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The Best Streaming Device on a Budget

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

Run a Google search of streaming devices these days and you’re going to find a positively dizzying number of gadgets that essentially do the same thing: deliver your content. But they are all different. Some are dongles, some are sticks, and others are larger (and often pricier) streaming boxes. Some support premium features like 4K HDR, while others do not. More confusing is that some apps are available on certain streaming devices and not others, further complicating the process of deciding which device is right for you.

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There are a pretty good number of budget-friendly streaming options to choose from, so for the purposes of making sense of the sub-$100 category, that’s what we’ll focus on here. Each of the most popular streaming systems usually has a couple of device options in each price category, but we’ll also focus on the best value for your money—devices that can get you the best possible picture at a more affordable price point. Narrowing the options down to one stick or dongle from each major streaming giant, we’ll be looking at the following: Chromecast with Google TV ($50), the all-new Fire TV Stick ($40), Roku Streaming Stick+ ($50), and the TiVo Stream 4K ($50). Apple’s cheapest device, the Apple TV HD, starts at $150 and was thus excluded for consideration.

Here’s the very best one for your buck.

Best Streaming Device for User Experience and Navigation

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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The most important part of your streaming experience is the ability to access the apps you need, but the second most important is probably the manner in which that content is served to you—not just in terms of whether you’re getting the best picture, but also the overall experience. In most cases, your streaming device is something you’re going to use every day, and especially right now, perhaps even multiple times per day. Nothing’s more frustrating than having to return daily to a product that doesn’t do its job the way you want it to.

The good news is that all of the devices included here do their jobs fairly well—all have voice-control support, for example—but some perform better in certain areas than others. There are really two different versions of a Google experience on this list, the Chromecast with Google TV and the Tivo Stream 4K, so let’s start there. Google TV in many ways is the successor of Android TV, but in my honest opinion, it’s also far better. It’s cleaner, more organized, and the Google Home companion app makes navigating your connected devices a breeze. I preferred the recommendation system and home screen on this device to any of the other streaming devices in this category and even to those of more expensive boxes like Apple’s. Most of the major streaming services are supported here, but the notable exception is Apple TV, meaning you won’t be able to easily stream Apple TV+. (It’s not supported on Tivo’s dongle, either, for what that’s worth.)

The For You tab was another personal favorite here and a primary reason this dongle will probably appeal to on-demand streaming junkies like me. With a tuner or YouTube TV and even Sling TV, you’ve also got some pretty good live TV options. But Google TV just doesn’t have the intuitive support for live viewing that its Android TV-based Tivo rival does—a feature that surprised me by becoming one of my favorite things about the Stream dongle.

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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On the Tivo Stream 4K, the live TV experience is part of the entire point. Without having to sign into any additional apps at installation, the Stream 4K launched me into a linear programming interface directly from a “Live” button on its remote. Additionally, the Tivo navigation menu will surface titles available to stream on live and linear, and there are plenty of live TV apps to add with customization to the Android TV home page as well. I much preferred the latter because it sorts and recommends content specifically by app, one of the features I’ve long loved about Android TV compared to other OSes.

Both the Roku Streaming Stick+ and Fire TV Stick are equally user friendly, if lacking the same recommendation features you get with an Android TV- or Google TV-powered device. There’s a good reason why Roku is so popular: It’s straightforward and supports the majority of most major streaming apps. It also prioritizes free and cheap content, so it’s fairly easy to find something to watch. I personally tend to prefer Google or Android TV to Roku’s interface, but I know plenty of folks who love the experience they get with their Roku. And if you’re looking to upgrade an older Roku device on a budget, the Streaming Stick+ is definitely the one to get. If it works, it works.

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The Fire TV, however, felt a lot clunkier immediately after using the Chromecast with Google TV and even the Roku. Not only did it lack some of the organization you get with Google’s marquee streaming device, but the home screen is also cut through with a large, distracting banner ad that cheapens the experience. It does do most of what you need for the average streamer, however, particularly if you’ve already bought into the Amazon ecosystem, and the Fire TV experience will be improved later this year. If you want a no-frills option on the super cheap, this is the most affordable option on this list. (And you can sometimes find it for even cheaper; at the time of this writing, it was on sale on Amazon’s website for $28.) But you will lose some premium features that are included on rival devices at this price point, and we’ll get into those in a bit.

Here’s what you will get with either the Roku or Fire TV Stick, though: Apple TV support. If you want access to Apple TV+ on your TV without paying for a pricy Apple box, you’ll either need to have a native TV OS that supports it or you’ll need to opt for one of these two options. You will, however, lose support for HBO Max on both, whereas HBO Max is supported on the Tivo Stream 4K as well as Chromecast with Google TV. (Fire TV Stick also lacks support for Peacock still.) Chromecast is still growing into its new coat a bit with Google TV, but if you want an absolutely gorgeous streaming experience on a budget and are willing to sacrifice on things like intuitive live TV integrations, for now, this is the one to get.

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Winner: Chromecast with Google TV

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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Best Streaming Device for Premium Feature Support

Hang on while I roll my sleeves up so we can get into some specs. Still with me? OK, here we go.

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The Chromecast with Google TV, the Roku Streaming Stick+, and the Tivo Stream 4K all support 4K streaming. The newer Fire TV Stick that was released this year does not, though it does support HDR 10, HDR10+, and HLG. You can get an older generation Fire TV Stick that does support 4K UHD streaming and Dolby Vision for $50, though, and both support Dolby Atmos if you have a soundbar or other system that supports the feature.

The Roku Streaming Stick+ supports 4K, HDR, and 1080p HD. The Chromecast with Google TV supports Dolby Vision, HDR10, and HDR10+, while the Tivo Stream supports 4K UHD and Dolby Vision in addition to Dolby Atmos. (Roku supports DTS and Dolby Audio via HDMI passthrough.) All of these remotes, again, have voice-command baked in for easy navigation, and all perform fairly well.

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Really the Tivo Stream 4K takes the cake here unless you want to spend a little more on a more premium version of the Fire TV Stick. Google Assistant is a pretty solid voice assistant for navigating apps, and the additional support for Chromecast makes this a superior streaming device for the money.

Winner: Tivo Stream 4K

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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The Best Streaming Device Remote

It’s a little silly to nitpick the buttons and their orientation on a 4- to 5-inch wand, but I maintain that even a small remote can play an important role in the experience for a device that you’re likely to use every single day. All of the four discussed here have similar navigation pads and home buttons. And all but the Fire TV Stick remote have shortcuts for Netflix, which is fantastic—if you actually subscribe to Netflix. Otherwise, shortcut buttons exist only to annoy the hell out of you for as long as you have your device. The Fire TV Stick gets major points here for keeping its remote free of what are essentially ads (even ads are a nuisance on the Fire TV service itself).

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I’ve said before that I think some of Roku’s remotes are great for their inclusion of headphone jacks. That does not come standard on the regular Roku Streaming Stick+, but you can get it on the marginally more expensive Roku Streaming Stick+ HE, which retails for $60. Right now, with our spaces serving as our entertainment hubs as well as our offices and eateries, having a remote that supports quiet viewing is a fantastic idea—especially if you don’t have the budget for additional Bluetooth headphones. And for the cost difference of a Hamilton, members of your household can kick back with the remote while you work or sleep without disrupting your blissful silence.

I do think that the Tivo Stream 4K remote could stand to lose a few buttons that felt unnecessary after spending time with the device. However, for a service that focuses so heavily on live TV, on-remote numbers for navigating live and linear programming were appreciated. It wasn’t always the most intuitive remote to use, but functionally, I think it made the most amount of sense.

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Winner: Tivo Stream 4K, Roku Streaming Stick+ HE

Illustration for article titled The Best Streaming Device on a Budget
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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Which dongle or streaming stick should you buy?

Ultimately the best streaming device for you will depend on what you need it to do—and particularly if you want premium audio at a budget price as well. While the Tivo won more battles than the Chromecast with Google TV, the experience on the Chromecast with Google TV really is that good. This device took all of the best parts of the Android TV experience and refined them, and it’s clear when using it that the device was made with streaming in mind.

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One of the great things about cutting the cord is that we’re able to effectively build our own cable packages from scratch, thanks to the number of streaming services available that cater to individual tastes and interests. But navigating half a dozen apps to which you subscribe can feel cumbersome at times, particularly if you don’t know what to watch. Chromecast with Google TV makes navigating that process a breeze, and the quality of the experience stands up to even far more expensive streaming boxes. And with Stadia and other apps arriving on the device in the future, it’s also only going to get better.

Winner: Chromecast with Google TV

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DISCUSSION

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David E. Smith

There’s a few things seemingly missing, like the winner of the “premium feature support” subcategory, and “Both the and are equally user friendly” (the what and the what?)

I think your CMS inadvertently posted a draft of this article rather than the final, copy-edited version. :(