The price of a basic cable package has continued to increase year after year, and consumers find themselves paying more for the most premium packages in order to get one or two channels they really want. Streaming devices have introduced the “a la carte” option to television viewing.
Factors to Consider When Buying a Streaming Device
To purchase the best streaming device for your preferences, it’s best to have a list of factors to consider throughout your search. Below, we’ve created a guide with essential things to keep in mind.
The first factor to consider is it the streaming device offers the services you enjoy watching. Many devices provide different streaming channels, but some of the popular choices are: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Spotify, Google Play Music, YouTube, and more.
If you want more services to choose from, you’ll need to increase your budget and opt for a more extensive streaming device.
Stick or Box
Not all streaming devices are the same. You’ll generally choose between a stick or box, though your decision depends on the portability you need. A box is suitable if you’ll link the streaming device to one television in your home. Streaming boxes also have a more straightforward set-up process, as you only need to hook them into your TV, and you’re good to go.
Streaming boxes often come with a remote control - and some offer voice activation so you can speak into the remote to change through channels. Alternatively, a streaming stick provides excellent portability and doesn’t take up much room. Simply install into your TV without requiring any extra cords in your home.
You have more freedom to choose and change your plans, and you can pay only for subscriptions that you plan to use. In this guide, we’ll break down exactly what you need to know about television streaming and lead you to the best streaming device available.
1. What Is a Streaming Device?
A streaming device is a small piece of electronic equipment that you connect to your television set. This device enables you to access the internet and transmit content directly to your TV screen.
2. What’s the Difference Between a Streaming App and a Streaming Device?
A streaming app allows you access to content on any device, whether that’s your TV, your cell phone, your computer or your tablet. Streaming devices make it possible to run these streaming apps on your TV.
3. What Do You Need in Order to Use One?
You’ll need a TV with at least one HDMI port. While you can buy special adapters that use A/V connections to use a device on an older TV, these devices really work best through HDMI. You do not need a smart TV to connect a streaming device.
4. Are They Easy to Install?
Most either plug directly into the HDMI port of your TV, or they use an HDMI cable to connect from the device to the TV. One limitation you’ll want to consider is that some devices come in a “stick” design, and some of these sticks are quite long.
If your HDMI ports are all located in the back of your TV, and you’re planning to mount the TV, you may have to buy an additional cable or another accessory, or else the streaming device won’t fit between the TV and the wall.
How We Reviewed
We took the five most popular, most talked-about streaming devices on the market and evaluated their performances in several areas based on customer satisfaction and reviews. We wanted to know which devices had the most content available, the best user experience and the best price.
Manufacturers of streaming devices frequently release more than one model. We’ll focus on what we feel is the best model within each brand. This enables us to give you the widest variety of options.
Overall Price Range
Our target was the best HD and 4K streamers, making that price tag a little bit higher than the market might suggest. You can certainly get a basic streaming device for a reasonable amount, but with most newer TVs touting UHD and 4K capabilities, we found these streaming devices to be the most optimized for the largest number of users.
Top 5 Streaming Devices
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With Google Chromecast, you’ll have access to the majority of the heavy hitters in the streaming space: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Sling, PS Vue and VUDU, among others. Voice Control is one big streaming device spec that Chromecast is missing, but it does work in conjunction with Google Home.
The functionality of Chromecast is dramatically different than any other streaming device on our list. Rather than an onscreen interface that you navigate with a remote, Chromecast uses streaming apps already downloaded to your mobile devices to “cast” the content to your TV.
For example, instead of using a remote to select Netflix on your TV, you’ll open the Netflix app on your phone, tablet or computer and choose the content you’d like to view. Then you’ll click the Chromecast button to project that content onto your TV screen. This is all possible once you’ve connected the physical Chromecast device to the HDMI port in your TV and gone through the appropriate setup.
Whether or not you like this system may depend on your current streaming habits. If you already use these apps on your mobile devices, it wouldn’t be any additional work to pass them onto your TV. You also won’t have to worry about losing a tiny remote that often comes with streaming devices.
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Roku has five different models to choose from. We went with the Roku Streaming Stick+ for its affordable price and upgraded features. This model, which is a step up from the basic Roku Stick model, works well with 4K and HDR TVs. You’ll have a voice remote, as well as an advanced receiver. The latter makes it easier to stream when your TV is further from your WiFi signal.
With a Roku device, you have the option of downloading a companion app to your mobile device for some additional features. The app allows you to plug in headphones and listen to the content that your TV is streaming. This is great for households that need some quiet without disrupting someone else’s entertainment. The app also makes it easy to search across all your streaming apps for specific content.
Roku Streaming Stick+
If you want to watch a particular movie, you won’t have to search on Netflix, Hulu or others. The Roku app will let you know where you can find it. While Roku has access to the most popular streaming apps like Hulu and Netflix, it also has a huge bonus. You’re able to download Amazon Video content from their app store, which is often excluded on streaming devices due to contractual obligations.
- Our most powerful streaming media stick.
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- Launch and control content with the Alexa Voice Remote.
One of the biggest features Amazon likes to promote about their Fire TVs is the Alexa Voice Remote. With Alexa, you’re able to give the streaming device specific instructions about the apps you wish to use or the content you want to play. To be fair, most streaming devices have voice remote features, including three out of the four other options on our list.
However, Alexa on the Fire TV goes beyond this to access other smart technology in your home, such as lights, Ring camera feeds or thermostat settings. The Fire TV can pair with any Amazon Echo device. If you use Amazon Video to buy content, or if you have an existing Amazon Prime account, then you’ll probably like that the Fire TV is optimal for just this purpose.
Amazon Fire TV
Users tend to report that the interface is a bit clunky to navigate and that apps frequently crash. If you don’t use Amazon much for streaming, there are better devices that give you more options and superior functionality.
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The Apple TV is one of the most expensive options on our list. Unlike the “stick” design of our previous choices that require you simply to plug a dongle into the back of your TV, the Apple TV uses a small box that is connected by an HDMI cord. The remote is voice-activated, and it has a rechargeable battery that you rarely actually have to charge. However, the remote is also very thin, making it quite easy to lose.
If you use iTunes to purchase TV shows and movies, then the Apple TV is your only real option for accessing this content through your TV. Users love its fast response time and simple interface. Though expensive, many customers are satisfied with the purchase and find it well worth the money.
Apple TV 4K 32GB
One significant feature it’s missing is access to a web browser. Most streaming devices have this as an option, for basic web browsing and for streaming content where an app is not available. However, the Apple app store offers a more extensive selection of app content, so you may not need the browser.
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Like the Apple TV, the Shield TV uses a box design that connects to your TV through an HDMI cable. The Shield has one of the largest umbrellas of streaming apps, including both YouTube and Amazon Video, a rare combination. It comes equipped with Google technology, including the Play Store, Google Assistant compatibility and access to your Google calendar.
NVIDIA is unique in that its primary focus is on streaming games directly to your TV. So while it is a fully functioning streaming device for all your favorite streaming apps, it also syncs up with many gaming sources to allow you to stream PC games onto your screen. For someone who’s into both gaming and media streaming, this could be the perfect combination.
NVIDIA Shield TV 16GB
Like most of our choices, it has voice search and control available, with shopping controls in addition to video play instructions. It also works with smart home tasks like lighting and thermostat control, similar to the Amazon Fire TV.
Ultimately, for the average streamer who wants access to the most basic streaming apps, we like the Roku. The brand as a whole has the best price range of any other, offering you several options to get exactly what you need at the price you want. It has both Amazon Video access and a YouTube channel, and the design is simple to use.
If you are an avid user of either Amazon or Apple content, the best option is to purchase each brand’s device since each design is specific to its own content. Before buying any device, it’s important to check and make sure it has the streaming apps you’ll need.
If you’re considering purchasing one of the more expensive streaming devices, you also might choose one with a heftier price tag for the main TV in your home, and then scale down with some cheaper options for the secondary TVs. Regardless of which you choose, you’re sure to love the flexibility and affordability that streaming has to offer, in lieu of traditional cable.