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The most popular option for streaming TV is still smart TVs — around 31% of Americans just use the apps built into their TV. But smart TVs present their own drawbacks. You might not be able to use all the streaming services you want, for instance, and they may not come with features like voice control or the ability to search for titles across all your apps.
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That’s where a dedicated streaming device can take your setup to the next level. These typically plug into your TV’s HDMI port and give you access to just about every streaming service around. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the four best streaming devices — Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku, Google Chromecast and Apple TV — and help you decide which one is right for your situation.
|Amazon Fire TV Stick||Roku||Google Chromecast||Apple TV|
|Number of models||3||6||2||2|
|Mirror phone to TV||Android||Android||iPhone and Android||iPhone|
Roku: Best streaming device for beginners
|Express||Express+||Premiere||Streaming Stick+||Ultra LT||Ultra|
|Maximum picture quality||1080p HD||1080p HD||4K Ultra HD and HDR||4K Ultra HD and HDR||4K Ultra HD and HDR||4K Ultra HD and HDR|
|Wi-Fi standards||802.11 b/g/n single-band||802.11 b/g/n single-band||802.11 b/g/n single-band||802.11ac dual-band||802.11ac dual-band||802.11ac dual-band|
|Headphone jack||✔||Headphones included|
More than any other product, Roku has become synonymous with streaming devices. And that’s for a good reason — it’s the most user-friendly gateway into the streaming world.
Each of Roku’s six models is controlled by a basic remote. It has all the essential buttons — play/pause, rewind, fast forward — plus four at the bottom that will take you directly to services like Netflix and Hulu. (The apps that come pre-programmed vary depending on the model of Roku.)
And unlike Amazon and YouTube, it’s not directly competing with any major streaming services, so there aren’t any important apps missing from Roku’s platform. No matter what services you subscribe to, you’ll be able to get them on Roku. It also has a sizable library of free movies and TV shows in its own Roku Channel.
That said, Roku’s friendliness for beginners does have a bit of a downside. Some users might find Roku’s interface to be unnecessarily cumbersome, requiring a few extra clicks to get to what they want. A good chunk of real estate is given to ads, and unlike the Fire TV Stick, your recently-watched programs don’t appear on the home screen.
Roku also provides a ton of options. Want 4K, voice control and headphones that plug into your remote? Go with the Roku Ultra. Don’t need any of the bonus features? The Express will work just fine. To find the right Roku model for your situation, we recommend using the “Compare Products” feature on Roku’s site.
There’s one other perk Roku users get: access to the Roku Channel. It’s one of the best free streaming services around, and currently has more than 1,500 movies and shows Roku users can watch for free.
How does Roku work?
Like the Amazon Fire TV Stick, Roku plugs into one of your TV’s HDMI ports. From there, you control the device with your remote, downloading the streaming apps you want to watch one at a time. You can also download the Roku app on your phone or tablet to control the device without a remote.
Who is Roku best for?
Roku is one of the best streaming devices for beginners, or for those who want access to the most streaming apps. We think it’s a little more clunky to use than the Fire TV Stick, but that’s mostly a matter of personal preference. The Premiere is also the cheapest device that streams in 4K.
Amazon Fire TV Stick: Best 4K streaming device
|Fire TV Stick||Fire TV Stick 4K||Fire TV Cube|
|Maximum picture quality||1080p HD||4K Ultra HD||4K Ultra HD|
|Wi-Fi standard||802.11ac dual-band MIMO||802.11ac dual-band MIMO||802.11ac dual-band MIMO|
|Ethernet port||Sold separately||Sold separately||✔|
Amazon produces some of the most affordable and easy-to-navigate TV streaming devices around. All the apps and movies or TV shows you’ve watched most recently appear in the top row of the screen, so it never takes more than a couple clicks to resume watching.
It’s also the best option for viewers looking for a cheap way to stream movies and shows in 4K. The Fire TV Stick 4K costs just $50, and is the only streaming device that supports every High Dynamic Range (HDR) format: HDR, HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG and Dolby Vision. The Roku Premiere supports 4K for $10 less, but it only supports HDR10. If you have a TV that can play Dolby Vision HDR, you won’t be able to take advantage of it with a Roku.
The Alexa voice control on the Fire TV Sticks works beautifully, too. No matter where you are in the device, you can give simple commands like “pause” or “rewind” by holding down the microphone on the remote. It’s especially useful when you want to search for a specific title — instead of choosing each letter one at a time from the screen, you can simply speak into the remote.
Searching for a title brings up all of your options for watching something, too. If you want to watch Parasite, for example, the Fire TV Stick will show you that it’s part of your Hulu subscription before you pay to rent it.
How does the Fire TV Stick work?
Amazon’s Fire TV Sticks plug into your TV’s HDMI port. When you flip over to that HDMI input on your TV, you’re able to control the streaming device with its remote. Within the device, you simply download the streaming apps — like Netflix or Hulu — that you want to watch.
Who is the Fire TV Stick best for?
The Fire TV Stick will work great for most people. If you want to control your streaming device through a remote instead of your phone (without paying a fortune), the choice essentially comes down to Roku or Amazon.
We liked the interface on the Fire TV Sticks — it took a little less clicking around to get where we wanted than Roku — but this ultimately comes down to personal preference. Amazon does prioritize its Prime Video content ahead of its competitors, so if you’d like a more agnostic streaming device, go with Roku.
Google Chromecast: Best for casting your phone to your TV
|Maximum picture quality||1080p HD||4K Ultra HD|
|Wi-Fi standard||802.11ac (2.4GHz/5GHz)||802.11ac (2.4GHz/5Ghz) 1×2 MISO|
|Ethernet||Sold separately ($15)||✔|
Unlike Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, Chromecast doesn’t have a remote. Instead, you control the device through your phone, tablet or laptop. This can be a pro or con depending on the user.
On the positive side, this allows you to “cast” your phone onto your TV — an easy way to share photos or videos with the entire room. Without a remote, you also have one less gadget cluttering up the coffee table.
Unfortunately, this also means you’ll have to download every streaming app you want to use directly to your phone or tablet, which takes up valuable storage space. You won’t have one central home page to browse, either, and Chromecast doesn’t offer a way to search for a title across all of your apps.
That doesn’t mean you’ll have to keep Netflix open the entire time you’re watching it. Chromecast plays apps in the background and lets you browse your phone as you normally would. If you use Google Photos, you can also use Chromecast in Ambient mode.
How does Chromecast work?
Chromecast plugs into your HDMI port, but unlike Roku and Amazon, it doesn’t provide a remote that controls the device. Instead, you download apps like Netflix and Hulu to your phone, tablet or laptop, and mirror the device to your TV screen.
That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to use your phone while you’re watching Netflix. Once you cast an app to the TV, it works in the background, so you’re free to scroll on your phone and watch TV at the same time.
Who is Chromecast best for?
Chromecast is one of the best streaming devices for users who want something that can be integrated into their entire technology ecosystem. If viewing your smartphone on your TV sounds appealing, it’s worth checking out Chromecast. That said, it might be a little frustrating for beginners, as there’s no familiar remote or homepage to fall back on.
Apple TV: Best streaming device, but expensive
|Apple TV||Apple TV 4K|
|Maximum picture quality||1080p HD||4K Ultra HD|
|Wi-Fi standard||802.11ac with MIMO||802.11ac Wi‑Fi with MIMO; simultaneous dual band (2.4GHz and 5GHz)|
Apple TV is by far the most expensive of the major TV streaming devices. Its HD model is pricey enough, and if you want to stream in 4K, you’ll have to pay even more. Compared to Roku’s 4K streamer, that difference can be startling.
That said, you do get an exceptional product for that price. With an advanced A10X Fusion processor, the Apple TV has some of the fastest hardware around. That means when you click a button on the Apple TV remote, you see the result instantly on your TV instead of the half second that the Roku and Fire TV Stick take.
Apple TV’s remote is also the only one with a touch surface. You can swipe across it and jump through a dozen Netflix titles in an instant, whereas the Roku and Fire TV Stick would both require 12 individual clicks. This is a huge time saver when it comes to typing out things like usernames and passwords.
The main reason most people will opt for an Apple TV, though, is to keep all of your devices in the Apple ecosystem. It’s a breeze to mirror your iPhone or iPad onto Apple TV, and you can even control Airplay-enabled smart devices from Apple TV’s remote.
How does it work?
Like the other devices on this list, Apple TV connects to your TV through an HDMI cable. It’s a little bulkier — unlike streaming “sticks” from Roku and Amazon, Apple TV will need to sit somewhere on your TV setup — but its sleek black exterior should help it blend in.
Who is it for?
Apple devotees, plain and simple. If you’re not set on keeping all of your devices under the Apple umbrella, you probably don’t need to shell out so much for a streaming device. Setting price aside, we do think Apple TV is the best streaming device out there. But the price disparity is a lot to put aside.
Streaming device FAQs
How much speed do I need for streaming?
In general, you’ll need around 5 Mbps download speeds for HD streaming and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD. That said, every device connected to your home’s internet uses some of its bandwidth, so that number will need to go up if you have multiple people connected to the internet at once. Not sure what speeds you’re currently getting? Use our speed test below to find out.
What apps should I download on my streaming device?
Your streaming device probably comes with popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu pre-installed. But there are thousands more to explore, and many of them are entirely free. Some of our favorite under-the-radar streaming services are The Criterion Channel, Kanopy, Hoopla, Tubi TV and Locast. For more ideas, check out some of our articles below:
- The best apps to download on your smart TV or streaming device
- The best free streaming services
- The best Netflix alternatives
Should I use an Ethernet cable with my streaming device?
Most streaming devices have the ability to connect to your wireless router with an Ethernet cable. This typically provides a more stable and faster connection. In other words, you won’t have to wait for that buffering wheel as much.
Amazon Fire TV, Roku and Google Chromecast all have streaming devices with Ethernet ports built in, but you can also purchase an adapter separately on devices that don’t include them. Both Apple TV streaming devices come with Ethernet ports.
The bottom line
Streaming devices have been around for more than a decade. At this point, they have most of their kinks worked out, and all four of the most popular devices will get the job done just fine.
If you’re new to streaming and a little overwhelmed by all the options and features, go with Roku. It’s incredibly simple to set up and use, and it works with almost every streaming service around. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick is also a great choice for beginners, but its interface isn’t quite as rudimentary as Roku’s.
Google’s Chromecast is the best choice for people who want to mirror their phones on their TV. That said, it doesn’t come with a remote, so it might be a little jarring for beginners. Finally, Apple TV is without a doubt the most advanced and enjoyable to use, but it costs three times more than most other streaming devices.
Originally written 06/27/19. Last updated 05/22/20.
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