Which TV streaming device is right for you?

Joe Supan
JS
Joe Supan
Jun 27, 2019

There are currently over 200 streaming services available in the U.S., but figuring out what they are and how to access them can feel like a dull homework assignment.

The most popular options are smart TVs and gaming consoles, but both of these present their own drawbacks. You may not be able to download all the streaming apps you want, for instance, and they probably don’t come with features like voice control or the ability to search for titles across all your apps. 

A dedicated streaming device can help. These typically plug into your TV’s HDMI port and give you access to 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.

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Amazon Fire TV Stick

Strengths Weaknesses
  • Easy-to-navigate interface
  • Alexa voice control
  • No YouTube apps
  • Amazon-centric

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. 

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 Jaws, for example, the Fire TV Stick will show you that it’s part of your Hulu subscription before you pay to rent it. 

One glaring weakness is that it doesn’t currently support YouTube apps. While there’s a simple workaround — just go to Youtube.com through one of the Fire TV Stick’s browsers — it’s not ideal. You can’t use voice search within that, for example, and subscribers to the live TV streaming service YouTube TV won’t be able to use Fire TV Sticks at all. While YouTube is reportedly coming to Amazon products soon, there’s still no exact date for when this will happen.

How does it 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 it 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, 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. 

Roku

StrengthsWeakness
  • Great for beginners
  • Simple to use and set up
  • Best compatibility with streaming apps
  • Clunky interface

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 seven models is controlled by a basic remote. It has all the basic 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.)

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. 

How does it 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 it 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.

Google Chromecast

StrengthsWeaknesses
  • Mirror your phone, tablet or laptop on the TV
  • Google Assistant voice control
  • No remote
  • Have to download streaming apps to your device
  • Not compatible with Apple photos or Prime Video

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. 

How does it 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 it 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

StrengthsWeaknesses
  • Works seamlessly with Apple ecosystem
  • Siri voice search
  • Expensive

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 go up 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. But as long as you have a solid internet connection, you probably won’t notice a huge difference. 

Its Siri voice control also works incredibly well. It currently understands 20 languages, compared to three for Alexa and four for Google Assistant. 

The main reason to buy 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’ll probably be better off with a Roku, Fire TV Stick or Chromecast. Apple TV does have the edge in a couple of areas, but it’s not worth the hefty price increase.

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