The Apple TV 4K (2021) has an improved remote and all the bells and whistles you could ask for in a streaming box. It's pricey, but it is worth it for Apple fans that stream a lot of TV daily.
We’ve spent years testing (and living with) all the streaming devices, dongles, boxes, and sticks from Amazon, Roku, Google, Apple, and Nvidia, and we're certain that the best streaming device for most people is (still) the Roku Ultra (2020)(available at Amazon for $79.99). The Ultra supports 4K and HDR video, offers an intuitive interface, a best-in-class remote, and support for every major streaming service. It's the creme de la creme of streme—er—streaming devices, and we feel the price is worth the quality of the experience.
But if you’re looking to save a little bit of money, or you prefer Android, our favorite budget-friendly pick is the redesigned Google Chromecast with Google TV (available at Best Buy) which boasts its own excellent remote, streaming apps, and support for a very wide range of Android apps. But if neither of those will do, we're certain there's a good streaming device for everyone on our list below.
Roku and Google's continued feud has resulted in the YouTube TV app being removed from the Roku app store (though it's still available for those who already have it installed). We'll be following this story and will update accordingly as it plays out.
Here are the best streaming devices we tested:
Google Chromecast with Google TV
Roku Streaming Stick 4K (2021)
Apple TV 4K
Roku Streaming Stick+
Roku Express 4K+
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Amazon Fire TV Cube
Google Chromecast Ultra
Though Roku's lineup has undergone some changes in the past few years, the latest Roku Ultra is the current flagship model and will be the best option for most people. It supports 4K/HDR (including Dolby Vision), Dolby Atmos sound on select services, and nearly every streaming service, including Apple's own TV app. It was the first non-Apple device to fully support the app, letting you access your iTunes purchases and rent or buy movies from Apple just like you would on the Apple TV. Like many Roku devices, it also supports Apple AirPlay and basic HomeKit smart home functionality.
Roku’s interface has become slightly more cluttered with ads than it used to be, though these are primarily for the Roku Channel, a free ad-supported streaming service that includes mostly basic cable-level movies and TV shows. It’s not great, but your favorite apps are still front and center, making it easier to move from Netflix to Amazon to Disney+ without getting lost.
Otherwise, the interface looks just like it has for the past few years. It's relatively easy to navigate, and Roku makes it even easier with voice control and dedicated buttons on the remote control for four major streaming services (typically Netflix and some mix of Hulu, Disney+, and a few others).
The Roku Ultra continues to be the easiest to use, with the best remote and nearly every app you want.
The Roku Ultra's remote continues to be the best around. It’s the easiest to use, it has dedicated buttons to go straight to the services you probably use most, and programmable buttons you can point to other apps. It also has volume and power buttons for your TV, so you may only need a single remote if you don’t use cable.
Best of all, the remote has a headphone jack so you can plug in any old pair of headphones and instantly have wireless audio for whatever you're streaming—perfect for late-night binge-watching, especially if you share a living space with someone who goes to bed early. (You can also do this with the Roku app for your smartphone.)
Add it up and Roku makes a very tight case, especially for the price. It's fast, easy to use, has the best remote, and has access to a wide array of content. Outside of people on a tight budget and those with very specific technical needs, the Roku Ultra is your best bet. Read our full review
The streaming stick market is a street fight these days, and Google is wading right into it with the new Google Chromecast with Google TV. It’s priced practically identically to the Amazon Fire Stick 4K and Roku Streaming Stick+ and they’re all excellent 4K/HDR-ready streaming devices.
The Google Chromecast with Google TV edges slightly ahead of the Roku Streaming Stick+ this year, mostly thanks to its support for Dolby Vision HDR and Android apps, different from the previous Chromecast models (which only let you cast content from a screen). That adds a ton of value.
This model still lets you cast from a phone, laptop, or anything with a Chrome browser, but you also get a remote and a full app-based experience. You also get tighter integration with the Google Assistant, which is a boon for people that rely on Nest and other Google-powered smart devices.
Overall, any of the streaming sticks are a great bet, but the Chromecast with Google TV does just enough for us to earn its “Best Value” badge here. Read our full review
Hi, my name is TJ Donegan. I'm an Executive Editor at Reviewed and have been testing consumer electronics for a decade. In my time at Reviewed I’ve covered cameras, tablets, smartphones, televisions, laptops, headphones, and—of course—streaming boxes.
My personal experience with streaming boxes stretches back to the earliest days of the Roku, and I personally own a streaming device from every major manufacturer. Though I still have a cable subscription, the majority of my own TV diet includes Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Now/Max, and I frequently switch to live TV services like Youtube TV and Sling TV for months at a time.
These days, nearly every streaming device has access to most major streaming services. To that end, our tests focus primarily on the hardware—the remote, the device itself, how it connects to your TV, how fast it is and how it feels to use it.
On the software side, we also evaluated things like ease of use, the presence of ads, the ability to use things like voice search to discover content, and any other relevant features like mobile apps.
Our goal was to find the best possible streaming box for most people. Though there are a few devices that are more specialized if you’re into, say, PC gaming, our top pick is based on what we think is the best option for the vast majority of people streaming TV and movies.
What You Need To Know About Streaming Devices
There are a few key things to keep in mind when selecting a streaming box or streaming stick. The first is making sure you get a device that works with your TV.
Do You Need a 4K Streaming Device If You Don’t Have a 4K TV?
In short, yes. Almost every new TV is going to come with a 4K screen these days, which means that it has four times as many pixels as older 1080p Full HD screens.
Nearly every device on this list supports 4K (and it’ll say so on the box and in the model name, typically).
Even if you don’t have a 4K TV yet, you’re likely to have one at some point and it’s not worth pinching pennies on a 1080p device just to have to replace it with a 4K-ready one later.
Do the Roku, Apple TV, or Fire TV support HDR?
While 4K is fairly simple, HDR—or High Dynamic Range—is much more complex. Basically, it is a mode that lets your TV adapt to make part of the screen brighter or darker depending on what is playing. This in turn affects the color shading and vibrancy.
HDR TVs also typically support wider color gamuts, meaning you get more vivid colors that are beyond what older TVs were capable of displaying. There is a lot of detail we’re skipping here, but in a nutshell, if you have an HDR TV you’ll want a streaming box that supports HDR so you can get the most out of it.
4K devices from Roku, Apple, Chromecast, and Fire TV support HDR with supported TVs. As long as you are using any newer HDMI cable, you should be able to just play HDR content through these boxes without having to change anything in the menus. That said, only some of those devices support Dolby Vision HDR, which we'll discuss in more detail below.
Dolby Vision HDR vs HDR10: which is better?
Among picture purists, Dolby Vision has a slightly better reputation, but both formats are evolving and have their strengths and weaknesses. In addition, a new version of HDR10, HDR10+, is on the move in hopes of upending Dolby Vision's place at the top of videophiles' lists, but for now it's a two-way race between HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and not all streaming devices support both formats.
HDR10 is supported by every HDR streaming device, but Dolby Vision is only found on select devices on our list. The same is generally true for HDR TVs. The majority support HDR10, while some also support Dolby Vision. You’ll need a TV that supports Dolby Vision to utilize it, so if your TV only supports HDR10, Dolby Vision shouldn’t be a concern.
Is My Privacy Secure with a TV Streaming Device?
Reviewed takes data privacy extremely seriously, and unfortunately, most streaming services do not. In most cases, you can opt out of letting the box itself track and monetize your viewing habits, but you’ll still see ads and such. Just be aware that each streaming service may have its own ad tracking built-in, and this is often not something you can opt out of.
You can opt out of most of these settings by going to each box’s account or settings pages and navigating to the section on privacy.
Which Streaming Device is Best for Netflix?
Though we don’t typically evaluate each streaming box for how well they handle any individual service, the Roku Ultra is the best for Netflix in our opinion. Though the app experience isn’t any better than on other devices, the ability to listen to your streaming audio with the headphone jack on the remote is amazing.
You can do this with other Roku devices as well through the mobile app, but we prefer the ease of use of plugging any pair of wired headphones into the remote at a moment’s notice.
Dolby Atmos is a fancy audio codec that promises even more immersive sound than traditional surround sound if you have an audio system like a Dolby Atmos soundbar and other hardware to take advantage of it. This is different from Dolby Vision HDR, which is exclusively referring to the picture format. Support for Atmos does not guarantee support for Dolby Vision.
Many of the models we have tested support Dolby Atmos sound. Occasionally, select apps will fail to pass it through properly on some devices and you may need to have other compatible equipment to handle the conversion, along with Atmos-compatible speakers or soundbars.
You can learn about Dolby Atmos and how to get it in our comprehensive Dolby Atmos guide.
Other Streaming Devices We Tested
Roku Express 4K+
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is not the first 4K-ready streaming stick from Roku but (at least as of the end of 2021) it's the best one yet. As the name suggests it supports 4K, HDR, and most premium streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, and more.
As with other streaming sticks, the most notable issue is the lack of wired internet, though in all of our tests it was able to pull down high-quality 4K video without a problem. The trade-off for that is it can be plugged right into the back of your TV and run off the TV's USB power, so you can install it on a wall-mounted TV without running any extra cables.
Like all Rokus, the standout feature here remains the remote. There are actually two versions of the Streaming Stick 4K, with one coming with the basic remote and the more expensive Streaming Stick 4K+ that is bundled with Roku's new, advanced rechargeable voice remote that will play a chime when you can't find it in the cushions.
In either case, this is just as good as the Google Chromecast with Google TV and the latest Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. Our one hangup is (hopefully) a temporary one: Roku's ongoing spat with YouTube TV. You can only access it through the Youtube App, which adds a layer of complexity that runs counter to Roku's general platform agnosticism. It's unfortunate, it should eventually give way to a new dedicated app, but it is notable if you are using Youtube TV as a live TV replacement for your cable subcription.
With the new Apple TV 4K (2021), Apple has finally gotten around to fixing the Apple TV’s most glaring flaw: the finicky remote. The new clicker is thicker, easier to hold, and has a proper directional pad for quickly navigating the linear menus common among streaming services.
The remote also features a dedicated button to summon the voice assistant Siri, as well as a rechargeable battery. It’s slick, easy to use, and has a level of polish uncommon in other plasticky streaming box remotes. Though we’d prefer dedicated buttons to quickly open your favorite streaming apps, we’ll take what we can get if it means the old remote bites the dust.
The rest of the package is largely warmed over from previous generations, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The processor is updated and extremely snappy, Apple’s interface continues to shine with some wonderful screensavers and a full collection of the most popular streaming services, and the box has full Dolby Atmos (including Netflix) and Dolby Vision support.
The main drawback here remains the price. With an MSRP of $179.99 ($199 if you opt for an extra 32GB of storage), the Apple TV 4K is still 2-3x as expensive as its competition. The “Apple tax” isn’t uncommon, and it’s fine when Apple is offering a markedly improved experience, enhanced privacy, or features and apps you can’t get anywhere else. For the most part, that isn’t the case here.
When it comes to streaming, all the major services are on Roku, Google, and Fire TV (temporary contract disputes aside), the Roku Ultra and Google Chromecast offer similar support for 4K/HDR streaming, and we still prefer the remotes on competing devices. The Apple TV 4K is a beautiful addition to a home that has all-Apple-everything—especially handy if you use HomeKit smart devices—but for most folks, there's better value to be had elsewhere. Read our full review
The Roku Express has changed forms several times in the last few years, going from a slightly lower-end version of the Roku Ultra to a slightly higher-end take on Roku’s Premiere.
The latest version sits between the Roku Streaming Stick+—offering a bulkier design and worse Wi-Fi connectivity (though we had no issues connecting)—and the HD-only Express. While you're not saving a ton of cash over the Streaming Stick+, you do get good value here, including 4K, HDR (though not Dolby Vision), and Dolby Atmos sound on select services with a compatible TV and audio system.
In fact, apart from the form factor and Wi-Fi antenna, there's very little difference between this device and its stick-sized sibling. With the Express 4K+ you're getting the same platform, the same Bluetooth voice remote, and the same AirPlay and HomeKit support as the Streaming Stick+ for $10 less. Really, whichever you pick should work great, though some may opt for the slimmer and slightly faster Streaming Stick+ for the small price difference. Read our full review
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is a fantastic way to get a lot in a small package—and at a great price. It offers 4K and HDR support (though still no 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/HDR content, comparing well to the other 4K-ready options we’ve tested. The antenna is built into the USB power cable, a design Roku claims offers improved reception.
The Streaming Stick+ ships with a remote control that is nearly identical to the Ultra’s as well, offering voice command and full control over your TV’s power and volume. The remote doesn’t have a headphone jack, though you can still listen wirelessly with any Roku via your phone and the Roku app. You can also add on the Roku Voice Remote Pro, which does have a headphone jack, for just over half the cost of the streaming stick itself (and still less than the Ultra).
The closest competitors are the Amazon Fire Stick 4K and the Google Chromecast with Google TV, both of which have nearly-identical feature sets, remotes, and include 4K/HDR support. They’re all pretty much the same, though we lean toward the Google Chromecast with Google TV for its Dolby Vision and Android app support—even though we prefer the Roku platform and remote generally.
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K with Alexa Voice Remote (2019)
If you are big into Alexa and Amazon Prime Video, the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is an excellent, budget-friendly choice. It supports 4K (HDR10 and Dolby Vision), Dolby Atmos sound (though, like Roku devices, Netflix Atmos titles are not supported), and it ships with an excellent remote control that supports voice searching and control of all your Alexa-compatible devices.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K supports the majority of streaming options out there, including newer services like Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, and starting in late June 2021, NBC's Peacock.
Our major reason for preferring the Roku Streaming Stick+ over the Fire TV Stick 4K is Roku’s agnostic platform. Though Roku has added significantly more ads over the years, Amazon still highlights its top shows and movies (including rentals you need to pay for) above other services. It’s a minor note, but when every streaming stick and service is relatively similar, the little things add up.
Still, if you want a streaming stick form factor, a remote, and support for Dolby Vision HDR, this is your best bet.
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a bit of an odd duck in the streaming market. The main thing that sets it apart is its support for hands-free Alexa control (without needing to use the remote or another Echo speaker) and its built-in infrared blasters.
Theoretically, this gives the Fire TV Cube the ability to control (via Alexa) your smart devices, your legacy devices like A/V receivers through their infrared remote ports, and your TV through the HDMI cable. Though it works well for some people and setups, we’ve had difficulty getting it to fully respond in our tests
When everything works, it’s really cool to tell Alexa to dim your lights, check the weather, change the channel, close your smart blinds, water your lawn, and stream Netflix without lifting a finger. But too often we were stuck repeating ourselves or having to give up and just change something manually.
For its higher price, it’s a tough sell. The Roku Ultra costs about the same (or less) and has all the same support for major streaming services. Though Roku’s voice search isn’t as powerful as Alexa, it’s nearly as reliable for finding stuff to watch and the extra features like a button to find a lost remote and use headphones wirelessly are too much to pass up.
The Chromecast Ultra isn’t a bad streaming device by any means and Google Assistant makes it easy to navigate. It supports a huge array of services, thanks to its unique ability to act as a bridge between your phone, tablet, or laptop and your TV; just stream something on a device, hit the cast icon, and you can send it right to your TV.
The Ultra supports 4K, HDR (including Dolby Vision), and Dolby Atmos but because it lacks a traditional interface and operating system (it acts more like a web browser, fetching the content you tell it to), support can be spotty (e.g., no Dolby Atmos support for Netflix or Amazon Prime Video). Google remedied this in the cheaper Google Chromecast with Google TV, which also supports all those features.
As a result, we don’t think most people should bother with the Chromecast Ultra unless you need its casting ability and don’t want to use less elegant versions of it such as the screen mirroring function on Roku. It does work well with Google’s cloud gaming service Stadia, though the cheaper Chromecast with Google TV offers that as well through an update effective June 23, 2021.
Casting is still a neat feature and makes having a Chromecast a nice backup solution (including the cheaper 1080p Chromecast) but for the same price, you can get a better all-around streaming gadget from Roku or Amazon.
The very entry-level model in Roku’s lineup is the Express, and it offers a very barebones experience. Though you do get Roku’s excellent, clicky remote, it does not support voice searching or wireless listening, and it doesn’t have buttons to control your TV’s power or volume.
The platform is fully featured, so you are getting access to all the same streaming services, but the device maxes out at 1080p video. The box itself is quite small, so it’s a nice option for a second bedroom, den, or kitchen TV where you just want streaming support and don’t care about the high-end options like 4K, HDR, and more.
Just note that, unlike some earlier models of the Roku Express line, this model requires an HDMI port to connect. It includes the cable, but if you have an older TV or A/V setup that requires separate analog RCA jacks, this box no longer supports that.
For most people, it’s worth the extra money to jump up to the Streaming Stick+ or Express 4K+, but if you’re on a tight budget or just don’t mind the missing features, this is a viable alternative.
TJ is the Executive Editor of Reviewed.com. He is a Massachusetts native and has covered electronics, cameras, TVs, smartphones, parenting, and more for Reviewed. He is from the self-styled "Cranberry Capitol of the World," which is, in fact, a real thing.
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