Story by Kris Wouk (updated by Nick Hastings), via our partner site, Digital Trends /
While virtually all TVs are shipping with smart features these days, they may not be the features you want, with many streaming services only available via external hardware. The best solution: buy a streaming media player. The problem is, a veritable smorgasbord of available devices makes this a more complicated and daunting task than ever before.
With TVs offering 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR), you’ll want to make sure you buy a streaming device that’s compatible, but that’s only the start. You’ll also want to make sure that the streaming services you care about — and the shows and movies you want to watch — can be easily found, without scouring the web for hours. This article serves up the cream of the crop so you can get the absolute most from your streaming experience.
OUR TOP PICK
Why should you buy this: It offers everything you need in a streaming box
Who’s it for: Anyone who wants to stream 4K and HDR through an easy-breezy interface
How much will it cost: $100
Why we picked the Roku Premiere+:
With increased competition from companies like Amazon and Google, Roku really needed to nail its newest models, announced in September, and it absolutely did. While not the absolute top of the line, the Roku Premiere+ offers a combination of video quality and features that make it an obvious choice for anyone eyeing a newer 4K Ultra HD TV with HDR support.
The Roku 4 was the first model from the company to feature 4K resolution, but the Premiere+ takes that further with support for HDR, which can provide vastly improved contrast and deeper, more vivid colors. The Premiere+ only supports HDR10 — and there is no word on whether the other competing standard, Dolby Vision, will be added via a future update — but this is fine for most people. HDR10 is the most widely used format, allowing users to watch content from Netflix, Amazon, and others in HDR. Even 60 FPS (frames per second) video is supported here, an advanced feature that’s not widely employed yet.
Apart from 4K and HDR support, the Premiere+ leverages Roku’s vast library of apps and channels to make it a heavy hitter. All the majors you’d expect are here: 4K apps like Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube are standard, as are HD apps like HBO Now, and Hulu, and live TV streamers like Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Amazon on the Premiere+ is also a premium experience, to the point that it is very nearly a Fire TV in app form. That means that even if you have a ton of Amazon Video movies and TV shows, you won’t feel like you’re missing out here.
And where search is concerned, Roku rules the roost. No other streaming box is as platform agnostic as Roku, with the company’s devices showing you where to watch (and for how much, if not free) with simple text or voice search, either using the included remote, or the Roku app.
While you can access Roku’s massive library on every model in the lineup, there are a number of other features available on the Premiere+ that make it an awesome value. Ethernet joins 802.11ac Wi-Fi for network connectivity, so dodgy wireless connections aren’t a problem, and features like Night Listening mode — which turns down explosions and other loud sounds — and a headphone jack built into the remote make for a lot of flexibility in how you watch.
For $100, there are other options out there, but none that combine the vast array of content with the features available in the Roku Premiere+. If you find you don’t need HDR or Ethernet, you can drop down a tier to the Roku Premiere, and still have one of the best media streamers available for just $80. On the other end, serious home theater enthusiasts can opt for the Roku Ultra for $130, which adds optical audio out, a USB port for local playback, and a lost remote detector. But the Roku Premiere+ hits the sweet spot to squeeze the most out of each and every streaming dollar.
The Best Cheap Media Streamer
Google Chromecast Ultra
Why should you buy this: You won’t find more features for the money.
Who’s it for: Those who want the best bang for the buck
How much will it cost: $70
Why we picked the Google Chromecast Ultra:
The original Chromecast quickly gained popularity for its ease of use and its ultra-low price, but even last year’s upgrade didn’t offer an inkling that Google had plans for 4K Ultra HD. With 4K resolution and HDR support — in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats — the Chromecast Ultra takes casting into the next era.
While the Chromecast Ultra costs double the price of its predecessor, the device’s sheer power should prove its worth. At the official unveiling of the Chromecast Ultra, Google’s Mario Quieroz said that the device is 1.8 times faster than the original Chromecast. The Ultra also comes with built-in Ethernet connectivity, which is smartly packed into the device’s power adapter in order to prevent a rat’s nest of cables behind your TV.
Viewers won’t find the device lacking in terms of content, either. 4K Ultra HD content is available from Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube, but that’s not all: Google will also offer 4K content via the Google Play Store as well. The one exception here is Amazon, which has yet to make an appearance on Google’s suite of casting devices (with a bit of creativity, you can still watch Amazon video content on your Chromecast). As with most of the other products on this list, Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are supported, though PlayStation Vue users are limited to in-home viewing.
The Chromecast Ultra is also a good option for those who have never been particularly tied to traditional TV interfaces, as casting content to your TV may be preferable to navigating with a remote. This will come down to personal preference, but if you prefer your phone or tablet to be your gateway to entertainment, this is a route worth considering.
The Best Media Streamer for Gamers
The Nvidia Shield
Why should you buy this: 4K and HDR, paired with premium gaming features
Who’s it for: Those who prefer their streaming with a healthy side of gaming
How much will it cost: $200 – $300
Why we picked the Nvidia Shield TV:
Most of the products on this list are squarely focused on streaming video, but despite the “TV” in its name, the Nvidia Shield TV takes a different approach. The device features 4K resolution and HDR streaming capabilities and is based on Android TV, but at its heart the Shield TV is designed with gamers in mind.
More than 200 games are available to play via Android TV, with more than 20 exclusive to the Shield TV as of this summer. If you’re a PC gamer, the ability to stream PC games to your Shield TV while you kick back on the couch makes it an even more attractive option. The base version, which sells for $200, includes just 16GB of storage, but the 500GB version for $300 offers tons more space, as well as microSD and microUSB slots. The included controller — which Nvidia recently revamped — provides a familiar feel to experienced console gamers.
For 4K streaming, Netflix, Vudu, UltraFlix, and YouTube are currently supported, with HDR support available only for Netflix. For HD streaming, many more options are available, including HBO Now, Twitch, CBS, FOX, and Vimeo — basically anything in the Google Play store. Many of these apps can easily be searched using the built-in Voice Search feature. Live TV is available via Sling TV as well as PlayStation Vue, thanks to a recent update that brought the streaming service to Android TV devices.
GeForceNOW, for $8 a month, allows users to stream games to their Shield at 1080p resolution, but performance is dependent upon internet speed. On the audio side, the Nvidia Shield TV also supports 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, as well as Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound. High-resolution audio is also supported, with some formats supported natively and others supported via pass-through.
The Best Media Streamer for Apple Lovers
The Apple TV
Why should you buy this: You want a seamless TV experience across Apple devices
Who’s it for: Users heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem
How much will it cost: $150 – $200
Why we picked the Apple TV:
One of the original products that popularized the streaming media player, the Apple TV has fallen out of the technological lead these days, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a look. If you’re reading this article in Safari while listening to Apple Music on your iPhone, there’s a good chance the most recent iteration of the Apple TV — the fourth generation — is perfect for you, as long as you don’t need 4K resolution.
In October 2016, Apple unveiled its new app, simply called “TV.” The app’s goal is to provide one seamless experience across multiple streaming apps, with the notable exclusion of Netflix and a few others — at least for the time being. The TV app isn’t exclusive to the Apple TV either; it works with the iPhone and iPad as well, giving Apple fans a seamless streaming experience. Holding down the Siri button on the remote will activate voice commands, which are hit-and-miss in our experience.
The latest Apple TV also comes with a great touchpad remote, a well-designed interface, and most of the heavy-hitting apps and channels. Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now are here, as are Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. Perhaps most importantly, there are features here that simply can’t be found on other devices, like AirPlay mirroring. This isn’t a huge deal to everyone, but it makes sharing content from iOS devices painless and seamless.
At a starting price of $150, the Apple TV is the second-most expensive streamer on this list, but its combination of smart design, great looks, and instant access to Apple’s ecosystem means that for those deeply invested in the Cupertino club, this will be the primary option worth considering.
The Best Jack-of-All-Trades Media Streamer
Amazon Fire TV
Why should you buy this: More 4K support than Nvidia Shield TV, better gaming than Roku Premiere+
Who’s it for: Users who want a bit of everything.
How much will it cost: $90
Why we picked the Amazon Fire TV:
If you’re reading this article and literally every single device sounds like something you want, the Fire TV (specifically, the new 4K-capable model) might be for you. It doesn’t have every feature of the other streamers on this list, but it offers a compelling mix of some of the best features available.
Like many of the other streamers here, the Fire TV supports 4K resolution, but it doesn’t support HDR — for that, you’ll need to wait for a likely future revision (according to an exclusive report from AFTV News, Amazon plans on adding an HDR-enabled streaming device to its Fire family sometime in 2017). Even so, with HDR content even more scarce than 4K content, this may not matter to many people – especially those without an HDR TV. Only relatively pricey 4K TVs support a worthy HDR experience anyway, so for many users there may be no point in paying more for a feature you can’t use, or won’t notice.
When it comes to gaming, the Fire TV also sits in the middle of the pack. It’s not a gaming-focused device like the Nvidia Shield TV, but it’s much better for gaming than any Roku model thanks to the available gaming controller. Amazon even sells a version of the Fire TV that bundles in the gaming controller.
In terms of content, you won’t find quite as many channels and apps as Roku devices, but all of the big players are here. In addition to Amazon’s own sizable library of content, Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now offer on-demand content, while Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are available for live TV. As a bonus, the Fire TV version of PlayStation Vue offers an interface that’s almost equivalent to the Playstation 4 experience. If you’re looking to stream in 4K, you’re limited to Amazon and Netflix content.
The price of the Fire TV has been discounted to $90, making it an even better option for those who feel more comfortable with the Amazon ecosystem.
The Best Mini-Streamer
Why should you buy this: It’s a cheap, effective way to add smarts to your TV
Who’s it for: Anyone who just wants a simple, cheap streamer
How much will it cost: $30
Why we picked the Roku Express:
If you don’t have a 4K or HDR-enabled television, you obviously don’t need to spend close to $100 on a device that streams in 4K. Similarly, if all you’re looking to do is stream Netflix, you don’t need to buy a device that offers zillions of unnecessary apps. Luckily, the Roku Express offers basic functionality for a basic price, without extraneous bells or whistles.
The cheapest product in the Roku lineup (and the cheapest item on this list), the Roku Express is understandably limited when compared to many of the other products, but it’s still pretty loaded for the price. Over 1,000 apps are available, including many we’ve previously mentioned like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO Now, as well as both Sling TV and PlayStation Vue. The Express also includes a traditional A/V input cable — remember, the red, yellow, and white plugs? — so it’s your only option if you want to stream on a TV without an HDMI input.
The interface is just as user-friendly as any other Roku model, and while the Express isn’t as powerful as its bigger siblings, it’s still more than functional. If you’re looking to add some smart features to an older TV, this is a cheap and effective way to do so. The Express is also a nice choice for a second or third TV that doesn’t need a glut of features.
How We Test
We test our streaming players over a period of days or weeks, replicating exactly how you’d use them in real-life scenarios. That includes testing them for speed, convenience, intuitiveness, and a variety of features. Just as important as speed and power is access to a wide variety of apps — after all, most TVs and Blu-ray players are already setup for basic streaming — a designated streamer should offer something more.
A streamer might have the best hardware in the world, but this won’t matter if you can only watch content from one streaming service. In order to meet our standard, a streaming media player ideally supports all or most of the major content providers, as well as a wide variety of newer features like 4K Ultra HD and HDR. Finally, we look at how much quality and how many features you get on a dollar-by-dollar scale, to assure each of our top streamers is not only a great experience, but also a great value.
Is Now a Good Time to Buy?
Whether or not now is the time to jump on one of these streaming media devices depends a lot on what catches your eye. For Roku models, the answer is a definite yes. With the addition of 4K and HDR on the higher end models, you can be fairly certain that you’ll be set for the next few years, even if you buy a new, top-tier TV. This is also true for the Chromecast Ultra, especially given the general portability and utility of this particular streamer: even if you upgrade in the future, you’ll likely find a use for it somewhere.
The Nvidia Shield TV is similar to the two above devices, though in this particular case it’s whether or not to buy at all. Nvidia had been planning a successor to the Shield TV, but dropped those plans earlier this year. Still, despite relatively limited 4K and HDR support for the time being, this streaming box packs plenty of horsepower, and continues to gain more features with every software update.
For Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV devices, this is a more difficult question. If you don’t care about the missing support for certain technologies — HDR in Amazon’s case and both HDR and 4K in Apple’s case — or you’re willing to buy a new device when you decide you need these features, both have plenty to offer. Given Amazon’s hardware release schedule, you might want to wait a bit for the Fire TV, as the company could conceivably release a new model soon. For Apple TV, you might be in for a longer wait.
Roku: Roku’s interface is common across every model, whether you’re talking the top of the line Ultra model or the entry-level Express. There is also a certain look to Roku apps, and you won’t find interface differences across different apps as much as you might on other platforms. As we’ve mentioned before, you’ll find nearly every streaming service or channel you care about represented here, and unlike certain other platforms, you won’t find any gaps, with the notable exception of iTunes, which is only available on Apple streamers.
Amazon: Amazon only offers two Fire TV models, but the interface is the same for both. Apps differ much more here than those found on other devices, and this can be a benefit. PlayStation Vue, for example, currently offers a much more intuitive interface on Fire TV devices. However, as Amazon wants to drive users toward its own store, there are some missing services here: Google Play isn’t available, nor is Vudu. Both are available on Roku devices, and Vudu is available on every other streamer listed here.
Apple TV: The Apple TV user interface is somewhere between Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Apps have a fairly consistent look, but you’ll always be able to tell you’re watching on an Apple TV. Similar to Amazon, Apple would prefer users buy and rent content via iTunes, so you won’t find apps for Amazon or Google Play. There is a fairly easy workaround, however, as both services offer mobile apps that allow content to be streamed to an Apple TV via AirPlay.
Chromecast: The Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra are very different than the other streamers here in that you’re never browsing an interface on your TV as you would with the other services here — instead, you’re simply sending content to your TV from a computer or mobile device. Still, there are limitations. Streaming Amazon content to a Chromecast device, for example, isn’t possible. Workarounds are available, but they aren’t as simple as they are for the Apple TV.
Android TV: Android TV is a little different than the other options here in that manufacturers can put their own spin on the interface, similar to phone manufacturers with Android. The Shield TV implementation falls somewhere between the Roku and Fire TV in terms of looks, with apps exhibiting plenty of individuality. As with the Chromecast Ultra, Amazon Video isn’t available out of the box, though it can be sideloaded if you want to dive under the hood.
Words and Terms You Need to Know
- 4K: The highest resolution currently available, around four times that of HD (3840 X 2160). It is quickly becoming the standard for new TVs.
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi: The most recent and fastest Wi-Fi standard, not as fast as Ethernet, but faster than 802.11n.
- Android TV: A smart TV platform powered by Android and available across smart TVs, set-top boxes, and more.
- Casting: A term, popularized by Google, for sourcing content from the internet from a mobile device or computer to a TV or set-top box.
- HDR: Short for High Dynamic Range, which offers better contrast and more colors than standard dynamic range. Considered by many to be a more notable visual improvement than 4K resolution itself.
- HDR10: One of the two most popular HDR formats, and an open standard backed by Samsung, Sony, LG, and other companies.
- Dolby Vision: One of the two most popular HDR formats. Proprietary, and less popular than the other format, HDR10.