A streaming device can give your TV an instant upgrade. For as little as $30 (or less when they're on sale), a streaming device will transform a basic TV into a fully connected entertainment hub, giving you easy access to subscription-based services like Netflix along with an array of free content and live streaming channels.
Streaming devices work by connecting your TV to the internet, so you can seamlessly watch streaming services and other online content. Simply put, a streaming device turns an old-fashioned "dumb" TV — with no internet connectivity — into a smart TV.
Smart TVs are internet-capable and come with streaming service apps right out of the box. So, if you own a smart TV, is there any reason you might still want to buy a streaming device? It depends.
You probably don't need a streaming device if you're satisfied with the apps included with your TV. But, if you want to download additional apps that your TV doesn’t have access to, a streaming device can expand your content library. It’s all about what content you consume, and if your TV can meet the needs without any hassles. Also, streaming devices receive updates more frequently than some smart TVs.
A good streaming device can also help you save money and avoid headaches. Sure, the best streaming services, including Disney+, Netflix, and Hulu, require monthly fees, but they're usually cheap compared to a traditional cable package. And because streaming devices make it easy to locate the channels and subscriptions you like most, you have a higher chance of finding content you actually enjoy.
Roku is the biggest name in streaming devices, but other brands, including Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, are favored by some users. Every device will give you access to some, if not all, of the most popular music and video streaming services. There are some exceptions, though. Amazon’s Fire TV, for example, doesn’t offer access to Google Play, Vudu, and Peacock (which are all available via Roku, Apple TV, and Android TV devices). While most devices offer pretty much the same content, they vary widely in terms of interface, search capabilities, customization, and smart home compatibility.
Streaming device buying guide
Nowadays, the content available on streaming devices is very similar. So, in addition to searching for a device with the apps and channels you want, you should ask yourself which interface provides the best features and easy-to-use experience for your household.
• Resolution support. The resolution your streaming device supports should match your TV. Having a streaming device that supports 4K resolution or Dolby Vision (which is considered the most advanced HDR format) won't matter if your TV isn't also capable of supporting these formats.
Keep in mind that not all media content is available at higher resolutions. Content recorded in 4K is commonly available today. High Dynamic Range (HDR) formats are not as widely adopted — Dolby Vision being the most scarce. Even if the content you're hoping to watch is available in 4K or HDR, these formats usually require faster internet speeds and/or more expensive streaming plans. Netflix, for example, requires you sign up for a premium plan ($17.99 per month) to stream content in 4K.
The most affordable streaming devices (around $30) support at least a 1080p high definition resolution, while mid-range streamers (around $50) support 4K and HDR. If your TV is HD (720p), don’t worry, a streamer that’s 1080p capable will upscale the images so they fit your screen and still look good.
• Content and interface. Streaming devices allow you to stream your favorite subscription services, plus completely free content and live stream pay TV channels associated with cable packages. The options can be overwhelming, so it's helpful to have a device with an interface that's easy to navigate.
The search engine on some streaming devices can sift through thousands of channels, returning results that prioritize whatever is available for free or through your paid subscriptions. Others offer personalized content suggestions based on your watchlist or notify you when there are new episodes from your favorite shows.
Some devices allow for more customization than others. Roku, for example, lets you download apps and arrange them however you like, just as you would in your smartphone. The Fire TV interface, on the other hand, is known for pushing Amazon Prime Video content more often. In the end, it comes down to which interface is more accessible and appealing to you.
• Internet connection. Streaming devices usually rely on Wi-Fi. This connection is fast enough for most people and is sufficient even for streaming some 4K or HDR content — as long as the connection is not overcrowded (several people using the same router can slow down speeds) and your router is capable of delivering top speeds.
As convenient as Wi-Fi may be, it is generally not as reliable (or as fast) as Ethernet. Streaming devices with an Ethernet port may be a better choice for bigger households or people planning on streaming most of their content in HDR.
• Smart home integration. If you have a smart home ecosystem and want to integrate your streaming device, there are some things to consider. If your smart home is Alexa-based, Amazon Fire TV will offer seamless integration. Google smart home assistant (Nest) will generally work best with Chromecast or Android TV streaming devices.
Roku devices, on the other hand, aren’t really designed for comprehensive smart home integration, and will only be able to handle simple Alexa and Google commands.
• Remote control features. Most streaming devices come with a remote control, but not all of them can also control the basic functions of your TV. This isn't necessarily an issue unless you're bothered by having to use one remote to channel surf and another to turn on and off your TV, adjust the volume, and switch between inputs.
Some streaming devices with remotes can control your TV as well, though; these can also come with additional features such as voice command search, customizable shortcut buttons, and private listening with headphones when you don’t want to disturb others.
Best streaming devices
1. Editor’s pick: Roku Streaming Stick+
Resolution: 4K, HDR, 1080p HD, 720p HD up-scaling | Internet connectivity: Long range Wi-Fi (802.11ac dual-band) | Power: TV USB port or wall socket
What makes the Streaming Stick+ stand out from other streaming devices is its user-friendly interface. The device’s homepage is fully customizable. You can add countless apps (or channels, as Roku calls them) and move them around however you like.
Of course this device lets you access popular subscription-based services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Amazon Prime. But Roku also offers its own streaming channel, The Roku Channel, which serves as a hub for a wide selection of movies, TV shows, and live channels at no additional cost. Many of the free channels come with ads, but users point out that Roku’s ads aren’t nearly as annoying or time-consuming as traditional TV commercials.
Roku’s search engine is pretty great, too. By typing a word, phrase or speaking into your control or Roku mobile app, you'll get instant results related to your query from thousands of streaming channels.
Search results on the Stream Stick+ are based on your tastes and include a mix of free and subscription content along with rentals and purchases. The cheapest options and the ones offered by services you’re already subscribed to always appear first.
When compared to cheaper Roku models, the Stream Stick+ has longer-range Wi-Fi connectivity and voice control, and is 4K, HDR, and 1080p HD compatible.
2. Best for low prices: Roku Express
Resolution: 1080p HD | Internet connectivity: Standard Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n single-band wireless) | Power: TV USB port or wall socket | Included remote: Only controls search and playback
Retailing for $30 or less, the Roku Express is perfect for anyone looking to start their cord-cutting journey without splurging. This is a no-frills HD-capable streaming device that comes with a remote for simple navigation (you can also use the Roku app). It won’t, however, turn your TV on or off or control the volume.
A good alternative usually selling for around the same price is Amazon’s Fire TV Stick Lite. In addition to 1080p HD, Amazon's Stick Lite offers HDR support (HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG) and a remote control that includes Alexa voice commands. These features may be selling points for some, especially those focused on having the best picture quality. However, it’s important to make sure that your TV is compatible with these formats. Also, keep in mind that not all the content you’re planning on watching will be available to watch at these resolutions.
HDR support and Alexa commands aside, many still prefer the Roku Express over Amazon’s Stick Lite simply for its streamlined interface and the fact that 1080p HD playback paired with a solid Wi-Fi connection is enough for exceptional picture quality.
3. Best for gaming: NVIDIA SHIELD Streaming Media Player
Resolution: 1080p HD, 4K, HDR 10, HDR10+, Dolby Vision | Internet connectivity: Long-range Wi-Fi (802.11ac 2x2 MIMO 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi) | Power: Wall socket
Featuring the NVIDIA Tegra XI, the same processor at the heart of Nintendo Switch consoles, the NVIDIA SHIELD TV is designed with gamers in mind.
In addition to providing full access to the Android TV interface, its processing power lets you play hundreds of Android games and project games on your TV from your gaming PC (as long as it has a compatible NVIDIA GTX or RTX graphic card). You can also play games through GeForce NOW, NVIDIA’s cloud-based game streaming service, as well as from Steam and UPlay accounts.
Although it doesn’t include NVIDIA's gaming control, SHIELD TV is compatible with popular controllers like the ones for the Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4.
When it comes to video quality, this model is compatible with 4K and advanced HDR formats like HDR10 and Dolby Vision. It features Artificial Intelligence-driven “upscaling”, which adjusts the image to your TV’s resolution. This means that it delivers the sharpest image possible — even when displaying videos that are in a lower resolution than your TV.
The SHIELD TV also supports Chromecast technology so you can project content from iOS or Android phones and tablets to your TV.
4. Best for wired streaming: Roku Ultra
Resolution: 1080p HD, 4K, HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG, Dolby Vision | Internet connectivity: Long-range Wi-Fi (Dual-band, Wi-Fi 802.11ac), Ethernet port | Power: Wall socket
The Roku Ultra is priced around $90, easily the company’s most expensive streaming device. But it has the most robust list of features for a Roku product, including: 4K and HDR support (including Dolby Vision); long-range Wi-Fi connectivity; and a remote that responds to voice commands, can control your TV, and has customizable shortcut buttons.
The Roku Ultra includes a mobile app that doubles as a remote; private listening with headphones, a lost remote finder; Bluetooth-capability to stream music on your TV, and compatibility with Apple’s Airplay and HomeKit.
In addition to its long-range Wi-Fi connectivity, the Roku Ultra has an Ethernet port. A wired connection can offer a faster response rate, more consistent streaming speeds, and a sharper image (provided your TV is also HDR capable). This is particularly helpful in households where Wi-Fi connections tend to be used by many people at the same time or smart homes with multiple connected devices.
The comparable Amazon’s Fire TV Cube is a good alternative to the Roku Ultra, especially for users who are invested in the Alexa home ecosystem. It combines Fire TV’s content with the capabilities of an Echo smart speaker.
Note that the Fire TV Cube does take a bit more space than the Roku Ultra since it’s two inches larger and needs an adapter (which is included) for Ethernet connections.
5. Best for Google Home integration: Chromecast with Google TV
Resolution: 1080p HD, 4K, HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG, Dolby Vision | Internet connectivity: Long-range Wi-Fi (Dual-band Wi-Fi, 802.11ac) | Power: TV USB port or wall socket
The Chromecast with Google TV is both an Android TV streamer and a casting device — that is, a device that lets you project what's on your smartphone or other screen over to your TV. It's the first streaming device from Google that can play content directly from its built-in interface in addition to mirroring the phone or computer’s screen. This is a pretty useful combination, as mirroring can let you view additional content that may not be available directly from your streaming device.
The integrated Android TV interface gives you access to over 5,000 apps, including Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus, Vudu, and HBO Max. The only major service that had been missing from the repertoire was Apple TV, but both companies recently announced it will be available in early 2021.