After more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s no surprise that many of us looked to our TVs and streaming devices for entertainment. On the streaming front, there’s been a suite of stellar TV series and movies landing on the likes of Netflix, HBO MAX, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video. And there are now more choices than ever when it comes to live TV services that can help you cut the cord.
When it comes to TVs, we’ve seen mini-LEDs and OLED TVs push the envelope in terms of picture quality. And streaming devices and smart TVs are getting smarter with the addition of better voice controls, more intuitive interfaces and integration with the rest of our smart homes. Overall, there's a lot to celebrate in this year’s Tom’s Guide Awards when it comes to TVs and streaming.
Best TV: Samsung QN90A Neo QLED TV
The best TV we’ve tested is the Samsung Neo QLED QN90A, Samsung's flagship premium 4K smart TV. Putting the "neo" in Neo QLED is the introduction of mini-LED backlighting, which enhances the boosted color of quantum-dots with the tighter brightness control that tinier LED backlighting zones provide. The brighter colors, deeper blacks and reduced halos show how far the Neo QLED display goes to narrow the gap between LCD and OLED display technologies. The result is one of the best-looking TVs we've ever seen, and Samsung doesn't stop there.
You also get HDMI 2.1 connectivity, a rich collection of smart features and gaming capabilities and killer visual and audio performance — making it the best gaming TV of the year and offering the best sound, as well. Fine touches like a solar-powered rechargeable remote and added capabilities that let you video chat on your TV, get personalized fitness instruction or use it for productive office work all prove that Samsung makes one of the smartest TVs you can buy.
Highly Recommended: TCL 6-Series Roku TV R635
The TCL 6-Series Roku TV R635 proves that innovation, premium quality and affordability can all be had in one excellent TV, with its combination of mini-LED and QLED offering great picture quality and Roku TV offering a rich (if streamlined) smart TV experience. It's incredible value for the price.
Best TV innovation: TCL QLED + Mini-LED
TCL was first to the punch with mini-LED and the TCL 6-Series Roku TV R635 refined the new tech for better picture quality and a more affordable price. The result is one of the best TVs you can buy, utilizing QLED for fantastic color quality and mini-LED for better brightness and HDR performance than anything that came before it.
It's exactly the sort of innovation that matters, sending ripples through the TV industry and prompting Samsung and LG to both introduce their own mini-LED-backlit models for 2021. Several months after its release, the TCL 6-Series Roku TV R635 remains one of the best values in the TV world.
Highly Recommended: Samsung Solar Cell remote control
Of all the refinements and changes we've seen come to TVs in the last 12 months, one of the best is also a brilliantly simple idea: Replace the batteries in your remote control with a rechargeable battery and a built-in solar cell. Samsung's Solar Remote deserves some praise as one of the smartest innovations in TVs.
Best TV sound: Samsung Object Tracking Sound Plus (OTS+) and Q-Symphony
Samsung’s Object Tracking Sound Plus (OTS+) technology uses an array of upward and downward firing speakers around and behind a TV to produce dynamic sound that tracks with the objects on screen. When we tested it on the Samsung Neo QLED QN90A, we were impressed not only with the volume that the 60-watt speakers produced, but also the great quality and immersion that the 4.2.2 channel setup provided.
And Samsung ups the ante a bit more with Q-Symphony, which lets you pair the TV with a Samsung soundbar and then use all of the speakers on both devices for a giant soundstage and a more theater-like sound experience. Did we mention that it can also provide Dolby Atmos sound for Atmos-enabled soundbars? It all adds up to the best TV sound of the year.
Highly Recommended: LG G1 OLED evo 4K TV
The LG G1 OLED’s slim 20-millimeter thick chassis looks impressive, but sounds even better, thanks to an array of built-in 4.2 channel speakers backed by 60 watts of power. LG's AI Sound Pro processing enhances everything from dialogue to sound effects, and Dolby Atmos sound makes the whole thing sound bigger and more impressive than the gorgeous TV already is.
Best value TV: Vizio OLED TV
When it comes to value, there are a lot of TVs that deliver great bang for the buck, but the Vizio OLED TV stands head and shoulders above the rest, delivering what was once the unattainable Holy Grail for TVs: a 55-inch OLED TV for under $1,000. While the Vizio OLED55-H1 usually retails at $1,299 it's a frequent highlight of big sales events and is regularly available for $999 or even less. In short, it’s a value monster.
The OLED display means that the Vizio also offers fantastic picture quality, with rich black levels, excellent HDR capability and overall premium quality. This gets paired with strong audio and Vizio's improved SmartCast smart TV platform, which bolsters its expanded app selection with built-in support for Google Cast and Apple AirPlay 2. It's an easy pick for the best value TV of the year.
Highly Recommended: TCL 5-Series Roku TV (S535)
For an incredible value that's under $1,000 for every screen-size, at any time of year, we love the TCL 5-Series Roku TV (S535). The combination of QLED enhancement and the Roku TV platform make for an affordable TV that looks great and offers a wealth of content.
Highly Recommended: Hisense U8G
The Hisense U8G Android TV is another notable value, offering a great smart TV experience with Android TV and QLED for excellent performance. It’s one of the best 4K smart TVs you can get for the price.
Best smart TV platform: Google TV
When it comes to the software that makes smart TVs tick, the change that impressed us most for 2021 was the move to Google TV. It’s already available on Sony's 2021 TVs, with TCL to follow in the coming months, and enhances Android TV with a redesigned interface that improves the navigation and content recommendations.
Plus, Google TV even adds some features we've never seen elsewhere, like accounts for individual users and really smart parental controls. It also takes advantage of Google's compatibility with other devices so you can update watchlists from your phone or laptop, and share info between different devices. It all adds up to the best smart TV experience we've seen in a while.
Highly Recommended: Samsung Tizen
While Samsung has always added unique functionality to its smart TVs, especially for Samsung phone users, the latest version of Tizen gets especially clever. Features like the ability to connect a webcam and use Google Duo video chat directly on the TV seem especially timely, as do fitness programs that can offer you feedback on your technique.
Best TV design: LG G1 OLED TV
When it comes to sleek TV designs, it's hard to ignore the slim, wall-hanging LG G1 OLED TV. The 20-millimeter-thick chassis design houses all of the components and speakers in a body that's made for easy wall-mounting without requiring professional installation, or even a separate TV mount. That design isn't new (it's virtually identical to its 2020 predecessor), but LG has taken the opportunity to showcase its new OLED evo technology exclusively in the G1 OLED TV, making it the best-looking set we've seen, whether it's on or off.
Highly Recommended: Samsung QN90A Neo QLED TV
If you want a pretty TV, it's also worth considering the Samsung Neo QLED Q90A. As the premier 4K Smart TV from Samsung, it gets the full treatment, with a chassis design that looks almost as good from behind as it does from the front.
Best gaming TV: Samsung QN90A Neo QLED TV
The Samsung Neo QLED QN90A is a superb (if premium) option for console gaming, with an excellent 12.6 millisecond lag time, 120Hz refresh rate and HDMI 2.1 connectivity. You'll also get features like auto low-latency mode (ALLM) and variable refresh rate (VRR), plus several that you won’t find elsewhere such as advanced frame-rate syncing options and a built-in menu that can tweak settings to optimize them for gaming. Throw in the fact that it also offers brilliant picture quality and sound, and the QN90A is a fantastic choice for gamers.
Highly Recommended: TCL 6-Series Roku TV (R635)
The TCL 6-Series Roku TV R635 boasts gamer-friendly features such as ALLM, VRR and a THX Certified Game Mode, but at a very reasonable price for a 4K set.
Best streaming device: Chromecast with Google TV
Chromecast with Google TV takes the already-noble Chromecast and gives it a bunch of new skills that make it better than ever. You can do more than just cast streams to this Chromecast, as Google TV apps give it access to every single streaming service, while the neat remote feels great in the hand and doesn’t overdo the promotional buttons.
That said, the Chromecast with Google TV is the best new streaming device of the past year because of the way it mixes affordability with quality audio and video. Yes, for just $50 you can get a 4K UHD streaming device with HDR, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, but without having to use an ad-filled operating system.
Highly Recommended: Roku Express 4K Plus
The $40 Roku Express 4K Plus is an even-more affordable 4K UHD streaming device, although not quite as full-featured.
Best live tv streaming service: Sling TV
When we want to stream live TV, we're increasingly looking at Sling TV as the best of the field. Not only does it have the lowest entry-level price at $35 per month for Sling Blue or Sling Orange, but it's got most (if not all) of the channels we at Tom's Guide need to watch. And if one of those entry-level packages isn't enough, the $50 per month Orange and Blue set probably will do the trick, while still being cheaper than the competition.
On top of that, Sling is also upgrading its interface, rolling out new apps to all the different streaming device platforms. This update gives DVR the space on your screen it deserves, and makes it easy to play favorites and select the channels you watch most often.
Highly Recommended: YouTube TV
We're excited to hear that YouTube TV is adding Dolby 5.1 surround sound soon, and you can already get 4K streaming and offline downloads for $20 extra.
Best sports streaming service: Sling TV
Sling TV isn't known for sports, but it should be. When it’s time to watch the playoffs, Finals and Super Bowls, they've got most of the channels you really need. Yes, even without ABC, you can catch all of that network's NBA playoffs games on Sling, as ESPN3 is simulcasting those games. Key in this lineup is TNT, which basketball fans are going to want and which isn’t on every rival.
Sling TV's also got the ESPN and FOX channels for nationally broadcast-MLB games, as well as many of the networks football fans will want for the upcoming NFL season. And if the channel you want isn’t available, add-ons will give you access to plenty more so you can just pay for what you need.
Highly Recommended: Fubo TV
Beloved by sports fans for a reason, Fubo TV has college sports channels, the Tennis Channel, FS1 and FS2, CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN 3 and the NFL Network. Want more? Then there's NBC Golf, the beIN sports channels and the NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB networks.
Best streaming service for original programming: HBO Max
HBO Max's content has consistently been top-notch. Our favorite HBO Max Originals include Hacks, Made For Love and the excellent murder mystery The Flight Attendant, which found Kaley Cuoco in top form. Speaking of Cuoco, HBO Max became the new home for her other great original show: Harley Quinn, which may be one of the funniest comic book shows to date. Of course HBO Max also includes the best HBO shows, such as the spooky and underrated Lovecraft Country and Mare of Easttown. The latter proved to be super-buzzy, as it got everybody raving about Kate Winslet (again) and talking about Pennsylvania accents.
Highly Recommended: Disney Plus
Disney Plus had a very big hit with WandaVision, and Hamilton drew a ton of eyes, while Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki gave folks reason to keep their subscriptions active.
Best streaming service original show: WandaVision
Wanda Maximoff and The Vision were never truly given enough time to shine in the MCU, so they proved to be perfect leads for the first Disney Plus Marvel series. On top of that, WandaVision gave us something new for the MCU: the "mystery box" show format that's been made famous by shows such as Lost. Some surprises were bigger than others, and we'll all remember how they re-cast Pietro, at least for a short while.
Each week, we got to peel back another thin layer of the mystery of Westview, a New Jersey suburb that our heroes lived in despite not understanding it. And once we finally found the big, bad boss at the center of that mystery box, we got a jam to dance to as a bonus. WandaVision truly thrived, though, because it got to tell a story about how we process grief, and that really helped it stand out in a sea of spandex adventures.
Highly Recommended: The Flight Attendant
HBO Max Original The Flight Attendant proved to be an excellent pulpy mystery, and gave Big Bang Theory doubters reason to believe in Kaley Cuoco.
Best streaming device interface: Apple tvOS
Apple tvOS is the most superbly stripped-down streaming device OS there is. Apple just gives you a series of app tiles, without ads in the corners or in screensavers, and it really works. Alright, so an Apple TV 4K isn’t cheap, at $179, but the Apple tvOS interface is so damn good that it’s worth it. Plus, its TV app does a great job of collecting many of the shows you've been watching lately, giving you the option to restart where you left off.
Highly Recommended: Roku OS
Roku's OS is still nice and simple, putting the focus on your apps and providing a gateway to free content in The Roku Channel.
Best streaming device remote: Roku Voice Remote Pro
This year, Roku finally got the memo about rechargeable remotes, as the new Roku Voice Remote Pro does away with disposable batteries. You simply plug the included USB cord into the bottom of the remote and a charger, and you're one step closer to forgetting why you keep ordering more AA batteries online. Plus, you can use your voice to find it when you inevitably misplace it: just say "Hey Roku, where's my remote?" and it’ll emit a chime noise. You also get programmable buttons and at just $29, it's half the price of the other remote everyone was talking about this year.
Highly Recommended: Apple TV Remote
The new $59 Apple TV Remote eschews the divisive touchpad design for directional buttons, something it's long needed to do.
Best streaming app: Disney Plus
The Disney Plus app just gets better and better, with useful features such as remote Group Watch viewing and forthcoming support for Apple’s SharePlay service beating others to the punch. It’s also incredibly easy to use, for instance listing out the Marvel movies in order by MCU phase for maximum convenience. Plus, it earns points for giving you everything in the highest resolution available, and for listing when its Disney Plus Premier Access movies will be available to watch for free online — a nice touch that it didn’t need to do.
Highly Recommended: Apple TV
The Apple TV app offers a great way to figure out what to watch next, consolidating your activity from a variety of services.
Best free streaming service: Pluto TV
If you haven't taken a look at Pluto TV recently, you should definitely give it a try: it’s packed with the kind of options you’d only expect to see on paid TV. Those start with the first Hunger Games movie on the Pluto TV Action channel, and dedicated channels for Bar Rescue and Forensic Files, giving you the marathons you may desire. It's also got live news channels from CBS, CNN, NBC and other sources, plus plenty of content in the crime, reality TV and comedy sections. Impressive stuff.
Highly Recommended: Peacock
The free tier of Peacock has lots of excellent films and content, letting you sample its new premium shows such as Girls5eva without paying.