If you're a cord-cutter – or you plan on becoming one in the future – a streaming device to watch shows and movies and stream music is a must-have. For folks with older smart TVs and anyone who wants a reliable way to stream, you just can't beat the value, performance and convenience of a streaming device.
Now, admittedly, the term 'streaming device' is pretty nebulous. These days, laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, consoles and, well, pretty much every internet-connected device is capable of getting to YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and more – but what sets streaming devices like the Roku Ultra, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV apart is that they are dedicated streaming players. Their jobs are to bring you content.
To that end, we believe the best streaming devices are the ones that have the best user interfaces with little or no lag time, capable of playing video from pretty much every major streaming service and staying up to date when a new service comes out.
We're here to help you make that next buying decision the best one possible by ranking the best set-top boxes in two categories – for 4K TVs and for Full HD TVs – and tell you which one will best fit your home entertainment center.
Best streaming devices for 4K TVs
In years past, it incredibly easy to pick out the best 4K streaming device. That's because, well, there were only like two of them on the market.
These days are a TON of 4K streaming devices out there. And while each and every one of them are capable of pushing millions of pixels worth of data to your TV, they're not exactly the same in terms of their content libraries and format support. That's why we looked at the amount of content available on the system – not only the number of apps available, but the quality, too – as well as its feature-set, usability and potential to grow in the coming year.
Unfortunately, with so many new streamers to choose from, however, some excellent 4K streaming boxes have been squeezed out of our top picks. The super-talented Google Chromecast Ultra just misses out on the podium, as do the Roku Ultra and even the Xbox One S. However, it's clear that our remaining trio are the best streaming boxes for 4K and HDR content.
At three times the cost of entry-level 4K HDR streaming players, the Nvidia Shield (2019) isn’t cheap, but it’s an incredibly powerful streaming player thanks to its cutting-edge AI upscaling tech and its support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision content. With it, you’ll also get the newly redesigned Shield remote that has been revamped to be more user-friendly and the latest version of Android TV, which serves as a gateway to Nvidia’s game-streaming service, Geforce Now.
But the feature that puts it miles ahead of the competition is the new AI upscaling feature that is one of the coolest features in any streaming device. It's powered by a neural network that has been fed thousands of hours of footage and can hugely sharpen content, making HD content from the last 20 years look like it was shot earlier this year with a 4K video camera. It's wild.
It has a few limitations – most notably that it doesn't have Apple TV on there and costs a bit more than a Roku Streaming Stick – but you get what you pay for here.
Read our full review: Nvidia Shield (2019)
Yes, it's locked to the Apple ecosystem, but iPhone users will love the tvOS operating system, which looks nothing short of sublime. It packs in the pixels and looks sharper than ever, while a souped-up A10X processor means navigation and app loading is fast.
Whether you go for the 32GB or 64GB storage versions, every streaming app you can think of is here, with one glaring omission; there's no Amazon Prime Video. However, we do like the 4K HDR ‘room’ within its iTunes movies app, which makes it easier to discover hi-res video content. Dolby Vision is a real asset that few other streaming devices support right now (with Dolby Atmos to follow, we've been told), just as impressive is universal search and the addition of Apple Music, the later of which which makes Apple TV a competent jukebox as well as a top-tier movie streamer. And the integration of the proprietary Apple HomeKit smart home tech could be a feature to watch. Our only criticism is that Siri makes too many mistakes.
Read the full review: Apple TV 4K (2017)
While it can't match the AI upscaling of the Nvidia Shield or the usability of the Apple TV 4K, the all-new Fire TV Cube is, by far, our favorite Amazon streaming device – better in so many ways than the Amazon Fire TV Cube that was released in 2017 and every single Amazon Fire TV box before it.
For the 2019 version of the Cube, the processor upgrade and inclusion of Dolby Vision are great new additions and, in spite of a few shortcomings, help solidify the Cube's spot as one of the best streaming players to be released this year.
Yes, technically speaking, you could do almost everything the Fire TV Cube does with an Amazon Echo Dot and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, but hexacore processor-powered box moves faster and creates fewer frustrations. It's cliche to say, but the Fire TV Cube is more than the sum of its parts.
Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV Cube (2019)
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If you're yet to invest in a 4K TV, streaming devices dealing in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision/Atmos are way over-specified for your needs. So swerve the high prices of the 4K streamers and head for the bargain basement, where you will find some excellent value streamers dealing in all the same content, only in fewer pixels. It also comes with miniaturisation; any search for a Full HD 1080p streamer quickly turns into a 'best dongle' dogfight.
Google is almost giving away its flagship streaming device. In fact, the Chromecast is the most insanely obvious device you should consider if you have a Full HD 1080p TV… and don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime Video. One of the easiest ways of getting video streams onto any TV, this puck plugs into an HDMI port on the rear of your TV, is powered by micro-USB, and is controlled by a smartphone.
No remote control, then. Or even a user interface. However, it's devilishly easy to use; fire-up the compatible app (which now has an effective universal search function) on any smartphone, and tap the 'Cast' button to immediately have content streamed to the big screen. Easy. Whatever's on your phone, or available via apps on your phone, can be streamed to your TV. That makes it very different from the way its main competitors work, and it outperforms Amazon Fire TV devices thanks to its new-and-improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna.
There are thousands of Chromecast apps that come with the Cast button built in, from Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket, Tidal and Twitch here in the US to Sainsbury's Movies and TV, Blinkbox, BT Sport, NowTV, Napster and, of course, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport in the UK. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
However, there is one small problem; if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you won't be able to watch the service on Google's streaming stick – Amazon's mobile app doesn't support Google Cast functionality.
Read the full review: Google Chromecast
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick isn’t meant to be the company’s top-of-the-line streamer, but just because you’re buying a budget streaming stick that doesn’t mean you should accept a sluggish interface and meager apps. A stick designed to plug directly into an HDMI port on the back of your TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick's user interface – including its Alexa voice search via an Alexa Voice Remote – is snappy and fast, and it allows access to most of the apps you’d need on a regular basis.
That would be Amazon Video and Netflix. With those two apps, it’s almost flawless, and if you just watch Amazon or Netflix content, then the interface is a dream. It’s quick, voice search works well, and it’s easy to find what you want to watch. However, venture into more niche streaming services and the stick’s functionality is much more basic, offering merely a portal to each app’s own interface rather than functionality of its own. The foundations are here for a solid streaming device, but it’s a little too inconsistent to be the perfect budget streamer. Oh, and it's not got access to YouTube, thanks to a corporate spat between Amazon and Google.
Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV Stick
If you use an iPhone and don't have a 4K TV, the older Apple TV from 2015 will do you just fine. It's all about Apple; you'll be shown the latest hits on the iTunes Movie and TV show storefronts, as well as be directed towards Music for all your audio needs. It can be slightly overwhelming if you're not used to Apple's lush, content-rich financial minefield, but anyone who's used an iPhone or iTunes in the past few years will be able to navigate around (though the finicky remote doesn't help).
However, find the epicenter of the new Apple TV, the App Store, and you'll enter a world of streaming video apps (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Netflix and Hulu are all here), and many of the top US sports apps including MLB.tv, NHL GameCenter Live, NBA.com League Pass and Watch ESPN.
OK, so it's expensive for a streamer that doesn't deal in anything above Full HD 1080p, and besides, it concentrates mostly on Apple's own video stores to find content. However, taken on its own merits, it's a good – if aging – streaming video player that's perfect for iPhone owners with a Full HD 1080p TV who want to stream and indulge in a little AirPlay awesomeness.
Read the full review: Apple TV
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