- A streaming device can transform your so-called dumb TV into a smart one that plays shows and movies from Disney Plus, Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and other streaming services.
- The best of the bunch is the Roku Ultra with its easy-to-use interface, 4K video streaming, HDR support, voice control, and simple remote.
The world is changing. Gone are the days when a cable subscription was necessary to watch all the latest and greatest TV series. These days, you can find plenty of quality shows on streaming platforms, like Disney Plus, ESPN+, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. Of course, the best way to watch these services is on a TV, and there are plenty of devices out there to help you stream your favorites on the display of your choice. Before buying a specific streaming player, however, you’ll want to consider a few things.
For starters, it’s important to ensure that the streaming device you pick includes support for the apps you use the most. The most popular services, like Netflix and Disney Plus, are supported on virtually all streaming players. With that said, some apps, like Peacock, are currently missing from certain devices, including Fire TV products.
Next up, you’ll want to keep in mind the specs of your TV. Not all streaming sticks and boxes are able to handle 4K content or HDR playback, so if you have a 4K TV, you’ll want to get one that can stream 4K videos; the reverse is also true, as a non-4K TV won’t be able to take advantage of 4K playback.
Last but not least, it might be worth considering the ecosystem you’re most plugged into. For example, Android users might be able to get more use from an Android TV or Google TV device, while those using an iPhone and Mac might prefer the Apple TV.
Through research and testing we’ve picked the best streaming sticks and boxes you can buy to turn your dumb TV into a smart one.
Note: All of the below products require access to the internet over Wi-Fi or Ethernet in order to stream content.
Here are the best streaming boxes and sticks:
- Best streaming box overall: Roku Ultra
- Best budget streaming box: Roku Express
- Best high-end streaming box: Apple TV 4K
- Best streaming device for Google users: Google Chromecast
- Best streaming stick for Alexa: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
- Best streaming box for gamers: Nvidia Shield TV
Prices and links are current as of 12/17/2020. Added details about the launch of HBO Max on Roku devices. Updated by Steven Cohen.
The Roku Ultra streams in 4K and HDR, has voice search, and comes with a remote control that has programmable shortcut buttons.
Roku’s Ultra has virtually everything a buyer could want out of streaming box. It supports 4K video at 60 frames per second and HDR playback. If you have a 4K TV, this model will help you get the most out of your display.
Roku doesn’t require a Google or Apple account to use (you will need to register for a Roku account, however), but it can still connect to a huge library of streaming services. You’ll be able to install Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Peacock, Amazon Prime, Apple TV Plus, and more using Roku’s operating system. It even supports HBO Max, which was previously missing from the channel selection. Just connect the box to your TV via the HDMI port, and install all your favorite streaming services to get started.
As mentioned, the Roku Ultra supports HDR, which means that it’ll show richer colors and better contrast when playing back HDR-enabled videos on an HDR TV. The new 2020 Roku Ultra model also adds support for the advanced Dolby Vision format, which should improve HDR picture quality even more on Dolby Vision-enabled displays.
Of course, to take advantage of 4K HDR content, you’ll need a decent internet connection. The device can connect to your internet through Ethernet or over Wi-Fi, so choose the method that’s fastest and most convenient.
The Ultra also comes with a voice remote control so you can adjust the volume, turn on your TV, and search for content with your voice. If you’re watching at night, you can plug in a set of headphones to the remote to not disturb others — a pair of earbuds are included. Roku also has a companion app that makes navigation and searches even more robust.
Bluetooth support is included as well for streaming music to the player, and the Roku Ultra even supports AirPlay 2 and HomeKit for easy connectivity to Apple devices.
The Roku Ultra is the most versatile and reliable media player in this price range, and we like that it’s the most universal of the products. There are cheaper alternatives with less advanced features, but we think this model is the best choice for most people with a 4K TV.
Pros: 4K and HDR streaming, new 2020 model adds Dolby Vision support and Bluetooth, voice remote, lots of apps, improved Wi-Fi connection, Ethernet, USB port
Cons: Doesn’t support HDR10+, a bit pricey
The best budget streaming box
The Roku Express is one of the most affordable streaming boxes you can buy, and it offers a great interface with basic HD playback.
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 with a built-in user interface and remote.
Perhaps the best thing about the Roku Express is how easy it is to use. The new compact design makes it one of the smallest standalone 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.
Since it uses a built-in operating system, you can install apps like Netflix without having to stream from your phone or computer (you will need to register for a Roku account if you don’t have one already). A remote control is included for navigation, but you can also use the Roku app.
Of course, there are downsides to the Roku Express. Unlike the Roku Ultra, which is our overall favorite, there’s no USB port for playing external video files or Bluetooth for music streaming from a smartphone. The Roku Express also does not offer 4K streaming or HDR, so we recommend this model for people who have a TV that doesn’t include those features.
For buyers who do need 4K on a budget, though, there’s a very similar Roku model, the Roku Premiere, that might be a better fit for you. The Roku Premiere is a lot like the Roku Express, but it adds support for 4K, HDR, and AirPlay for a bit more money.
That said, the Premiere is sometimes on sale for less than the Express. When the Premiere is discounted, it’s actually the better value of the two. If there are no discounts, however, and all you need is basic HD streaming, there’s little reason to pay extra for a model more powerful than the Roku Express.
Pros: Cheap, compact design, easy-to-use, built-in OS
The best high-end streaming box
The Apple TV 4K is an ideal streaming player for enthusiasts who want Dolby Vision support and easy integration with the rest of Apple’s products.
If you’re looking for a device to better integrate with your iTunes account, iPhone, and other Apple devices, then you’ll want to look into getting an Apple TV. The Apple TV 4K boasts a number of great features, and as the name suggests, this version streams in 4K and HDR, which is great for those of you who have 4K TVs and want the best home theater playback.
As you would expect from an Apple device, it’s well-designed and will look right at home amongst your other home entertainment devices, even the more premium ones. On the back of the device, you’ll get a power input, HDMI port, and an Ethernet port. That way, you can have a more stable internet connection for streaming 4K video.
One of the best things about the Apple TV 4K is Apple’s tvOS operating system, which is super easy to use, especially with the included remote (called the Siri Remote). As mentioned, it can stream in 4K and has HDR support for improved contrast and colors. Unlike Roku’s players, the Apple TV 4K also offers Dolby Vision support on top of standard HDR10. If you have a Dolby Vision TV, this means you’ll get even better HDR performance when watching Dolby Vision titles from apps like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus.
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 wireless technology. In addition, the Apple TV 4K can even serve as a HomeKit hub for Apple’s smart home ecosystem.
The Siri Remote connects to the Apple TV via Bluetooth, so no line of sight is required. While the remote is elegant and the touch-capability makes navigation easier, it’s so slim that it can be easy to lose or slip out of your hand. An alternative is to use the Apple TV Remote app on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, which handles the same functions but makes things like typing much simpler.
Engadget called it “almost perfect,” while CNET called it the most high-end 4K streaming experience. However, the Apple TV is notably more expensive than some other 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.
Guides Editor Les Shu disagrees somewhat. He uses both the Roku Ultra and Roku Express+ and Apple TV, and finds the Apple TV experience much smoother and more pleasant than the Roku Ultra — not to mention the easier set-up process. While he acknowledges the price premium and that the Roku Ultra has its advantages, from a pure entertainment experience, he believes the Apple TV is the stronger product, and that it isn’t just for Apple fans with money.
We don’t think you can go wrong with either — the deciding factor comes down to budget and the ecosystem — but the money spent on an Apple TV is well worth it.
Pros: Well-designed, great interface, 4K and HDR playback with Dolby Vision support, can serve as a HomeKit hub
Cons: A little pricey
The best for Google users
Unlike older models, the new Chromecast with Google TV can play apps right from the device, rather than having to rely on casting from a separate smartphone.
Google’s newest 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 much 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 streaming players, like the Fire TV Stick 4K.
Powered by the new Google TV platform, the Chromecast offers access to a huge collection of apps, including Netflix, Disney Plus, Prime Video, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, YouTube, and more. In fact, the only major app currently missing is Apple TV. 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR10+, and Dolby Atmos playback are supported for select services as well.
On the downside, a few key movie apps, like Vudu, FandangoNow, and Movies Anywhere, are currently limited to HD and SDR. This is especially disappointing since these apps do offer 4K HDR playback on other streaming devices, like the Roku Ultra. It’s possible that these apps will receive updates for 4K in the future.
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, however, the latest version now includes a handy voice remote with integrated Google Assistant support. The Chromecast’s Google Assistant also provides seamless integration with other Google devices. For example, you can control Google speakers or tell your Chromecast to display security camera footage from a Nest camera.
We encountered a few isolated glitches while testing the new Chromecast, but the device offers impressive overall performance and value, especially for buyers already invested in Google’s ecosystem.
Pros: 4K HDR support with Dolby Vision and HDR10+, Google Assistant voice remote, built-in interface and casting capabilities
Cons: Some apps are currently missing 4K HDR playback, minor glitches, no Apple TV app
The best Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K streams video in 4K straight to your TV.
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K comes with 4K and HDR playback capabilities, including support for the more advanced HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Like other streaming stick, this slim dongle plugs right into the HDMI port on the back of your TV. It also comes with an Alexa voice remote for easy access to play, pause, stop, volume up/down, and more.
Fire TV 4K works with Netflix, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Prime Video, YouTube, Hulu, and many other video streaming apps. Since it’s part of Amazon’s ecosystem, Fire TV is also compatible with Alexa voice controls on other Amazon products, like an Echo Dot. You can tell Alexa to play “Game of Thrones” without lifting a finger. If you don’t have Alexa products or you’re not an Amazon user, you may be better off with a different brand.
The streaming stick has a fast processor and 802.11ac Wi-Fi to ensure smooth streaming on your TV. So long as your Wi-Fi is good, you shouldn’t have a problem.
Expert reviewers more or less agreed that Alexa voice search works well. It’s also very affordable for a 4K streaming stick and includes extensive HDR format support for its price. In fact, it’s one of the only players on the market with HDR10+ capabilities, which will improve color and contrast on Prime Video when watching HDR videos through an HDR10+ compatible TV.
If you’re buying the device for features like Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, however, you might be disappointed by Amazon’s surprisingly limited support for those formats through its own catalog of Prime content. A few key apps are also currently missing, including Peacock, Vudu, Google Play, and FandangoNow. If that’s a deal-breaker, you’ll have to grab a Roku, Apple TV, or Android TV player.
Pros: 4K streaming, Alexa voice control, affordable, compact, support for HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision
The best for gamers and Android TV
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.
If you’re more plugged into the Android ecosystem, you might want something that comes preloaded with Google’s Android TV. If so, there are few better devices than the Nvidia Shield TV, which was first launched a few years ago and has been updated a few times since then. Though pricier than other players, the latest model is the ultimate streaming device for buyers who want beefy specs.
Like our top pick, this media streamer supports 4K HDR content, but also adds Dolby Vision for even better HDR performance on Dolby Vision TVs. Google Assistant voice control is integrated as well and, unlike the cheaper Chromecast Ultra, this is a standalone product that doesn’t require a phone.
The Shield TV is also the best streaming box for gamers. In addition to the included standard remote control, you can add a separate gaming controller for playing games from the Google Play Store or through GeForce Now cloud gaming.
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 is 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.
The standard Shield TV, however, is still plenty powerful, and is a better overall value for people who want an Android TV streaming player that’s capable of gaming.
Pros: 4K support, Dolby Vision capabilities, support for a separate gaming controller, Android TV operating system, powerful processor
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