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Best streaming device: From Chromecast to Apple TV, we’ve tested the best streamers
Watch your favorite shoes the way you want with great streamers from Apple, Google, and more
You don’t need to be in bad Smart TV interface jail forever – there is a way out, and it’s through what we used to call a “set-top box.” They’re the right alternative to hooking up the best laptops to your TV, and the best streaming devices bring you all the great shows with little-to-none of the frustrating slowness of an under-powered TV processor, and if you’re careful, you can even get one that’s not reporting everything you do with it.
The most famous options come from the likes of Apple, Google, Roku, Amazon, and most of them can do more than just show you pretty pictures – paired with the best smart speakers, they can be powerful smart home hubs as well.
How to pick the best TV streamer
📊 Set a budget, so you know what you have to work with
📺 Check your resolution: 4K is nice, but an HD streamer might be all you need
🤔 Consider your smart home ecosystem, if that’s important to you
💰 Don’t buy more than you need – a $30 streamer can still do Netflix
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Best overall streaming box
✅ Great picture
✅ Smooth interface
❌ No 120Hz support
Apple TV 4K specs
Price: $129-$149 | Release date: November 4, 2022 | Resolution: Up to 4K | Ports: HDMI 2.1, gigabit ethernet (128GB model only), C7 power cable | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0, Thread (128GB model only) | Remote: Yes | Voice control: Siri Remote | Storage: 64GB, 128GB | Bluetooth controller support: Yes (Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, others) | Processor: Apple A15 Bionic | HDMI Protocols: HDMI-CEC, eARC | Video Format: Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR10+, HLG, HEVC | Audio Format: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital 5.1/7.1, others
The Apple TV 4K, now available starting at $129, is easily the best streaming box you can get today. Between its smooth interface, overkill processor, and support for all the major video and audio formats, it has everything you need to watch streaming video in the highest possible quality.
Going back three generations, it’s been head and shoulders above offerings from Amazon, Google and Roku. The 2022 update shrank both its pricetag and its physical size, while adding more video format support, more storage and better Wi-Fi. It still doesn’t offer 120Hz video, though theoretically with its HDMI 2.1 port, that could be enabled in software, later.
In my use, the Apple TV 4K is the smoothest, most intuitive streaming device on the market today. Navigating its homescreen is a breeze with the touch-sensitive Apple TV remote, which is, again, the best in the business. If you own a pair of matching HomePods, you can pair them for fantastic Dolby Atmos stereo audio for the Apple TV or other devices (other devices require an eARC-capable TV). For more details, see our HomePod 2 review.
Best budget streaming device
✅ Great picture
✅ Smooth interface
❌ No 120Hz support
Price: $49.99 | Release date: September 30, 2020 | Resolution: Up to 4K | Ports: HDMI (built-in output cable), USB-C (power) | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 4.2 | Remote: Yes | Voice control: Via Chromeast Voice Remote | Storage: 8GB | Bluetooth controller support: Yes (Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, others) | Processor: 1.9GHz quad-core ARM | HDMI Protocols: HDMI-CEC | Video Format: Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR10+, HLG | Audio Format: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus
For adding quality streaming to your TV on a budget, it’s hard to do better than the Chromecast with Google TV 4K. The simple, thoughtful interface is almost enough on its own to recommend Google’s cute streaming dongle.
Like Google TV on an actual television, I’ve found the interface to be choppy, but no more so than Amazon’s slightly-pricier Fire TV Stick 4K Max. Movie streams start quickly enough, though, and the video looks great for what you’re paying. The Dolby Vision video it produces is slightly cooler, darker and has less dynamic range than the Apple TV 4K, but it’s sharp, with a more consistently good apparent bitrate (I’m not equipped for direct measurements) and compression than the Fire TV Stick I compared it to.
Apart from generally faster-starting video and slightly better dynamic visual range, the extra cost for the Apple TV manifests itself in its role as a smart home hub and its power as a video game console, but if you don’t need those things, Google’s streamer is perfectly capable and a bargain, even at its full price of $49.
Most versatile streamer
✅ Is both a Roku and a soundbar for around $100
✅ Good enough sound quality for the cash
❌ No Dolby Atmos or Dolby Vision support
Price: $129.99 | Release date: October 16, 2020 | Resolution: Up to 4K | Ports: HDMI 2.0, USB, optical audio, power | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 5.0 | Remote: Yes | Voice control: Via remote | Storage: Not given (USB storage supported) | Bluetooth controller support: Unknown | Processor: 1.9GHz quad-core ARM | HDMI Protocols: HDMI-CEC | Video Format: HDR10+, HLG | Audio Format: PCM, Dolby Audio
For a straightforward all-in-one solution, the Roku Streambar gives you a soundbar and video streamer in one tidy package. Equipped with a remote similar to that you’d find bundled with a Roku Express 4K+ device, the Streambar combines the intuitive Roku OS with most of the software talents of a Roku Ultra – with the exception of Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision.
Those who care deeply about sound will be better served by a dedicated Roku streamer paired with a proper Atmos-supporting soundbar. For that, I recommend the Vizio M-Series with or without the rear tweeters.
For everyone else, the Roku Streambar’s sound quality is more than acceptable. Even from a distance, it’s good enough for The Big Game, with better bass than your TV can muster on its own. And if that doesn’t make the room shake quite enough for you, Roku sells a separate wireless subwoofer and additional wireless speakers that work quite well in conjunction.
Although it’s rare not to find it discounted at its ripe old age of two, the Roku Streambar held up through the pandemic better than I did. Even at full price, it’s well worth $129.99. My only complaint is that it doesn’t offer more for less, and I’ll admit that’s a little unfair.
Best cheap Alexa streamer
✅ Responsive voice assistant through voice remote
✅ Supports Wi-Fi 6
❌ Can be finicky
Price: $54.99 | Release date: October 7, 2021 | Resolution: Up to 4K | Ports: Built-in HDMI | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0 | Remote: Yes | Voice control: Via remote | Storage: 8GB | Bluetooth controller support: Yes | Processor: 1.8GHz quad-core Mediatek | HDMI Protocols: HDMI ARC | Video Format: Dolby Vision, HEVC | Audio Format: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus
I like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K Max well enough to call it the best budget streamer for Alexa households – if you’re into saving money but don’t like Google’s version. Boasting similar specs to the Google Chromecast with Google TV 4K, you shouldn’t expect top-tier performance, though the 4K Max left more to be desired for me, hence my only giving it the nod as a good Alexa alternative in the budget category.
First, the good: The 4K Max enjoys easy setup, and as a parent, I liked that Amazon put parental controls right in front of you during that process. The implementation is a little overbearing – it’s annoying that, if I want to limit what my daughter can watch, I have to clumsily enter a PIN every time I open an app, click on disallowed content, and then try to watch that content – but I like that it was easy to find and set up. The menu system is responsive, too, maybe a little more so than Google’s (although the actual Prime Video app is as laggy as ever).
What I found irksome, however, was the Dolby Vision support, which it ostensibly has, but I couldn’t get working for the life of me. Your mileage may vary, but no matter what app I tried on the 4K Max, Dolby Vision was stubbornly inactive, leaving everything with an unfortunate, disappointing flatness. I’m also not a fan of Amazon’s compression, which sometimes leaves video full of artifacts that I don’t see on the other streamers here. Still, if you can pick it up at a hefty discount – which you can, since Amazon loves discounting its products – it’s worth the $34 price tag routinely falls to.
Best game console for streaming
✅ Wide video and audio format support
✅ 120Hz refresh rate – with a caveat
❌ Not the most efficient streamer
Price: $299.99 | Release date: November 10, 2020 | Resolution: Up to 4K (streaming video) | Ports: HDMI 2.1, gigabit ethernet, 3x USB 3.1 Gen 1 | Connectivity: Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth | Remote: Xbox Wireless Controller | Voice control: Yes | Storage: 512GB SSD, Expandable w/ | Bluetooth controller support: Only made-for Xbox controllers | Processor: 3.6GHz 8-core Custom Zen 2 CPU | HDMI Protocols: HDMI ALLM, VRR, AMD FreeSync | Video Format: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HLG, HEVC | Audio Format: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital 5.1/7.1, others
If you have an Xbox Series S lying around, you’ve already got one of the best 4K streamers around. The cheaper, digital-only sibling to the Xbox Series X, you can regularly pick one up for a measly $239 – that’s a $60 savings – making it possibly the best deal of all of these, depending on your proclivities.
Not only can you watch videos from just about all of your favorite services and choose from over 100 games on the $14.99/month Game Pass subscription, but you can also watch your own videos – whether they’re perfectly-legal backups of your physical media collection or home videos – when you connect a properly-formatted hard drive.
The downsides are few, but there are some. While it’s true the Xbox Series S supports a 120Hz refresh rate, it unfortunately only supports it at up to 1440p, or half the resolution of 4K. It’s also a huge power suck relative to most, if not all, dedicated streamers on the market, per reporting by FlatpanelsHD that was cited at Tom’s Guide.
Why we have any business talking about this
We have an unhealthy obsession with streaming and home theater gear. We were early to jump on the bandwagon of plugging things into our TVs to watch our favorite shows, and now that TVs offer the ability built right in, we have judged it and found it wanting. We obsess over the details, what each streaming box supports and what it doesn’t, and these are our favorites – so far. We’ll continue testing and keep you in the know when you should consider something better.
Let us help you
Go ahead and hit us up on The Shortcut’s Twitter account if you still have questions. Even if you don’t agree with our picks here, we can talk you through picking something that works for your specific needs!
Updated: February 13, 2022