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. 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 now is the time to jump on one of these streaming media devices depends on what catches your eye. For Amazon, now is the time to buy, specifically the Fire TV Cube, which was launched in late June 2018, making it the newest device here. Sure, there are two other Fire TV devices available, but the Cube is better than either of them in myriad ways. Plus, no other streaming device offers the control and consolidation that the Fire TV Cube does.
Then we have the Chromecast. Google launched the second generation of the device in 2018, so the model here is the most recent version. As such, we don’t expect any announcements regarding further new Chromecast hardware any time soon. It’s worth noting that Google recently killed off its Chromecast Audio product, leaving many wondering what its long-term commitment to these dongles looks like.
It’s a slightly different situation for Roku models. As long as you’re looking specifically at the models and price ranges covered here, you’re probably safe making a purchase now. Upcoming models will likely have better specs in some way, but will also likely cost more. We’ll update this guide once any potential new Roku devices hit the market.
Likewise, Apple launched the latest edition of its Apple TV in 2017, bringing 4K and HDR support to the platform. Since then, the company has added new features, including Dolby Atmos support. If Apple was planning a new version of the Apple TV 4K, its Apple TV Plus event would have been the logical time to do so, but it didn’t. As with Roku, if any Apple streamers hit the market in the latter half of the year, we’ll be sure to provide an update.
While we’ve seen new streaming devices show up, and we’re waiting to see what else the year may bring, we’re confident that the Nvidia Shield TV probably isn’t going anywhere. Nvidia had been planning a successor to the Shield TV but dropped those plans and we haven’t heard anything since. Still, this streaming box packs plenty of horsepower and continues to gain more features with every software update. Considering it’s likely to remain a viable in-home gaming streaming option for some time, we expect this iteration of the hardware to stick around.
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 offers three Fire TV models — the Fire TV, the Stick, and the Cube — but the interface is a little different for each, with the Cube having the most egalitarian search results and app presentation overall. Some app interfaces differ on Fire TV compared to 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, 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 when you’re watching on an Apple TV. Apple would prefer users to 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 allows content to be streamed to an Apple TV via AirPlay.
Android TV (Nvidia Shield): 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. You’ll find that many apps exhibit plenty of individuality on Shield TV, which contrasts with the visual in-app consistency with Roku apps. Amazon Video isn’t available out of the box, though it can be cast or sideloaded if you want to dive under the hood. Or, you can wait a few months: Amazon has committed to providing Prime Video support for Android TV later this year.
Chromecast: As the name might imply, Chromecast runs entirely on the magical power of casting — i.e., beaming content from one device wirelessly to your TV. Everything about the Chromecast is 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. This is obviously a major difference between its competitors, which have their own operating systems, user interfaces, and dedicated versions of apps.
Words and terms you need to know
- 4K Ultra HD: The highest resolution currently available, around four times that of 1080p HD (3840 x 2160). 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 making content found on a mobile device or PC and appear on a TV.
- High Dynamic Range (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.
- 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 requires an account through a paid TV provider.