These days, more and more people are cutting cords with cable companies and streaming video on TV via their smartphone, tablet or computer. And there’s no shortage of options in the streaming TV world thanks to big players such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Roku and more. But how do you know which streamer is right for you? To help, we’ve compiled a list of the best streaming devices on the market (and weighed all their pros, cons and capabilities), so it’ll be easy to find the best one for you.
Best Overall: Roku Ultra
Roku’s new flagship, the Ultra is a fantastic choice for streaming fans looking for the best-featured option. At 4.9 x 4.9 x .8 inches, the square-ish Ultra is capable of supporting both 4K and HDR picture quality with a powerful quad-core processor. The 4K Ultra HD streaming is handled at 60fps, or four times the resolution of 1080p HD, and, thanks to a new design, runs without fans. There’s an HDMI port, Ethernet port (plus 802.11 a/c), digital output, microSD slot for additional storage and a USB port. Unfortunately, there’s no HDMI cable included, which is a strange omission.
Thanks to a powerful processor, navigating Roku’s already friendly menu system is a cinch. Channel selection is front and center and shows apps that have been downloaded. The Ultra, like a number of other Roku devices, offers voice search, which works fairly well overall. Speak the name of the show, actor, director or app into the remote control or mobile app (Android and iOS) and voila, your results will pop up. The remote is standard Roku fashion with the colorful Purple direction pad and a slew of shortcuts to big name apps and other controlling functions.
There is a 4K spotlight app that highlights UHD content across a variety of services. Night mode is a welcome addition that tones down big explosions and highlights dialogue so you can let the rest of the house sleep while you watch late at night. The combination of the new processor, 4K and HDR streaming, plus one of the most expansive channel selections, means the Ultra won’t disappoint.
Runner-Up, Best Overall: Roku Stick
The Roku stick has a powerful quad-core processor and dual-band wireless that provides up to 8x more processing power than ever before. The usual suspects are here with Netflix, VUDU, Amazon, Google Play and more. In fact, it’s this selection that almost earned the Roku Stick our top spot.
Unlike Chromecast and Apple TV, Roku is platform agnostic and wants to give its customers all the options and it does so with gusto. We’d love to see 4K support, but that’s a sacrifice we can make thanks to the superb IR-ready remote control, excellent companion app for Android and iOS and hundreds of apps and services. In fact, the only big name missing here is iTunes and unsurprisingly, you won’t find iTunes anywhere other than an Apple-manufactured product. You might miss out on expandable storage but, again, aspects like best-in-class search allows us to overlook some of the Roku Stick drawbacks.
There are some additional downsides, like the fact that not every included streaming app is up to date with its most recent UX changes or that its HDMI-only which is bad news for older TV owners. Also, we’d love to see Roku do something about an average 2 minute and 52 second startup time. However, thanks to its selection of streaming content, a fast and incredibly responsive interface and cross-service search, the Roku Stick is an easy choice for best overall streaming TV device.
Best New Release: Amazon Fire TV Cube
The Fire TV Cube combines Amazon’s expansive media streaming capabilities with their popular Alexa AI. The result is a voice-controlled, all-in-one entertainment and smart home device that keeps all your favorite media “on call.” And thanks to the built-in speaker, it continues to operate as an Alexa device even when the TV is off.
With far-field voice recognition and eight microphones, the Fire TV Cube can hear and respond even when you’re in the other room. Simply ask it to play content from Netflix, Hulu, HBO and of course Prime Video, along with tens of thousands of other channels, apps and Alexa skills. Ditch your remote for good by connecting the Cube to your TV, sound bar and cable box, and controlling them with your voice instead. It’s the same for your smart home devices — the Cube can make it as easy as a spoken word to operate your lights, thermostat, security system and more. And, in addition to its extensive and customizable set of Alexa skills, the Cube delivers a comprehensive and high-quality entertainment experience, with support for 4K Ultra HD up to 60fps, HDR and Dolby Atmos sound.
Best Budget: Roku Express (2017 model)
The Express is now Roku’s most affordable streaming device. And the latest generation corrects many of the inconveniences of earlier models, making it truly the best budget option out there. Stuffed with all the apps and services you’ll find on any other Roku device, the Express can access more than 500,000 movies and TV episodes across a wide array of free and paid channels. Set up is as simple as plugging in the HDMI and power cable and connecting the Express to your home Wi-Fi network. In minutes, you’re all set to stream 1080p HD video with no monthly equipment fee for the device. Access all your paid services (Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc.) in one easy-to-use interface, or stick to their more limited catalog of free content (both live-streaming and on demand) to save even more. The Roku even allows you to search a movie or TV show and see results from all your favorite channels so you can compare prices on rentals (or even find a version that’s available for free). The included infrared remote is easy to use and includes shortcut buttons to the most popular apps, making this device a frustration-free choice for less “tech-savvy” streamers.
Where the old generations of the Roku Express fell behind (no device mirroring or voice control) the new Express has adapted to keep up with the competition. This generation now offers a free Roku mobile app that allows you to use your phone or tablet as a remote, with new features like voice search, device mirroring (so you can play videos or display photos from your phone to the TV) and even a “private listening” mode that lets you use headphones to listen to your favorite shows.
The Roku Express saves you money at every turn, allowing you to pick and choose only the services you’ll use and charging an extremely competitive price for the streaming device itself. It is compatible with 802.11 (b/g/n/) networks with WEP, WPA and WPA2 support, and as tiny as ever, measuring in at just 1.4 x 3.3 0.7 inches and weighing 1.3 ounces. The package comes with the player, an infrared remote with channel shortcut buttons (batteries included), a power adapter and a high-speed HDMI cable.
Best Apple Device: Apple TV 4
Apple TV 4 is a smaller, more expensive unit but retains the polished interface that has made Apple’s products some of the best-selling devices. The 1.66-ounce unit features incredible voice search from Siri, an excellent selection of apps and AirPlay for unsupported apps. Apple TV supports many of the same services as the Roku but adds the ability to play back content from your iTunes library. Throw in mirroring from your iPhone, iPad or Macbook through AirPlay and you’ve got a whole lot of possibilities.
Still, not everything is perfect as anyone not tied into Apple’s ecosystem won’t see the full value of the Apple TV. Given the cost, there’s little question this streaming TV device is only good for those completely sold on Apple’s closed ecosystem. Of 6,000+ native apps on the Apple TV now, 1,300 are for streaming video. Siri voice search does well, but its app limitation is an annoyance given how well Roku has performed this function at a cheaper cost. One particular note is that most buyers should be more than satisfied with the less expensive 32GB model rather than the 64GB model. Unless you’re looking to use the Apple TV as a heavy gaming machine, the smaller memory learns how to free up space on its own to allow for the introduction of new apps.
The lack of first-run content from other sources like Google Play is a notable omission, but hardly a surprise in today’s Apple vs Android world. Considering that most first-run content is available on each platform (save for some exclusives), it’s not a deal breaker.
Best for Amazon Prime Members: Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote
Amazon’s newest generation of Fire TV Sticks is currently categorized as the No. 1 Best Selling Electronic on its site. It’s one of the only streaming devices on the market that’s under $40 and comes with a remote that features wireless voice control. If you’re an Amazon Prime Member, there’s no better streaming device that rewards you like the Fire TV Stick.
The Fire TV Stick includes the Alexa Voice Remote that can read a user’s verbal commands. For example, speaking into the remote and saying “Launch Netflix” will boot up Netflix streaming, saying “Alexa, pause” will pause the video or music you’re playing – you can even tell Alexa to order a pizza or find movie show times. The streaming device is even better if you’re an Amazon Prime Member; you can get unlimited access to Prime Video, which features thousands of movies and TV episodes with no additional costs. Members can even add on specialty channels such as HBO and Showtime – which was previously exclusive to only Apple TV.
The Fire TV Stick includes 75 percent more processing power than its predecessors, includes a dedicated graphics engine, better Wi-Fi support, 2GB of memory and 8 GB of storage that’s expandable up to 200 GB. It supports 4K Ultra HD and features all of your favorite streaming channels such as YouTube, Hulu and Amazon Video.
Best for Smartphones: Chromecast Ultra
Google’s taking the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” saying and throwing it right out the window by taking the already impressive Google Chromecast and making it even better. The Chromecast Ultra now offers streaming in 4K Ultra HD and HDR with additional speed boosts to handle the more intense quality. Like its predecessors, the Chromecast Ultra plugs right into your TV’s HDMI port and works with the iPhone, iPad, Android devices and laptops with thousands of Cast-enabled apps.
Google’s Chromecast supports more than 200,000 TV shows and movies, plus 30 million songs, radio, sports, games and more. While it’s arguable that options like the Roku are more feature-rich, Google’s Chromecast Ultra may be the easiest and best-designed streaming service around.
The inclusion of an Ethernet adapter will assist homes and Internet connections that might not already be optimized and ready to take advantage of 4K streaming. Chromecast users will find the ability to mirror websites right on the TV, as well as mirror their smartphone. Power is supported through a microUSB connection that can go right into any power outlet, while HDMI plugs right into the TV.
Runner-Up, Best for Smartphones: Google Chromecast
Google’s Chromecast is arguably one of the best-known streaming TV devices and for good reason: It’s one of the least expensive. Now, with plenty of competition, Google has maintained the “less is more” approach by relying heavily on outside devices to control its playback. Whether you love it or hate it, the Chromecast has no remote control, period. Its selection of supported content rivals Roku and grows almost daily.
Through Chrome on the desktop or through official (or unofficial) apps on Android and iOS, there’s truly plenty of reasoning to give the Chromecast a long, hard look. One benefit is its portability (it’s really small). That’s great for anyone traveling and wanting to hook up to a hotel TV and stream their own content. The Chromecast would be our-go option for travel as we just need the unit itself and our smartphone rather than worrying about including a separate remote. Its new design mirrors a small, plastic hockey puck. The single, short cable connects to a single HDMI connecter and goes right into your TV. Setting up the Chromecast is incredibly easy. Just plug it in, grab the Chromecast app for your smartphone and follow the few prompts and you’re off to the races.
One notable difference from the rest of this list is the lack of any on-screen interface. The Chromecast doesn’t have one and Google has hinted that one will never arrive. Utilizing your existing apps ala Netflix to jump right into “casting” is simple, easy and requires just the tap of a single button. While the lack of iTunes and Amazon’s content is recognized, we can find most of the first-run and historical content we want on Google Play.
Best for 4K: Roku 4
Unlike most of its competition that strive for 1080p quality, the Roku 4 truly takes quality to another level. The addition of 2,500+ streaming channels, 4x the resolution of 1080p HD and advanced up-scaling for 720p HD TVs all seal the Roku 4’s place as a winner in our book. Capable of working with any TV with an HDMI connection, 4K streaming is limited to TVs that are already 4K UHD ready which isn’t as popular as 1080p models but expect that to change dramatically in the next few years.
One notable drawback is that the Roku 4 only supports HDMI 2.0, not HDMI 2.0a, which might not seem like a big detail today, but it could be in the future when additional support for high-dynamic streaming content is added. The Roku 4 matches its Stick companion in responsiveness and ease-of-use and we love the addition of quick-access buttons for both Netflix and Sling. All the major players are available through Roku including Netflix, Twitch, YouTube, Amazon, and Hulu. Want to stream photos, music and videos stored on your smartphone directly to the Roku 4? You’re just one app download away from yet another wonderful benefit of owning a Roku.
Best for Gamers: NVIDIA Shield
If it’s gaming you really want, the NVIDIA Shield is your Android TV streamer of choice. Rather than the more expansive and feature-rich options like the Xbox One or Playstation 4, the Shield is a happy medium between a gaming device and full TV streamer. While it’s pricey, it does come with 16GB of internal storage and performance that’s 3x faster than the Apple TV, 10x faster than the Roku 4 and 4x faster than the Fire TV. There’s no shortage of entertainment prospects here including Netflix, HULU, YouTube, ESPN, Showtime, Disney, Kodi, HBO, etc. Pick up the additional remote and say things like “Oscar-winning movies” or “Launch Netflix” and Google’s advanced voice commands will find exactly what you’re looking for. Although one notably absent service is Amazon’s Prime Video.
All the streaming TV options are just icing on the cake as the real prize is the gaming. Capable of streaming new and classic PC games from the cloud via GeForce NOW alongside a host of Android and SHIELD-exclusive gaming options, there’s everything from family favorites, indie hits to the biggest names in mobile gaming. Realistically, it’ll run gaming circles around the Apple TV or Amazon’s Fire TV but it’s still not a dedicated replacement for a game console. Included is a game controller which also functions as the main way to search.
Setup is relatively easy with Android TV and the Shield is no exception. Choose a language, WiFi password, account log-in and you’re off. The Shield handles all OS and app updates behind the scenes leaving you to enjoy the fruits of technology.