Whether you're a dedicated cord-cutter or just want to give your dumb TV an IQ boost, streaming devices are a perfect living room accessory. Providing easy access to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, they offer snappy interfaces and a wealth of video, music, and even gaming content.
But with so many options, how can you make sure you're picking the right one? To help you figure that out, we've spent countless hours with the latest models from Apple, Roku, Amazon, Google, and even Nvidia—we're talking everything from the budget-friendly Chromecast to the feature-laden Apple TV.
Read on to find out which is best for the average user, 4K early adopters, shoppers on a budget, and more.
Updated June 15, 2016
Roku refreshed its entire streaming device lineup for 2016 and the Premiere and Premiere+ are smack in the middle. While not as fully-featured as the Roku Ultra or as cheap as the Roku Express, for most people this is the streaming device to get. Both the Premiere+ and the Premiere offer the simple Roku interface, easy access to the most popular apps like Netflix, and 4K video capabilities, though both are great for 1080p if you're not planning on buying a 4K TV just yet.
The Roku Premiere+ adds in support for wired internet and high dynamic range video, which we think is the best reason to get a 4K TV in the first place. You also get the upgraded Roku remote, which has a headphone jack letting you listen to your TV wirelessly. It's $20 more, but for all those upgrades we think it's absolutely worth every penny.
Where To Buy$39.99 Amazon Buy
Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote
The new Amazon Fire TV Stick features a voice search that now has integration with Amazon's Alexa smart assistant. This means that for $40 you can turn your TV into a smart hub for your whole home, the same way you can with Amazon's Echo speaker. It's a killer feature that makes an already compelling streaming device even better, meaning you can do things like turn down your smart lighting right from your couch.
The new voice search is even more compelling for TV watching because it can work directly across dozens of the most popular apps. This means you can ask Alexa to show you a movie and it'll automatically bring up the options you have to watch it, prioritizing free options or services you're already subscribed to (like Netflix). The one downside? The Fire TV stick doesn't output 4K video or HDR.
The Roku Ultra can do everything the Roku Premiere+ can do, and more. It has the optical audio output for connecting it to fancy receivers and speaker setups, it has a MicroSD card slot for expandable storage, and it even has a button on the box you can use to find your remote if it's lost.
So why do we recommend the Premiere+ over the Ultra for most people? Because most people don't need those features and the $30 price premium isn't worth it just to find a lost remote. The Ultra is an awesome choice if you have a lot of media stored locally or you want the optical audio output, but if you're not going to use it then we recommend stepping down a bit.
Roku Streaming Stick
At first glance, the new 2016 Roku Streaming Stick looks and feels exactly like the old one. Like the Amazon Fire TV Stick, the 3600R Roku Stick costs $40-$50 and puts a focus on minimalism and simplicity. It also hauls, as it's the only streaming "stick" on the market with a quad-core processor. As a result, it's about twice as fast as the old Roku stick, and that extra speed does a world of good when you're trying to find something to watch.
Compared to the Amazon Fire TV Stick, though, it does lack a few features. Voice search is certainly chief among them, though it does at least support connection to hotel Wi-fi networks—something you're more likely to take advantage of with a stick than a full-on streaming box. It also has the classic Roku remote, but there's no headphone jack like on the Roku 4.
Apple TV (4th gen)
The powerful yet practical Apple TV was our favorite streaming device coming into 2016, even though it didn't feature 4K video. At this point? You're better off getting one of the better options or waiting for Apple to update this. With MSRPs starting at $150, the Apple TV just isn't worth the investment for most people. There's also no native support for Amazon Prime instant video currently, though Apple recently announced that the service will be introduced in late 2017.
If you truly only care about Netflix or only buy Apple products, the 4th generation Apple TV does have some things going for it, including Siri integration and a user interface that is as easy to use as Roku but significantly more attractive. Given that it's already a full year old, though, Apple may be upgrading this one before too long (maybe?).
Google Chromecast (2nd gen)
Of the five streaming devices we tested, the tiny Chromecast is the best choice for tech-savvy users on a budget. The non-traditional streaming dongle simply plugs into your TV or monitor's HDMI port, connects to your WiFi network, and uses your smartphone, tablet, or computer as a controller/remote. From there, you can "cast" content to the Chromecast from most major streaming apps and the Google Chrome browser. And at $35, it significantly undercuts virtually all of the competition.
If you're not afraid of a slight learning curve, you'll find the Chromecast is perhaps even more content-rich than the competition. As a screen-mirroring device, its only limits are your imagination. It's not a viable choice if you want 4K streaming, and if you aren't taking advantage of Google's services already, you may end up feeling shoehorned into them if you go with Chromecast. On the other hand, Google vets who are on their phones/tablets/laptops all the time already shouldn't hesitate.
If you just need a barebones streaming option that can handle 1080p HD video, has a remote, and doesn't cost much, the $30 Roku Express is the way to go. You get what you pay for, though; it's sluggish, it doesn't feature wired internet, and the remote is a little chintzy compared to the nicer Roku remotes on the Premiere and Ultra models.
Like the Premiere lineup, the Express also comes in two flavors. The Roku Express is the basic $30 model, but you can also get the Roku Express+ for $10 more and get an additional analog A/V port. This means you can hook it up to older TVs that don't have HDMI ports, letting you add a smart streaming solution to almost any TV from the last few decades. For most people we'd recommend moving up to the Roku Streaming Stick or the Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa, but if you need an analog hookup the Express+ is the only way to get it right now.
If you're at all familiar with the Roku platform, you know what you're getting into here: a virtually bottomless selection of apps in the form of "channels." We're talking everything from big names like Netflix and Amazon to megachurches and local news stations. The Roku 4 delivers all the best features from the older Roku 3, as well as the ability to stream in 4K resolution.
The best argument for buying a Roku over competitors from Apple, Amazon, and Google is that it offers a huge array of content sources without locking you into those companies' ecosystems. For instance, aside from Amazon's own Fire TV, it's the only streaming device to offer a native Amazon Instant Video app. In contrast, you can't get the most out of an Apple TV without using an iTunes account, and heavy Prime users will certainly benefit most from a Fire TV. It's not as polished as the Apple experience, but it's a relative bargain no matter where you find it.
Amazon Fire TV (2nd gen)
Are you a heavy user of Amazon's Prime services? Are you ready to jump into 4K streaming? Then the slightly older $99 Amazon Fire TV is probably your best bet. It streams UHD video just as well as the Roku 4, and more or less matches it in terms of content—from the big players, at least. The user interface is slick, and Amazon's Alexa voice assistant can go head to head with Siri.
It's possible to enjoy the Fire TV even if you're not an Amazon Prime member, but membership has its perks—Prime subscribers receive access to Amazon's original TV series and a selection of movies free of (additional) charge. The new Fire TV offers more processing power than its predecessor, with a focus on gaming (the Fire TV game controller retails for an extra $50). The $99 price tag matches the Roku Premire+, but there are a few notable trade-offs: a UI cluttered with Amazon ads, and an overwhelming focus on Prime content. The base model also includes only 8 GB of storage, which is going to fill up quickly.
Google Chromecast Ultra
The Chromecast Ultra presents somewhat of a conundrum. The biggest difference between the standard Chromecast and the Ultra (other than price) is that the Ultra supports 4K/HDR streaming, which makes a whole lot of sense if you have a UHD TV. The Chromecast Ultra's hardware is considerably zippier than it's lower-end counterpart, as well.
But the Chromecast Ultra costs about twice as much as the super-affordable Chromecast, and nearly every Roku streaming device (except the first generation Roku, the Roku Express, and the Roku Express+) offers screen-mirroring in addition to an actual, customizable smart platform. The only catch is that Roku’s screen-mirroring software is only compatible with Windows and Android devices.
This makes the Chromecast Ultra essential f you want to screen-mirror in 4K from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, but if you don’t have a 4K TV (or don’t mind casting in 1080p), the standard, more affordable Chromecast is your better bet. At the end of the day, Roku simply offers more bang for your buck when you factor in its software and app flexibility.
Nvidia Shield Android TV Box (2015 Model)
What do you get when one of the world's most recognizable PC video card and hardware makers cobbles together a set-top-box? The world's most powerful Android-based streaming device, the $200 Nvidia Shield. That's the same price as the 64GB Apple TV, but the Shield blows it away in terms of hardware and flexibility. The downside? It's a pricey streaming box with a strong focus on gaming, which puts it up against more powerful consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4.
The powerful, unique Shield gets you everything from native 4K streaming to Nvidia's "GeForce Now" game streaming service. With 3GB of ram and a Tegra X1 processor, it's far and away the most powerful streaming box on the market, letting you do things like stream PC games to your TV over WiFi. The optional GeForce Now subscription will set you back $7.99 per month, but the system comes bundled with a very well-made gamepad. Just keep in mind that if you want flawless 4K and game casting, you'll need a seriously robust internet connection to get the most out of this thing.