Buying guide for best streaming devices
Millions of consumers have given up their cable TV subscriptions and opted instead to watch their shows and movies through streaming services over the internet. Who can blame them? Streaming services offer higher quality video and audio with few, if any, commercials, and subscribing to multiple services is cheaper than paying a single cable TV bill. There’s no other way to say it: streaming is the future.
To stream content to your TV, you need a streaming device: a gadget that plugs into your TV and provides access to streaming services. Streaming devices are everywhere. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some are ideal for traveling, while others are powerful enough to be the centerpiece of a home theater.
Whether it’s your first time streaming or you’re looking to upgrade your existing streaming device, now is a good time to take a fresh look at the market. There are options for every scenario and every price point, so no matter what your needs are, you can start binging in no time.
The streaming device market is crowded, but you can narrow down your search by making a few decisions about how you’ll use yours. Start with these questions.
There are two popular form factors in streaming devices: small black boxes about the size of a hockey puck and thin sticks roughly the size of a pack of gum. In the early days of streaming sticks, there was a big divide between the two; streaming boxes were more powerful than streaming sticks by a mile. But the gap has closed, and modern streaming sticks can do almost everything streaming boxes can.
If you want a portable streaming device — or you just want something that won’t take up any room around your TV — go for a streaming stick. If you don’t need portability, or if you want a streaming device with niche features like an Ethernet port or game streaming, go for a streaming box.
If you regularly purchase videos from services like iTunes or Google Play, you’ll want to make sure the streaming device you buy supports your vendor of choice. It’s not crucial when it comes to movies because you can use the MoviesAnywhere service to watch your purchased movies, but it is a big deal when it comes to TV shows. Google Play and iTunes both limit their TV selection to specific devices. For example, you can only watch your iTunes-purchased TV shows on an Apple TV, and TV content from the Google Play store can only be played back on devices like those from Roku or NVIDIA.
Our best advice: if you buy a lot of TV content from a specific source, find the streaming device that’s the best match for that source.
Streaming devices are great on their own, but if you pair them with another device like a tablet or a smartphone, you can unlock additional functionality. For example, if you’re an iPhone owner, you can use your iPhone as a remote control or game controller with an Apple TV. Similarly, if you already own a Bluetooth game controller, you can use it with one of NVIDIA’s Shield TV boxes. It’s not a requirement to buy a streaming device that matches the gear you already have, but it can definitely add to the convenience and fun.
Streaming devices have replaced cable boxes for many people, so in our research, we place high value on comprehensive devices with well-rounded streaming offerings.
Some streaming devices are not compatible with universal remotes. When exploring a product, we note whether this compatibility is offered.
We look at streaming devices that come in both box and stick form. Each type has its benefits, which we explore in our product reviews.
A high-quality streaming device can open your viewing experience to many interesting services. In our research, we assess the types of content available through various products.
We give bonus points to quality streaming devices that don’t take up much space. For example, streaming sticks like the Amazon Fire Stick are easily plugged directly into the TV’s HDMI input, taking up less space than a streaming box.
We understand that some individuals have a voice assistant they prefer, such as Siri or Alexa. For this reason, we research the voice assistant compatibility of our shortlisted streaming devices.
Many streaming devices allow you to interface with them using a smartphone or tablet. We compare smart interfaces when testing devices.
Some streaming devices, like Google Chromecast, allow you to “cast” video from your computer or smartphone. We look for devices that use casting as well as app-based video streaming.
Some cutting-edge streaming devices are built to stream high-resolution video, like 4K HDR or UHD content. We note the devices on our list that deliver high-definition visuals.
When comparing devices, we look at all included apps and interfaces, such as the RokuTV box.
Streaming device features
All streaming devices are pretty good at connecting you with your favorite video-streaming services, but some have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Here are our favorite premium features commonly found on streaming devices.
Voice assistant compatibility: If you’re a fan of Siri, Alexa, or Google Home, you’re in luck. Most streaming devices come with a digital assistant on board. Streaming video is one of the areas where voice commands become a necessity once you’ve gotten used to it. There’s nothing quite like being able to say, “Play Game of Thrones,” and watching your TV effortlessly begin streaming dragons and White Walkers.
Private listening: Roku was the first to market with a feature that everyone else quickly copied: private listening. With private listening, you can plug a set of headphones into your streaming device’s remote control and hear the audio from your TV while your TV’s built-in audio goes quiet. Private listening is one of those features that’s so useful, you may wonder how you ever got along without it.
Gaming and game streaming: Most streaming devices support basic gaming — think mobile gaming more than console gaming — and make it easy to start an Angry Birds marathon from your couch. We love playing mobile games on the big screen, so if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to crush candy in 4K, get a streaming device with games onboard.
If you’re a PC gamer, you may be more interested in game streaming. With game streaming, you can use your streaming device to play PC games from a PC gaming rig on your network. You’ll need a beefy gaming PC to take advantage of game streaming, as well as a healthy WiFi signal, but once you’re all set up, you’ll be able to play PC games from your streaming device as if your computer were in the same room.
As you’re shopping for a streaming device, don’t forget about the peripherals that will complete your viewing setup.
Universal remote - Logitech Harmony Companion All in One Remote Control
Logitech is one of the best brands in tech, and their Harmony line of remotes is one of their crown jewels. The Harmony Companion is one of the few remotes they offer without a screen, which is fine with us — the batteries last forever, and the button layout is so intuitive that it’s easy to use even in the dark. It controls every streaming box, and you can also configure it to control your smart home devices.
Wired headphones - Audio-Technica ATH-M30x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones
Some audiophiles would have you believe that you have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a quality set of over-the-ear headphones, but Audio-Technica’s ATH-M30x’s would give any high-end set a run for its money. The ear cushions do a great job of making sure you hear your music and only your music — and they fold up easily for travel or storage in the included case. If you’re looking for the best headphones available under $100, these are the ones to start with.
Streaming subscription - Netflix Gift Card
You’re going to need at least one streaming video subscription to enjoy content on your streaming device, and the best place to start is Netflix. Grab a gift card so you can pay for your first few months at once or pick one up for that one friend who’s been “borrowing” your password for too long.
If all you care to do is watch TV and movies, the sticks from Amazon or Roku would do nicely. But if you want more from your streaming device than that — video gaming, chat services, and so on — a media box is in order.
Streaming device prices
Basic streaming sticks and entry-level streaming boxes cost anywhere between $30 and $60. Devices in this price range are usually limited to 1080p HD video, although it’s definitely possible to find one or two options in this range that support 4K. If you’re looking for a streaming box or stick that handles the basics well but not much else, you don’t have to spend more than this.
The best values in streaming devices cost between $60 and $170. In this price range, you can easily find a solid performer with premium features like 4K resolution, support for High Dynamic Range (HDR), or an Ethernet port for lag-free streaming. If you want niche features like game streaming or a ton of onboard file storage, you’ll need to spend more. However, most users find their ideal streaming box in this range.
Premium streaming devices cost between $150 and $300. In this range, it’s only streaming boxes and no sticks, but these streaming boxes do a lot more than just video. You’ll find devices like the Apple TV, which has exclusive features like support for AirPlay (Apple’s proprietary casting protocol). You’ll also find NVIDIA’s Shield TV devices, which are some of the best options for game streaming. If you’re a hardcore streamer, an Apple loyalist, or you just want the best there is, this is how much you’ll need to spend.
Learn the difference between Android TV and streaming boxes running Android. Google’s TV-specific version of the Android mobile operating system is called Android TV, and it’s designed to behave like a typical streaming box and to be controlled by a remote control. There are only a few devices that run Android TV. In contrast, many manufacturers offer streaming boxes that run the Android mobile OS found on smartphones and tablets. Devices in the latter category are often underpowered, rarely receive security updates, and in general offer poor user experiences. Our best advice: if you’re in the market for a Google-based streaming device, get one that’s running Android TV proper, and avoid streaming boxes running plain Android.
If you’re planning to use a universal remote with your streaming device, make sure they’re compatible first. Streaming devices often have compatibility issues with universal remotes because they don’t receive remote commands like traditional components. For example, your TV likely responds to InfraRed (IR) signals from a remote, and most universal remotes have no problem reproducing IR signals. When it comes to streaming devices, many of them use WiFi or Bluetooth for receiving commands, leaving most universal remotes out in the cold. Universal remotes are slowly catching up, so there are definitely some out there that would pair well with your streaming device; just be sure to triple-check for compatibility before making any purchases.
If you’ve got a lot of personal audio and video content, buy an external hard drive to use with a streaming box. If you’ve decided on a streaming box, check to see if it has an available USB port. In most cases, you can use that USB port to connect to a portable hard drive and view content from it. For example, if your photo or video collection is on a hard drive, you can use your streaming box to play the contents.
Q. My cable provider offers a streaming device. Should I just use that instead?A. You could, but we don’t recommend it. Cable providers are definitely afraid of cord cutters, so to help lure back former cable customers, they now offer their own streaming devices. While these devices can be tempting — mainly because the video you stream to them often won’t count toward your monthly data cap — they just don’t deliver the quality of experience you can find on a proper streaming box. Cable-provided streaming boxes are often slow, leaving out key streaming providers and lacking key features like HDR or voice assistant compatibility.
Q. Can I watch content I purchase in iTunes on a non-Apple streaming device?A. Sort of. If you have a movie collection in iTunes of films that you’ve purchased, you can connect your iTunes account with MoviesAnywhere, a service that lets you watch your purchased movie content on pretty much any streaming device available. But here’s the rub: MoviesAnywhere only applies to movies, not TV shows, so if you’ve bought a lot of TV episodes from iTunes in the past, the only streaming box that will play them is an Apple TV.
Q. Can I use a 4K streaming device on a TV that isn’t a 4K TV?A. Yes. All 4K streaming devices are backward compatible, so you can connect one to a standard 1080p HD TV and everything will look and stream just fine. You won’t be able to enjoy all the pixels of a 4K video stream, but other than that, your content will behave the same way it would on a 4K TV.