Back to School: Best Streaming Devices
Whether you're a dedicated cord-cutter or just want to give your dumb TV an IQ boost, streaming devices are a perfect living room accessory. Providing easy access to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, they offer snappy interfaces and a wealth of video, music, and even gaming content.
But with so many options, how can you make sure you're picking the right one? To help you figure that out, we've spent countless hours with the latest models from Apple, Roku, Amazon, Google, and even Nvidia—we're talking everything from the budget-friendly Chromecast to the feature-laden Apple TV.
Read on to find out which is best for the average user, 4K early adopters, shoppers on a budget, and more.
Apple TV (4th gen)
The powerful yet practical Apple TV is destined to be the pick of the litter this holiday season. Unless you're dead-set on 4K streaming, or really need a home media server, Apple's latest checks off the most boxes for the most people. It's pricey if you buy straight from Apple, starting at $150 for the 32GB model, and it doesn't offer native Amazon Instant Video streaming, but it covers all the other big apps.
In addition to a familiar, painless user interface, the 4th generation Apple TV introduces Siri integration, voice search, and swipe/touchpad controls. Not all of these innovations are unique (Roku and Amazon also offer voice search), but they're welcome additions. This isn't the budget buyer's option, but it's a supremely well-made device that's tailored to appeal to a broad range of users. Just keep in mind there's no expandable storage, so if you need more than 64GB, keep reading.
Buy for $149.99 at Best Buy.
If you're at all familiar with the Roku platform, you know what you're getting into here: a virtually bottomless selection of apps in the form of "channels." We're talking everything from big names like Netflix and Amazon to megachurches and local news stations. The Roku 4 delivers all the best features from the older Roku 3, as well as the ability to stream in 4K resolution.
The best argument for buying a Roku over competitors from Apple, Amazon, and Google is that it offers a huge array of content sources without locking you into those companies' ecosystems. For instance, aside from Amazon's own Fire TV, it's the only streaming device to offer a native Amazon Instant Video app. In contrast, you can't get the most out of an Apple TV without using an iTunes account, and heavy Prime users will certainly benefit most from a Fire TV. It's not as polished as the Apple experience, but it's a relative bargain no matter where you find it.
Buy for $129.99 on Amazon.
Amazon Fire TV (2nd gen)
Are you a heavy user of Amazon's Prime services? Are you ready to jump into 4K streaming? Then the new $99 Amazon Fire TV is probably your best bet. It streams UHD video just as well as the Roku 4, and more or less matches it in terms of content—from the big players, at least. The user interface is slick, and Amazon's Alexa voice assistant can go head to head with Siri.
It's possible to enjoy the Fire TV even if you're not an Amazon Prime member, but membership has its perks—Prime subscribers receive access to Amazon's original TV series and a selection of movies free of (additional) charge. The new Fire TV offers more processing power than its predecessor, with a focus on gaming (the Fire TV game controller retails for an extra $50). The $99 price tag undercuts both Roku and Apple, but there are a few notable trade-offs: a UI cluttered with Amazon ads, and an overwhelming focus on Prime content. The base model also includes only 8 GB of storage, which is going to fill up quickly; you'll have to spend more for a MicroSD card if you plan on downloading a lot of apps.
Buy for $99.99 on Amazon.
Nvidia Shield Android TV Box
What do you get when one of the world's most recognizable PC video card and hardware makers cobbles together a set-top-box? The world's most powerful Android-based streaming device, the $200 Nvidia Shield. That's the same price as the 64GB Apple TV, but the Shield blows it away in terms of hardware and flexibility. The downside? It's a pricey streaming box with a strong focus on gaming, which puts it up against more powerful consoles like the Xbox One and Playstation 4.
The powerful, unique Shield gets you everything from native 4K streaming to Nvidia's "GeForce Now" game streaming service. With 3GB of ram and a Tegra X1 processor, it's far and away the most powerful streaming box on the market, letting you do things like stream PC games to your TV over WiFi. The optional GeForce Now subscription will set you back $7.99 per month, but the system comes bundled with a very well-made gamepad. Just keep in mind that if you want flawless 4K and game casting, you'll need a seriously robust internet connection to get the most out of this thing.
Buy for $199.99 on Amazon.
Roku Streaming Stick
At first glance, the new 2016 Roku Streaming Stick looks and feels exactly like the old one. Like the Amazon Fire TV Stick, the 3600R Roku Stick costs $50 and puts a focus on minimalism and simplicity. It also hauls, as it's the only streaming "stick" on the market with a quad-core processor. As a result, it's about twice as fast as the old Roku stick, and that extra speed does a world of good when you're trying to find something to watch.
Compared to the Amazon Fire TV Stick, though, it does lack quite a few features. Voice search is certainly chief among them, but it also doesn't have support for typical hotel Wi-fi networks—something you're more likely to take advantage of with a stick than a full-on streaming box. It does have the classic Roku remote, but there's no headphone jack like on the Roku 4.
Buy for $49 on Amazon.
Google Chromecast (2nd gen)
Of the five streaming devices we tested, the tiny Chromecast is the best choice for tech-savvy users on a budget. The non-traditional streaming dongle simply plugs into your TV or monitor's HDMI port, connects to your WiFi network, and uses your smartphone, tablet, or computer as a controller/remote. From there, you can "cast" content to the Chromecast from most major streaming apps and the Google Chrome browser. And at $35, it significantly undercuts virtually all of the competition.
If you're not afraid of a slight learning curve, you'll find the Chromecast is perhaps even more content-rich than the competition. As a screen-mirroring device, its only limits are your imagination. It's not a viable choice if you want 4K streaming, and if you aren't taking advantage of Google's services already, you may end up feeling shoehorned into them if you go with Chromecast. On the other hand, Google vets who are on their phones/tablets/laptops all the time already shouldn't hesitate.
Buy for $35 at Best Buy.
Amazon Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote
If you like the Amazon Fire TV but don't need advanced features like wired internet or 4K playback, the Fire TV Stick with Voice Remote is a great alternative. For just $49.99, the Fire TV Stick delivers the core Amazon Fire experience while stripping away "next-gen" bells and whistles—but with voice search, Amazon Alexa functionality, and twice the memory of the current Chromecast model, it still delivers a measured, polished experience.
As with the full Fire TV, the Stick is best suited to Amazon Prime users that can make the most of it. As soon as I booted it up, a tutorial video informed me of all the features exclusive to Prime members, like music library access, photo sharing, and free Prime movies and TV shows. But even if you just want to access Netflix or HBO Go, getting voice search and a fast processor for $50 isn't a bad deal at all.
Buy for $49.99 on Amazon.