a lighting designer.

Nine out of every 10 exterior upgrade projects this year will cost less than $5,000; however, among those homeowners planning “complete overhauls” of their yards, 40 percent plan to spend more than $20,000.

The Western states are the hottest place for exterior lighting upgrades this year, with 35 percent of Western households planning to add LED lighting, followed by 31 percent in the South, 29 percent in the Northeast, and 27 percent in the Midwest.

Overall, the technology offerings in outdoor environments paled in comparison to the percentage of homeowners making upgrades in places like flower beds and borders (80 percent), structural elements (72 percent) or irrigation systems (40 percent).

Houzz is a visual platform for home remodeling and design, bringing homeowners and home professionals together. The website, which has more than 35 million visitors monthly, is the No. 1 home and garden consumer website.