Best media streaming players – which is right for you?

Don’t have a smart TV? Don’t worry, you don’t have to stream online videos on that tiny smartphone screen. There are plenty of media streaming devices on the market, readily available to smarten up any television. After putting together a list of our very favorite ones, we have thrown them in a ring for a free-for-all deathmatch.

Of course, sometimes you just want a quick answer to the question “which is the best?”

TL;DR:

  • Apple TV 4K is the best choice for Apple users, iTunes fans, and those who want an easy to use, polished experience. It doesn’t have as much content as some of the other options on this list and has some limits when it comes to music streaming services, but it’s still a great product and one we find easy to recommend.
  • Nvidia Shield is the best choice for those  that want speed, power, and the ability to game at near-console level. It also supports a ton of apps and services, making it a flexible choice that also has Google Cast support and Android TV baked right in.
  • Roku Streaming Stick+ is the best choice for those that want tons of channels, wide support, and a platform that is often the very first to get new services and features. There’s also the Roku Ultra for those that want a bit more omph, or the Roku Streaming Stick for those that don’t need 4K and a few other fancy features.
  • Google Chromecast is the best choice for those that want a cheap no frills solution. The original Chromecast is $35, and the 4K model runs $70.

For those that want to dive further down the rabbit hole, keeping reading.

What we are looking for

There are seven major factors to look at when trying to pick a new streaming device.

  • Resolution
  • Voice control
  • Remotes
  • Speed
  • User Interface
  • Apps
  • Price

We also made sure to include an “other considerations” section with bonus information and features that don’t fit into the above categories. 

Is there any reason to get a media streamer if my TV is already smart?

It’s true that most TVs released in the last few years have their own app ecosystem. Still, many times these platforms have a few flaws that make a stand alone device a better fit.

Smart TVs see infrequent updates. If you have a several year old smart TV it’s possible the platform practically has been abandoned. Newer models from Samsung, Apple, and others do a slightly better job but still generally lag behind settop boxes here.

Smart TV platforms sometimes have limited app support. You might get a handful or two of the popular choices but newer or niche services often are ignored.

The interfaces are often clunky. Some newer models support built-in Roku, Android TV, or other improved platforms that negate this issue but it’s still a factor for older televisions and many budget offerings.


Apple TV 4K

 

Apple TV started as Steve Job’s “hobby,” as he believed there was no viable market for it. Fast-forward to 2017 and the company is introducing its 5th iteration – the Apple TV 4K. Media streaming devices have reached nearly 70 million homes in the USA and the market is booming. With Apple being a major player, this device is certainly no longer just a “hobby project”. Is it the right one for you, though?

Resolution. As the name entails, the latest version of the Apple TV can stream at 4K (3840×2160), in HDR. Of course, you’ll need to have a compatible 4K TV to do it. Even better Apple has a large variety of 4K content and even automatically upgrades your previous 1080p purchases to 4k versions.

Voice control. Apple is a little unique in this department. You can do the standard things like asking the device to search for a specific show on Netflix or play a music video on YouTube, but Apple goes beyond the basics with its streaming device.

Siri takes things to another level, bringing one of the most popular digital assistants right to your TV.

Siri takes things to another level, bringing one of the most popular digital assistants right to your TV. Then there is Voice Type, a great feature that allows for typing anything using your voice (even passwords). Being able to ditch the remote or keyboard for typing makes a lot of sense and something we love about the Apple TV 4K.

Remote. Apple’s Siri Remote is arguably the best looking in this list. Its slim profile measures in at a mere 0.25 inches of thinness. It is also tiny (4.88×1.5 inches) and looks gorgeous, thanks to its metallic back and simple design. The upper area is a touchpad, while the button layout is minimal and straightforward.

This remote features dual microphones for voice controls, as well as an accelerometer and 3-axis gyroscope. It also has an IR blaster, enabling it to control TV volume. Recharging the remote is as simple as plugging it in via a Lightning cable.

Speed. The A10X Fusion chip in this device is pretty snappy, but sadly the Apple TV 4K didn’t fare too well against the competition in our practical test.

We asked each tested device to “Play Stranger Things on Netflix.” It took Apple’s smart TV box 12 seconds to execute the order, which put it somewhere in the middle compared to the other tested media streamers.

User Interface. There’s no denying that Apple is a master crafstman when it comes to creating efficient, attractive, and easy to use interfaces and the Apple TV platform is no exception. Not only is the main menu system well crafted, but typically apps tend to be better laid out and more up-to-date than the same app on a different platform.

Apps. The Apple TV 4K comes with support for the App Store. This means you can easily access thousands of apps, and the portfolio keeps expanding. Even if you can’t find the app you want, it’s possible to use your iPhone’s apps and stream to the device using Airplay. Either way, you won’t be lacking content, even if you are not fond of all the apps. The iTunes store has one of the most robust libraries, with plenty of movies, music and more.

Price. Considering this is a feature packed product and is built by Apple, it is no surprise that the price tag is on the high side. Apple’s media streaming device starts at $179 for the 32 GB version, while the 64 GB iteration goe for $199. This makes the Apple TV 4K the second most expensive product in this list.

Other considerations:

If you are an Apple diehard, you need this. There is no other streaming device that supports iTunes. So if you are deep into the ecosystem via your iPad or iPhone, you might want to keep the party going by sticking with Apple’s streamer.

It’s an iTune centric experience. While you don’t have to use iTunes thanks to a growing number of other supported services including Amazon Video, it’s still obviously prioritized by Apple’s platform. This is evident by the fact few other music services are supported outside of iTunes. Alas, no Spotify or Google Play Music support here.

Of course there is AirPlay. If you find a music/video service that isn’t supported by Apple TV 4K, there’s a chance the app supports AirPlay streaming. That means you’ll have to whip out your phone to use things like Spotify, but it’s better than nothing.

Single sign-on feature for the win. This special feature lets you automatically sign into supported apps based on your cable/streaming TV service details. For example, if you’re a Spectrum or PlayStation Vue user you could simply type in your provider info and Apple will automatically download and log in any apps that support them including stuff like network apps from Disney, MTV, and others.


Amazon Fire TV Stick

Get it at Amazon

The Amazon Fire TV Stick happens to be one of the most affordable device in this list. It is small enough to be tucked away behind any TV, staying away from sight and keeping your entertainment area clutter-free. It has Alexa support and support for Amazon’s many many services. But is it good enough to sway buyers from other big names in the market?

Resolution. This is the only device in the list that is limited to 1080p streaming. It’s definitely a downside, but we know it won’t be an issue for many of you. It is very affordable and many of you don’t have 4K TVs, anyways. And of course there is a 4K option if you don’t mind spending a bit more.

Voice control. Voice controls work great, not to mention the fact that you have Alexa to assist you at all times, which you can access through the Alexa Voice Remote. Not only can you search for content, Alexa can do things like control your smart home products and can even order pizza.

Remote. Amazon’s new remote is pretty easy to use. There is no touch area, but the directional and select buttons make navigating a breeze. Media buttons also make it a simple to play/pause or control your media. It can’t control TV volume directly, though.

Speed. The Mediatek processor packed inside is nothing to write home about, and that clearly reflects in our tests. After asking Alexa to “Play Stranger Things on Netflix”, it took over 25 seconds before the unit could execute the command. This makes it the slowest of the bunch.

User Interface. Amazon’s interface is clean, easy to use, and has the power of Alexa behind it as we mentioned above. One area where it is weaker than Apple and some of the competition is ads. There are found pretty much everywhere and much harder to ignore than on Roku. 

Apps. The Amazon Fire TV Stick does have over 3000 apps at its disposal, as well as plenty of content to keep yourself busy. It is not as extensive as the Google Play Store or Apple App Store, but you won’t be lacking in things to download. There is one downside, though. As of January 1st, 2018, Amazon Fire TV devices no longer support YouTube. Bummer! Sure, you can still use a browser to watch YouTube, but that doesn’t exactly solve the issue.

Price. As mentioned before, this is one of the cheapest products on this list at $39.99. This arguably makes it qualify as the product that offers more bang for the buck, but whether it is actually the best value is arguable.

Voice controls work great, not to mention the fact that you have Alexa to assist you at all times.

Other considerations:

Amazon pushes Amazon. The Fire TV does have search functionality but it prioritizes results from Amazon services, giving Netflix, Hulu, and other services less prominence. The results for search also tend to be less accurate than other platforms.

Adds are a big part of the experience. Roku also has ads, but for Amazon you’ll find them on every page of the interface.

There’s a more expensive option. We already briefly mentioned there’s an Amazon Fire TV with 4K, faster internals, and more for $70. That said, when you consider the higher price tag, it is hard to recommend over the other premium options on this list. Bottom-line, the Fire TV Stick is cheap, reasonably capable, and maybe be worth it for some users. Conversely, the more expensive option is probably really only worth it if you are an Amazon diehard.


Chromecast Ultra

Get it at Google

Google takes a different approach to the media streaming devices game. The Chromecast family ditches the remote, turning your TV into an extension of your other devices. It’s fairly simple to setup and is a great no-fuss way to stream your content from phones, tablets, and PC — all for a price that won’t break the bank. So how does it compare when looking at all the metrics we are weighing in this best media streaming devices review?  It certainly is different.

Resolution. This is the higher-end Chromecast version, meaning it is capable of streaming 4K content in HDR.

Voice Control. Google Assistant is becoming all the hype, and while the Chromecast Ultra itself doesn’t run it, the unit works in tandem with all your Google Assistant-compatible devices. You could talk to your Google Home speaker and ask it to play a video on your living room TV, for example. It can also do things like display visuals when you ask Google Assistant for weather information.

Remote. What remote? Google’s Chromecast devices use nothing but your existing smart devices. You can use your smartphone, tablet, computer or Google Assistant to simply stream content directly to your TV. This is a great approach for multiple reasons: it frees your smartphone screen and means there is no reason to re-download any app. Chromecast works with the applications you already use on your other devices (given they are supported). The downside is this system can be confusing to new users.

Speed. The Chromecast Ultra came second to last in our tests. After being asked to “Play Stranger Things on Netflix”, it took about 19 seconds.

User Interface. There isn’t one! Part of the magic of Chromecast is that all you need is a phone with apps that support Google Cast. It’s also worth noting the Home app acts as an interface when you want to search all your apps for specific content instead of going into each app individually.

Apps. It is relatively simple for any developer to add Google Cast support when relevant, and Chromecast popularity has definitely helped the portfolio expand. The number of supported apps is in the thousands, and it continues to expand.

Part of the magic of Chromecast is that all you need is a phone with apps that support Google Cast.

Price. The Chromecast Ultra goes for $59, making it the second cheapest device in this contest. It’s simplicity, supported apps and connectivity with all kinds of devices makes it very much worth its price, though.

Other considerations:

Perfect for Google enthusiasts with simple needs.The Android TV-powered Shield does more, but for the basics a Chromecast works well and is fairly cheap.

Don’t need 4K? If you don’t need 4K support, the standard Chromecast is only $35 and does all the same things. If you need a no-frill solution, we’d recommend this over the FireTV Stick for sure.


NVIDIA Shield TV

Get it on Amazon

Fans of Android TV will find no better option than the NVIDIA Shield TV. It is Android TV on steroids, as it is not just a streaming box. This product is tailored for gamers, making it a very special and powerful machine. Basically the Shield is somewhere between a gaming console and a media streaming device in functionality, making it an offering that stands out from the rest in many ways.

Resolution. An NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor with a 256-core GPU and 3 GB of RAM power this beast. Can it handle 4K in HDR? Hell yes, it can, and at 60 fps.

Voice Control. You do have voice control in both the remote and the controller, meaning you can easily get in touch with Google Assistant for anything you may need.

Remote. The NVIDIA Shield TV can be controlled using two accessories: the Shield Controller and the Shield Remote. They both have microphones for voice search. By the way, the volume touch panels are hidden away and pretty convenient. You can’t even tell they are there!

The controller also has a 3.5 mm headset jack for private listening. Pretty convenient. And because all Android TV devices come with Google Cast built-in, using a phone or tablet to stream anything to the large screen is easy.

Speed. You would imagine this is the fastest device of the bunch, thanks to its higher-end gaming specs… and you would imagine right. This thing blasted through all the competitors by playing Stranger Things on Netflix only 7 seconds after the command was voiced.

User interface. The Nvidia Shield is powered by Android TV. The platform is clean, easy to use, and has tons of apps. Search is also fast and fluid.

Apps. The Android TV app portfolio is extensive, and the list of available apps gets insanely longer if you factor in Google Cast-supported applications. You have the Google Play Store at your disposal, and nothing beats that. But the fun doesn’t end there. Gamers can play PC and console-quality games using GeForce Now, NVIDIA’s own cloud gaming service. Those with powerful PC rigs (and compatible GPUs) can also take advantage of NVIDIA GameStream, which allows for streaming titles from your PC to your NVIDIA Shield TV.

Price. Here comes the first downside – this thing is expensive. It goes for $199 if you get the bundle with both the remote and the controller. Is it worth its price, though? It definitely is if you will take advantage of all it has to offer, especially its gaming capabilities.

The Nvidia Shield isn't your ordinary media streaming device, with capabilities that are more in-line with a game console.

Other considerations:

This machine is a gaming beast. Okay so we already mentioned this already, but it’s an important point. Not only does Google Play have a reasonably decent selection of mobile games, but the Shield also has a few special tricks of its own. For one, there’s Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming platform, which allows streaming of select PC games. There’s also local streaming support of you have compatible PC hardware.

The Shield is capable of being a makeshift smart things hub. All you need is a Z-Wave USB dongle. These run around $30.

You can use it as a Plex server. Your Shield has teh power to be a Plex server, letting you share media library throughout your home via USB, internal, and network storage. Keep in mind only the 500GB model actually supports internal storage streaming with Plex though.

It’s basically a Chromecast+. Thanks to its full support for Google Cast, you get all the functionality of the Chromecast, on top of the extras found on the Android TV platform, 


Roku Ultra

 

Roku’s streamign devices are the most popular, according to a comScore study we reported on last April. They call themselves pioneers in the area, as they were among the first to go mainstream. Of course, we had to include their devices in this list. In fact, a couple of them made it to this competition.

Resolution. The RokUltra supports 4K UHD streaming in its full glory, as well as HDR.

Voice control. Roku devices don’t have a digital assistant, but they do support voice control. This means you can look for content and launch channels using your voice. You just can’t get creative and ask random questions, control your smart home products, or any of these advanced features you’ll find with Apple, Amazon, and Google products.

Remote. The Roku Ultra remote is a bit more complex, as it has more buttons for navigating, controlling media and even app shortcuts. In addition, the accessory has a power button and volume controls that will control your TV through its IR blaster. Users will definitely enjoy the included 3.5 mm headset jack, used to listen to your content silently. In addition, one can take advantage of the app for remote listening.

The coolest feature? A button in the main unit that, when pressed, makes the remote chirp, alerting you of its location. Pretty awesome, right? Why haven’t more manufacturers done this?!

Speed. The Roku Ultra was pretty fast when asked to play Stranger Things on Netflix. It took about 10 seconds for the device to get the job done, putting it in second place.

User interface. Rokus has an easy to use interface that’s highly customizable, letting you place your favorite apps wherever you want them. You can also remove any apps (or channels as they call them), even staples like Amazon and Netflix. 

There are over 6 thousand channels to choose from, including all the big ones.

Apps. Roku doesn’t have apps, they call them channels. And boy do they have a bunch of them. There are over 6 thousand channels to choose from, including the big ones. These include Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and countless others. There’s also lots of unlisted channels you can find by searching around the web, many of which focus on porn…

Price. The Roku Ultra costs $99.99. Not a bad price, but it’s also not a screaming deal.

Other considerations:

Exceptional search. Roku has great search functionality that first displays results from channels you have installed, and it orders them by price with free content getting an edge if available. It will also list channels you don’t have, giving you tons of options.

Screen mirroring. While not as seemless as something like Google Cast, the Roku family supports screen mirroring that lets you take whats on your phone and watch it on your TV. Unfortunately for iOS users, it only supports select Android devices. 

 


Roku Streaming Stick+

The Roku Ultra is nice, but not everyone needs all the bells and whistles that come with it. That makes the Streaming Stick+ an exceptional value that can do most of what the Ultra can, just with a little less flair.

Resolution. Just like the Ultra (and most other devices listed here), the Roku Streaming Stick+ supports 4K definitions in HDR. It may look small, but it has the guts to play UHD content.

Voice control. Roku devices don’t have a digital assistant, but they do support voice control. This means you can look for content and launch channels using your voice. You just can’t get creative and ask random questions, control your smart home products or anything of the sort.

Remote. This remote is essentially the same as the Ultra’s, but it is slightly smaller and is missing the ‘A’ and ‘B’ buttons. You can still use the app as a remote, or for remote listening. The sad news is this one doesn’t have the button for aiding in finding your remote when the couch decides to eat it.

Speed. The Roku Streaming Stick+ is not as fast as the Ultra, but it still beats half of the competition by taking the third place. It took nearly 11 seconds launching Netflix and streaming Stranger Things. Not bad for being one of the more affordable products in this list.

User interface. Rokus has an easy to use interface that’s highly customizable, letting you place your favorite apps wherever you want them. You can also remove any apps (or channels as they call them), even staples like Amazon and Netflix. 

Apps. Roku doesn’t have apps, they call them channels. And boy do they have a bunch of them. There are over 6 thousand channels to choose from, including the big ones. These include Netflix, YouTube, HBO Go, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue and others.

That makes the Streaming Stick+ an exceptional value that can do most of what the Ultra can, just with a little less flair.

Price. At $69.99, this is the one of the cheapest products in this list.

Other considerations:

Exceptional search. Roku has great search functionality that first displays results from channels you have installed, and it orders them by price with free content getting an edge if available. It will also list channels you don’t have, giving you tons of options.

Screen mirroring. While not as seemless as something like Google Cast, the Roku family supports screen mirroring that lets you take whats on your phone and watch it on your TV. Unfortunately for iOS users, it only supports select Android devices. 

Even cheaper Roku options exist. Don’t need 4K? The Roku Streaming Stick does everything this model can, but it lacks 4K. There are even cheaper (and slower) options like the Roku Express series, some of which support older TVs that use component instead of HDMI. 


Which streaming device should you get?

While our TL;DR and the rest of this post probably already spelled this out for you well enough, there’s no one size fits all solution here. That said, we’d say the Apple TV 4K and Nvidia Shield TV are the absolute best. For those looking to save some money however, we also highly recommend going the Roku route or picking up a Chromecast. As for Fire TV? It’s still “one of the best”, but in a crowded market we’d pick something else before settling for it. 

But what do you guys think? Which media streaming devices do you think are the best? 

Leave a comment