Airplay capability allows you to stream music, videos, games - just about anything, really - from any Apple device in your home.
Not compatible with Spotify.
Incredibly easy to set up and use. Works perfectly with Amazon Prime, Netfilx, Hulu, HBO, and Pandora. Comes with a handy controller.
Not compatible with universal remotes. Does not have access to Google Play Movies.
4K ultra HD. Controlled via voice command to Alexa or Google Home. Works with all the popular apps. Uses Silk and Firefox browsers. Dolby Atmos sound quality.
Pricey. Some issues with lag, and may not be as user-friendly.
Great search functionality within thousands of apps. Controller is user-friendly.
Some complaints of the remote failing after 6 months.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Millions of consumers have given up their cable TV subscriptions and opted instead to watch their shows and movies through streaming services over the internet. And who can blame them? Streaming services offer higher-quality video and audio with few, if any, commercials, and subscribing to multiple services is cheaper than paying a single cable TV bill. There’s no other way to say it: streaming is the future.
To stream content to your TV, you need a streaming device: a gadget that plugs into your TV and provides access to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. Streaming devices are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are ideal for traveling, while others are powerful enough to be the centerpiece of a home theater.
Whether it’s your first time streaming or you’re looking to upgrade your existing streaming device, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at the market. There are options for every scenario and at every price point, so no matter what your needs are, you can be up and binging in no time. Here’s everything you need to know to find the perfect streaming device.
The streaming device market is crowded, but you can narrow down your search by making a few decisions about how you’ll use yours. Start with these questions.
There are two popular form factors in streaming devices: small black boxes about the size of a hockey puck and thin sticks roughly the size of a pack of gum. In the early days of streaming sticks, there was a big divide between the two; streaming boxes were more powerful than streaming sticks by a mile. But the gap has closed, and modern streaming sticks can do almost everything streaming boxes can.
If you want a portable streaming device — or you just want something that won’t take up any room around your TV — go for a streaming stick. If you don’t need portability, or if you want a streaming device with niche features like an Ethernet port or game streaming, go for a streaming box.
If you regularly purchase videos from services like iTunes or Google Play, you’ll want to make sure the streaming device you buy supports your vendor of choice. It’s not crucial when it comes to movies because you can use the MoviesAnywhere service to watch your purchased movies, but it is a big deal when it comes to TV shows. Google Play and iTunes both limit their TV selection to specific devices. For example, you can only watch your iTunes-purchased TV shows on an Apple TV, and TV content from the Google Play store can only be played back on devices like those from Roku or NVIDIA.
Our best advice: if you buy a lot of TV content from a specific source, find the streaming device that’s the best match for that source.
Streaming devices are great on their own, but if you pair them with another device like a tablet or a smartphone, you can unlock additional functionality. For example, if you’re an iPhone owner, you can use your iPhone as a remote control or game controller with an Apple TV. Similarly, if you already own a Bluetooth game controller, you can use it with one of NVIDIA’s Shield TV boxes. It’s not a requirement to buy a streaming device that matches gear you already have, but it can definitely add to the convenience and fun.
Much more than a streaming box
The Apple TV 4K is the best streaming device on the market by a mile. It’s the only streamer that supports both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, the newest standards in image and sound quality. It’s snappy fast and easy to use, and while the gesture-based remote is a ton of fun, having Siri on board for voice commands makes finding and watching content easier than ever. If you’re looking for a streaming box that’s dedicated to being easy to use, this is the one to get.
All streaming devices are pretty good at connecting you with your favorite video-streaming services, but some have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Here are our favorite premium features commonly found on streaming devices.
Voice assistant compatibility: If you’re a fan of Siri, Alexa, or Google Home, you’re in luck. Most streaming devices come with a digital assistant on board. Streaming video is one of the areas where voice commands become a necessity once you’ve gotten used to it. There’s nothing quite like being able to say, “Play Game of Thrones,” and watching your TV effortlessly begin streaming dragons and White Walkers.
Private listening: Roku was the first to market with a feature that everyone else quickly copied: private listening. With private listening, you can plug a set of headphones into your streaming device’s remote control and hear the audio from your TV while your TV’s built-in audio goes quiet. Private listening is one of those features that’s so useful, you may wonder how you ever got along without it.
Gaming and game streaming: Most streaming devices support basic gaming — think mobile gaming more than console gaming — and make it easy to start an Angry Birds marathon from your couch. We love playing mobile games on the big screen, so if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to crush candy in 4K, get a streaming device with games onboard.
If you’re a PC gamer, you may be more interested in game streaming. With game streaming, you can use your streaming device to play PC games from a PC gaming rig on your network. You’ll need a beefy gaming PC to take advantage of game streaming, as well as a healthy WiFi signal, but once you’re all set up, you’ll be able to play PC games from your streaming device as if your computer were in the same room.
If your internet connection has a monthly data cap, consider streaming video at lower resolutions to consume less data. Data caps exist, and if you stream a lot of video, it’s easy to go over your limit for the month without realizing it.
Keep all of your streaming video account login information handy when you’re first setting up your streaming device. When you first set up your streaming device, you’re going to want to add your subscription info so you can stream from premium services like Netflix and Hulu.
Get to know your streaming device’s voice search capabilities. Most streaming devices these days have a built-in voice assistant, but every voice assistant is different.
Basic streaming sticks and entry-level streaming boxes cost anywhere between $30 and $60. Devices in this price range are usually limited to 1080p HD video, although it’s definitely possible to find one or two options in this range that support 4K. If you’re looking for a streaming box or stick that handles the basics well but not much else, you don’t have to spend more than this.
The best values in streaming devices cost between $60 and $170. In this price range, you can easily find a solid performer with premium features like 4K resolution, support for High Dynamic Range (HDR), or an Ethernet port for lag-free streaming. If you want niche features like game streaming or a ton of onboard file storage, you’ll need to spend more. However, most users find their ideal streaming box in this range.
Premium streaming devices cost between $150 and $300. In this range, it’s only streaming boxes and no sticks, but these streaming boxes do a lot more than just video. You’ll find devices lines like the Apple TV, which has exclusive features like support for AirPlay (Apple’s proprietary casting protocol). You’ll also find NVIDIA’s Shield TV devices, which are some of the best options for game streaming. If you’re a hardcore streamer, an Apple loyalist, or you just want the best there is, this is how much you’ll need to spend.
Our favorite streaming stick for travelling
Roku invented the streaming stick form factor, so it’s no surprise that they still make the best stick-size options around. The Streaming Stick HD is a shining example of how Roku has perfected the streaming stick experience. Simply plug it in to your TV, grab the remote, and you’re good to go. If you need a 1080p HD streaming stick that’s affordable, stable, and fits in your pocket, this is your best option.
Learn the difference between Android TV and streaming boxes running Android. Google’s TV-specific version of the Android mobile operating system is called Android TV, and it’s designed to behave like a typical streaming box and to be controlled by a remote control. There are only a few devices that run Android TV. In contrast, many manufacturers offer streaming boxes that run the Android mobile OS found on smartphones and tablets. Devices in the latter category are often underpowered, rarely receive security updates, and in general offer poor user experiences. Our best advice: if you’re in the market for a Google-based streaming device, get one that’s running Android TV proper, and avoid streaming boxes running plain Android.
If you’re planning to use a universal remote with your streaming device, make sure they’re compatible first. Streaming devices often have compatibility issues with universal remotes because they don’t receive remote commands like traditional components. For example, your TV likely responds to InfraRed (IR) signals from a remote, and most universal remotes have no problem reproducing IR signals. When it comes to streaming devices, many of them use WiFi or Bluetooth for receiving commands, leaving most universal remotes out in the cold. Universal remotes are slowly catching up, so there are definitely some out there that would pair well with your streaming device; just be sure to triple-check for compatibility before making any purchases.
If you’ve got a lot of personal audio and video content, buy an external hard drive to use with a streaming box. If you’ve decided on a streaming box, check to see if it has an available USB port. In most cases, you can use that USB port to connect to a portable hard drive and view content from it. For example, if your photo or video collection is on a hard drive, you can use your streaming box to play the contents.
If you’re curious about Android TV, but you’re put off by the price tag on devices like the NVIDIA Shield TV, consider the Xiaomi MiBox. It’s got nearly all of the same video capabilities as the Shield TV, but it skips the game streaming — and the result is one of the most enjoyable streamers out there at less than half the price. The documentation isn’t amazing, but the MiBox has an active community of users on video sites, so it’s easy to follow instructional videos if you ever get stuck.
If you’re a fan of controlling your streaming experience with voice commands, we definitely recommend Amazon’s Fire TV Cube. The Cube is different from Amazon’s other streaming devices: it’s like a cross between their Fire TV streamers and their Echo digital assistant devices. The result is a streaming box that you can talk to from across the room. Best of all, you can set it up with your cable TV set-top box so Alexa can tune in those channels, too.
Q. My cable provider offers a streaming device. Should I just use that instead?
A. You could, but we don’t recommend it. Cable providers are definitely afraid of cord cutters, so to help lure back former cable customers, they now offer their own streaming devices. While these devices can be tempting — mainly because the video you stream to them often won’t count toward your monthly data cap — they just don’t deliver the quality of experience you can find on a proper streaming box. Cable-provided streaming boxes are often slow, leaving out key streaming providers and lacking key features like HDR or voice assistant compatibility.
Q. Can I watch content I purchase in iTunes on a non-Apple streaming device?
A. Sort of. If you have a movie collection in iTunes of films that you’ve purchased, you can connect your iTunes account with MoviesAnywhere, a service that lets you watch your purchased movie content on pretty much any streaming device available. But here’s the rub: MoviesAnywhere only applies to movies, not TV shows, so if you’ve bought a lot of TV episodes from iTunes in the past, the only streaming box that will play them is an Apple TV.
Q. Can I use a 4K streaming device on a TV that isn’t a 4K TV?
A. Yes. All 4K streaming devices are backward compatible, so you can connect one to a standard 1080p HD TV and everything will look and stream just fine. You won’t be able to enjoy all the pixels of a 4K video stream, but other than that, your content will behave the same way it would on a 4K TV.
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