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If you're a late adopter of smart TVs, picking up one of the best devices for streaming TV is going to be essential for a top-notch viewing experience. Besides cutting down on unnecessary cables and other clutter, picking up a discrete streaming device gives you the option to watch just about anywhere as long as you have an HDMI compatible display and stable internet connection.
Form factor is the most obvious difference between these devices but is far from your only concern. You'll want to stay apprised of the streaming services or applications that are offered on a particular platform, as well as what formats are supported as not all streaming devices offer 4K or HDR yet.
Our guide below will tell you who supports what, but if you're new to the streaming game make sure to check out our guide to the best TV streaming apps and services too.
Great streaming quality
4K and HDR
No YouTube app available
User interface can feel cluttered
The new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K wants to upgrade your tried-and-true entertainment experience with its new streaming stick. Select from over 500,000 movies and TV shows from providers like Hulu, Netflix, STARZ, SHOWTIME, HBO, and Prime Video, and catch live TV if you have subscriptions like Playstation Vue, Sling TV, and Hulu. Users can access millions of websites like Facebook and YouTube, as well as music streaming services, podcasts, and live radio stations such as Amazon Music and Spotify. For the ultimate visual and audio experience, the stick is compatible with 4K Ultra HD, HDR, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision.
The Fire TV Stick’s latest iteration also features Amazon Alexa, which is capable of everything from helping you select what new show you should watch to controlling the lights, checking live camera feeds, and monitoring the weather. The stick features a powerful 1.7 GHz processor, and our testing revealed rapid loading times. The addition of physical volume controls and power buttons, also means you no longer have to deal with multiple remotes to control one device.
"We were impressed by the crisp picture quality and responsiveness when playing, stopping, and selecting content." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester
Tons of different apps
Remote also has TV controls
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is our favorite low-cost streaming device. Whatever kind of subscription services you use, chances are this little device will have an app for it. Like many of the other devices on this list, the Roku plugs directly into the HDMI port on your TV and connects to your home’s Wi-Fi signal using a long-range wireless receiver.
The Roku is a great way to consolidate all your different platforms into one place, allowing you to switch from live TV on Sling to your favorite shows on Netflix and Disney+ with the click of a button. It even has content from Apple TV. This eliminates the need to create a patchwork of different streaming devices that you have to switch between on your TV. The Streaming Stick+ has also built TV controls into its remote, which means you can turn on and adjust the setting on your TV without having to switch back and forth.
"Overall, it’s a streaming device with a minimalistic sensibility." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester
Channel grid is easy-to-read
Lacks some streaming services
If you’ve “cut the cord” on your cable service and switched over to streaming services only, you may realize you miss some of the programming from over-the-air channels like ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS, and The CW — there are a lot of great shows and sporting events on these channels that you can watch for free. TiVO has provided a solution for this. If you purchase a digital antenna and a TiVO Bolt OTA, you can record shows over the air and play them back at your convenience.
The TiVO Bolt OTA acts as a digital DVR for all the shows you watch from free channels. It has 1 TB of memory and can record up to 150 hours of HD content. The Bolt OTA can also stream shows from services like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and YouTube if you feel like using only one device for everything. Unlike most other boxes in this category, the Bolt OTA requires you to buy the box for $250 and then pay for the TiVO service to get the most out of it. This will run you $7 a month, $70 annually, or a one-time payment of $250. This pricing is a little steep, but if you love network shows and live sports, it very well may be worth it to supplement your other streaming services.
"Always check your streaming devices output settings and make sure you have a healthy network environment to ensure the best overall viewing experience." — Alice Newcome-Beill, Associate Commerce Editor
Sharp picture quality
No HDMI cord included
Voice commands not always intuitive
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube hopes to replace the TV remote entirely. A combination of the Echo speaker and Fire TV stick, it will be your new smart home and entertainment hub that follows your every voice command. And as with most of Amazon's other branded devices, you can use the Alexa assistant to control your TV, cable box, soundbar or other audio equipment. If you want to turn on the TV, just say “Alexa, turn on the TV.” Ask it to play your favorite shows or music, too. During our testing, we found that even the volume can be controlled through voice commands.
Amazon's Fire entertainment hub gives you instant access to all your favorite streaming services like Prime Video, Netflix, HBO, Showtime and more. All totaled, there are more than 500,00 movies and TV episodes. That includes a large number of 4K Ultra HD-ready content that streams at a super-smooth 60fps. The Fire TV Cube also gives you direct access to YouTube, Facebook, and more with two built-in web browsers.
"It offers the smart speaker qualities of an Amazon Echo while also serving as a free-standing remote." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester
Console scratches easily
No incremental volume controls
No power button on remote or controller
If you have a 4K TV and a great sound system in your entertainment center, you’re going to want a streaming device that delivers the highest-quality image and sound. In that case, the NVIDIA Shield Android TV streaming device is hard to beat. Its design is a bit different from the others on this list — instead of placing it under your TV or plugging it directly into the HDMI port, the Shield connects to your TV via an HDMI cable (sold separately) and sits down behind your entertainment center out of sight.
The NVIDIA Shield prioritizes speed and power with the company’s own Tegra X1+ processor, making it one of the fastest and most advanced devices on this list — this makes it the best option for gamers as well. Even if you’re just planning to stream shows and movies, the Shield packs in features like Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio to make your media look and sound its best. It also has video upscaling features to optimize non-4K content for your 4K screen. With apps for all the major streaming services, the NVIDIA Shield Android TV gives you access to the most 4K content at its best quality.
Solid 4K HDR performance
Easy to setup and use
Voice remote with headphone jack
No Dolby Vision support
Doesn’t include HDMI cable
Very limited voice assistant
Roku’s new flagship, the Ultra is a fantastic choice for streaming fans looking for the best-featured option. At 4.9 x 4.9 x .8 inches, the square-ish Ultra is capable of supporting both 4K and HDR picture quality with a powerful quad-core processor. The 4K Ultra HD streaming is handled at 60fps, or four times the resolution of 1080p HD, and, thanks to a new design, runs without fans. There’s an HDMI port, Ethernet port (plus 802.11 a/c), digital output, microSD slot for additional storage and a USB port. Unfortunately, there’s no HDMI cable included, which is a strange omission.
Thanks to a powerful processor, navigating Roku’s already friendly menu system is a cinch. Channel selection is front and center and shows apps that have been downloaded. The Ultra, like a number of other Roku devices, offers voice search, which works fairly well overall. Speak the name of the show, actor, director or app into the remote control or mobile app (Android and iOS) and voila, your results will pop up. The remote is standard Roku fashion with the colorful Purple direction pad and a slew of shortcuts to big name apps and other controlling functions.
There is a 4K spotlight app that highlights UHD content across a variety of services. Night mode is a welcome addition that tones down big explosions and highlights dialogue so you can let the rest of the house sleep while you watch late at night. The combination of the new processor, 4K and HDR streaming, plus one of the most expansive channel selections, means the Ultra won't disappoint.
Siri voice remote
4K HDR support
The latest version of the popular Apple TV streaming devices comes with 4K support and built-in Siri functionality. Gone are the days of the frustrating click-wheel remote — now you can use voice commands to effortlessly find your favorite content. The Apple App Store gives you access to apps for all your streaming services, including YouTube (finally).
As with all Apple products, you’ll get the most out of the Apple TV if you’re already in the brand’s ecosystem. Apple TV effortlessly syncs to your Apple Music, iTunes, and Photos accounts and lets you seamlessly mirror content from your Macbook or iPhone to your TV. New support for 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos sound will make your media look and sound fantastic — a definite bonus if you’re already invested in some quality gear for your entertainment center.
No necessary subscription
No way to watch from a computer.
Requires a Fire TV device, Echo Show, or Fire TV mobile app.
With the Fire TV Recast, you’re able to watch live TV or record your favorite shows using Fire TV, Echo Show, or compatible mobile devices. Amazon’s first step into the future of entertainment, the Recast gives you access to over-the-air (OTA) channels, works with Prime Videos, and provides access to premium subscription services like HBO, Starz, and Showtime. Though a separate HD antenna is necessary to access OTA channels, the Fire TV mobile app helps you set it up in a spot with the best possible reception.
The entry-level, two-tuner Recast lets you record and watch up to two programs at once, and is able to store up to 75 hours of HD DVR recordings. Upgrading to the four-tuner, 1TB model will introduce the option to store up to 150 hours. Pair the Recast with an Alexa-enabled device to search for shows, change channels, browse, or schedule recordings, all with just a voice command.
Cheap, effective 4K and HDR streaming
Built-in Ethernet adapter
Google Home integration
No native Amazon Video support
No remote control
Google’s taking the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” saying and throwing it right out the window by taking the already impressive Google Chromecast and making it even better. The Chromecast Ultra now offers streaming in 4K Ultra HD and HDR with additional speed boosts to handle the more intense quality. Like its predecessors, the Chromecast Ultra plugs right into your TV’s HDMI port and works with the iPhone, iPad, Android devices and laptops with thousands of Cast-enabled apps.
Google’s Chromecast supports more than 200,000 TV shows and movies, plus 30 million songs, radio, sports, games and more. While it’s arguable that options like the Roku are more feature-rich, Google’s Chromecast Ultra may be the easiest and best-designed streaming service around.
The inclusion of an Ethernet adapter will assist homes and Internet connections that might not already be optimized and ready to take advantage of 4K streaming. Chromecast users will find the ability to mirror websites right on the TV, as well as mirror their smartphone. Power is supported through a microUSB connection that can go right into any power outlet, while HDMI plugs right into the TV.
Unless you're an avid viewer of Youtube, the obvious choice is the current version of Amazon's Fire TV Stick. This device is host to a litany of services and applications and won't break the bank. However, users that buy into the Apple ecosystem may find more utility with the latest iteration of the Apple TV.
Our expert reviewers and testers test streaming media devices by using them just like an average consumer would. We look at how easy the setup process is, particularly when it comes to connecting accounts and using the software platform to find and manage content. We also use objective measures by looking at their specs, their streaming quality, and if they're capable of streaming at 4K HDR. Finally, we look at the price and compare the device to rivals to make our ultimate judgment. All the streaming media devices were purchased by Lifewire; none were provided by the manufacturer.
Emmeline Kaser is an experienced product researcher and reviewer in the field of consumer tech. She is a former editor for Lifewire’s product testing and recommendation round-ups.
Alice Newcome-Beill is still a staunch defender of her media PC but loves the mobility and utility of modern streaming devices.
David Beren is a tech writer with more than 10 years of experience in the industry and founded his own tech site in 2008.
4K resolution - If you have a 4K television, and a fast internet connection, then a television streaming device that supports 4K is the perfect way to watch ultra-high-definition content. If you don’t have a 4K television yet, then getting a streaming device with 4K resolution will future proof your setup.
Ethernet connectivity - Streaming devices typically connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, but plugging in a physical Ethernet cable is much more dependable. If you want to avoid annoyances like buffering, make sure that you have the option to use Ethernet when you really need it. Some TV streaming devices have an optional Ethernet adapter for just this reason.
App availability - Most TV-streaming devices support most video streaming services, but don’t take it for granted that this will always be the case. If you already subscribe to any streaming services, make sure that the streaming device you choose actually has apps for them.