The best streaming devices for 2020

If you’ve found a great streaming service to enjoy, perhaps even one of the many free services available, your next step is finding a high-quality streaming device to watch your favorite movies, whether they’re on Netflix or elsewhere.

Of all the choices out there, the Amazon Fire TV Cube takes the cake. It’s not only a highly capable media streamer with support for every major video and audio format, but it’s also a remarkable smart home and home theater hub, giving you voice control of nearly every connected device you own.

We think the Amazon Fire TV Cube will be an excellent streaming device for most people, but if you still aren’t sure, we have additional recommendations that can fit any budget. Though you might want to wait until Black Friday before you buy — especially if you’re considering a Fire TV device.

The best streaming devices at a glance

The best streaming device: Amazon Fire TV Cube 2019

Amazon Fire TV Cube

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:

It was going to take a lot to knock a Roku device out of our top spot, but the Fire TV Cube has snatched the crown of the streaming device kingdom. That might be a surprise, especially since the device was originally announced as little more than the first Fire TV box to have stand-alone Alexa support — no external Echo speaker necessary. In reality, however, 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 Stranger Things,” 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 promised 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, 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 earned it the throne.

Read our in-depth Fire TV Cube 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+:

The Streaming Stick+ delivers 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 be used to power the streamer.

One of our favorite things about the Roku Streaming Stick+ is a feature shared by all Roku devices: An awesome user interface. Roku OS uses an app-agnostic approach, which makes finding the best place to watch what you want easier than with almost any other device on the market. Despite lacking Dolby Vision support that newer devices like the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K possess, we still prefer the 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
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 any compatible device.

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.

As you probably already surmised 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 streamer: Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite

Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite
Amazon

Why should you buy this? If you don’t need 4K, this thing has everything else, at a rock-bottom price.

Who’s it for? Anyone who is willing to forego 4K resolution to get a full-fledged streamer for just $30.

Why we picked the Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite:

When Roku introduced its $30 Express, it seemed like a no-brainer as our best budget pick. But change is constant, and when Amazon debuted the Fire TV Stick Lite, we knew the Roku Express had met its match.

For the same price as the Express, the Fire TV Stick Lite gives you HDR support (HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG), Dolby Atmos passthrough (perfect if you have a TV, soundbar, or A/V receiver that supports it), and a remote control that includes Alexa voice commands.

It delivers 1080p full HD video which still looks great (especially in HDR), and just like other streaming sticks, you can hide the whole thing behind your TV — no visible wires.

It’s pretty hard to find any faults with the Fire TV Stick Lite, but if you made us pick something, we’d say that there’s no power, volume, or mute buttons on the remote, so you’ll have to keep your TV remote handy, and, this Fire TV device does not support Amazon’s new Luna subscription gaming service.

It’s also worth noting that support for Dolby Atmos will vary from app to app. Just because the Fire TV Stick Lite supports Atmos passthrough, it doesn’t mean that streaming services will support Atmos on the Stick Lite.

If you’re good with these few caveats, the Fire TV Stick Lite is one of the greatest values in the tech world right now.

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

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 with gamers in mind.

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 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, the 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, which 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 — which is currently offered as a free beta but expected to command around $10 per month at some point — lets users stream games to their Shield TV at up to 4K resolution, but performance is dependent upon internet speed. 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.

The best streamer for Apple lovers: Apple TV 4K

Apple TV Review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? The Apple TV 4K provides a seamless TV experience across all your Apple devices.

Who’s it for? Users heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.

Why we picked the Apple TV 4K:

With a bevy of cool features that seems to grow every year, it’s a good choice for Apple devotees and a solid (if spendy) competitor to high-end offerings from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

The Apple TV 4K has a few tricks up its sleeve, beginning with its superfast A10X Fusion processor. Put it this way: The only thing holding this box back speed-wise will be your internet connection.

There is also a cool option that allows users to copy login info directly to the Apple TV from iPhones, iPads, and Apple laptops, which drastically reduces the amount of time spent entering passwords. Plus, if you have a third- or fourth-generation Apple TV, it will automatically sync your previous tvOS layout to make life simpler. If you’ve ever bought movies or TV shows from iTunes, they’re all available, and Apple will even update them to the 4K HDR versions for free, when and if they’re made available using this format.

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. Recent updates add picture-in-picture capabilities, the ability to pair two sets of Apple’s AirPods at the same time, and the ability to stream 4K content across Apple’s AirPlay 2 wireless link.

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.

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 ultra-high-speed connections.

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 playback 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 review

The best casting device: Google Chromecast with Google TV

Google

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 HDR 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.

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.

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.

We’re readying our full review of Chromecast with Google TV and when we’ve had a chance to really kick the tires, this impressive streaming media device might just knock some of the others from their perches.

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, for instance, was introduced in 2017. Three years later, it’s still one of the best.

The most recent products are:

  • Chromecast with Google TV
  • Roku Ultra (2020)
  • Fire TV Stick Lite

As one of the older devices in this roundup, The Apple TV 4K is the likeliest candidate for an upcoming refresh, but don’t expect any deep discounts in the meantime. Apple tends to keep its prices static until a new product is announced. That new version could be around the corner, however. A recent hint in Apple’s tvOS software points to the possibility of a more powerful Apple TV, which may be aimed at providing a better experience for Apple Arcade.

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 four Fire TV models — the Fire TV Stick Lite, the Fire TV Stick, the Fire TV Stick 4K, 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.

However, there are some missing services here: Google Play isn’t available (there is a workaround), nor is Vudu, HBOMax, or Peacock. All three are available on Roku devices, and Vudu is available on every other streamer listed here. The same was once true for YouTube, but we don’t have to worry about those dark days any longer.

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 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 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 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 have Chromecast built-in too.

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: 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 or wireless speaker.
  • 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 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 appears predominantly on Samsung TVs (which do not offer Dolby Vision).
  • 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. Requires height speakers, either in-ceiling or speakers that bounce sound off of the ceiling to play sound from above. An increasing number of soundbars are Dolby Atmos-enabled. Support for this sound format varies from device to device and not all streaming services offer it. Those that do, don’t offer it on all of their 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 requires an account through a paid TV provider.

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