We hope you're using one of the best streaming devices for each and every show you watch. If you're still streaming with the stick or box you got years and years ago, you might be unwittingly living a lackluster streaming life with shows in the incorrect (i.e. lower) resolution, or waiting for your outdated box to load Netflix.
With the largest selection with minimum fuss, the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the Tom's Guide Award winner for top streaming device. But while we love the Roku platform, it's one of two streaming device families hurting right now. HBO Max isn't on Roku or Amazon Fire, and it looks like Peacock will follow. If you're looking for something cheaper, consider the Google Chromecast, which matches a streamlined feature set with a low price tag, and still get one of the best streaming devices.
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Some of us at Tom's Guide have multiple streaming devices plugged into our TVs, and while that can lead to the annoying task of walking over to move the HDMI cable between them, that's OK. While Netflix and Hulu are ubiquitous, across all devices, many other apps are only available on Roku, Fire TV or Apple TV.
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+, 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!" Speaking of Chromecast, we're expecting a new Google streaming device, either called the Chromecast Sabrina, Chromecast Ultra 2 or Chromecast 4 -- that runs on Android TV.
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 apps in your order of preference, which you can't on Fire TV.
Apple's tvOS allows that, but Apple TV boxes are priced out of the range of many shoppers. At WWDC 2020, we did learn that tvOS 14 will bring added integration with the smart home devices, like HomeKit door cameras, to the Apple TV this fall. We're expecting a new Apple TV any month now, though the leaks have seemed to stop for the time being. The TiVo Stream 4K is on our test bench and we're ready to start testing it to see if it's $49 price, 4K HDR, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision, Chromecast support and live TV integration with Sling TV make it one of the best streaming devices.
So, once we narrow these devices down to the best platform, we picked the Roku Streaming Stick+ because it's the best Roku for most people. Not only is it much more affordable than the high-end Roku Ultra, it packs the 4K HDR TV support that you might be surprised to see at this price. And if you've got a lot of space between your TV and your Wi-Fi router, you'll be happy to hear about the long-range wireless receiver built into the Streaming Stick+ that makes it easier to stream throughout your house.
The best streaming devices you can find today
Thanks to the Roku Streaming Stick+, the best streaming device, you no longer have to choose between price and content selection. The Roku Streaming Stick+ costs about $50, and provides access to more than 5,000 channels — including the sometimes-elusive Amazon Video. The one streaming service it's missing, HBO Max, isn't even on Amazon Fire TV either. We hope this is remedied soon. It's also got complete 4K HDR compatibility, meaning you're getting a relatively future-proof device at a surprisingly low price.
It's also pretty powerful, with snappy performance. In our testing, it took 5 seconds at the most for content to stabilize at 1080p and around 10 to 15 seconds for 4K. The device is small and unobtrusive, and thanks to a wireless amplifier, it's easy to get a strong signal from anywhere in your home. Its remote is also really useful, as Roku finally added Power and Volume buttons. On top of that, you get the same customizable interface seen in the Roku Ultra, which is much more capable than the Amazon Fire TV interface.
The 3rd generation Chromecast 2 is just as compact as before and features 15 percent faster performance. This device takes advantage of the well-designed Chromecast app that makes it easy to find streamable content, highlighting video from apps already installed on your phone. That app needs to carry the weight of an operating system for the Chromecast, though, as there's no on-screen menus.
While the Chromecast is a relatively thrills-free streaming device, we like it a lot because it just works and gets the job done efficiently. There are rumors that Google could add a remote to a future model, but that still doesn't seem necessary for most folks. At $35, the Google Chromecast is one of the best streaming device values available, but those with 4K TVs should look into the Google Chromecast Ultra instead.
Read our full Google Chromecast (3rd Generation) 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.
Read our full Nvidia Shield TV 2019 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 2019 Roku Ultra isn't just a great streaming box with all of the perks you'd expect for $100 (4K HDR video and fast performance for starters). We love the new Roku Ultra for its USB port which allows for folks to play back their own collected movie files on the Ultra. This means you don't need to know what a media server is, or how to set one up.
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 (2019) review.
The Apple TV 4K delivers everything fans loved about the last iteration of the box, but its 4K HDR support makes it the best streaming device for those in Apple's ecosystem. In addition to watching iTunes movies and TV shows on your big screen, you can watch hundreds of streaming apps, play games, AirPlay content from other Apple devices and even control your smart home devices right from a Siri-enabled remote. The refined voice search gives it an edge over other streaming boxes, but you'll pay a lot for the privilege.
iPhone owners will also find that the Apple TV has better integration into their phone. You can easily enter passwords directly into apps through the Remote app, plus you can access the Apple TV Remote app directly from the Control Center (though you'll need to add it in system preferences). The Apple TV 4K (and the rumored Apple TV 2020) will soon get higher integration with Apple's HomeKit devices, so you can see who's at your door from a pop-over menu, thanks to tvOS 14.
Read our full Apple TV 4K 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 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.
Read our full Xbox One S 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+, 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+'s remote also supports voice commands, you just have to click the microphone button, whereas the Fire TV Cube is hands-free.
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.