These days, there’s no shortage of devices for streaming video from the web onto your TV screen — in fact, there are so many streaming gadgets that it can be hard to know which one is the right one to get.
Some streaming sticks are about the size of a stick of gum, while other streaming boxes are hockey pucks meant to sit next to your other TV components. Some offer cutting-edge home theater technology, while others do just the basics — and that’s it.
If you’re not sure which streaming device is right for you, we’ve got your back. Here’s our guide to the three big players in the streaming device space: Roku, Apple TV, and Fire TV, along with our favorite models from each.
The good news: they all cover the basics
They all have apps for Netflix, Hulu, and Vudu, as well as the cross-platform streaming video service Movies Anywhere. The bottom line: If you’re just looking to binge your favorite show or catch the newest original movie, there are no bad choices. (If you want to buy or rent TV episodes or movies, it’s a different story.)
How they compare
While most streaming devices perform similar tasks, the hardware they use can vary, and each manufacturer has their own platform. Here’s how the major players compare.
1. Fire TV devices from Amazon focus on being affordable, stream-anything gadgets, with one catch: The entire operating system is designed to get you to spend money on Amazon’s content. If you’re a Prime member, there’s no better way to get access to the free shows and movies that come with your subscription — just don’t be surprised if you’re still presented with purchase opportunities on a regular basis.
The good: Amazon’s Fire TV devices are the most affordable in the industry. They’re super easy to set up, totally intuitive, and many of them support 4K.
The bad: If you like to buy or rent streaming video, you can only do it through Amazon on their devices. (And while you can use the Movies Anywhere app to access any content you own with Apple or Google, you can’t browse or purchase anything from them on a Fire TV device.) If you get frustrated easily by ads, or you don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime, a Fire TV device may not be for you.
The best one to get: Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is a streaming powerhouse in a tiny form factor, and one of the most affordable 4K streaming options around. It plugs directly into your TV, delivers stunning 4K video, and it even includes a remote that supports voice commands. If you’re looking for an inexpensive streaming device, but you don’t want to sacrifice video quality or convenience, the Fire TV Stick 4K is an easy decision.
The best bargain: Their HD streaming stick, the Fire TV Stick, is a step down from the 4K stick — but it’s still plenty fast and can stream all the same video in high definition. If you don’t have a 4K TV but you still want a streaming stick that’s got Alexa on board, this is the one to get.
2. Roku devices were the first to market — it’s not an exaggeration to say that they invented the category of streaming boxes and sticks. But now that the market is crowded, Rokus are best known for their semi-agnostic platform: Roku devices support a variety of content stores, including Google Play, Vudu, and their own Roku Channel, so you’ve got multiple options when it comes to purchasing video.
The good: Like Amazon, Roku makes streaming sticks and streaming boxes, and like Amazon, they’re incredibly affordable. Their ace in the hole: flexibility. You can find just about any app or streaming service on a Roku, and you’re never “locked in” to a single content provider. Roku devices also have remotes that support private listening, so you can plug in your headphones in and hear your TV’s audio loud and clear.
The bad: If you watch a lot of video files in different formats, a Roku device may struggle to play them. Roku also often struggles to keep up with cutting-edge tech, so if you’re looking for innovations like streaming Netflix with Dolby Atmos audio, you may be disappointed.
The best one to get: The Roku Ultra is the cream of their crop, and brings a lot to the table — including a pair of premium JBL headphones. It supports 4K HDR, and it’s one of their rare models that has an ethernet port for faster hard-wired speeds. If you’re looking for the most flexible streaming device around that’s plenty powerful, look no further.
The best bargain: The Roku Express is their entry-level streaming stick, and it’s perfect for adding streaming apps to any TV for a shockingly low price. It supports HD resolutions, and while its remote doesn’t support private listening, it works with the Roku smartphone app, which does.
3. Apple TV streaming boxes have always taken Apple’s patient approach to hardware: They’re not the first to market with new technologies, but they’re the easiest to use, the most elegantly designed, and the most expensive. But as many Apple fanatics will tell you, that can be a winning combination when it comes to streaming video.
The good: Apple’s streaming boxes deliver the best-looking video of any streaming devices, bar none. They connect with Apple’s industry-leading TV and Movie download and rental services, and they’re the only way to access Apple TV+, their new streaming service. They’re fast, intuitive, and their interface is just plain pretty. (For more on Apple TV+ and the streaming services available to you, check out our guide here.)
The bad: Like most Apple hardware, Apple TVs are expensive. While they do work with third-party streaming subscriptions like Netflix, they’re limited to Apple’s own download and rental services.
The best one to get: The Apple TV 4K is their top-shelf streaming box, and it’s easily one of the best in the business. It’s fast; it makes everything look amazing; it supports high-end streaming technologies like Netflix in Dolby Atmos; and it’s an AirPlay receiver for easily streaming audio and video from iOS devices.
The best bargain: The Apple TV (4th Generation) is one of our favorites because it delivers the same interface and convenience as the flagship model, but at a much lower price. If you haven’t yet made the leap to 4K, but you want the best user experience in streaming video, consider this one first.