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.
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 and it absolutely did. While not technically the 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 you 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 via 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 crazy-low price, but the device remains limited to 1080p content only. 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, which pretty much checked out in our testing. 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, though accuracy is 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 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 currently 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 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.