From the Roku Ultra to Amazon Fire TV, these are the best streaming devices
While virtually all TVs ship with smart features these days, they may not be the features you want. Some streaming apps are only available on external streaming boxes, built-in interfaces are often lacking, and the features you do like stay with the TV and can’t travel with you. The best solution? Buy a worthy streaming media player. The problem is that a veritable smorgasbord of choices makes this a more complicated task than ever before.
With 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR) standard in virtually all new TVs, you want to make sure you buy a streamer that is compatible, but that’s only the start. You also want to make sure the streaming services you care about (and the content you want to watch) can be easily found without having to scour the web for hours. Below, we serve up the absolute best streaming devices out there so you can get the most from your streaming experience.
At a glance
Amazon Fire TV Cube
Why should you buy this? The Cube isn’t just an excellent streaming device — it can control your entire entertainment system better than your remotes can.
Who’s it for? Those looking for a streamlined, Alexa-driven home entertainment experience.
How much will it cost? $120 for non-Prime members, $80 for Prime members ($200 for Fire TV Cube and Cloud Cam bundle).
Why we picked the Amazon Fire TV Cube:
It was going to take a lot to knock a Roku device out of our top spot, but the Fire TV Cube has snatched the crown of the streaming device kingdom. That might be surprising for some, especially since the device was originally announced as little more than the first Fire TV box to have Alexa integrated directly into the device — no external Echo speaker necessary. In reality, however, it’s loaded with powerful tech and features that will allow you to control just about everything in your entertainment center with minimal need for a remote.
Thanks to HDMI CEC and HDMI ARC-capable ports alongside included IR blasters, you’ll be able to use voice commands to turn on your TV, swap between apps, and even switch inputs over to other connected devices like gaming consoles, A/V receivers, and Blu-ray players. You can walk into the room with the TV and all other devices off, and direct Alexa to do things like “play Stranger Things,” and the Cube will switch on the TV and sound system, and immediately start up the show in Netflix — all without a remote. Using the Cube like this is pretty much the closest we’ve felt to talking to the computer on the Starship Enterprise. While Alexa will require specific voice commands out of the box, the A.I. assistant will learn to recognize your input style. Amazon has also promised to continually update Alexa’s recognition abilities and tune the assistant to meet the needs of users, meaning simple, even vague speech may be recognized as more people use it.
The Cube’s nature as a home theater control hub may be its biggest selling point, but it is also just an excellent streamer. The black box is capable of 4K and HDR playback, and comes with an Ethernet adapter for the most reliable data connection possible — something sorely lacking from other Fire TV devices. Speaking of upgrades, the Fire TV Cube features a much more open and platform-agnostic interface than what we’ve seen from other Fire TV releases. In the past, using a Fire TV meant you were funneled to content on Amazon’s platform, with other apps and services buried or excluded. Thankfully, that’s much less of an issue here.
The singular fault we can find with the Fire TV Cube is its current lack of Dolby Vision support. Other than that, it’s better than we ever imagined it could be. The on-board Alexa integration, Ethernet adapter, and more open ecosystem solve our biggest issues with the previous Fire TV devices, but it’s the all-in-one flexibility, control afforded by HDMI CEC support, IR blaster, and Alexa voice commands that earned it the throne.
Our full Fire TV Cube review
Roku Streaming Stick+
The best streaming stick
Why should you buy this? It’s the best streaming stick on the market, and it’s affordable to boot.
Who’s it for? Anyone who wants to stream 4K and HDR through an easy-breezy interface.
How much will it cost? $65
Why we picked the Roku Streaming Stick+:
The Streaming Stick+ delivers one of the best features-to-price ratios among streaming devices out there. You’ll be able to experience 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos Audio through this tiny device that looks like a USB thumb drive and easily hides behind your TV.
The discreet design extends beyond just its physical profile, too. Thanks to powerful 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless support, you’ll be able to set it up anywhere within your home’s Wi-Fi range — no Ethernet required. The only actual requirement with the Streaming Stick+ is a TV or any display with an HDMI port and USB. Just plug the Streaming Stick+ into your the HDMI port and the power cable into one of its USB ports (or an adapter if it doesn’t have one), and you’re done.
One of our favorite things about the Streaming Stick+ is a feature shared by all Roku devices: An awesome user interface. Roku OS uses an app-agnostic approach, which makes finding the best place to watch what you want easier than almost any other device on the market.
All that being said, the recent announcement from Amazon about the brand’s new Fire TV Stick 4K means the Streaming Stick+ will soon have a new foe to contend with — one that offers 4K HDR support, a powerful new processor that claims to offer loading speeds up to 80 percent faster than its predecessor, and Alexa voice control built into the remote. We’ll be checking the stick out as soon as it’s available, and will update this post once we know if it comes out on top.
Our full Roku Streaming Stick+ review
The best premium set-top streaming box
Why should you buy this? It’s a powerful, well-rounded set-top streaming box bolstered by Roku’s excellent interface and app support.
Who’s it for? Those who want the features of the Streaming Stick+, but desire a little more horsepower and stability.
How much will it cost? $74
Why we picked the Roku Ultra:
The Roku Ultra brings with it a slew of awesome features. Like any high-end streamer, it supports 4K and HDR (though Dolby Vision isn’t currently compatible), but that’s just the beginning.
Like the Cube, the Ultra sports an Ethernet port to help improve connection speeds and even adds a MicroSD card slot to store even more apps or work as a source for pictures and video. It also has a USB port, so you can view content from any compatible device. The box also features a “lost remote” button that will trigger a tone from the remote (even though we all know it’s under the couch) and said remote has both a headphone jack for private listening and dedicated power/volume buttons that can control TV volume, depending upon the model.
Night Listening mode automatically adjusts volume scene-by-scene to avoid waking up the kids. As you probably already surmised from the Streaming Stick+ copy above, we also just love the Roku OS. From the biggest library of apps (aka “Roku channels”) to incredible cross-channel search functionality, there is no digital ecosystem that competes.
The best media streamer for gamers
Why should you buy this? It offers 4K and HDR paired with premium gaming features.
Who’s it for? Those who prefer their streaming with a healthy side of gaming.
How much will it cost? $180 to $300 (depending on options)
Why we picked the Nvidia Shield:
Most of the products on this list are squarely focused on streaming video, but despite the “TV” in its name, the Nvidia Shield TV takes a different approach. The device features 4K resolution and HDR streaming capabilities based on the Android TV platform, but at its heart, the Shield TV is designed with gamers in mind.
More than 200 games are available to play via Android TV, with many exclusive to the Shield TV. If you’re a PC gamer, the ability to stream PC games to your Shield TV while you kick back on the couch makes it an even more attractive option. The base version, which sells for $200, includes just 16GB of storage, but $300 gets you 500GB, along with MicroSD and Micro USB slots. The included controller — which Nvidia has revamped — provides a familiar feel to experienced console gamers, and the device also supports most other Bluetooth controllers out there, including Sony’s DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers. For those who want the muscle of the Shield’s hardware but don’t want (or need) the wireless controller, a remote-only 16GB option is also available for $180.
For 4K streaming, Netflix, Vudu, UltraFlix, Amazon Video, and YouTube are all supported, with HDR support available on select services. For HD streaming, many more options are available, including HBO Now, Twitch, CBS, Fox, and Vimeo — basically, anything in the Google Play store — and live TV is available via Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. Many of these apps can easily be searched using the built-in Voice Search feature.
For $8 a month, GeForceNOW allows users to stream games to their Shield at 1080p resolution, but performance is dependent upon internet speed. On the audio side, the Nvidia Shield TV supports 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, as well as Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound. High-resolution audio is also supported, with some formats supported natively and others supported via passthrough.
Our full Nvidia Sheild review
Apple TV 4K
The best media streamer for Apple lovers
Why should you buy this? The Apple TV 4K provides seamless TV experience across all your Apple devices.
Who’s it for? Users heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.
How much will it cost? $180 to $200
Why we picked the Apple TV 4K:
After spending two years as an afterthought in the streamer market due to a lack of 4K support, the Apple TV is back and better than ever. With a bevy of cool features, it’s a good choice for Apple devotees and a solid (if spendy) competitor to high-end offerings from Roku, Amazon, and Google.
The Apple TV 4K has a few tricks up its sleeve, beginning with its super-fast A10X Fusion processor. Put it this way: The only thing holding this box back speed-wise will be your internet connection. There is also a cool option that allows users to copy login info directly to the Apple TV from iPhones, iPads, and Apple laptops, which drastically reduces the amount of time spent entering passwords. Plus, if you have a third- or fourth-generation Apple TV, it will automatically sync your previous TV OS layout to make life simpler.
You can use Siri to search for content, including cross-platform searches, though Apple’s library of apps isn’t as diverse as Roku’s. You can also send images, video, and audio via AirPlay 2 from a supported iOS device. You still have access to heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and more recently, Amazon Prime Video (though the app is half-baked compared to other apps on the device). Plus, you’ll have access to the iTunes store and your entire iTunes library. You can also use intuitive questions and statements for voice-controlled search (“Show me 4K movies on Netflix”) instead of resorting to awkward jargon.
As far as picture quality goes, the Apple TV supports 4K and HDR in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. Is the Apple TV 4K worth its hefty price tag? We’re on the fence there, but if you’re one of those “All Apple Everything” types, this is the streaming device for you.
Our full Apple TV 4K review
Google Chromecast (2015)
The best casting device
Why should you buy this? The Chromecast syncs with your phone or other media devices for simple streaming.
Who’s it for? Anyone who just wants a simple, affordable streamer.
How much will it cost? $30
Why we picked the Chromecast 2:
If you don’t have a 4K- or HDR-enabled television, you obviously don’t need to spend $50 to $100 on a device that streams in 4K. Thankfully, the Chromecast is a tiny, simple streaming device that works in tandem with devices you’re already using — namely your phone or tablet.
The second generation of Google’s tiny streaming stick has a lot going for it compared to the first version of the device. Most notably, the bump up to 802.11ac wireless support means better, more stable wireless connections.
Google has also updated the Chromecast app, now called Google Home, which adds more smart home functionality. Unlike other streaming devices, Chromecasts (including Chromecast Audio and the pricier but more powerful, 4K-supported Chromecast Ultra) use the apps you’ve already got on your phone to control playback and search for content. Simply call up your supported streaming app, click the cast button, and you’re ready to watch. Google Home also makes search snappier and more convenient than before.
The Chromecast is also deeply integrated into the Google ecosystem — or at least it can be — and supports Google Assistant for controlling what you’re watching, as well as any Google smart home devices. For Android and Google die-hards, this is likely going to be a key feature. Users of iOS, Mac, and Windows devices can still get plenty of use out of the Chromecast, though, as each of them supports casting across tons of apps.
Our full Chromecast (2015) review
How we test
We test our streaming players over a period of days or weeks, replicating exactly how you’d use them in real-life scenarios. That includes testing them for speed, convenience, intuitiveness, and a variety of features. Accessibility to a wide variety of apps is also crucial — after all, most TVs and Blu-ray players are already set up for basic streaming — so a designated streamer should offer something more.
A streamer might have the best hardware in the world, but this won’t matter if you can only watch content from one streaming service. In order to meet our standard, a streaming media player ideally supports all or most of the major content providers, as well as a wide variety of newer features like 4K Ultra HD and HDR. Finally, we look at how much quality and how many features you get on a dollar-by-dollar scale, to assure each of our top streamers is not only a great experience but also a great value.
Is now a good time to buy?
Whether now is the time to jump on one of these streaming media devices depends on what catches your eye. For Amazon, now is the time to buy, specifically the Fire TV Cube, which was launched in late June 2018, making it the newest device here. Sure, there are two other Fire TV devices available, but the Cube is better than either of them in myriad ways. Plus, no other streaming device offers the control and consolidation that the Fire TV Cube does.
Then we have the Chromecast. Google launched the second generation of the device in 2018, so the model here is the most recent version. As such, we don’t expect any announcements regarding further new Chromecast hardware any time soon.
It’s a slightly different situation for Roku models. As long as you’re looking specifically at the models and price ranges covered here, you’re probably safe making a purchase now. However, Roku hasn’t launched its 2018 models, so everything here is from 2017. Upcoming models will likely have better specs in some way, but will also likely cost more. We’ll update once any potential new Roku devices hit the market.
Likewise, Apple launched the latest edition of its Apple TV in 2017, bringing 4K and HDR support to the platform. While Apple tends to take longer to update its hardware, the company recently announced a new iOS and tvOS update that will bring new features, including Dolby Atmos support. As with Roku, if any Apple streamers hit the market within the latter half of the year, we’ll be sure to update.
While we’ve seen new streaming devices show up, and we’re waiting to see what else the year may bring, we’re confident that the Nvidia Shield TV probably isn’t going anywhere. Nvidia had been planning a successor to the Shield TV but dropped those plans and we haven’t heard anything since. Still, this streaming box packs plenty of horsepower and continues to gain more features with every software update. Considering it’s likely to remain a viable in-home gaming streaming option for some time, we expect this iteration of the hardware to stick around.
Roku: Roku’s interface is common across every model, whether you’re talking the top-of-the-line Ultra model or the entry-level Express. There is also a certain look to Roku apps, and you won’t find interface differences across different apps as much as you might on other platforms. As we’ve mentioned before, you’ll find nearly every streaming service or channel you care about represented here, and unlike certain other platforms, you won’t find any gaps, with the notable exception of iTunes, which is only available on Apple streamers.
Amazon: Amazon offers three Fire TV models — the Fire TV, the Stick, and the Cube — but the interface is a little different for each, with the Cube having the most egalitarian search results and app presentation overall. That said, some app interfaces differ on Fire TV compared to those found on other devices, and this can be a benefit. PlayStation Vue, for example, currently offers a much more intuitive interface on Fire TV devices. However, there are some missing services here: Google Play isn’t available (there is a workaround), nor is Vudu. Both are available on Roku devices, and Vudu is available on every other streamer listed here.
Apple TV: The Apple TV user interface lies somewhere between the Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Apps have a fairly consistent look, but you’ll always be able to tell when you’re watching on an Apple TV. Apple would prefer users buy and rent content via iTunes, so you won’t currently find an app for Google Play, though an Amazon Video app has finally arrived. There is a fairly easy workaround, however, as Google play offers a mobile app that allows content to be streamed to an Apple TV via AirPlay.
Android TV (Nvidia Shield): Android TV is a little different than the other options here, in that manufacturers can put their own spin on the interface, similar to phone manufacturers with Android. You’ll find that many app exhibit plenty of individuality on Shield TV, which contrasts with the visual in-app consistency with Roku apps. Amazon Video isn’t available out of the box, though it can be cast or sideloaded if you want to dive under the hood.
Chromecast: As the name might imply, Chromecast runs entirely on the magical power of casting — meaning beaming content from one device wirelessly to your TV. Everything about the Chromecast is controlled via your casting device — including app search, content playback, and even private listening modes — whether that’s an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet, a Windows PC, or a Mac. This is obviously a major difference between its competitors, which have their own operating systems, user interfaces, and dedicated versions of apps.
Words and terms you need to know
- 4K Ultra HD: The highest resolution currently available, around four times that of 1080p HD (3840 x 2160). It is quickly becoming the standard for new TVs.
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi: The most recent and fastest Wi-Fi standard — not as fast as Ethernet, but faster than 802.11n.
- Android TV: A smart TV platform powered by Android and available across smart TVs, set-top boxes, and more.
- Casting: A term, popularized by Google, for making content found on a mobile device or PC and appear on a TV.
- High Dynamic Range (HDR): Short for High Dynamic Range, HDR offers better contrast and more colors than standard dynamic range. It’s considered by many to be a more notable visual improvement than 4K Ultra HD resolution itself.
- HDR10: One of the two most popular HDR formats, and an open standard backed by Samsung, Sony, LG, and other companies.
- Dolby Vision: One of the two most popular HDR formats. Proprietary, and less popular than the other format, HDR10, Dolby Vision has advantages, such as the ability to gauge your HDR TV’s capabilities and tailor the HDR experience.
- Single Sign-on (SSO): A feature that allows users to use a single login to automatically sign in to all linked apps, provided they support the feature. This is supported by each of the devices we’ve picked here but requires an account through a paid TV provider.