The 6 best media sticks and devices of 2021 for fast and reliable streaming

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family watching using a Roku players on a TV - best streaming devices

Smart TVs with built-in access to streaming services are now the norm, but navigation speeds and app selection can vary a lot depending on what model you own. If you’re someone who craves faster performance and a larger selection of services, a standalone streaming box or stick could be exactly what you need.

These compact devices connect to your display and handle all your streaming needs. Some even include integrated digital assistants. Separate streaming players are also a perfect solution for anyone who might still have an old “dumb” TV that needs some extra smarts. 

After testing a variety of media players, we picked the best streaming sticks and boxes you can buy to turn any HDMI-capable TV into an entertainment powerhouse. Learn more about how Insider Reviews tests and researches tech products.

Here are the best streaming boxes and sticks:

Best streaming box overall: Roku Ultra, $66.01 on Walmart
The Roku Ultra supports 4K and HDR, delivers speedy navigation, and comes with a voice remote control that has a headphone port.

Best budget streaming box: Roku Express, $19 on Amazon
The Roku Express only offers basic HD playback, but it’s affordable and incredibly easy to use.

Best high-end streaming box: Apple TV 4K, $149.99 on Amazon
The Apple TV 4K is the perfect fit for enthusiasts who want seamless integration with the rest of Apple’s ecosystem.

Best streaming device for Google users: Google Chromecast, $39.99 on Best Buy
The Chromecast with Google TV features a built-in library of apps and it comes with a Google Assistant voice remote.

Best streaming stick with Alexa: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max, $34.99 on Amazon
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a tiny streaming device with a quick interface and a voice-controlled Alexa remote.

Best streaming box for gamers: Nvidia Shield TV, $129 on Amazon
The Nvidia Shield TV is a powerful media device with Google’s Android TV platform and support for gaming when you pair it with a controller.

Best streaming box overall

Roku Ultra 2020 on a TV stand - best streaming box overall
Originally $99.99 | Save 30%
Originally $99.99 | Save 34%
Originally $99.00 | Save 33%

The Roku Ultra streams in 4K and HDR, has voice search, and comes with a remote control that has programmable shortcut buttons.

Pros: 4K HDR streaming with Dolby Vision and HDR10+, Bluetooth, voice remote, lots of apps, improved Wi-Fi connection, Ethernet, USB port

Cons: A bit expensive when listed at full price

The Roku Ultra has virtually everything a buyer could want out of streaming box. It supports 4K video and all of the major HDR formats to help you get the most out of your display.

The Roku OS features a huge library of streaming channels with access to popular services, including Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Peacock, Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus, Paramount Plus, and HBO Max. Just connect the box to your TV via the HDMI port, and install all your favorite streaming services to get started.

With HDR capabilities, the Roku Ultra displays richer colors and better contrast when playing back HDR-enabled videos on a compatible TV. The latest Roku Ultra model also adds support for the advanced Dolby Vision and HDR10+ formats.

The Ultra comes with a voice remote so you can adjust the volume and search for content with spoken commands. If you’re watching at night, you can plug the included earbuds into the remote for private listening. 

The Roku Ultra is the most versatile and reliable media player in this price range, and we like that it’s more universal than Amazon, Apple, and Google devices. There are cheaper alternatives with less advanced features, but we think this model is the best choice for most people with a 4K TV.  

Best budget streaming box

Roku Express with remote - best budget streaming box
Originally $29.99 | Save 37%
Originally $29.99 | Save 33%

The Roku Express is one of the most affordable streaming boxes you can buy, and it offers a great interface with basic HD playback.

Pros: Cheap, compact design, easy-to-use, built-in OS

Cons: Doesn’t support 4K or HDR, no voice remote, no Ethernet

For buyers who want a simple and inexpensive streaming solution, the Roku Express is the perfect fit. This model is about as basic as they come, but for the money, you’re still getting a capable HD streaming box.

Perhaps the best thing about the Roku Express is how easy it is to use. The compact design makes it one of the smallest streaming boxes there is, and the package comes complete with an HDMI cable for simple setup. The interface is well-designed and extremely easy to navigate with access to all the major services you could want.

Unlike the Roku Ultra, however, this model lacks a voice remote, and it’s missing a USB port for playing external video files or Bluetooth for music streaming from a smartphone. The Roku Express also lacks 4K and HDR support, so we only recommend this model for people who have regular HDTVs.

Buyers who want 4K on a budget, should consider the Roku Express 4K+ instead. It’s similar to the standard Roku Express, but it has support for 4K, HDR, and AirPlay for a bit more money.

If all you need is basic HD streaming, though, there’s little reason to pay extra for a model more powerful than the Roku Express.

Best high-end streaming box

Apple TV 4K with remote - best high-end streaming player
Originally $179.00 | Save 16%

The Apple TV 4K is an ideal streaming player for enthusiasts who want easy integration with the rest of Apple’s products.

Pros: Well-designed interface, 4K and HDR, can serve as a HomeKit hub, latest model has HDMI 2.1

Cons: Expensive compared to the competition

If you’re looking for a high-end media player to integrate with your Apple account and other Apple devices, then you’ll want to consider the Apple TV 4K.

One of the best things about the Apple TV 4K is Apple’s tvOS interface, which is super easy to use. It can stream in 4K and has HDR support for improved contrast and colors. Like the Roku Ultra, the Apple TV 4K also offers Dolby Vision for better HDR on select services and TVs. 

And with Siri, you can use your voice to search for content. Plus, you can access music, podcasts, games, and hundreds of apps, or cast or mirror content from an iOS or macOS device using AirPlay technology. In addition, the Apple TV 4K can even serve as a HomeKit hub for Apple’s smart home ecosystem.

On the downside, the Apple TV is more expensive than streaming options from Roku and Amazon. Most people who aren’t invested in the Apple ecosystem will be more than happy with the less expensive Roku Ultra instead. The deciding factor comes down to budget and the ecosystem you prefer.

The latest Apple TV 4K model came out in 2021, replacing the older version released in 2017. Though similar, the 2021 player adds an improved Siri remote and a couple new features, like high frame rate playback. 

Best streaming device for Google users

Chromecast with Google TV plugged into a display - best streaming device for Google users
Originally $49.99 | Save 20%
Originally $49.99 | Save 20%

The Chromecast with Google TV can play apps right from the device and it includes a Google Assistant remote.

Pros: 4K HDR with Dolby Vision and HDR10+, Google Assistant voice remote, built-in interface and casting capabilities

Cons: Minor glitches, some lag

Google’s latest Chromecast model offers a sizable step forward in performance and usability over older versions. Though our previous pick in this category, the Chromecast Ultra, needed a separate phone, tablet, or computer to stream apps from, the Chromecast with Google TV actually features its own built-in interface with an extensive library of services. 

You can still cast apps from a mobile device if you’d like, but the on-screen selection makes it more convenient to find your favorite shows and movies right on your TV screen. This makes the Chromecast a more worthy competitor to similar compact players, like the Fire TV Stick 4K.

Powered by the new Google TV platform, the Chromecast offers access to a huge collection of apps. Though a few services, like Vudu and Movies Anywhere, were initially limited to HD and SDR video, recent updates have added 4K and HDR playback.  

From a design perspective, the new Chromecast features a similar puck-shaped form factor as older models, complete with a dongle connection that hangs from your TV’s HDMI port. Unlike older models, the latest version includes a handy voice remote with integrated Google Assistant support. 

We encountered a few glitches while testing the new Chromecast and some lag here and there, but the device offers impressive value, especially for buyers already invested in Google’s ecosystem.    

Best streaming stick with Alexa

Fire TV Stick 4K Max plugged into a TV - best streaming stick with Alexa
Originally $54.99 | Save 36%
Originally $54.99 | Save 36%
Originally $54.99 | Save 36%

The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max is a compact streaming device with fast navigation and a handy Alexa remote.

Pros: 4K streaming, Alexa voice control, compact, speedy navigation, support for all major HDR formats

Cons: Fire TV interface is cluttered, not a huge upgrade over previous model

Amazon’s latest streaming stick plugs right into the HDMI port on the back of your TV, adding access to a ton of apps with support for up to 4K playback. The Fire TV Stick 4K Max is also compatible with every major HDR format, so people who own Dolby Vision or HDR10+ TVs can watch videos in the best quality available. 

An Alexa voice remote is included as well, so you can control playback and search for content with spoken commands. Though the remote requires you to press a button to activate Alexa, you can also pair the device with an Echo speaker for hands-free control. 

Fire TV Stick 4K Max works with Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Prime Video, and many other popular streaming apps. Though some notable services used to be missing, Amazon’s selection is now on par with other major players like Roku. 

Compared to the older Fire TV Stick 4K, the new 4K Max isn’t a huge upgrade, but it does offer some minor improvements. Most notably, navigation speed is a bit snappier, thanks to a slightly more powerful processor. This helps to cement the Fire TV Stick 4K Max as the fastest media device I’ve ever tested in this price range. 

It also includes support for Wi-Fi 6 for more reliable connectivity when paired with a Wi-Fi 6 router. But, since most people don’t have a Wi-Fi 6 router, we don’t see this as a main selling point right now.  

People who already own the old Fire TV Stick 4K don’t need to upgrade, but new buyers on the hunt for the best streaming stick with Alexa should snag this model.

Best streaming player for gamers

Nvidia Shield TV with remote - best streaming player for gamers
Originally $149.00 | Save 13%
Originally $149.99 | Save 13%

The Nvidia Shield TV doesn’t just run Google’s Android TV, it also supports 4K streaming and can even pair with a controller for gaming.

Pros: 4K support, Dolby Vision capabilities, support for a separate gaming controller, Android TV operating system, powerful processor

Cons: Expensive, most buyers don’t need the extra power

Though pricier than other players, the Nvidia Shield TV is the ultimate streaming device for buyers who want beefy specs. 

More than just a video player, the Shield TV is also the best streaming box for gamers. In addition to the included Google Assistant voice remote, you can add a separate gaming controller for playing games from the Google Play Store or through the GeForce Now cloud gaming service. 

When it comes to raw specs, the Shield TV incorporates 2GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. The device is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra X1+, which is one of the most powerful processors used in any streaming device. This extra muscle even allows the device to take advantage of advanced upscaling technology, which can make HD videos look better on 4K TVs. 

Unlike most streaming players, the Shield TV features a unique cylindrical design which takes the form of a compact tube that’s meant to be placed behind a display. This style won’t be for everyone, but it makes it easy to hide the device out of sight.

For buyers who want even more power, there’s also a Shield TV Pro model to consider. This more expensive version features a more traditional rectangular shape and upgraded specs with 3GB of RAM, 16GB of storage, and two USB 3.0 ports.

What you should look for in a streaming device

Roku Ultra 2020 angle with remote

Before buying a streaming device, there are a few factors you should consider. First and foremost, you should ensure you really need a separate streaming player at all.

If you’re someone with an old dumb TV that has HDMI ports, adding a standalone streaming device is a no-brainer. But, if you already own a smart TV with access to its own built-in library of apps, the decision isn’t as simple. 

If you’re satisfied with your TV’s app selection, speed, and connectivity options, there’s really no need to invest in another device. However, if you’re frustrated with laggy navigation or your display is missing a few apps you want to use, a standalone streaming stick or box is an ideal buy.

Of course, you’ll want to confirm that the device you choose has all the services you need. Most popular apps, like Netflix and Disney Plus, are supported on virtually all streaming players, but some smaller services are missing from certain devices.

You’ll also want to keep in mind the specs of your TV. Not all streaming sticks and boxes are able to handle 4K or high dynamic range (HDR), so if you have a 4K TV, you’ll want to get a device that can take full advantage of your display’s capabilities.

You should also consider the ecosystem you’re most plugged into. For example, Android users might be able to get more use from a Google TV device, while those using an iPhone or Mac might prefer the Apple TV, and Alexa fans might want to opt for a Fire TV model. 

Roku devices, on the other hand, are the most versatile since they’re compatible with a variety of ecosystems. On the downside, Roku devices lack built-in support for Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant.

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