- A media streaming device can transform your so-called dumb TV into a smart one that plays shows and movies from Disney Plus, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, Prime Video, and other streaming services.
- The best of the bunch is the Roku Ultra with its easy-to-use interface, 4K video streaming, voice control, and simple remote.
The world is changing. Gone are the days when a cable subscription was necessary to watch all the latest and greatest TV shows. These days, the best TV shows are coming out on streaming platforms like Disney Plus, ESPN+, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. Of course, the best way to take advantage of services like Netflix is by streaming shows straight to your TV.
There are plenty of streaming devices out there to help you connect the latest and greatest video streaming services to your TV, and they’re not all created equal. Before buying, you’ll want to consider a few different things.
For starters, you’ll want to think about whether you want a fully-fledged streaming box, which comes complete with its own operating system and allows you to download and install apps. The alternative is a device like the Google Chromecast, which basically streams content from your phone or computer (called casting); instead of installing Netflix on the TV-connected device, you’ll install it on your phone or computer and then stream from your phone to the Chromecast, which is plugged into your TV’s HDMI port.
Next up you’ll want to keep in mind the specs of your TV. Not all streaming sticks and boxes are able to handle 4K content, so if you have a 4K TV, you’ll want to get one that can stream 4K videos; the reverse is also true, as a non-4K TV won’t be able to take advantage of 4K playback. Last but not least, it might be worth considering the ecosystem you’re most plugged into. For example, Android users might be able to get more use from an Android TV device, while those using an iPhone and Mac might prefer the Apple TV.
We’ve done the research and testing to find the best streaming sticks and boxes to turn your dumb TV into a smart one that can access videos from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and more.
Note: Nearly all of these products require access to the internet over Wi-Fi or Ethernet. Products that support casting require a smartphone or tablet.
Here are our top picks for the best streaming boxes and sticks:
- Best streaming box overall: Roku Ultra
- Best budget streaming box: Roku Express
- Best high-end streaming box: Apple TV 4K
- Best streaming device for Google users: Google Chromecast Ultra
- Best streaming stick for Alexa: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
- Best streaming box for gamers: NVIDIA Shield TV Pro
Prices and links are current as of 02/14/2020. Updated by Steven Cohen.
The best streaming box overall
The Roku Ultra streams in 4K and HDR, has voice search, and comes with a remote control that has programmable shortcut buttons.
Roku’s Ultra is more streaming box than many people need. It supports 4K video at 60 frames per second and HDR playback using the standard HDR10 format. If you have a 4K TV, this model will help you get the most out of your display.
Roku doesn’t require a Google or Apple account to use (you will need to register for a Roku account, however), but it can still connect to all the streaming services you enjoy. You’ll be able to install Netflix, Disney Plus, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO Now, Apple TV Plus, and more using Roku’s operating system. Just connect the box to your TV via the HDMI port, and install all your favorite streaming services to get started.
As mentioned, the device also supports HDR, which basically means that it’ll show richer colors and better contrast when playing back HDR-enabled videos, which is always a good thing for TV lovers (note: your TV must be HDR-enabled to support this feature). With that said, the Roku Ultra only supports the standard HDR10 format and not the more advanced HDR10+ or Dolby Vision formats. Those step-up formats can offer image improvements on TVs that also support them, but HDR10 should be good enough for most buyers.
Of course, to take advantage of 4K HDR content, you’ll need a decent internet connection. The device can connect to your internet through Ethernet or over Wi-Fi, so choose the method that’s fastest and most convenient.
We tested the 2018 model and were deeply impressed by the quality. The 2019 Ultra featured here got upgrades to the processor and the remote control. TechRadar reported a 17% increase in channel-launching speed compared to last year’s model and rated it 4/5.
The Ultra also comes with a remote control so you can adjust the volume, turn on your TV, and search for content with your voice. What’s new are the two programmable shortcut buttons.
If you’re watching at night, you can plug in a set of headphones to the remote to not disturb others – a pair of JBL earbuds are included. Roku also has a companion app that makes navigation and searches even more robust.
The Roku Ultra is perfect for most people with a 4K TV, and we like that it’s the most universal of the products. Expert reviewers give the Ultra high marks.
Pros: 4K and HDR streaming, voice remote, lots of apps, improved Wi-Fi connection, Ethernet, microSD port
Cons: Doesn’t support Dolby Vision or HDR10+
The best budget streaming box
The Roku Express is one of the most affordable streaming boxes you can buy, and it offers a great interface with basic HD playback.
The Chromecast Ultra may be inexpensive, but there’s a streaming device that’s even cheaper – the Roku Express. This model is about as basic as they come, but for the money, you’re still getting a capable HD streaming box with a built-in user interface and remote.
Perhaps the best thing about the Roku Express is how easy it is to use. The new compact design makes it one of the smallest standalone streaming boxes there is, and the package comes complete with an HDMI cable for simple setup. The interface is well-designed and extremely easy to navigate. Since it uses a built-in operating system, you can install apps like Netflix without having to stream from your phone or computer (you will need to register for a Roku account if you don’t have one already). A remote control is included for navigation, but you can also use the Roku app.
Of course, there are downsides to the Roku Express. Unlike the Roku Ultra, which is our overall favorite, there’s no microSD card slot for extra channel storage or USB port for playing external video files. The Roku Express also does not offer 4K streaming or HDR. If, however, your TV doesn’t include those features anyway, it won’t be such a big deal.
For buyers who do need 4K on a budget, though, there’s a very similar Roku model, the Roku Premiere, that might be a better fit for you. The Roku Premiere is very similar in design to the Roku Express, but it adds support for 4K and HDR10 playback for a bit more money.
If all you need is basic HD streaming, however, there’s little reason to pay extra for a model more powerful than the Roku Express.
Pros: Cheap, compact design, easy-to-use, built-in OS
The best high-end streaming box
The Apple TV 4K is an ideal streaming player for enthusiasts who want Dolby Vision support and easy integration with the rest of Apple’s products.
If you’re looking for a device to better integrate with your iTunes account, iPhone, and other Apple devices, then you’ll want to look into getting an Apple TV. The new Apple TV 4K boasts a number of great features, and as the name suggests, this version streams in 4K and HDR, which is great for those of you who have 4K TVs and want the best home theater playback.
As you would expect from an Apple device, it’s well-designed and will look right at home amongst your other home entertainment devices, even the more premium ones. On the back of the device, you’ll get a power input, HDMI port, and an Ethernet port. That way, you can have a more stable internet connection for streaming 4K video.
One of the best things about the Apple TV 4K is Apple’s tvOS operating system, which is super easy to use, especially with the included remote (called the Siri Remote). As mentioned, it can stream in 4K and has HDR support for improved contrast and colors. Unlike Roku’s players, the Apple TV 4K also offers Dolby Vision support on top of standard HDR10. If you have a Dolby Vision TV, this means you’ll get even better HDR performance when watching Dolby Vision titles from apps like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus.
And with Siri, you can use your voice to search for content. Plus, you can access music, podcasts, games, and hundreds of apps, or cast or mirror content from an iOS or macOS device using AirPlay wireless technology.
The Siri Remote connects to the Apple TV via Bluetooth, so no line of sight is required. While the remote is elegant and the touch-capability makes navigation easier, it’s so slim that it can be easy to lose or slip out of your hand. An alternative is to use the Apple TV Remote app on an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, which handles the same functions but makes things like typing much simpler.
Engadget called it “almost perfect,” while CNET called it the most high-end 4K streaming experience. However, the Apple TV is notably more expensive than some other streaming options from Roku and Amazon. Most people, who don’t need features like Dolby Vision or who aren’t invested in the Apple ecosystem, will be more than happy with the less expensive Roku Ultra instead.
Guides Editor Les Shu disagrees somewhat. He uses both the Roku Ultra and Roku Express+ and Apple TV, and finds the Apple TV experience much smoother and more pleasant than the Roku Ultra – not to mention the easier set-up process. While he acknowledges the price premium and that the Roku Ultra has its advantages, from a pure entertainment experience, he believes the Apple TV is the stronger product, and that it isn’t just for Apple fans with money. We don’t think you can go wrong with either – the deciding factor comes down to budget and the ecosystem – but the money spent on an Apple TV is well worth it.
Pros: Well-designed, great interface, 4K and HDR playback with Dolby Vision support
Cons: A little pricey
The best for Google users
The Google Chromecast Ultra is quick to set up, easy-to-use and works great, but best of all, it’s very reasonably priced.
The Google Chromecast Ultra operates differently than most of the devices on this list, largely because it’s built solely to stream content from your phone, tablet, or computer to your TV. That means there’s no user interface and no apps to install – it’s more of a bridge than a standalone device, and your phone is the remote. Just find the content on your phone and hit the “Cast” button, and the content is either streamed directly to the Chromecast Ultra or, with apps like Netflix and Spotify, streams the content from the internet.
Chromecast was first introduced in 2013, and it has gone through a couple of updates since then. Now, the flagship Chromecast is the Chromecast Ultra, which sets itself apart from other Chromecasts with its ability to handle 4K streaming and HDR playback with HDR10 and Dolby Vision support. You’ll need a good internet connection, though.
One of the great things about the Chromecast Ultra is that it interacts with your other Google devices. For example, you can tell a Google Home speaker to search for videos on YouTube or play music on your TV through the Chromecast.
Pros: Inexpensive, 4K HDR support with Dolby Vision, works with smart speakers
The best Amazon Fire TV
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K streams video in 4K straight to your TV.
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K comes with 4K and HDR playback capabilities, including support for the more advanced HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Like other streaming stick, this slim dongle plugs right into the HDMI port on the back of your TV. It also comes with an Alexa voice remote for easy access to play, pause, stop, volume up/down, and more.
Fire TV 4K works with Netflix, Disney Plus, Prime Video, YouTube, Hulu, HBO, and many other video streaming apps. Since it’s part of Amazon’s ecosystem, Fire TV is also compatible with Alexa voice controls on other Amazon products, like an Echo Dot. You can tell Alexa to play “Game of Thrones” without lifting a finger. If you don’t have Alexa products or you’re not an Amazon user, you may be better off with a different brand.
The streaming stick has a fast processor and 802.11ac Wi-Fi to ensure smooth streaming on your TV. So long as your Wi-Fi is good, you shouldn’t have a problem.
Expert reviewers more or less agreed that Alexa voice search works well. It’s also very affordable for a 4K streaming stick and includes extensive HDR format support for its price. In fact, it’s one of the only players on the market with HDR10+ capabilities, which will improve color and contrast on Prime Video when watching HDR videos through most recent Samsung and Vizio 4K TVs.
If you’re buying the device for features like Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, however, you might be disappointed by Amazon’s surprisingly limited support for those formats through its own catalog of Prime content. A few key movie apps are also missing, including Vudu, Google Play, and FandangoNow. If that’s a deal-breaker, you’ll have to grab a Roku Ultra, Google Chromecast Ultra, or Apple TV.
Pros: 4K streaming, Alexa voice control, affordable, compact, support for HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision
The best for gamers and Android TV
The NVIDIA Shield TV Pro doesn’t just run Google’s Android TV, it also supports 4K streaming and can even pair with a controller for gaming.
If you’re more plugged into the Android ecosystem, you might want something that comes preloaded with Google’s Android TV. If so, there’s no better device than the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro, which was first launched a few years ago and has been updated a few times since then. Though pricier than other players, the latest model is the ultimate streaming device for buyers who want the beefiest specs.
Like our top pick, this media streamer supports 4K HDR content, but also adds Dolby Vision for even better HDR performance on Dolby Vision TVs. Google Assistant voice control is integrated as well and, unlike the cheaper Chromecast Ultra, this is a standalone product that doesn’t require a phone.
The Shield TV Pro is also the best streaming box for gamers. In addition to the included standard remote control, you can also add a separate gaming controller for playing games from the Google Play Store or through GeForce NOW cloud gaming.
When it comes to raw specs, the Shield TV Pro is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra X1+, one of the most powerful processors used in any streaming device. This extra muscle even allows the device to take advantage of advanced upscaling technology, which can make HD videos look better on 4K TVs.
The main drawback? It’s more expensive than the competition, coming in at just under $200.
Pros: 4K support, Dolby Vision capabilities, support for a separate gaming controller, Android TV operating system, powerful processor