The best streaming devices ensure your next movie night or binge-watched show looks and sounds perfectly (provided your TV's up to the task). And speaking of TVs, while smart TVs have some apps, but the right streaming device is often a guarantee that every service is available to you.
We love the Roku Streaming Stick 4K (it's the best streaming device overall), a new version of the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, that adds Dolby Vision and a little more speed. It's our top pick for many reasons, and Roku's streamlined app-first OS is one of them. Frustrations about Roku and YouTube's current spat, though, could hurt their rankings going forward.
The new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max is another recent entry to this list, following the Apple TV 4K (2021) earlier this year. Neither is a huge leap over the predecessor, but the former is faster in certain situations and the latter comes with a much better remote (which you can buy separately)
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Some of us at Tom's Guide own multiple entries from this list of the best streaming devices, to see how they evolve over time. While Netflix and Hulu are ubiquitous, across all devices, some other apps are only available on Roku, Fire TV or Apple TV. Oh, and if you want the Apple TV shows and services, but don't want the to pay the higher price for their streaming boxes, good news: the Apple TV app just rolled out to Vizio Smart TVs.
Small touches keep the Roku Ultra 2020 on our list, such as its incrementally faster performance, and smoother streaming on Wi-Fi in larger houses (when it's not near the router). Using all of these devices often shows us the benefits of spending more on your streaming device, as the cheaper Fire TV devices control your whole home screen experience, while the Apple TV has no ads and more customization. Here's everything you need to know about the best streaming devices.
What are the best streaming devices?
We love the Roku Streaming Stick 4K, and recommend it as the best streaming device to friends and colleagues, for two simple reasons. The first is that Roku is the best platform when it comes to streaming media. Practically every app is on the Roku Channel Store, meaning you'll probably never say "my favorite show isn't on here!" And it's finally got Dolby Vision, which it was missing when it was just the Streaming Stick Plus.
Trust me, as someone who uses at least one device from every streaming platform, if you can limit yourself to just one device, your entertainment cabinet or counter will look a lot nicer. Oh, and you can rearrange the heck out of the Roku home screen, putting all of apps in your order of preference, while the Fire TV just lets you control that top row and makes you go to another screen for the rest.
We also really like the new Chromecast with Google TV. Its remote enables you to put down your phone already and focus on what you're watching. And the new Chromecast also streams in 4K, with HDR and Dolby Vision. On top of that, Android TV app support, via Google TV, means you don't need to worry about missing out on the latest streaming services. It's got 'em all.
Then there's the new Apple TV 4K (2021), a super-speedy update with a new remote with a clickable direction-pad. It's what we needed, and what tvOS deserves. Oh, and the latest entry to this list is the new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max. It's faster than the normal Fire TV Stick 4K, and costs only $5 more.
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The Walmart's Roku LE device for just $15 is still here. It's supposed to be a limited edition, for the big shopping "holidays" so who knows how much longer it will last.
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The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is a small, but noteworthy, upgrade over the Streaming Stick Plus it replaces. The king stays the king, though, because little changed — and only improvements came with. Most notably, we've finally got Dolby Vision on this Roku stick, so your favorite streaming shows will have the right color balance and contrast (provided your TV supports it, too). Otherwise, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K is a perfect balance of price and performance, costing $50 and providing snappy navigation and smooth streaming. It's got all the apps you could need (though you need to poke around in YouTube for YouTube TV, thanks to an inter-company spat).
In our testing, content jumped to 1080p and then 4K in short amounts of time, and app loading is comparable to the Chromecast with Google TV. Roku wins overall though thanks to its perfect streamlined interface, which puts apps above content. And if you need to listen to your shows without disturbing anybody, improved performance on private listening through the Roku app and wireless headphones is a welcome boon.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick 4K review.
A Chromecast with a remote? Yes, Google finally did it, and the Chromecast with Google TV makes the company's traditional streaming device a whole lot more complete. It starts with 4K UHD streaming with support for HDR and Dolby Vision, for excellent picture quality, and Dolby Atmos for immersive sound. Also, it's got Google TV, an interface and operating system that supports the over 6,500 Android TV apps. That means you get everything from HBO Max to Disney Plus to Peacock — plus Netflix. Even Peloton's in there. A lot of other streaming devices can't boast as much.
While it's not the minimalist streaming device that the Chromecast 3 was, the new Chromecast remote could even replace your TV's remote. It's got the power and volume controls you need to turn on your TV, plus a TV Input button for switching to other devices, such as gaming consoles. On top of that, its $49.99 price makes it more affordable than the Chromecast Ultra, Google's previous 4K streaming device. All of these upgrades helped the Chromecast with Google TV win the 2021 Tom's Guide Award for Best Streaming Device, as it instantly made the Chromecast a bigger player in this category.
Read our full Chromecast with Google TV review.
The 2019 Nvidia Shield TV doesn't just look unlike any other streaming device we've ever seen (it's more like a mobile power charger), it's also one of the best streaming devices, period. This tube for your tube is great at speedily spitting out UHD 4K content, and its thousands of apps means you're getting practically everything you could watch. And it's so slight in size that it fill fit discretely into the ever-crowded space around your TV.
This Shield TV also includes a remote control, rather than a game controller. We love this remote because it illuminates when you pick it up in the dark. You won't miss the lack of a packed in controller, thanks to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One controller support. That all adds up to the best streaming device for those willing to spend more. And while you can game with Google Stadia on the Chromecast Ultra (not the regular Chromecast), the Shield TV supports 4K HDR streaming, making it the best streaming device for those looking to game and watch.
Read our full Nvidia Shield TV 2019 review.
We haven't had a Fire TV Stick on this list in a while, so the Fire TV Stick 4K Max's inclusion is noteworthy in that alone. It manages to improve the speed issues that have dogged Amazon's sticks for a while, mostly in every-day navigation and especially in load times for certain apps. It also supports Wi-Fi 6, which is great ... if you have a Wi-Fi 6 router. Also, the Live TV button on the remote makes it easy for you to jump right into the TV Guide for your cord-cutter app of choice.
The Fire TV Stick 4K Max, otherwise, is a very standard streamer. It has all the apps you need, it's a utilitarian matte black dongle and it's got Dolby Atmos sound, Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+. We just wish it were replacing the existing Fire TV Stick 4K, and at that same price, not $5 more. Still, those who want an Amazon Fire TV streaming device should go with this model. It may cost a little more, but it's worth it.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max review.
So what if you want the best streaming device with the best remote Roku makes? Then you can save $10 with this bundle, which takes the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and pairs it with the Roku Voice Remote Pro. The remote's big perks include — as its name implies — always-on voice commands, so you can control your TV even if you can't find your remote. It just needs to be within a shout's distance. Also, this remote is rechargeable, reducing the need for batteries. Plus, it's got a headphone jack for private listening over wired headphones, and programmable buttons so you're not stuck with just the four branded app buttons on the remote.
And as we said with the regular Streaming Stick 4K, this is a fantastic streaming device by itself already. You've got Roku's simple, customizable interface, snappy performance and a ton of apps (everything you could ask for, though YouTube TV is buried in YouTube at the moment). The big upgrade on this model is Dolby Vision, which will have your content looking as it should.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus review.
The new Apple TV 4K (2021) is great and performs like a dream — yet still may not be worth the upgrade if you already have the previous model. On the outside, the 2nd-gen Apple TV 4K looks identical to its predecessor. The upgrades are all on the inside, notably replacing the A10X chip with an A12 Bionic. Performance seems a few hairs better, plus the Apple TV 4K 2nd-gen supports 4K at 60fps with HDR versus 30fps. Not a ton of apps even offer that level of content right now, mostly sports and other fast-paced action, but it will become more prevalent.
The best thing about the new Apple TV 4K is the redesigned Siri Remote. Many (myself included) hated the old remote and its frustrating touch interface. The new remote retains touch and gestures, but adds actual buttons as well as an intuitive jog wheel that recalls the old iPods of yore. Once again, though, the biggest drawback is the price.
Read our full Apple TV 4K (2021) review.
The new Roku Ultra is pretty much still the great streaming box it's always been, just with a couple of tweaks — and keeping most of the perks you'd expect for $100 (4K HDR video and fast performance for starters). For example, they've also added Dolby Vision, a must for those streaming high-quality movies and TV shows. Plus, it's still got a USB port which allows for folks to play back their own library of movie files on their TV. Yes, you don't even need to learn what a media server is, or how to set one up. This year's model also offers a faster processor and better wireless streaming.
The other big boon of this model is that you can program the Roku remote's two customizable buttons to open your favorite channels, in addition to the pre-programmed ones for Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV and Vudu. The included earbud headphones sweeten the deal, as they plug right into the remote control for private listening. This is highly important to those who want to watch TV without disturbing the other person in the room.
Read our full Roku Ultra (2020) review.
Did you know Alexa could control your cable box (yes, some of us haven't cut the cord yet)? The Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Gen) packs a version of the virtual assistant that offers more entertainment device tricks than most, including switching HDMI inputs and tuning to cable channels. And thanks to a faster processor in this new model, commands happen up to four times as fast. Cutting down the amount of times that voice commands are performed will help people stick with using Alexa commands and stop looking for their (still missing) remote.
This box (it's not technically a cube) streams content in excellent 4K, HDR quality, and its content-first interface seeks to cut down the time it takes for you to hit Play. Trying to master Amazon's cheaper streamer? Check out our how to use the Fire Stick guide.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Gen) review.
The Xbox One S is only $289, but streams movies and TV in 4K and supports HDR content. It's also going to get Dolby Vision capabilities in the near future, and you can install Kodi on the console, if that's your jam. It also plays 4K Blu-ray movies, unlike any of our other picks. Oh, and if you have bought movies across a ton of platforms, you'll be happy to hear that Xbox consoles, including the Xbox One S, are finally getting Movies Anywhere.
You also get a great video game console with your purchase. The Xbox One S is slimmer than its predecessors, and its black and white design makes for a surprisingly stylish addition to your home entertainment console. Its internal capacity limit of 2TB means you can stop micro-managing the games and other content you download onto the drive. If you can get an Xbox Series X or S, it's definitely a suitable and more future-proof replacement, but its scarcity and lack of innovative features make it far from a must-have.
Read our full Xbox One S review.
So, you want to get 4K streaming at the lowest price possible, but you're worried about cutting too many corners? Check out the new Roku Express 4K Plus, which is the replacement to the flawed Roku Premiere. We like this model a lot mmore because of its improved remote. Previously, you needed a direct line of sight — and to point your remote directly at the Roku — for it to work. This way is a lot better, so you don't need to think when you click the paddle. That, plus UHD image quality and snappy performance means that the Roku Express 4K Plus is the best streaming device for those on a budget.
We wish it were a little heavier, though, as you may wind up spending a minute fiddling with its HDMI cable to make it sit flat on a surface. The Roku Streaming Stick Plus doesn't have that issue. And if you love A/V standards such as Dolby Vision or Atmos Audio. you may need to look elsewhere. The Roku Express 4K Plus won a Highly Recommended award in the 2021 Tom's Guide Awards for Best Streaming Devices, by making 4K UHD streaming more affordable without putting more ads in.
Read our full Roku Express 4K Plus review.
A ton of applications? Check. An affordable price? Check. Support for your own media on external storage too? You bet. The Tivo Stream 4K is a great streamer that deserves a place in this hall of the best streaming devices. And unlike some streaming devices, it has HBO and Peacock. Sling users will appreciate its live TV integration, and the Google Assistant is there to follow through on your voice commands.
We just wish that the Stream 4K had a better interface for its Stream app that aggregates content, and that its recommendations were a little more on the nose. Plus, YouTube TV, Hulu with Live TV and Fubo TV don't get the red carpet treatment that Sling gets in the Guide section. If it weren't for the Chromecast with Google TV, the Tivo Stream 4K would be a lot more interesting, but for now it lives in the new Chromecast's long shadow.
Read our full TiVo Stream 4K review.
Free for Comcast Xfinity Internet customers, the Flex is a very cheap way to get access to streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. Plus, the Flex lets you monitor and control other devices connected to your home network.
However, the Flex has far fewer services than other streaming devices—there's no Disney+, nor is there Spotify, to name a few—which limits its usefulness. But, almost to make up for any gaps, Flex devices get early access to the latest streaming service, as NBC's Peacock is here well before its official nationwide July 15 debut. Yes, Comcast is giving Peacock Premium to Flex devices (it should arrive soon if it hasn't already) for free (a $4.99 value). Still, because it's free, there's no harm in picking one up and waiting for other streaming services to arrive.
Read our full Xfinity Flex review.
How to choose the best streaming device for you
Figuring the right streaming device for your needs is pretty easy. While everyone should start with the Roku Streaming Stick 4K, your mileage may vary. If your budget is tight, the Google Chromecast can bring a lot of content to your TV without adding the clutter of a remote.
If you own a lot of digital media that you want to watch on your TV, the Roku Ultra makes that process super easy, so you'll never need to think about what a media server is. But if you're a performance first type, and watch a lot of 4K UHD content, the Nvidia Shield TV is where you should start.
Lastly, folks who already treat Alexa like a member of the family should consider the 2nd Gen Fire TV Cube, which makes controlling your entertainment as easy as talking. That being said, it's quite expensive, and the Roku Streaming Stick 4K Plus remote also supports voice commands, you just have to click the microphone button, whereas the Fire TV Cube is hands-free.
If you like the Amazon ecosystem and want a cheaper device, consider the Fire TV Stick.
How we test streaming devices
Testing streaming players is usually a simple process that prioritizes content over performance. Any streaming player worth its salt can play video well, but only a good one possesses straightforward navigation, robust search features and a wide variety of content to suit all tastes.
The first thing we evaluate is the setup, to see how quick and simple it is. From there, we take the user interface for a spin to see what content gets highlighted, what gets hidden, and how easy it is to navigate to our favorite channels. We'll also watch a few different shows on a variety of channels to gauge the quality of the video and audio.
After that, it's onto the extra features, like gaming, voice search and screen mirroring. These factors don't weigh quite as heavily toward the final score, but they're nice to have if they work well, and extremely distracting if they don't.