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The best streaming devices for 2021

Your smart TV probably has a number of popular streaming apps built-in, like Netflix or YouTube. But if your TV isn’t “smart” or if you want to expand beyond the biggest of the streaming services, your next step is finding a high-quality streaming device to watch your favorite movies, whether they’re on Netflix or elsewhere.

Not only do dedicated streaming devices have more apps and features than a typical smart TV, but online streaming video services often enable new formats (like Dolby Atmos) on these devices before they’re added to TVs. Plus, they can add valuable features like Apple AirPlay 2 or Google Chromecast.

Of all the choices out there, we think the Google Chromecast with Google TV is the best all-around smart streaming device. It’s tiny, it’s powerful, it’s versatile, and most people will find it an affordable option.

We’ll explain our choice in greater detail below, but don’t worry — if the new Chromecast isn’t right for you, we’ve pulled together a list of smart streaming device alternatives, each with its own unique strengths.

The best streaming devices at a glance

The best streaming device: Google Chromecast with Google TV

Chromecast with Google TV.

Why should you buy this? It’s all of the best parts of Google’s Chromecast, and it’s a full media streamer too.

Who’s it for? Those who want an affordable and capable alternative to Roku, Apple, and Amazon.

Why we picked the Chromecast with Google TV:

Google’s $70 Chromecast Ultra was a pretty good pick if you wanted a no-nonsense 4K Ultra HD streaming device, but the new Chromecast with Google TV totally changes what we’ve come to expect from a Chromecast device — and what we expect to pay for it.

At just $50, the Chromecast with Google TV is already a great deal if you liked the Chromecast Ultra — it’s $20 cheaper and can do all of the same things. But it does way more too. It’s a fully functional Android TV streamer, equipped with its own voice-capable remote.

That remote can be used to control your TV’s power, volume, and mute, but it’s also how you navigate Google TV — the built-in content curation and discovery interface that acts as the Chromecast’s home screen.

One of the best parts of the Google TV experience — for those who have associated their streaming subscriptions to their Google account — is that it automatically pulls these subscribed services into your home screen, with no awkward and time-consuming entering of account names and passwords.

Google TV can pull content recommendations from over 30 of the top streaming services (as long as you’re a subscriber) but you can add any streaming app that is available for Android TV on the Google Play store. Speaking of

If you’re a YouTube TV subscriber, it gets even better. Under the Google TV Live tab, you can access the full YouTube TV channel guide as well as all of the service’s DVR features.

You can build your own watchlist, with individual user profiles, and these can be accessed on the go via the Google TV app for Android devices.

There’s no lack of media format support — the Chromecast has HDR10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos all built-in. If you’re a gamer, you can now take advantage of Google’s Stadia cloud gaming platform on the new Chromecast.

Doing the initial setup takes some time, especially if you don’t already have the Google Home app on your phone, but once you’re done, the Google Chromecast with Google TV will reward you with a highly engaging, personalized, and future-proofed way to enjoy all that the streaming world has to offer. And at just $50, we can’t think of a better value.

Read our in-depth Google Chromecast with Google TV review

The best streaming stick: Roku Streaming Stick+

Roku Streaming Stick+ Review in TV.
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best streaming stick on the market, and it’s affordable to boot.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants to stream 4K and HDR through an easy-breezy interface.

Why we picked the Roku Streaming Stick+:

Though it’s now one of the oldest devices on this list, the Roku Streaming Stick+ still has one of the best features-to-price ratios among streaming devices out there. You’ll be able to experience 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio through this tiny device that looks like a USB thumb drive and easily hides behind your TV.

The discreet design extends beyond just its physical profile. Thanks to powerful 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless support, you’ll be able to set it up anywhere within your home’s Wi-Fi range — no Ethernet required. The only actual requirement with the Streaming Stick+ is a TV with an HDMI port. If your TV also has an available USB port, the setup is even easier — that port can probably be used to power the streamer.

Despite being a 2017 model, Roku has continued to update its software and features. Recent additions include Apple HomeKit and AirPlay support, plus compatibility with Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon Alexa. The superb free Roku app for Android and iOS gives you a second remote control option, private listening, and on-the-go access to the Roku Channel’s wide selection of free, ad-supported content.

One of our favorite things about the Roku Streaming Stick+ is a feature shared by all Roku devices: An awesome user interface. Roku OS keeps things simple, with big, easy-to-see icons and menus that are totally self-explanatory. This makes finding TV shows and movies to watch easier than with almost any other device on the market. Roku also has a larger library of livestreaming apps than any other platform. Despite lacking Dolby Vision support that newer devices like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K possess, we still prefer Roku’s voice search and easy-to-use interface. As far as we’re concerned, it’s the best streaming stick on the market.

Read our in-depth Roku Streaming Stick+ review

The best premium streaming device: Roku Ultra (2020)

Roku Ultra (2020) with remote and earbuds.
Roku

Why should you buy this? It’s a powerful, well-rounded set-top streaming box bolstered by Roku’s excellent interface and app support.

Who’s it for? Those who like the features of the Streaming Stick+, but want even more speed and media options.

Why we picked the Roku Ultra (2020):

The previous version of the Roku Ultra was already our pick for the best premium streamer, and the new 2020 version cements that honor.

In addition to its support for 4K, HDR10, and HLG the Ultra (2020) now includes Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos compatibility, bringing it in line with both the Fire TV Cube and Apple TV 4K in terms of media support.

Like the Fire TV Cube, the Ultra sports an Ethernet port to help improve connection speeds, but you may never need it — Roku has given the new Ultra powerful 802.11ac MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi. It also has a USB port, so you can view content from an external hard drive or flash drive.

The box also features a “lost remote” button that will trigger a tone from the remote (even though we all know it’s under the couch). The remote has both a headphone jack for private listening and dedicated power/volume buttons that can control TV volume, depending upon the model.

The remote has two customizable shortcut buttons that are a snap to program: Simply speak a voice command while holding the microphone button, then hold the shortcut button until you hear a beep. The Ultra is compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant-powered smart speakers, and Roku’s Featured Free menu option makes finding free content to watch incredibly easy.

The Night Listening mode of the Roku Ultra automatically adjusts volume scene-by-scene to avoid waking up the kids, and the included JBL headphones should offer better sound for headphone playback as well.

New in 2020 is the ability to use the Ultra as a Bluetooth receiver for any audio you’d like to play from a smartphone or tablet. The Ultra is also among select Roku 4K-capable devices that have been upgraded with Apple AirPlay and HomeKit. When you factor these features in, the Ultra becomes an even more compelling alternative to the much pricier Apple TV 4K.

As you probably already guessed from our look at the Streaming Stick+, we love the Roku OS. From the biggest library of apps (aka “Roku channels”) to incredible cross-channel search functionality, there is no digital ecosystem that competes. Plus, The Roku Channel recently announced that it’s adding more than 100 channels of free live TV to browse through.

The best budget streaming device: Roku Express 4K+

Roku Express 4K+ stick and remote.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the absolute cheapest way to get 4K UHD plus HDR streaming for your TV.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants an affordable and powerful streaming media player for movies and TV shows and doesn’t care about Dolby Vision.

Why we picked the Roku Express 4K+:

Originally, we had the excellent Fire TV Stick Lite in the category, and at just $30, it’s still a phenomenal value. But when Roku released its Express 4K+ for just $10 more, we had to reconsider: Roku has packed so many features into the Express 4K+, we think it more than justifies spending that extra money.

Let’s start with the remote. Roku’s remotes have always been excellent, but this is the first time Roku has made its voice remote available in a device that costs less than $50. It also upped the ante by adding TV power, volume, and mute controls, which might just let you put your TV remote in a drawer and never look at it again.

If you’re an Apple iPhone, iPad, or Mac user, the included AirPlay feature makes screen mirroring and streaming content from these devices a snap.

The Express 4K+ might not be quite as easy to hide behind your TV as the Roku Streaming Stick+, but thanks to the remote’s ability to communicate with it over wireless instead of infrared, it doesn’t need to be within the remote’s line of sight.

The Roku interface is quick and responsive, and as the name indicates, if your chosen streaming content is presented in 4K resolution, you’ll be able to see all of that detail on your 4K TV. And as long as your TV supports HDR, you’ll get much brighter and more vivid imagery than with the non-4K HDR Roku Express.

Dolby Atmos passthrough is also supported via Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video with more coming soon.

As with Roku’s other devices, what you get doesn’t start and end with the hardware in the box. The free Roku app gives you another remote control option for when the physical remote inevitably becomes stuck between the couch cushions, and it gives you a private listening feature — perfect for when you need to keep things quiet while you binge the latest series way into the wee hours of the morning.

All of this makes the Roku Express 4K+ an amazing budget buy.

Read our in-depth Roku Express 4K+ review

The best streaming device for gamers: Nvidia Shield TV Pro (2019)

Nvidia Shield TV Pro and remote.

Why should you buy this? It offers 4K, Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Atmos paired with premium gaming features.

Who’s it for? Those who prefer their streaming with a healthy side of gaming.

Why we picked the Nvidia Shield TV Pro:

Most of the products on this list are squarely focused on streaming video, but despite the “TV” in its name, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro takes a different approach. The device features 4K resolution and HDR streaming capabilities based on the Android TV platform, but at its heart, the Shield TV Pro is designed for gamers.

More than 200 games are available to play via Android TV, with many exclusive to the Shield TV. If you’re a PC gamer, the ability to use game streaming services to stream PC games to your Shield TV while you kick back on the couch makes it an even more attractive option. It has 16GB of storage, a voice-capable, backlit remote control with dedicated media buttons (something the previous generation lacked), and it has Google Assistant and Chromecast onboard. In fact, Shield TV is the only media streamer to which you can cast Disney+ content.

The new Tegra X1+ processor is 25% faster than the previous Shield TV Pro’s Tegra X1 and will deliver even better gaming performance. You can buy an Nvidia-designed wireless game controller, but it’s no longer included in the box. Instead, Nvidia suspects most buyers will opt to use an existing Bluetooth controller, including Sony’s DualShock 4 and Xbox One controllers — they’re both compatible with the Shield TV Pro.

For 4K streaming, Netflix, Disney+, Vudu, UltraFlix, Amazon Video, and YouTube are all supported, with HDR support available on select services. It also has Dolby Vision support, which users have been asking for. For HD streaming, many more options are available, including HBO Max, Twitch, CBS, Fox, and Vimeo — basically, anything in the Google Play store — and live TV is available via Sling TV and Hulu + Live TV. Many of these apps can easily be searched using the built-in Voice Search feature.

Nvidia’s GeForce Now service lets users stream games to their Shield TV at up to 4K resolution, but performance is dependent upon internet speed. And with the recent addition of support for Google’s Stadia gaming platform, the Shield TV gives you the best of both worlds.

On the audio side, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro 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 passthrough. If you’re a Plex user, you’ll appreciate that the Shield’s Plex client is one of the few that supports Dolby TrueHD with Atmos and is powerful enough to play 4K HDR movies without server-based transcoding.

If you’d like to save some money, the $130 Shield TV (2019) has all  the same streaming capabilities as the Shield TV Pro, but it lacks any USB ports, and it can’t be used as a Plex Media Server.

The best streaming device for Apple lovers: Apple TV 4K (2021)

Apple TV 4K 2021 with new Siri remote.
Apple

Why should you buy this?

Who’s it for? Devotees of Apple’s ecosystem who want a top-flight streaming media experience.

Why we picked the Apple TV 4K (2021):

Let’s start with what the Apple TV 4K supports, which in short is pretty much everything. Dolby Vision at up to 60 frames per second, HDR10, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Atmos, HDMI 2.1 with HDMI ARC and eARC support. It’s a techno tour de force and more powerful than the previous version thanks to a new processor: The A12 Bionic chip.

If you own one or more Apple HomePod or HomePod Mini smart speakers, these can be connected wirelessly to give you another high-quality audio alternative to a big, bulky soundbar.

There are thousands of apps for the tvOS software, and we can’t think of a single streaming service that isn’t available. In fact, most new features from these companies show up on the Apple TV 4K before they get to other platforms.

With the preeminent AirPlay device in Apple’s arsenal, you can mirror the contents of an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to your TV and stream from hundreds of apps. This works the other way too: The Apple TV 4K can AirPlay its audio to any AirPlay 2-compatible speaker.

It’s the big-screen home of Apple Arcade, which turns the small black box into a capable casual gaming platform that works with both Sony and Xbox Bluetooth wireless game controllers — even the most recent PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X  controllers. Recent updates add picture-in-picture capabilities and the ability to pair two sets of Apple’s AirPods at the same time for completely silent listening.

It’s also worth mentioning that as we are still in the midst of a pandemic, Apple Fitness+, which only works on Apple devices, is a great way to turn your Apple TV 4K into your own personal home gym.

You can use Siri to search for content from any of the streaming services that Apple supports, with intuitive questions and statements like “Show me 4K movies on Netflix” instead of resorting to awkward jargon. And though Apple’s library of apps isn’t as diverse as Roku’s, you can access all of the majors like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and Amazon Prime Video.

Speaking of Siri, for some, the biggest advantage of Apple’s new streamer is the new remote. Gone is the flat touchpad that so many grew to dislike, replaced with a physical directional pad that is — wait for it — also a touchpad. You get the best of both worlds. Apple has also added a power button, which combines with the volume buttons for better TV control, and a new side-mounted push-to-talk mic button makes speaking to Siri more intuitive.

With Dolby Atmos, 4K, and HDR in both Dolby Vision and HDR10, it’s got the support you need to watch and listen to the newest formats, though beware: It is super picky about which HDMI cables you’re using and might well prevent you from seeing Dolby Vision if your cables aren’t rated for ultrahigh-speed connections.

Speaking of Dolby Atmos, now that Apple has added thousands of Dolby Atmos Music tracks to Apple Music, an Apple TV 4K connected to a Dolby Atmos-capable soundbar or A/V receiver is a fantastic way to experience this immersive music format. When tvOS 15 launches in the fall of 2021, you’ll be able to enjoy head-tracking-based spatial audio when using Apple AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.

Is the Apple TV 4K worth its hefty price tag? We’re on the fence there, but if you’re one of those “all-Apple-everything” types, this is the streaming device for you. This is even more true now that the iPhone 12 series of phones can record and play back Dolby Vision HDR video, which makes an Apple TV 4K the perfect big-screen companion.

One last thing we want to point out: Although many other third-party devices and smart TVs now have Apple’s TV app (along with access to Apple TV+), we think the Apple TV 4K is the best way to experience it. You’ll probably get faster updates and better OS integration with Apple TV. Keep that in mind if Apple TV+ is important to you.

Read our in-depth Apple TV 4K (2021) review

The best streaming device for those who want to ditch their remotes: Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon Fire TV Cube.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? The Cube isn’t just an excellent streaming device — it can control your entire entertainment system better than your remotes can.

Who’s it for? Those looking for a streamlined, Alexa-driven home entertainment experience.

Why we picked the Amazon Fire TV Cube:

When the Fire TV Cube debuted, it was (and still is) the only streaming media device to feature a built-in smart speaker. That alone is a pretty good reason to consider it — totally hands-free voice commands are very, ahem, handy. But the Cube is way more than Alexa trapped inside a streaming box. It’s loaded with powerful tech and features that will let you control just about everything in your entertainment center with minimal need for a remote.

Thanks to ports supporting HDMI CEC and HDMI ARC alongside included IR blasters, you’ll be able to use voice commands to turn on your TV, swap between apps, and even switch inputs over to other connected devices like gaming consoles, A/V receivers, and Blu-ray players. You can direct Alexa to do things like “play Snowpiercer,” and the Cube will switch on the TV and sound system and immediately start up the show on Netflix — all without a remote. It’s pretty much the home theater equivalent of talking to the computer on the Enterprise.

While Alexa requires specific voice commands out of the box, the A.I. assistant will learn to recognize your input style. Amazon also promises to continually update Alexa’s voice recognition abilities and tune the assistant to meet the needs of users, meaning simple, even vague speech may be recognized as more people use it.

The Cube’s nature as a home theater control hub may be its biggest selling point — especially now that Logitech has exited the smart remote business —  but it is also just an excellent streamer. It’s capable of 4K and HDR playback, it has built-in support for Dolby Atmos, and comes with an Ethernet adapter for the most reliable data connection possible — something lacking in other Fire TV devices.

In 2019, Amazon released a refreshed model that added HDR10+ and — more importantly — Dolby Vision, the lack of which was a big knock on the original. With that, the Amazon Fire TV Cube is better than ever. There are a lot of reasons to love the Fire TV Cube, but it’s the all-in-one control afforded by HDMI CEC support, the IR blaster, and Alexa voice commands that makes it the ultimate home theater companion for those who never want to reach for their remote again.

Read our in-depth Fire TV Cube review

Other information

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. Accessibility to a wide variety of apps is also crucial — after all, most TVs and Blu-ray players are already set up for basic streaming — so 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. 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 ensure each of our top streamers is not only a great experience but also a great value.

Is now a good time to buy?

The streaming media device category is fiercely competitive, and new models appear each year. That said, even older models tend to enjoy long lifespans. The Apple TV 4K (2017), for instance, is four years old and Apple shows no signs of dropping support for it.

The most recent products are:

  • Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max
  • Walmart onn. FHD Streaming Device
  • Apple TV 4K (2021)
  • Roku Express 4K+
  • Chromecast with Google TV
  • Roku Ultra (2020)
  • Fire TV Stick Lite

Platform differences

Roku: Roku’s interface is consistent 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 offers five Fire TV models — the Fire TV Stick Lite, the Fire TV Stick, the Fire TV Stick 4K, the upcoming Fire TV Stick 4K Max, and the Cube. The latest Fire TV user interface puts a greater emphasis on content discovery and curation — it’s quite similar to Google TV.

As of June 24, you can add the Peacock app to Fire TV devices, which leaves Google Play as just about the only major service that isn’t available (there is a workaround). It used to be much worse: Vudu, HBO Max, and YouTube were all unavailable at one point or another, but all are now on Fire TV.

Apple TV: As you might expect, Apple TV devices are designed to offer a seamless experience, especially when paired with other Apple products. In addition to offering a huge number of streaming apps, the Apple TV platform also supports Apple Arcade, Apple TV+, and Apple Fitness+, and can even act as the master control for HomeKit devices. HomeKit-compatible security cameras, for instance, can be streamed to the Apple TV with just a few clicks.

The Apple TV app (yes, there’s an app that goes by the same name as the device) is actually a curated and personalized interface for browsing content from your favorite streaming services as well as being the official home of Apple TV+. Other features include watch lists, watch next, and dedicated tabs for sports and live TV.

Apple would prefer that users buy and rent content via iTunes, so you won’t currently find an app for Google Play Movies and TV. There’s a workaround: Make sure you’re signed into the YouTube app, and your purchases should show up. Failing that, Google Play offers a mobile app that allows content to be streamed to an Apple TV via AirPlay — but only from an iOS device.

Android TV (Nvidia Shield, Chromecast with Google TV): Android TV is a little different from the other options here in that manufacturers can put their own spin on the interface, similar to phone manufacturers with Android.

You’ll find that many apps exhibit plenty of individuality on Shield TV and Chromecast with Google TV, which contrasts with the visual in-app consistency with Roku apps. There were some annoying gaps early on, such as Amazon Video not being available out of the box outside the U.S., though that issue has since been rectified. Generally speaking, Android TV devices include the Google Assistant for voice commands and smart home control, and they have Chromecast built-in, too.

Google is said to be slowly migrating Android TV over to the Google TV interface, which debuted on the Chromecast with Google TV. This interface de-emphasizes individual apps in favor of a curated and personalized content recommendation layout that is arguably much more helpful when trying to find something to watch.

Chromecast: Until the debut of the newest version of Chromecast with Google TV, Chromecast ran entirely on the magical power of casting — i.e., beaming content from one device wirelessly to your TV. Everything about the Chromecast was controlled via your casting device — including app search, content playback, and even private listening modes — whether that’s an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet, a Windows PC, or a Mac.

But the new Chromecast with Google TV changes that script, bringing in a handy remote control and on-screen interface. Essentially, this new $50 dongle is the best of both worlds.

Words and terms you need to know

  • 4K Ultra HD: While no longer the highest resolution available (that title goes to 8K), 4K Ultra HD is the highest resolution with significant support from content creators and distributors. At around four times that of 1080p HD (3840 x 2160), it’s the standard for all but the most expensive new TVs.
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi: Superseded by Wi-Fi 6, 802.11ac is still plenty fast — fast enough even for streaming 4K HDR content — but it’s not as reliable (or as fast) as Ethernet.
  • Android TV: An app-centric smart TV platform powered by Google’s Android software and available across smart TVs, set-top boxes, and more.
  • Google TV: A curated and personalized smart TV interface that runs on top of the Android TV software. We expect that Google will eventually make the Google TV experience the default for all Android TV devices.
  • Casting: A term, popularized by Google, for making content found on a mobile device or PC and appear on a TV or wireless speaker.
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR): Short for High Dynamic Range, HDR offers better contrast, better brightness, and more colors than standard dynamic range (SDR). It’s considered by many to be a more notable visual improvement than the jump from 1080p Full HD to 4K Ultra HD resolution. Not all media streamers support it, and of those that do, not every flavor of HDR is necessarily supported.
  • HDR10: The most widely adopted HDR format. If you buy an HDR TV, it may support other formats too, but it will always have HDR10.
  • Dolby Vision: A dynamic HDR format (as opposed to the static HDR10), Dolby Vision has several advantages, such as the ability to gauge your HDR TV’s capabilities and tailor the HDR experience. Not all TVs or media streamers support it, however, so be sure to check the specifications before you buy.
  • HDR10+: A license and royalty-free dynamic HDR format that competes with Dolby Vision. It initially showed up on Samsung TVs (which do not offer Dolby Vision), however, it is now gaining traction among other TV makers like TCL and Vizio. So far, only a handful of streaming video services, like Amazon Prime Video, support HDR10+.
  • Dolby Atmos: A technology that allows sound designers to specify the positioning of audio in an immersive, 3D soundstage. Sounds can be placed anywhere around a room, bringing you deep inside the action on-screen. Dolby Atmos sound systems can range from multi-thousand-dollar setups with installed ceiling speakers, but can also be had in a $200 soundbar that creates a virtual Atmos experience from as few as two channels. Support for this sound format varies from device to device and not all streaming services offer Dolby Atmos content. Those that do, don’t offer it on all of their TV shows and movies.
  • Single Sign-on (SSO): A feature that allows users to use a single login to automatically sign in to all linked apps, provided they support the feature. This is supported by each of the devices we’ve picked here but it requires an account through a paid TV provider.

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