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The Very Best Streaming Devices

Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

The best streaming device for you is the one that fits your needs—which is to say, you probably don’t need to overpay for features that your TV doesn’t support, or worse yet, buy a device that fails to prop up some of the best features of your existing TV. There are dozens of sticks, dongles, and boxes that will deliver premium streaming directly to your screen with a decent wifi connection, and many offer the ability to quickly update an older TV whose built-in “smart” capabilities are no longer cutting it. And even if you’re looking for a premium box to support some of the top-end features, such as 4K HDR, there’s plenty to consider before pulling the trigger on a set-top box, so here are Gizmodo’s picks for the best streaming TV boxes you can buy right now.

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The Best Affordable Streaming Device

Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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Who Are You?

You just want the best streaming video device for the money.

Our Pick: Chromecast with Google TV ($50)

This powerful little dongle, Google’s foray into remote-powered Chromecast models, recently won our Battlemodo for best streaming dongle on a budget. But I maintain that the experience you get with Chromecast with Google TV stands up to even that of the significantly more expensive Apple TV or Nvidia Shield, an Android TV box. Apple’s streaming video experience works by putting a bunch of apps on your TV’s screen, meaning you kind of have to know what you’re looking for unless you don’t mind diving into individual apps to find something to watch (or rely on Apple’s own algorithm, which isn’t my favorite). But with Google TV, Google essentially refined the Android TV experience, improved organization and recommendation features, and made the interface feel less clunky. It might seem a little silly to call a streaming experience beautiful, but Google TV really is lovely.

From a technical standpoint, you’ll find much of what you pay extra for on more expensive streaming boxes packed into this wee $50 device. Dolby Vision, HDR 10, and HDR10+ are all supported on this device, as are Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, Dolby Atmos with HDMI passthrough. Its Live TV interface is a work in progress—this additional tab will only be visible to YouTube TV subscribers for the time being—but Google says it’s currently working to add more live TV services in the future. Having Google Assistant integration (with a dedicated button on the remote) is a useful tool for finding content without having to manually search for it yourself, and the delivery of search results for queries like “horror movies” was fantastic.

It goes without saying that you’ll have support for Chromecast on this device, which is great. I also had no issue getting my remote set up for controlling both my Roku Streambar as well as the TCL 6-Series I’m currently testing. What you won’t get is support for HomeKit, AirPlay 2, or Apple TV on this device, which might be a deal-breaker for folks who’ve already invested heavily in the Apple ecosystem. You will get support for HBO Max though, which is not supported on either of the mid-range boxes included in this guide. Most other major streaming services are supported, and Google TV will be adding support for additional apps as well as Stadia in the months ahead.

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There’s not too much to say about its remote: It fairly pared down and gets the job done. The streaming buttons included on this remote are (thankfully) reserved for just Netflix and YouTube. You will be able to reconfigure the YouTube button, but your options are limited to other YouTube apps like YouTube TV, YouTube Music, or YouTube Kids.

Ultimately, if you want a great streaming device for the best price and are willing to compromise on some support features, such as HomeKit or AirPlay 2 and specific apps like Apple TV, this is the best budget device you can get.

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The Best Mid-Range Box for Most People

Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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Who Are You?

Someone who needs a fairly straightforward streaming device to upgrade an older TV. You’re also looking for top-of-the-line streaming features, but you don’t want to pay a fortune for them.

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Our Pick: Roku Ultra ($100)

If you’ve bought a decently priced TV in the last few years, like a TCL or some Hisense models, there’s a good chance you may have purchased one that runs on Roku TV. The same goes if you’ve picked up a budget streaming device in the last decade or so. Roku is pretty easy to use, and its devices support a majority of the streaming apps that users need to access their content. Roku is also comparatively cheap for what you get. And for anyone who’s used Roku devices in the past and is happy with the OS, it may not be too important to upgrade to a fancier premium streaming device if Roku meets all of your needs.

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Compared to other premium streaming devices in this space, Roku’s top-tier streaming box is one of the most affordable options when compared to its competitors—it’s half the cost of a 64GB Apple TV 4K or an Nvidia Shield TV Pro. And while it doesn’t have all the frills of some of these more expensive models, it does deliver a buffet of premium features with some device-specific perks as well. Straight out of the box, the Ultra comes with an HDMI cable and headphones for its buds-compatible remote. (I will not tell you these headphones hold a candle to my AirPods Pro or the quality of sound produced by my Sony HT-G700 soundbar, but for quiet listening in a pinch, they were fine.) That means you’re pretty much ready to go at setup without having to worry about whether you’re buying the right HDMI cable, which isn’t the case with any other pricey device recommended here.

I will say that the choice between the Roku and similarly priced but slightly more expensive Amazon Fire TV Cube for this top spot was tight, but I found I tended to prefer Roku’s content recommendations to Amazon’s most of the time. The newer Roku Ultra also has 50% more range than previous devices and an improved quad-core processor. I was recently at my father-in-law’s home and easily noticed the performance differences between his older Roku device and the one I’d been testing for this guide. Ethernet and USB 3.0 ports are supported here, as well as 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos. And Roku’s 4K devices recently got support for HomeKit and AirPlay 2, a bonus for Apple users.

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I happen to subscribe to all four of the services included in this Roku model’s remote: Sling TV, Disney+, Netflix, and Hulu. Device remotes that feature services shortcuts can be contentious because they’re essentially useless if you’re not a subscriber, and this one has quite a few. But the Roku Ultra does support personal shortcut buttons with this remote, which is something. I also can’t stress enough how nice it is to have the option to plug in a pair of headphones rather than having to go through the trouble of pairing Bluetooth headphones. Most services are supported on Roku, too, though HBO Max, unfortunately, remains a glaring exception.

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Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo

Also Consider: Fire TV Cube ($120)

The difference of $20 when upgrading from the Roku Ultra essentially buys you the ability to use your streaming box as a connected smart home device that can navigate your TV experience virtually hands-free—almost. You will absolutely have to sign in to your apps without Alexa’s help (though Alexa can download apps for you), and it can navigate most content requests fairly well, especially for specific titles or genre requests. At some point, beginning every single request with “Alexa,” starts to lose its novelty. But should you want the option to control your TV and home with only your voice, or if you’re the kind of person who is constantly losing your TV remote between your couch cushions, this may be the set-top box for you. (Voice commands can also be turned off with an on-unit button.)

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The Fire TV interface is by far my least favorite of any on this list. But Fire TV users should be getting a significantly overhauled home screen before the end of the year. And while we weren’t able to test that experience before this review, the teasers we’ve seen make it look a lot cleaner and easier to navigate. If an updated user experience is a make-or-break for you, I wouldn’t chance it. But that is certainly something to look forward to if you were already eyeing the Fire TV Cube to begin with.

The Amazon Fire TV Cube does support 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR 10, HDR 10+, and Dolby Atmos, and comes equipped with an optional Ethernet port as well. Be prepared to be served a lot of Amazon’s own content on your home page, though. And if you were hoping to get app support for HBO Max here, it’s not on this platform yet either.

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The Best Premium Streaming Box

Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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Who Are You?

An Apple evangelist—someone who appreciates the ease of use that goes hand-in-hand with buying ever more into the Apple ecosystem. Or you’re someone who wants an incredibly easy-to-use streaming box that comes packed with premium features, and you don’t mind paying extra for it.

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Our Pick: Apple TV 4K ($180-$200)

Having spent considerable time with each of these top-of-the-line streaming options over the past few weeks, I, again and again, find myself returning to my Apple TV. The Apple TV features a super-clean app home screen like a slightly larger version of the one on your iPhone. Setup is a breeze, navigation is intuitive and seamless, and the app selection for casual streaming is one of the best we’ve seen. (Namely, the only other box that supports HBO Max is the Shield TV—we’ll get to that in a bit.) That said, much of what there is to love about the Apple TV 4K is fairly subjective, and many of the functions supported on this device are also supported on rival streaming boxes.

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One feature of the Apple TV’s remote that really shines is its Siri voice support for even login information, a functionality that isn’t always supported across OSes on other streaming boxes. I found that setting up my apps on the Apple TV was far less laborious than with other set-top boxes, and even though Siri isn’t always a perfect virtual assistant, I found Siri’s responsiveness and listening capabilities to be superb for most practical applications. The Apple TV 4K supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos—Apple likes to remind us it was the first streaming device to be both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos certified—but you’ll need to make sure those features are supported on your TV and sound system if you plan to take full advantage of what you’re paying for. If your wifi is spotty, the Apple TV 4K does additionally have an Ethernet port, but you’ll need your own cable.

Now, I realize that this is a somewhat controversial opinion, but one of my favorite things about the Apple TV is the remote, for which the upper third is a navigation touchpad. This makes scrolling through content a breeze, something I find incredibly frustrating with D-pad-style navigation designs on other streaming box remotes. Apple’s remote is also rechargeable with a standard Lightning Cable, and the remote in my experience can hold a charge for anywhere between six months to a year before dying—at which time, if you are already an Apple user and need remote functionality immediately, you can just use the built-in remote in Control Center on your iPhone or iPad while you’re charging the actual remote.

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As another note, I am a compulsive scene skipper, and I’ve yet to meet a remote that supports this functionality as well as the Apple TV’s does. Again, many of what I consider to be perks of tvOS—its design layout, user experience, and the nifty touchpad remote, among others—boil down to subjective preferences. But I will say a remote does make a world of difference when you’re using the same device every single day, and this one’s by far my favorite.

Just keep in mind that there are actually two versions of the Apple TV 4K: a 32GB model that goes for $180 and a 64 GB model for $200. This is not the first streaming box I’d necessarily recommend to serious gamers—that’s the Nvidia Shield TV, which we’ll talk about below. But if you do plan to do any amount of gaming on the device, definitely opt for more storage space.

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Also Consider: Nvidia Shield TV ($150) and Shield TV Pro ($200)

Illustration for article titled The Very Best Streaming Devices
Photo: Catie Keck/Gizmodo
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I have said repeatedly that I love Android TV for its recommendation algorithm and its ability to help me sort through the rat’s nest of streaming services to which I subscribe (so, so many services). Nvidia Shield TV is an Android TV-powered streaming box—or streaming cylinder, if you want to be technical about it—that adds cloud gaming alongside the usual mix of streaming video apps. Straight out of the box, you’ll find a prominently featured Nvidia Games app that houses the catalog for its cloud game streaming service GeForce Now. (GeForce Now is either free for 1-hour sessions with standard access or $5 per month to go premium.) There, you’ll find an exhaustive number of games that are both available for purchase and free to play, though many require a separate controller—which, if you are considering this device for its gaming potential, you may already have. But that will be an extra expense to consider if this is your first foray into cloud gaming.

Like each of the other boxes recommended here, the Shield TV includes a voice-enabled remote that uses Google Assistant to return results. To get the most out of your remote, you’ll have to grant permission for the OS to search across your apps to be able to surface relevant query returns. I was fairly pleased with how Android TV pulled results, typically a mix of blockbuster hits and newer titles. When a title is selected, the platform will find an associated trailer and show you where you’re able to stream it (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.). For movie buffs, you’ll appreciate that the Android TV also supports HBO Max, a notable exception on the otherwise decent Fire TV Cube or Roku Ultra.

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The entry-level Shield TV does lose some of the features that come standard on its pricier sibling, the Shield TV Pro—we’ll get into those down below. What the more affordable of the Shield family can do, though, it does very well. For one, its Tegra X1+ processor makes it incredibly fast and helps power its AI upscaling feature, which can bump lower resolution video up higher resolutions supported by your TV. It also supports 4K HDR, Dolby Vision, and HDR 10, as well as Dolby Atmos (again, your TV and speakers permitting). The device itself only has 8GB of storage, some of which is eaten up by the on-unit software. But that can easily be expanded with a separately purchased microSD card. It’s Google Home and Amazon Echo compatible, and the streaming box supports Chromecast 4K.

As for the remote? It’s fantastic. It’s very intuitive to use, it’s clean and nice to look at, and its triangle shape makes it very easy to hold. One of the things I really like about this remote is that it hits the “just right spot” between being a teeny remote for baby hands like the Apple TV remote and a monstrous wand that typically comes with even newer and higher-end TVs. It just works. And aside from its one Netflix button, it’s free from the service plugs that come standard on other streaming device remotes. Let’s be honest, you or someone you know probably subscribes to Netflix anyway.

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Finally, if you have another $50 to spend on some additional advanced features, the juiced-up Shield TV Pro adds significant value for the price difference—particularly for big-time gamers. The Pro version boosts the device’s RAM up to 3GB from just 2GB, and you’ll double the storage space to 16GB. Rather than a microSD card, though, you’ll be able to expand the storage on the Shield Pro with hard drives using dual USB 3.0 ports. You’ll also get support for the Plex media server with the Shield Pro, which alone might make the Pro worth the extra cash for some Plex evangelists.

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But What About Streaming Video on a Gaming Console?

While using a gaming console to stream movies or TV shows isn’t their primary function, modern consoles (especially recent Xbox and PlayStation systems) are very capable streaming video players, and by using your console instead buying a dedicated streaming TV device, you might be able to save some money in the process. Right now, the Xbox Series X and Series S are just a bit better than PS5 thanks to slightly wider support for a handful of apps (such as HBO Max). However, we expect the PS5 to get support for all the major streaming video services in short order, with the PS5 also having the ability to serve as an Ultra HD Blu-ray player.

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And if you’ve got a PS4 or Xbox One, those are well established steaming media players, so even if you’re planning to upgrade to one of the new consoles, they might still have some value serving up shows and movies on a different TV. The only major console that can’t really double as a streaming media device is the Nintendo Switch, because while it has dedicated apps for YouTube and Hulu, support for other services is pretty spotty.

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