Best media streaming device

Which streaming box is best for cord cutters? And what's the skinny on streaming sticks? Our buying guide will help you pick the right accessories for your TV.

streaming hardware product hub image Credit: Rob Schultz/TechHive

Whether you’ve just gotten rid of cable or want to supplement your TV package with online video, now’s an excellent time to buy a media streaming device. Compared to the typical smart TV, standalone streamers such as the Roku Streaming Stick and Amazon Fire TV tend to have bigger app selections, faster performance, and more features. And with so much competition between device makers, the hardware is becoming faster, more capable, and more affordable.

We constantly test all the latest devices, including Roku players, Fire TV devices, Android TV devices, Apple TV, and Chromecast. We review each new generation of hardware and constantly revisit the software and app selection so we can help you determine which platform is right for you. Here are our picks for the best streaming boxes and sticks, along with all of our most current product reviews. Our recommendations will change over time as new products come to market.

Best streaming box: Amazon Fire TV

A lot has changed since last year, when the Roku 3 was our default recommendation. That honor now goes to Amazon’s Fire TV, which has largely caught up on supporting the biggest streaming services—see our app comparison chart for more details—and has moved ahead in terms of app quality. Services like PlayStation Vue and HBO Go simply look and perform better on Fire TV than they do on Roku’s hardware.

Amazon also has a firm grasp on what a modern streaming device should be. The home screen emphasizes content over individual apps, so you’re less likely to be paralyzed about what to watch, and Amazon has become less fixated on pushing its own content to the exclusion of other sources. Recommendations from Netflix and HBO Go, for instance, are now available straight from the home screen.

On top of those strengths, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant is icing. Using the Fire TV’s voice remote, you can search for videos, launch an app, ask for sports scores or news briefings, play music, control your smart home devices, and order stuff from Amazon.com. Those features help elevate the Fire TV from just a streaming box to the hub of your living room.

Best budget streaming device: Roku Streaming Stick

Amazon’s platform might be forward thinking, but its budget offering—the $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick—feels a little less adequate. That’s why we’re naming Roku’s Streaming Stick best budget streamer. Roku’s player feels less encumbered by loading times and interface sluggishness, and it packs some whiz-bang features, such as private listening through your smart phone, and an “instant replay” button that skips back in time and temporarily adds closed captions. It’s an ideal pick for your second or third television, or for someone else as a gift.

Best 4K HDR streaming device: Roku Premiere+

Early adopters of 4K HDR televisions will want a streaming device that plays 4K HDR content, and for that, Roku is still king. Compared to other 4K HDR streaming devices such as the Xiaomi Mi Box and Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Premiere+ ($100) supports more sources of 4K and 4K HDR content. Roku also makes that content easy to find with a "4K Spotlight" app that highlights supported apps and videos. If you're willing to spend a little more, the $130 Roku Ultra adds voice search, USB storage, and a remote-finding feature, but it's not a must-have upgrade.

Other options to consider

Apple TV is on the pricey side, but it’s an obvious choice for folks who’ve devoted themselves to the Apple ecosystem. It’s the only streaming box that supports iTunes videos, Apple Music, and AirPlay streaming, and it serves as a HomeKit hub for remote control of your smart home. The box is also screamingly fast, and the Siri remote has full support for TV volume and power.

Chromecast is an intriguing alternative if you like the idea of using a phone or tablet as the remote control. Because all the navigation happens on a separate device, Chromecast remains cheap, yet never feels slow. You can get years of use out of this device without feeling like it’s become obsolete.

The Xiaomi Mi Box is the cheapest 4K HDR streaming box on the market, but there’s no Amazon app, so it’s not worth considering if you’re a Prime subscriber.

The Nvidia Shield Android TV is relatively expensive at $200, but a recent hardware revision and influx of geeky new features make it a compelling choice for power users. You can set the Shield up as a Plex media server for streaming a personal media library to all your other devices, for example, or connect it to an HDHomeRun networked tuner for use with Plex DVR, letting you record and watch free over-the-air broadcasts. The Shield also supports 4K HDR video for good measure.

The Roku Express+ won’t win any awards for speed, but it’s the only streaming device on the market with composite video output for older CRT televisions.

What to look for in a media streaming device

Still trying to decide between all these options? Here are some additional factors to consider when making your decision, followed by a chart comparing the features of the boxes we’ve mentioned above.

Performance: In general, set-top boxes are faster than streaming sticks, and the amount you spend correlates pretty strongly with the loading speeds and smoothness you’ll get.

Playback quality and resolution: If you have a 4K or 4K HDR television, you’ll probably want a streaming box that takes full advantage of those capabilities. But these days, you won’t find any modern devices that don’t at least support 1080p resolution.

App selection: Traditionally, this has been the most important factor in choosing a streaming device, but over time app selection has started to look pretty similar no matter which device you choose, at least among major streaming services. Our app showdown chart will help you any particular service you’re interested in.

Ecosystem tie-ins: Apple apps and services are only available through Apple TV, while Fire TV devices are the most convenient way to watch Amazon Prime video, and Google’s video and music services are generally best-accessed via Chromecast or Android TV. Roku is more of a neutral party, offering apps for Amazon, Google Play Movies & TV, and several other competing video services, but it lacks the sophisticated virtual assistants and smart home controls you’ll get with other platforms.

Content discovery features: Media-streaming devices are starting to evolve beyond a static list of apps. Features like Roku Feed and the Apple TV’s “TV” app help you keep track of new arrivals, while Amazon includes recommendations directly on the Fire TV home screen. Read up on these approaches to decide which one sounds most appealing.

Private listening options: Many devices support Bluetooth headphones for when you don’t want to disturb your spouse or kids. Roku players also support wired headphones through the Roku mobile app, and through the remote control on its pricier set-top boxes.

Captive portal support: If plan to take your streaming device on the road, you may run into Wi-Fi networks that require a web browser for logging in. This is known as a “captive portal,” and not all streaming devices support it.

Remote control features: Some remote controls are loaded with buttons for fast forward, rewind, and other special functions, while others take a more minimalist approach. Some remotes can control your television’s volume, and some include microphones for voice commands. No remote is perfect, however, so take a look at the ones that are included with each box to decide what’s most important to you.

Connectivity: Do you plan on connecting a USB storage device, ethernet cable, or sound system via an analog or digital optical audio cable? Make sure your streaming box has the appropriate connections. You’ll also want a device with the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi if you’re worried about bandwidth on an overcrowded home network.

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