The Best Media Streamers

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The best media streamer for most people is the updated Roku Streaming Stick. It’s as fast to use as any streamer available and has a wider selection of apps than others offer. And unlike its main competitors, Roku doesn’t try to sell content from its own store; rather than prioritizing one streaming service over another within its interface, it lets you customize what it displays to suit your preferences.

Last Updated: April 5, 2017
Updated our section on the Shield TV to reflect new features in the updated firmware.
Expand Most Recent Updates
January 6, 2017: We tested the updated Fire TV Stick, Chromecast Ultra, and Roku Premiere+, along with the updated Fire TV interface and Apple TV software updates. Our main pick stays the same, but we have new alternate and UltraHD picks.
October 27, 2016: Apple announced a new app called TV that merges content across all your other tvOS apps. It lets you resume watching shows where you left off and helps you discover new things to watch with curated content. It also syncs across iPad and iPhone. We’ll update our testing Apple TV when the app is available later this year, and add our full thoughts to our section on the device then.
October 4, 2016: At its October 4 event, Google announced the Chromecast Ultra, a $70 4K player coming in November. We’ve added it to the What to look forward to section below.
September 28, 2016: Amazon announced an update to its $40 Fire TV Stick, which is starting to look like a more serious competitor to our top pick, the Roku Streaming Stick. We’ve added our initial thoughts on it to the What to look forward to section below.
September 26, 2016: Roku announced five new models: the Express, Express+, Premiere, Premiere+, and Ultra. We’ve added our initial thoughts on each to the What to look forward to section below, but we still think the Roku Streaming Stick will remain the best pick for most people. If you have an Ultra HD display, such as our best TV pick, the Roku Premiere+ is our preliminary recommendation. We’ll be testing the new Roku models, and we will update this guide soon with our results.
September 8, 2016: Amazon has expanded its Alexa voice search on the Fire TV to include Netflix, HBO, and other services. The addition makes searching for content far better than before, when those services were excluded. Amazon also improved the Netflix integration of the app inside the Fire TV interface, which we will be testing on our devices.
August 29, 2016: Dave Zatz reported on five upcoming Roku models after investigating the company’s latest FCC filings. Although we’re going to wait until we hear an official announcement from Roku to reconsider our picks, we’ve added this news to the What to look forward to section below.
June 13, 2016: We’ve added some of our thoughts on the new tvOS features announced at WWDC to the What to look forward to section below, and we discuss them at length in our “What You Need to Know About Apple's WWDC 2016 Event” post.
June 9, 2016: Later in June, the Nvidia Shield is getting an update to OS 3.2, which will include Plex Media Server support. We’ve updated our section on the Nvidia below to discuss what this means.
May 31, 2016: The updated Roku Streaming Stick is now our new top pick. It offers the same performance as the prior pick, the Roku 2, but it costs $20 less and can be powered by your TV or projector’s USB port.
Our pick
Roku Streaming Stick
The Roku Streaming Stick is the best media streamer for most people because it offers the largest selection of streaming content, a clean and responsive user interface, and a useful search function.

The Streaming Stick offers the same interface, speed, and content as the other Roku products. It also has a private listening mode so you can watch your content without disturbing others. You get an RF remote instead of IR, so the stick doesn’t need to be in sight to work.

Runner-up
Amazon Fire TV Stick
The Fire TV Stick isn’t quite as fast and supports fewer services, but it has Alexa built-in for integrated voice search and a much improved UI.

Improved search features and an overhauled interface make the Amazon Fire TV Stick our new runner-up. You can’t customize the interface as much as you can with the Roku, and its app selection is more limited, but it includes Amazon’s Alexa voice-controlled assistant, letting you make queries far beyond just a movie’s title. It’s starting to offer direct access to titles inside your favorite streaming services without having to launch the corresponding app, but it still does push Amazon content over other companies’ offerings and it isn’t quite as fast as the Roku.

Also great
Roku Premiere+
If you need an UltraHD streamer with support for HDR and WCG content, the Roku Premiere+ offers the most content of any option.

Though most UltraHD TVs include streaming services, some don’t include everything you might want, and UltraHD projectors don’t include any. The Roku Premiere+ supports UHD with high dynamic range and wide color gamut from Netflix and Amazon, the two most popular streaming services. It also has the easy-to-use Roku interface and an updated Amazon interface. It doesn’t currently support UltraHD from Google Play or Hulu, but it supports most other UHD services.

Also great
Apple TV
If you buy a lot of content from the iTunes Store, the Apple TV provides access. It supports most of the major streaming services plus voice search, but it offers less flexibility than the cheaper Roku Streaming Stick.

If you use iTunes and purchase your content from that store or are a dedicated cable cutter, you should get the Apple TV. The new version includes Siri’s easy searching and has the advantage of being the only device that supports iTunes. For cable cutters, it also offers all three streaming cable alternatives (Sling, Playstation Vue, and DirecTV Now) along with good OTA tuner support and their new TV app.

The Apple TV also offers most of the major streaming services but relies on AirPlay support (streaming via your iPhone, iPad, or Mac) for some of them rather than native apps. The new App Store holds the promise of better games and services down the road but isn’t extensive right now. Given the better outlook for the new version, we recommend getting the new model if you use iTunes a lot.

Also great
Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia Shield does the best job of playing media from USB drives and supports almost any file format.

If you want to play back lots of local media directly from a USB hard drive or thumb drive, the Nvidia Shield supports almost any file format and serves as a full Android TV streamer, which gives it access to a large and quickly growing selection of streaming apps. It also supports 4K playback, including HDR, from most streaming services that offer it.

Table of contents

Why you might want a media streamer

If all you want to stream is stuff from Netflix or Amazon, you probably don’t need a media streamer. Almost all recent TVs have support for those two services built in, and many remotes include a dedicated Netflix button. If you have a 4K HDR TV, the best way to receive 4K HDR content from Netflix or Amazon is usually to use the apps built into the TV, although streamers like the Nvidia Shield and Roku’s Premiere+ model now support HDR.

Streamers have the ability to play far more content than what most TVs or Blu-ray players offer. Typically, streaming boxes also have a better user experience, with more channels, a more responsive user interface, and better search features. Support for newer streaming services such as HBO Now and Sling TV also comes to media streamers before it comes to TVs.

With such a wide selection of streaming services, and now even access to live TV, a media streamer can allow you to cut out cable or satellite TV completely. Some companies, including Time Warner and soon Comcast, let you replace a monthly cable box rental with a streaming device.

A media streamer can also come close to replacing a cable box. The Apple TV, with its new TV app and single sign-on, can easily log you into all the streaming apps that come with your cable subscription. You can’t watch content live in most cases, but you can watch it on demand the next day and have your favorite shows listed in one place. With cable box rentals costing $10 a month or more, a media streamer can pay for itself in just over a year.

If you still want to play discs

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A media streamer can also give you easy access to the content you already own and play it on any TV in your house. You can access and play media stored on your home network (either on a computer or on a NAS) without needing to hook a PC up to your display.

Though the numbers are shrinking, a lot of people still rent movies on disc. Netflix and Redbox make getting a DVD or Blu-ray easy, and discs still provide the best audio and video quality available. If you like to rent movies on disc, you might be able to take care of that and media streaming in a single box.

Many smart TVs stop receiving regular app updates eventually. The TV will still work fine, though, and a media streamer will help keep it up to date with current streaming services and provide a better user experience. Instead of spending hundreds on a new TV or replacing a plasma with a newer LCD that might offer worse picture quality, you can add a streaming box to get access to new content on your existing TV.

media-streamers-group-testing

We tested all the major media streamers on the market. Photo: Chris Heinonen

What makes a great media streamer

The single most important thing any media streamer must do is play back your content. If you get most of your content from a source that a particular streamer doesn’t support (such as iTunes on a Roku, or Amazon on the Apple TV), that device will not work for you. A streamer with a wide selection of content sources will be a better choice for most people than one that has a limited selection.

A good search feature that helps you find the content you want is also important. Many streamers search across a limited number of services or prioritize content from a source where they earn income. For instance, Amazon puts Amazon content at the top of the screen, Apple leads with Apple content, and Android TV devices primarily search across Google services. These companies make more money when you buy content from their stores, so they prioritize their stores even if they aren’t where you typically buy things. A streamer that looks across more services and provides both free and pay options helps you find your content at the lowest price.

Your media streamer should also allow you to customize the interface and prioritize the services you use the most. If you prefer to use Netflix or Amazon or Vudu, you should have the option to push those services to the front of the interface. An ideal streamer is ecosystem-agnostic and lets you—rather than the device manufacturer—make decisions.

Our pick

media streamers roku streaming stick

Our pick
Roku Streaming Stick
The Roku Streaming Stick is the best media streamer for most people because it offers the largest selection of streaming content, a clean and responsive user interface, and a useful search function.

The Roku Streaming Stick offers the widest selection of content and the best interface, search, and user experience. It’s the fastest 1080p streamer they currently make and offers the best selection of features, making it worth the $10-20 upgrade price over the cheaper Roku Express.

Roku has a larger selection of content than anyone else, and it continues to grow. Amazon, Google Play Movies & TV, HBO Go and Now, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Showtime, Sling TV, Spotify, Vudu, and more all have support. Finding something that Roku doesn’t support is the challenge. The only major service missing is iTunes, but Apple doesn’t open that up to anyone. When new services launch, Roku is typically among the first—if not the first—to offer support.

Search on the Roku encompasses the most services and grabs the best results. Roku will search across Acorn TV, Amazon Instant Video, Blockbuster On Demand, CinemaNow, Crackle, FandangoNOW, Fox Now, FX Now, HBO Go and Now, Hulu Plus, National Geographic TV, Netflix, Popcorn Flix, Roku Recommends, SnagFilms, Time Warner Cable, and Vudu to find your content. You can search by title, actor, or director to find what you’re after.

Roku’s search displays results in a specific order: First, results from channels you have installed, sorted by price (lowest first). After this, you get results from channels you don’t have installed, which are also ordered by price. Not only does this approach help you find content more easily, but it also lets you choose content from the least expensive source. If a movie or TV show is available for free from Netflix but for purchase from Amazon and Vudu, for example, Roku’s search function shows Netflix first. For people who subscribe to multiple streaming services where content changes monthly, Roku’s search function makes finding what you want at the lowest price easier than competing boxes.

media streamers roku streaming stick

Roku also lets users create their own “channels,” which can provide access to content even if official Roku support doesn’t exist. Lifehacker has some helpful tips regarding great, free streaming channels available on Roku and how to find them.

You can also customize the look of the interface to place your favorite apps at the top. If you use Netflix, Amazon, and Sling TV the most, for example, you can place those three apps at the top of the list. If you don’t use Netflix or Amazon at all, you can remove those apps entirely. The Fire TV gives priority to Amazon content. If you buy almost all of your content from Amazon, this is fine, but other services’ content can be slower to access.

Some channels that are available on other platforms are missing from the Roku box, but you have a few workarounds. For example, during earlier testing, I noticed the lack of a Twitch channel for Roku. Although the official store didn’t offer a Twitch app for download at the time, I did find a third-party app that someone (namely, not Roku) had created. Amazon locks down their devices, but anyone can create a third-party channel for Roku boxes. Using a third-party channel entails the same risks as running any piece of software that isn’t authenticated, but you can find some reliable sources of channels. (FWIW, Roku now has an official Twitch channel, but when it didn’t, the unofficial one did the job.)

Unlike previous models, this year’s Roku Streaming Stick is just as powerful as the Roku 2, our former pick. Its improved quad-core processor is just as fast and responsive as the Roku 2 in our use. Both support 720p and 1080p output, connect wirelessly via 802.11n/g/b on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, and can be controlled with iOS or Android apps (which also allow you to use voice search). It’s worth noting that because they both have only an HDMI output, they won’t work with older non-HDMI TVs.

The Streaming Stick supports a new personal listening feature: you can stream the audio from the Roku to your smartphone (via an app) to listen with headphones. We only had a couple of audio drops during a few hours of testing, which were likely just Wi-Fi coverage issues in that corner of our house. Better yet, if a call comes in, the app pauses your content automatically so you can answer without missing anything. Battery life while using the personal listening feature on our iPhone 6 was fine and no different than streaming music from Spotify or another service.

media-streamers-roku-streaming-stick-remote

The included remote uses RF instead of IR and has quick access to major services. Photo: Chris Heinonen

The included remote control for the Streaming Stick uses RF instead of IR to communicate. This means you don’t have to worry about maintaining a line of sight with the remote, an obvious plus since the streamer will likely be hidden away behind your TV.

The Streaming Stick also offers the most compact form factor of any streaming device. The tiny size makes it easy to plug into a side HDMI port without being seen, even on a wall-mounted TV. Since USB powers it, you can run it directly from the USB ports that almost all TVs and projectors have today. While this means it will turn off when the TV does, it completely boots in around 20 to 25 seconds. The previous SS took over a minute to be ready for use.

If your TV doesn’t have a usable USB port, you can still run the SS off an AC outlet using an included USB-to-AC adapter.

The Roku Streaming Stick also supports screen streaming or mirroring from supported devices. It’s not a huge list: currently just a limited selection of Android and Windows Phone models, so no iOS support. However, if you have one of the supported devices, the mirroring works well if you want to show your tablet screen on your TV. This also means if a streaming service you want isn’t offered on the Roku box, you can stream it from your tablet instead. The result isn’t as good as native streaming from the Roku device, but the arrangement might work in a pinch.

Roku OS 7, which debuted on the Roku 4 and is rolling out now, adds support for captive Wi-Fi portals. This means you can take your Roku on the road with you, and you can connect it to the hotel Wi-Fi using your smartphone or laptop. Previously only the Fire TV offered this feature.

Who else likes our pick?

David Katzmaier of CNET has given out a total of three five-star reviews in his decade-plus stint there. One was for the Panasonic ST60 Plasma (our pick for best TV while it was made), one was for our prior pick the Roku 2, and the newest is the Roku Streaming Stick. Of the Roku Streaming Stick, he says that “The new Roku Streaming Stick is the best value in streaming-video hardware, period.”

Will Greenwald of PCMag gives the Roku Streaming Stick a rating of only 4½ out of five. Aside from not supporting 4K, which we believe isn’t really necessary for most people, the Streaming Stick “is a tiny, fast, full-featured media streamer.”

Flaws but not dealbreakers

The Roku box lacks access to iTunes and Google Play Music. If you use either of those services extensively, you should probably choose either an Apple TV or a Chromecast. It is also HDMI-only, so you’re out of luck if you own an older TV with only component video. If your TV lacks HDMI, the older, slower, and cheaper Roku Express with composite video might be for you.

The user interface design on some of the Roku apps isn’t as current as it could be. For example, the Roku version of the Netflix app is the most current design, but Playstation Vue has a poor design compared to the other platforms. In contrast, Playstation Vue on Android is much easier to navigate and use with a custom interface. The same content is available on the Roku box, but the interface could use improvement.

The overall user experience of the Roku is also starting to fall behind other streaming boxes and TV systems in some ways. The Roku interface is very simple, but every channel lives in a sandbox that is isolated from every other channel. Apple is trying to move past this with their TV app, which lets you add different shows from different apps into a single location. Samsung TVs now let you browse shows from different apps without having to launch them, while LG lets you add your favorite shows to a quick launch area as well. Roku is great at getting you easy access to all those channels but doesn’t provide quick access to shows or movies inside those channels from a unified location.

Search on the Roku is limited to searching for your favorite movies and TV shows, while Apple and Amazon have expanded theirs into full-featured searches. Alexa on the Fire TV can do everything that you expect from it, which means showing sports scores, the weather, or controlling compatible smart home devices beyond just showing you movies. The Apple TV can also work as your HomeKit hub if you’re working to expand home automation in the Apple ecosystem. The Roku search remains locked down to movies and TV.

The Roku Streaming Stick doesn’t do well with local media playback, and the Streaming Stick has completely dropped the local USB port (the built-in USB port is for power only). You can use the USB port on the Roku 2 and 3 for some media, but neither device supports a huge variety of file types. A much better option is to use Plex on a computer or NAS device along with the Plex app on the Roku. This arrangement lets you play back far more content than the Roku can on its own. Plex also offers apps for iOS and Android that let you stream your local content to any device in the house. This setup requires you to leave a computer or NAS powered on and running Plex, so it isn’t for everyone, but it is a possible solution to the local-media problem.

Using the Roku Media app, you can play back files from a DLNA server over your network. The interface isn’t as nice as that of Plex, and the media format support isn’t as extensive. For viewing photos or playing music over the network, it should work fine, but it can’t handle as many kinds of video files.

The Roku box also lacks AirPlay, the streaming protocol that the Apple TV (see below) uses. This means you can’t mirror your iOS screen onto the Roku box as you can with an Apple TV, nor can you stream your iTunes library directly to the Roku box. If you need either of those features, you should get the Apple TV instead.

As is true with most streaming services, we take issue with Roku’s privacy policy. The company realizes a significant portion of its income from advertising, and to that end it collects a large amount of user data to support that business. You have no way to opt out of much of the data collection, it isn’t totally clear what data is shared with third parties, and the policy asks you to agree to binding arbitration in the case of a dispute. While it’s hard to avoid this kind of thing with any streaming service (and thus we don’t consider it a dealbreaker in Roku’s case), we do think it’s important that you be informed.

Runner-up

media streamers amazon fire stick

Runner-up
Amazon Fire TV Stick
The Fire TV Stick isn’t quite as fast and supports fewer services, but it has Alexa built-in for integrated voice search and a much improved UI.

The December 2016 update to the Fire TV Stick added voice search using Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant, and even better, the search feature now encompasses more services, including Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and over 75 apps in total. The interface is also much improved overall, which is why we’ve now made it a pick—our previous complaints about Amazon’s Fire TV platform had been about the software, not the hardware.

The included remote has a microphone for this updated search feature, but it also supports Alexa for home control and other features. It can do most things Alexa can do from an Echo or Dot, including home control. For example, I turn out the lights in my home theater room just by telling Alexa. Plus, it displays weather, sports scores, or even Amazon deals you can order via your TV. Alexa also does the movie and TV search stuff you’d expect.

media streamers amazon fire stick remote voice controlled

The Amazon Fire TV Stick includes a remote for voice search with Alexa. Photo: Chris Heinonen

The updated Amazon Fire TV interface is a huge improvement over previous versions. The main page now has rows for different apps including Netflix, showing you the most recent titles you’ve watched there. Previously only Amazon content was pushed in this way, making Netflix and other apps second-class citizens. The new interface isn’t perfect, however. Only certain apps work this way so far, and you can’t add titles from Netflix to your Watch List like you can with Amazon content. But crucially, it’s now just as easy to access most of your your favorite channels and apps with the Fire TV as it is with the Roku, sometimes easier.

Unfortunately you can’t remove certain things from the UI of the Fire TV. While the Roku lets you remove all the channels you don’t watch, there are still a few left on the front “page” of the Fire TV that you can’t delete. Things like a list of Amazon Channels and pay TV apps like HBO and Starz are there no matter what, even if you don’t subscribe. You also can’t move the rows of icons up or down. So you can’t, for example, put Netflix at the top and shuffle less-used apps further down.

Also, Amazon puts an ad at the top of the interface I couldn’t remove. Disabling the advertising ID (in Settings) didn’t remove it, and I was constantly greeted with an ad for Sling TV, a service I already subscribe to. As someone that already pays Amazon $100 a year for Prime and bought a Fire TV Stick, it seems odd you should have to see an ad every time you want to watch something.

Freetime Unlimited, Amazon’s app with curated content for children, isn’t available on the Fire TV Stick, only the full-size models. For a monthly fee, this offers access to a wide selection of movies and apps for kids. As a parent, this is something I love on their tablets and would like to see on the more affordable Fire TVs as well.

The Roku remains faster than the Amazon Fire TV Stick in certain cases. The Roku UI can feel more responsive, though it is much simpler, which helps. The Fire TV can technically stream video from the HDHomeRun over-the-air tuner box on my network for broadcast channels but doesn’t do so fast enough to stream it without skipping frames and stuttering. For people that are cutting the cord and want local channels, the Apple TV remains a better pick because it can stream OTA content better, but the Fire TV does support Amazon and all three streaming TV services (Sling, DirecTV Now, and Playstation Vue).

If you’re a heavy Prime video user or want voice search, the Fire TV Stick offers a compelling alternative to the Roku that has really improved over the past few months. As Amazon works to refine their UI and add more features, their usability will improve; they could take over the top spot from Roku soon if Roku doesn’t improve while Amazon does.

A pick for UltraHD Streaming

media streamers roku premiere+

Also great
Roku Premiere+
If you need an UltraHD streamer with support for HDR and WCG content, the Roku Premiere+ offers the most content of any option.

If you want to stream UltraHD content and your TV or projector lacks support, the Roku Premiere+ is the best option available today. It supports both Netflix and Amazon with HDR and WCG support with more channels being added as HDR content rolls out. It offers the same simple interface as the Roku Streaming Stick, so if you don’t need UltraHD support you should save your money and get the Streaming Stick.

The Premiere+ has HDMI 2.0a and HDCP 2.2, unlike last year’s Roku 4, so it can do HDR and WCG on displays that support it. It has a responsive RF remote with a headphone jack for private listening. To us, it’s a better value than the Roku Ultra, which costs $30 more and only adds voice search on the remote and a way to locate said remote from the main device.

We’ve also run into bugs with the Roku Premiere+, though that’s true with almost all devices we’ve tested that support HDR and WCG. This is because the current standards often don’t work perfectly. Sometimes a device will work correctly with a TV, sometimes it won’t. Watching a projector that supports HDR and WCG while running the Premiere+, we’ll sometimes see random flashes of red on the screen during content for no apparent reason. These issues are improving as Roku updates the software, but they plague almost all HDR devices right now, so they’re just something to keep in mind.

The Premiere+ also can’t support Google Play or Hulu at UltraHD resolution, at least at the time of this writing. Google Play is supported on the Chromecast Ultra, and Hulu needs a PlayStation 4 Pro or the Xbox One S. The Premiere+ should support HDR10 content from Vudu soon, but not yet.

With all these caveats, we recommend using the apps inside your UltraHD TV instead of a media streamer for HDR/WCG content, unless your TV lacks one you want to try (or you have a projector).

A pick for iTunes/Apple users and cord cutters

media streamers apple tv

The Apple TV is great for iTunes users and cord cutters. Photo: Chris Heinonen

Also great
Apple TV
If you buy a lot of content from the iTunes Store, the Apple TV provides access. It supports most of the major streaming services plus voice search, but it offers less flexibility than the cheaper Roku Streaming Stick.

If you buy a lot of content (either music or movies) from the iTunes Store, or if you want the ability to easily stream your music to your receiver or soundbar from your computer, you should choose the new 32 GB Apple TV instead of a Roku Streaming Stick. It supports almost as many apps as the Roku but lets you play back your iTunes content on your TV. In addition, you can stream audio and video from Apple devices and mirror your iDevice or MacBook on your TV through AirPlay.

The latest version also includes Siri and a new App Store. If you’re invested in iTunes content, and if the Apple TV isn’t missing a streaming channel that’s essential to you, this box is the right choice. With the recent TV app and single sign-on, the Apple TV has also become the best box for most people who want to cut the cord.

All of the key channels you might expect to see are here, including HBO Go, HBO Now (the new $15-a-month streaming service), Hulu Plus, Netflix, and YouTube. It also has good sports coverage with MLB.TV, NBA, NHL, and WatchESPN channels.

But a few important channels are missing. Amazon Instant Video is absent, obviously, which is virtually a dealbreaker for any Amazon Prime member. Current rumors suggest this situation might change in the next few months, so we’ll watch for that. Also missing are Amazon Cloud Player, Pandora, Spotify, and Vudu. You can send many of these channels to the Apple TV via AirPlay if you own an Apple device, but otherwise you’re missing a lot of essential content. If you aren’t already tied to the Apple ecosystem, these missing apps represent a major reason why we generally prefer the Roku Streaming Stick to the Apple TV.

Of course, owning a MacBook, iPad, or iPhone helps to mitigate these issues. You likely already have your desired apps on those devices, and having to use AirPlay to send their content to the Apple TV isn’t a dealbreaker. And if you have macOS Mavericks or above, you can even use AirPlay to turn your TV into a gigantic extra monitor instead of just setting it to mirror your computer’s primary display.

Unless you have a really good router, though, you shouldn’t expect AirPlay to work perfectly. You’ll get better results connecting the Apple TV directly to the router via an Ethernet cable.

Siri voice search does work well, but it’s limited in the number of apps it can search in comparison with Roku (as of this writing, anyway). More voice-searchable apps will be added, but they aren’t there yet. The updated remote is an improvement, but other changes like the new on-screen keyboard reflect poor design choices.

As the user interface is currently designed, the remote’s trackpad isn’t as useful as a standard directional pad. Moving the cursor around to the extent you want is too hard, and the design hasn’t changed to accommodate it. The trackpad might offer some benefits inside of apps, but for navigation, the irritation grows over time.

The Apple TV also doesn’t make it possible to browse content prices from different services, as the only service you can buy from is Apple’s. Our search for Pulp Fiction on the Apple TV, for example, revealed (and you should remember that all of the following numbers have likely changed since the time of writing) that we could buy the movie for $10 from iTunes, rent it for $4 from iTunes, or find it available on Netflix and Showtime. By comparison, our search on the Roku showed that Pulp Fiction was free with Amazon Prime and Netflix, $2 from MGo, $3 from Vudu, and $15 from Cinema Now. You get no other purchase options on the Apple TV—just free streaming from services you can subscribe to.

The release of tvOS 9.2 adds usability tweaks that should make the Apple TV better in daily use. First, and most important, you can now dictate text input via Siri instead of having to use the poorly designed on-screen keyboard. This change, along with the capability to use a Bluetooth keyboard, fixes one of our main complaints about the Apple TV interface. The update also allows you to use folders to group apps together, just as in iOS. Siri can now search the App Store, too.

In addition, your entire photo stream now displays in the Photos app, and you can view the Live Photos taken with the latest iOS devices. All of these fixes are minor updates that improve day-to-day use, but they don’t address the lack of an Amazon Instant Video app or bring support for more music services.

On the other hand, for the cord cutter, the Apple TV is the only current media streamer that works with Sling, Playstation Vue, and DirecTV Now for streaming live channels over the Internet. It can also work with an over-the-air (OTA) tuner like the HDHomeRun. Roku doesn’t work with an OTA tuner or DirecTV Now.

With the recent tvOS update you get the TV app, which can put all your streaming apps and shows into a single location. Right now it only supports a few services (major ones like Netflix are still absent), but the included services there work well. You can see all the shows you like to watch from multiple services in one location. The single sign-on feature lets you log in to your cable provider (if they support it) once and then be logged in automatically to most streaming apps. In this way the Apple TV can work as a box for a cord cutter or replace a cable box.

We’re recommending the 32 GB version because we think most people won’t need the 64 GB version unless they’re heavy gamers, as the unit is designed to free up space when necessary on its own.

While the Apple TV still doesn’t support Amazon, the second most popular streaming service, we really blame Amazon for that, as they doesn’t want to support Android or Chromecast either. With their improving app store, TV app with single sign-on, and improving features, the Apple TV is also coming very close to challenging the Roku for the best streaming box, but it’s not yet for most people.

A pick for playing back local media

media-streamers-nvidia-shieldtv

The Shield does the best job with local media playback. Photo: Chris Heinonen

Also great
Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia Shield does the best job of playing media from USB drives and supports almost any file format.

If you play back a lot of local media files, the Nvidia Shield offers the best local file and streaming app support. In tests, it played every single file I tried, including UltraHD or 4K content. It can play content from hard drives and flash drives either locally (via USB) or over a network using apps like VLC or from a Plex server. If you have a large library of local content to stream, it outperforms the other streaming devices out there. The Shield now supports DTS-HD Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD bitstreams on local content, too, making it an even better playback system for local media than before.

The Shield also works well as a streamer with 4K HDR support (and HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2 to go with it) and a large section of services including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu. Although most UltraHD TVs include Netflix and Amazon, some do not and many omit other UltraHD sources.

To allow all of that, the Shield has the most powerful hardware of any media streamer, and the user interface is very responsive as a result. However, it has all of the familiar drawbacks of Android TV devices: Some streaming services lack a native app and require you to use your phone to begin the stream. These cases are growing more rare but when they occur it’s not as convenient as a dedicated app.

The Shield also offers gaming features and runs modern titles with good graphics. It supports Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud gaming platform, which streams modern PC titles to the box. It’s much better for gaming than, say, Amazon’s Fire TV, but it still lags behind a dedicated game console or gaming PC. The Shield includes a game controller and a remote control, both of which can navigate the system.

An internal microphone lets you perform voice search across different apps, but the search function gives Google sources like the Play Store and YouTube priority, so it isn’t as useful as Roku’s search. It also can’t search the wide variety of sources that Roku’s search can.

You can use a networked TV tuner to watch live TV through the Shield in addition to all your local and streaming content. I found the Apple TV did better with OTA content since the app I use, Channels, is better designed, but the Shield can get the job done.

Because the Shield is an Android TV device, it still doesn’t have the large app selection that Roku does, but the selection is expanding. Last September, a software update added apps for FXNow, WWE Network, Fox Sports Go, CBS Sports, CBS News, and The Weather Network, along with a library of new games. And though nothing can beat the Shield if you have a large library of local content, if you have a Plex server, a Roku box might still be able to get the job done for you (though without the 4K support).

The Plex server in the Shield supports USB, internal (if you purchased the 500GB model) and networked storage, and it can do 1080p video transcoding on the fly, so files will play on any Plex client (like your phone). This is another reason why the Shield is our pick for those that have lots of local media to play back; being able to run an integrated Plex server makes it easier to share that media around your house.

NVIDIA says that future software updates will also let the Shield function as a Google Assistant. A $20 to $30 Z-Wave USB dongle will let it replace a SmartThings hub in a house as well.

For people that just want to stream video, a Roku is a cheaper, better choice. But for those who want something to serve as the media center and hub for your house, the Shield TV offers far more inside.

The competition

Roku Premiere

The Roku Premiere is more like the Roku 4 from last year in that it doesn’t support HDR or WCG. Since the Premiere+ is only $20 more and adds those features, you should either spend the extra $20 for it or save $30 and get the Streaming Stick.

Roku Ultra

The Roku Ultra offers voice search in the remote over the Roku Premiere+, but we don’t think that is usually worth $30 more. (And the implementation shuts out users of universal remotes.) You can use your phone and the Roku app to do this as well in a pinch. If you really want voice search in the remote, get the Ultra, but most people will be fine saving $30.

Amazon Fire TV 4K

The higher-end Amazon Fire TV 4K box can do 4K resolution, but not fully, and it costs too much more for what you get. Unlike the more recent 4K streaming boxes, the Fire TV uses HDMI 1.4 instead of the more recent 2.0 standard. What this means is that it can only stream film content at 4K and can’t do menus or other content at that resolution. It also doesn’t support wide color gamut or high dynamic range, the two UltraHD features that make more of an impact than resolution on recent TVs. As Amazon has content that supports these features, it is surprising that they don’t offer a streaming box capable of supporting them.

Unless you need Freetime Unlimited or a faster processor for playing some of the games you want to download from Amazon, you should save your money and get the Fire TV Stick instead.

Google Chromecast

The updated Google Chromecast hardware offers little in the way of changes, but the updated software makes it a better option than it was before. It still uses your smartphone or tablet instead of a remote (which people love or hate), its resolution is 1080p, and it’s currently the most affordable option. The selection of supported content keeps expanding; in that one regard, it can truly rival Roku. Usually, you can display content not directly supported by “casting” a Google Chrome tab from your computer directly to the Chromecast.

More important is the new Chromecast app that offers universal search across different apps. Prior to this, you had to open each streaming service and search to determine whether a particular movie or TV show was available. That was cumbersome and annoying. The new app lets you search across multiple streaming services to find your content on whatever apps you have on the device where the Chromecast app is installed. This feature makes Google more competitive with Roku and Apple, which have improved cross-platform search on their respective devices as well.

Unfortunately, the search feature currently doesn’t work as well as Roku’s. In our tests, searching for Pulp Fiction, for example, brought up sources to stream the movie, but not from as many choices as the Roku found. More interesting was our search for Amélie: Roku listed five sources to stream it from, but the Chromecast didn’t find it at all. When we searched instead for Audrey Tautou, the star of the film, the Chromecast app found the movie and listed two services that had it. The Chromecast search also doesn’t list prices inside your search; you have to launch apps to find out which services stream an item for free and which services require a purchase. The search is an improvement over nothing, but Google needs to do some work to help it catch up to what Roku, Amazon, and Apple offer.

The Chromecast has a guest mode, so other people can use their Android device (not iOS at this time) to send content to your Chromecast without jumping on your Wi-Fi network. This feature could be useful at parties and family gatherings.

Despite its quirks, the Chromecast makes for a great travel companion due to its tiny size. You can easily take it on trips, hook it up to the hotel TV, and use your phone to stream content to the TV. If the TV has a free USB port, you can power the Chromecast from that and not need a USB adapter. Regrettably, getting it to connect to hotel Wi-Fi networks can be hard, and that makes the device almost unusable in such situations. The Roku Streaming Stick is just as easy to pack now and easily supports captive Wi-Fi ports in hotels.

Without Amazon support or its own remote, the Chromecast falls short of the Roku family—unless, as CNET says, “you’re heavily invested in the Google media ecosystem.” Google Home integration might start to help here, as you can start programs on the Chromecast using it, but that feature isn’t enough to push it past the Roku or Fire TV for us.

Chromecast Ultra

The Chromecast Ultra adds support for UltraHD resolution, including HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Unlike prior Chromecast models, it can’t run off a USB port and requires a power outlet, but the included adapter has an Ethernet port on it as well. Everything we’ve said about the regular Chromecast applies here with the only difference the ones we just mentioned.

With no support for Amazon, no remote, and not being as portable as its non-ultra sibling, it isn’t that appealing of an option yet. The Roku Premiere+ isn’t that much more expensive. Google Home integration might be a reason to pick it, but for most people, the Roku is a better choice.

Gaming systems and built-in TV apps

The Xbox 360 or Xbox One/One S, PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4/4 Pro, connected Blu-ray player, or smart TV you already own probably streams Netflix and plays some local files, too. These devices are just as capable and offer a lot of the same content as most media streamers. However, most of the boxes tend to spin their fans loudly when playing HD video, however, so you do have to consider noise. These also all lack the extensive selection of content that dedicated streamers offer. So they’re fine, but for most people, a media streamer offers more.

Android TV

The Xioami Mi Box is an Android TV box that offers UltraHD support but isn’t as powerful as the Shield TV. As an Android box, it lacks support for Amazon Instant Video, and the Mi Box isn’t as powerful for local content as the Shield is. The menu system is rougher than the Shield, with choices for resolution and other options that are more confusing, and we couldn’t get HDR to work with our UltraHD TV no matter what we did.

Android (but not Android TV)

Lastly, a number of companies are making boxes that run Android, but not Android TV. The advantage to these boxes is that they can run a wider variety of apps, including Kodi (formerly XBMC). The downside is that traditional Android is designed around a touchscreen, so these boxes are hard to use without one, or at least without a mouse and keyboard. A TV remote doesn’t cut it, and they are harder to use from the couch. You’re also using apps designed for a different screen format from your TV’s. And since such a box costs more than a dedicated streamer, this category doesn’t make much sense for most people.

Wrapping it up

The Roku Streaming Stick is our pick because it offers the best selection of streaming content, a fast and responsive interface, and an updated remote control. It offers the best cross-service, platform-agnostic search to help you find what you want, and it provides the best streaming experience for most people.

The Fire TV Streaming Stick is close behind thanks to voice search with Alexa and a vastly improved UI over the previous versions. If you are a heavy Apple user or want to cut the cord, you should look at the Apple TV, and people with lots of local media content to playback will be happiest with the Nvidia Shield TV.

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Sources

  1. Tori Reid, How to Get the Best Possible Roku Experience On the Cheap, Lifehacker, October 14, 2014
  2. David Katzmaier, Roku 2 (2015) review: Faster Roku 2 masters the streaming universe, CNET, April 17, 2015
  3. Will Greenwald, Roku 2 (2015), PCMag, April 9, 2015
  4. Mario Aguilar, HBO Go Is Coming to Amazon Fire TV Unless You Have Comcast, Gizmodo, December 15, 2014
  5. Geoff Morrison, Amazon Fire TV Review, HD Guru, April 15, 2014
  6. Chris Mills, You Can Now Control Your Chromecast With A Normal TV Remote, Gizmodo, March 16, 2015
  7. Matthew Moskovciak, Roku LT (2013) review: The best budget streaming-video box, CNET, November 5, 2013
  8. David Katzmaier, Google Nexus Player review: Android TV needs more apps, less Google Play store pushiness, CNET, November 3, 2014
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  10. Geoffrey Morrison, HDCP 2.2: What you need to know, CNET, July 31, 2014
  11. Joseph Volpe, With the PlayStation TV, Sony's going after families with young kids, Engadget, June 12, 2014
  12. Jeff Bakalar, Sony PlayStation TV review: PlayStation TV: A microconsole with big ambitions, CNET, October 14, 2014

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