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.

streaming hardware product hub image 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.

This story was updated on January 24, 2018 to add our reviews of the Apple TV 4K, which we found to be highly polished, but overkill for people who aren't wedded to Apple's ecosystem; and the 2017 Roku Express, which isn't priced low enough for us to recommend over the only slightly more expensive Roku Streaming Stick. Needless to say, neither product toppled our top picks in any category.

Best budget streaming device

Hanging onto our 1080p TV? Plenty of us are, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop a lot of extra cash on a streaming device that supports 4K if you’re TV isn’t capable of that resolution. Even if you’re thinking you’ll take the upgrade plunge relatively soon, you could very well end up with a smart TV that doesn’t need an add-on device for streaming.

We’re big fans of the latest Roku Streaming Stick (introduced in the fall of 2017) for a whole bunch of reasons—voice recognition, strong networking support, and more—but we’re particularly enthusiastic about the new remote control that can turn the TV on and off and control its volume. And if you do want 4K resolution, take a look at the new Roku Streaming Stick+, which is available at Amazon for $69.

Best 4K HDR streaming device

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 Streaming Stick+ ($70) 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 $100 Roku Ultra adds USB and SD memory card storage and the reliability of hardwired ethernet connectivity, but it’s not a must-have upgrade.

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, yet never feels slow. 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 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 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.

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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