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Just about every new TV these days is smart. In other words, it connects to the internet and gives you access to premium apps like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go. Quite frankly, it's almost impossible to find a TV that isn't smart—even the most affordable models manage to provide basic smart features.
But while smart TVs have come a long way in the last several years, they're still not as flexible, fast, and user-friendly as a streaming box like the Roku Ultra, the Amazon Fire TV, or the all-new Apple TV.
The bottom line? No matter how flashy your new smart TV might be, there are several reasons to consider grabbing a streaming box to go along with it.
The number one reason to pick up a streaming device? Content! While TV manufacturers like Samsung and LG have to wade through partnership processes when adding content like Amazon Video, Spotify, or PlayStation Now, streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire typically don't.
Here's a hypothetical example: Because Samsung wants to be the only smart TV with Spotify, it might contractually prevent LG or Sony from adding the service for a certain amount of time. But streaming devices typically don't run into this problem.
Let's face it: when a TV manufacturer is making a TV, they're not always putting the smart TV process first and foremost. While the big name brands have started to tailor their user interfaces towards easier smart features in recent years, they're still way behind a lot of streaming boxes.
For example, Roku has mastered the remote control. There's just the right amount of buttons, dedicated ones for the apps you use most, and—get this—the nicer Roku remotes even feature a headphone jack so you can listen to audio semi-wirelessly.
We've all been there. (Okay, if you haven't been there, I envy you). You've just unboxed and set up your new TV and it asks to connect to the internet. "What's the harm?" But an hour later, it's still updating all the apps and populating the app store. Good grief.
Devices like the Roku and Amazon Fire get updates quickly and generally in the background. And smart TVs are not usually quick to update all their apps with new features, leaving them stuck months behind streaming boxes.
Unfortunately, most smart TVs are heavily loaded with junkware. LG's smart TVs, for instance, still have rows of features and extra settings in the smart TV menus you don't need.
With streaming devices, you can choose to add extraneous features if you want, but otherwise the focus is on apps: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Video, Spotify, Pandora. You know, stuff you're actually going to use!
Ideally, you should need to replace your TV every six or seven years, but most smart TV manufacturers only extend the latest features and streaming abilities one generation back. This year, for example, updates will roll out for 2018 smart TVs in some regard, but I doubt any 2017 or earlier models will get much love.
See where I'm going with this? If your TV is four or five years old, the right streaming box can feel like a brand-new TV. Keep the picture you love, ditch the wonky content system.
If you're thinking it might be time to "upgrade" your binge-watching system via a new streaming device, here are some of our favorites right now:
The Roku Ultra, our current favorite streaming device, supports 4K content and HDR at up to 60 frames per second, comes with Roku’s most advanced remote, and a button on the box will force your remote to make a noise so you can find it in the cushions.
The remote is still the easiest to use of all the major players, and it now features power/volume buttons that work with your TV. The remote is perfectly sized, can be operated via voice control, has buttons to quickly access popular services, and even includes a headphone jack so you can plug in headphones and listen to what you’re streaming wirelessly—perfect for late-night binge sessions.
Across the board, the Ultra delivers the best streaming experience for most people. It excelled in all of our tests, it took less than 20 minutes to set up, and it offered almost everything we want in a streaming box—with no major streaming services missing. The only downside, really, is the Roku Ultra's lack of Dolby Vision support—for that, you'll have to look into the Apple TV 4K.
Though streaming sticks have typically been lower-end offerings compared to the full-size streaming boxes, the new Roku Streaming Stick+ is the exception. It offers full 4K and HDR (HDR10, not Dolby Vision) in a stick form factor, and in our tests it was nearly as fast as the full-size Roku Ultra.
Though it only works over Wi-Fi, the Stick+ did just fine streaming 4K and HDR content, comparing well to the Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV 4K, and the Roku Ultra. It ships with a remote that is nearly identical to the Ultra’s as well, offering voice search, and full control over your TV’s power and volume. The remote doesn’t have a headphone jack, but you can still listen wirelessly with any Roku via your phone and the Roku app.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is a great compromise for folks who want some of the benefits of the higher-end streaming boxes (like HDR support) at a friendlier price point.
Apple finally released a 4K- and HDR-ready version of the Apple TV, and unsurprisingly, it’s a high-end device with a high-end price. The Apple TV 4K supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR, has access to most popular streaming services, and includes the new “TV” app that syncs (almost) all the TVs, shows, and movies you’re watching across your other iOS devices.
As you’d expect, the Apple TV 4K is fast, relatively easy to use, and has a good-looking user interface. Additionally, most of your existing iTunes purchases are now available in 4K and HDR for no extra charge, and the prices for buying/renting 4K movies on iTunes is also among the cheapest in the industry.
If you're looking for a premium streaming device with that will harmonize with the rest of your Apple hardware, the Apple TV 4K is the way to go.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.