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Best media streaming devices

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.

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. 

Updated November 21 to add our review of the 2018 version of Google’s Chromecast. The concept isn’t as appealing as it once was, because the prices of media streamers with dedicated remote controls—included Roku and Fire TV products—have dropped so far in price. Google’s streamer still makes it easy to screen-share from Android devices and laptops, view pictures stored in Google Photos, and control your TV using Google Assistant.     

Latest media streaming device news

  • Spotify is returning to Roku after being unavailable since late 2017 due to technical issues. The platform returns by way of Roku’s OS 9 update, according to release notes, which comes to all Roku TV models in 2019. But Roku devices running OS 8.2 or up can now install Spotify from the company’s channel store in the meantime.
  • Google Assistant control has arrived on Roku streaming devices. Now you can use the voice-controlled assistant to search movies and TV shows, launch channels, and control playback. Roku has a guide on using Google Assistant here.
  • Apple plans to launch its TV subscription service in more 100 countries with the service coming to the United States sometime in 2019, The Information reports. Apple’s TV subscription service will allow sign-ups for networks like HBO and Showtime and include original content, placing Apple in direct competition with Netflix and Hulu.

Best 4K HDR streaming device

Amazon got pretty much everything right with its latest streaming stick. The Amazon Fire TV 4K of course supports 4K streaming, but it also delivers all the HDR formats you could want (including HDR10+ and Dolby Vision), it supports Dolby Atmos soundtracks for truly immersive audio, and it includes hardware-accelerated MPEG-2 video decoding for cord cutters who want to stream live TV over their home networks. 

You’ll find Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant onboard, too, and the new remote can control your TV’s power and volume—including a mute function. It’s not absolutely perfect—YouTube TV subscribers will be disappointed to hear they’ve been ignored—but it is the best deal in media streaming hardware you can buy today.

Runner-up

While it hit the market around this time in 2017, the Roku Streaming Stick+ remains a strong contender, and it’s a great choice for YouTube TV subscribers. You’ll find a lot to like in Roku’s user interface, its dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter, and its remote control. It’s a 4K streamer of course, but it supports only conventional HDR, not HDR+ or Dolby Vision. 

If you don’t need to the stronger Wi-Fi capabilities the Roku Streaming Stick+ offers, the latest version of the Roku Premiere+ offers many of the same features and costs $10 less.

Other options to consider

Apple TV 4K is very expensive, 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—not to mention Dolby Vision HDR—and it serves as a HomeKit hub for remote control of your smart home.

The Siri remote offers great voice control features, and it has full support for TV volume and power. The previous-generation (1080p) Apple TV also remains available for a slightly less premium $149.

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, and the 2018 version is even faster. You can get years of use out of this device without feeling like it’s become obsolete. Consider the Chromecast Ultra if you’re rocking a 4K TV.

The Nvidia Shield Android TV is relatively expensive at $200, but last year’s hardware revision and an 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. You can even plug in a USB stick and use the set-top box as a Samsung SmartThings controller for your smart home. Needless to say, the Nvidia Shield TV supports 4K video, too.

The 2017 Roku Express is good enough value, but you need spend only another $20 to get the far superior streamer that is the 2017 Roku Streaming Stick. You’ll gain 802.11ac connectivity, compared to the 802.11n adapter on the Roku Express; and an infrared remote that includes voice recognition and can control your TV’s power and volume.

Sling TV subscribers who are also interested in receiving over-the-air broadcast TV might be interested in looking at the AirTV Player + Adapter, although we found it to be a disappointment.

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.

Audio codec support: An increasing number of streaming services are supporting object-based soundtracks, such as Dolby Atmos, which add height cues to surround sound. If your home audio system can also take advantage of it—and even many of today’s soundbars can—you’ll want to hear it.

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.

Our latest media streamer reviews

At a Glance

Amazon's new Fire TV Stick sheds past mistakes and streams 4K HDR at an unbeatable price.

Pros

  • Impressive performance at a low price
  • Broad HDR format support, plus HDR menus and SDR-to-HDR conversion
  • Increasingly useful Alexa voice controls

Cons

  • The menu system is still too bloated
  • Genre searches are Alexa's weak spot
  • No support for YouTube TV, our favorite live TV streaming service

Roku’s stellar mid-range streamer gets even better, adding TV controls and voice recognition.

Pros

  • No separate remote necessary for TV volume and power
  • Zippy interface with some much-improved apps
  • Simple to setup and use

Cons

  • Voice control features are inferior to other platforms
  • Interface could use some fresh ideas for content discovery
  • Advertisement takes up almost half the home screen

Roku's mid-range streamer gets even better, with TV controls, voice recognition, and 4K HDR video.

Pros

  • No separate remote necessary for TV volume and power
  • Zippy interface with some much-improved apps
  • 4K HDR on the cheap

Cons

  • Voice control features are inferior to other platforms
  • Interface could use some fresh ideas for content discovery
  • Advertisement takes up almost half the home screen

It's a lot more capable than the last-generation Apple TV, but this new version still has plenty of room for improvement.

Pros

  • Siri Remote controls your TV's power and volume and enables voice search.
  • Open App Store.

Cons

  • Poor App Store discovery, with no browser-based or mobile versions.
  • Doesn't support iOS Remote app or keyboards for entering passwords.

The Roku Premiere+ is a great value for 4K HDR streaming with some minor compromises.

Pros

  • 4K HDR streaming on the cheap
  • Same solid performance as Roku's pricier streamers
  • Simple software with lots of free content

Cons

  • No support for advanced HDR formats, such as Dolby Vision and HDR10+
  • 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi is behind the times
  • A little less portable than Roku's Streaming Stick+

The new Fire TV Stick combines good-enough performance with powerful voice controls and a smart user interface.

Pros

  • Home screen helps solve the "what to watch" dilemma
  • The old hardware's more egregious performance woes are gone
  • Alexa voice remote is included

Cons

  • Long load times and other performance hitches can occasionally annoy
  • Search results still aren't informative enough
  • Lack of Echo integration is a missed opportunity

Nvidia's excessively powerful streaming box won't appeal to everyone, and that's okay.

Pros

  • Unrivalled speed for demanding apps such as PlayStation Vue
  • Streamlined software and bundled remote
  • Plex server and Kodi support; over-the-air DVR

Cons

  • Android TV is still behind on TV guide features and app support
  • Far pricier than other streamers, but less powerful than game consoles
  • Google Assistant and SmartThings capabilities aren't available yet

Designed for cord cutters, AirTV distributes broadcast TV over your home network and over the internet to remote locations.

Pros

  • Distributes free television entertainment over your home network.
  • Can also stream live broadcast TV to mobile devices in or outside your home
  • App includes a free seven-day program guide, to help you find what content is available

Cons

  • Performance varies based on your proximity to broadcast TV towers and the strength of the antenna you connect to it
  • You can't tune directly to a channel by pushing a number on a remote (there isn't one)
  • You can't create a list of favorite broadcast channels

Apple's 4K HDR streamer gets the little details right, but it's more than twice the price of comparable products.

Pros

  • Fast, fluid interface with best-in-breed apps
  • Siri is as smart as it gets for TV search
  • No ads larding up the home screen
  • Can serve as a HomeKit smart-home hub

Cons

  • Far more expensive than other 4K HDR streamers
  • No 4K HDR for YouTube and no Amazon Video (yet)
  • The Siri Remote is still too easy to lose in the couch

The least expensive Roku is much faster now, but the best Roku still doesn’t cost much more.

Pros

  • Performance is much improved over last year's Express
  • Has nearly all the same software features as pricier Roku players
  • Still the cheapest streaming player on the market

Cons

  • Remote requires line-of-sight to the box
  • Single-band 802.11n Wi-Fi could be troublesome in areas with weak reception
  • No TV or voice controls on the remote like other Roku models

The Fire TV Cube wants to replace your remote with voice commands, but Alexa isn't up for the challenge.

Pros

  • Launching videos with Alexa is glorious—when it works
  • Voice control for TV volume, sound systems, and cable boxes is a nice touch
  • Visual Alexa responses turn the TV into a powerful Echo-like device

Cons

  • Alexa is embarrassingly bad at genre search and inconsistent at playback controls
  • No volume control on the remote
  • Ads and promotional materials clutter the on-screen interface

The new Chromecast might not replace your Roku or Fire TV, but it can be a nice supplement to those devices.

Pros

  • A solid speed upgrade for first-gen Chromecast owners
  • Google Assistant enables powerful home automation
  • Launching videos by phone can be faster than using a proper remote

Cons

  • No infrared control for TV volume or A/V gear
  • The Google Home app is bad at aggregating and searching for content
  • Pausing or adjusting volume by phone can be inconvenient at times

Google's premium Chromecast quadruples the pixels for double the money, but lacks the bells and whistles of other high-end steaming devices.

Pros

  • Google Cast technology fundamentally works well
  • Low entry price for 4K HDR streaming
  • Ethernet and speed boost are welcome improvements

Cons

  • Short on convenience features like private listening, captive portal, and consistent playback controls
  • Google Home app needs streamlining and easier access to 4K content
  • Lack of Amazon Video support hampers an already-limited 4K content selection

Some people might need Roku's most-expensive streamer, but its cheaper Streaming Sticks should be fine for most.

Pros

  • The remote’s TV controls are a major improvement
  • It has an ethernet port
  • Straightforward software

Cons

  • Software lacks ambitious ideas
  • Voice recognition can be spotty
  • No more optical audio port

Cheap UltraHD streaming gets weighed down by a cluttered interface, middling voice search, and a lack of hardware innovation.

Pros

  • 4K HDR streaming at a low price
  • More powerful than the Fire TV Stick
  • Hands-free voice controls via Alexa devices are a nice perk

Cons

  • No TV controls on the remote
  • The interface is a bloated, ad-ridden mess
  • Alexa is less helpful than other TV voice assistants

A killer price for 4K HDR streaming isn't worth the Premiere's remote control compromises.

Pros

  • 4K HDR streaming on the cheap
  • Same solid performance as Roku's pricier streamers
  • Simple software with lots of free content

Cons

  • The IR remote feels sluggish and unresponsive, and it lacks voice or volume controls
  • No support for advanced HDR formats, such as Dolby Vision and HDR10+
  • 2.4GHz 802.11n Wi-Fi is behind the times

This streaming box makes cutting cable less intimidating by bringing Sling TV and over-the-air channels together, but it's hurt by Sling TV's limitations.

Pros

  • Convenient setup and access to over-the-air channels
  • Remote control has lots of useful functions
  • Sling TV subscription not required to use the device

Cons

  • Channel guide is cumbersome to navigate
  • DVR support is worse than Sling TV on other platforms
  • Outdated Android with no Amazon Video

Xiaomi's cheap 4K HDR Android TV box doesn't get with the times.

Pros

  • The cheapest Android TV box yet
  • Powerful voice controls
  • Full-sized USB port for hard drives or external controllers

Cons

  • Remote lacks full TV controls
  • Middling app support
  • Low frame rates in live TV streaming apps
  • Chromecast doesn't work when the box is asleep