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 set up 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 on what catches your eye. For Roku models, the answer is a definite yes. Buy one of the most recent Roku streamers — launched in October — and you can be fairly certain that you’ll be set for the next few years, even if you buy a new, top-tier TV.
Likewise, Amazon and Apple just launched new editions of their Apple TV and Fire TV, respectively, with 4K and HDR support. Apple tends to take longer to update its hardware, so if that’s the route you want to go, now is the best time to buy.
The Nvidia Shield TV is similar to the 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 and we haven’t heard anything since. 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.
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 — the Fire TV and the Stick — 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 (there is a workaround), 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 lies somewhere between the Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Apps have a fairly consistent look, but you’ll always be able to tell whenyou’re watching on an Apple TV. Similar to Amazon, Apple would prefer users buy and rent content via iTunes, so you won’t currently find an app for Google Play, though an Amazon Video app has finally arrived. There is a fairly easy workaround, however, as Google play offers a mobile app 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 (unless you’re actually using a TV with built-in Chromecast). 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 cast or sideloaded if you want to dive under the hood.
Words and terms you need to know
- 4K Ultra HD: The highest resolution currently available, around four times that of 1080p HD (3,840 x 2,160). 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, HDR offers better contrast and more colors than standard dynamic range. It’s considered by many to be a more notable visual improvement than 4K Ultra HD 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, Dolby Vision has advantages, such as the ability to gauge your HDR TV’s capabilities and tailor the HDR experience.
Update: Added new information about lack of YouTube support on Fire TV, plus the newly launched Fire TV web browsers, and a quick note on the upcoming tvOS 11.2 update.