Choose the best streaming device for your needs

Just because your friend likes one doesn’t mean you will, too.

happy young couple watching television together at home
When your only window is the size of a two-by-four, sometimes streaming a nature documentary is the best option.SimpleFoto via Depositphotos

You've got more music, movies, and shows to pick from than ever before—and an increasing number of gadgets to watch them on. With streaming boxes and streaming sticks galore, it's a congested market.

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the best options available, and the information below should help you find a streaming device that’ll play everything you want to watch while working seamlessly with your other household gadgets. Ultimately, it’ll come down to two major considerations: the apps you want to run and the amount of money you want to spend.

Roku

Roku devices will play almost anything you want and won’t cost you much money at all—you’ve got the $30 Roku Express, the $40 Roku Premiere, the $50 Roku Streaming Stick Plus, and the $100 Roku Ultra to pick from. As those prices go up, you get smoother performance, a more reliable wireless connection, higher resolutions, and the addition of voice control from the bundled remote. Check the listings for each model’s exact specs.

The selection of apps is fantastic, from live TV to music, and even web browsers. These are the only streaming devices that have official apps for Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play Movies & TV. Add in a host of other apps for streaming, cable channels, live TV, and more, and it’s hard to beat Roku for variety. You can even search for content across multiple apps via Roku’s interface.

Where they’re not quite as good as their rivals is in the interface’s overall speed and polish, and the integration of extras like digital assistants (though you can use some Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands).

A Roku is likely to be the best media streamer for a lot of people—it’s just that the devices made by Amazon, Apple, and Google offer slightly better integration with their respective hardware and software ecosystems.

Google Chromecast

Google’s Chromecast is available in two flavors: the $35 Chromecast and the $69 Chromecast Ultra. The Ultra adds 4K capabilities and an Ethernet adapter option so you can wire it directly to your router, but both have the same core functionality.

The Chromecast doesn’t have much in the way of its own software or interface: It’s designed as an extension of your phone, like a wireless extender that plugs into your TV. You tap the cast button inside your app of choice to beam content over to your Chromecast, then carry on controlling playback with your phone.

It works with a host of audio and video apps on both Android and iOS, including Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, and Plex, but a big omission is the TV app for iOS. That means if you've bought movies and shows from the iTunes Store, you won’t be able to Chromecast them. Apple Music works with Chromecast, but only on Android.

It’s a great streaming device for just about everyone—it’s cheap, simple, and just works. It links up seamlessly with other Google apps and services, so you’ll be able to cast a video from YouTube on the web, or mirror your Android device’s screen using a Chromecast.

So if you’re looking for tight integration with other Google products, including its new Stadia gaming service, a Chromecast may be your top choice. In more general terms, unless you buy the bulk of your digital movie and TV show content directly from Apple, you’re likely to get along well with a Chromecast.

Apple TV

an Apple TV with Jason Momoa on it, for his tv show See, and apps for Apple TV, Apple Music, gaming, photos, and the app store
Disclaimer: Buying an Apple TV will not grant you the intimidation powers of Jason Momoa.Apple

Apple’s media streaming device is the Apple TV (not Apple TV Plus, which is its streaming service). It’s a standalone box with its own operating system, its own local storage, and the ability to both stream media and play games (you can use Apple Arcade).

It’s got most of the big apps, including Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Plex, and, of course, Apple’s own media apps. Google Play Movies & TV is missing, but you’ll be able to get at any TV shows and movies you’ve purchased from Google Play through the YouTube app if you’re signed in.

As with any Apple device, this will appeal to anyone already invested in Apple’s hardware ecosystem. The Apple TV supports the AirPlay streaming standard, for example, so you can beam content over from any Mac, iPhone, or iPad, or just mirror the screen of those devices on your television set.

The downside is its $149-$199 price tag (depending on storage and 4K features)—more expensive than most of the other options here. If that’s out of your budget, you might find you’re happy just casting video and audio to a Chromecast from your iPhone instead. In all, it’s a polished, premium media streaming box with plenty of power and capabilities, but really only for those who want to go all-in on Apple gear in their homes.

Amazon Fire TV

The Amazon Fire TV devices ($40 stick, $50 stick with 4K, $120 Cube with 4K) are a bit like the Amazon Fire tablets: relatively affordable, reasonably well built, and heavily focused on Amazon’s services. That includes the Alexa digital assistant, Amazon Music for your tunes, and Amazon Prime Video for your movies and TV.

In terms of video content, these are just about the most comprehensive devices you can buy. They’re stocked with Netflix, Hulu, HBO, YouTube TV, Amazon Prime Video (of course), ESPN, Disney Plus, and more, and you can even play video content purchased from Apple via the iTunes Store, thanks to the Apple TV app. There’s no Google Play Movies & TV app, but you can get at your Google purchases via the YouTube app instead.

Music is less promising—beyond Amazon Music there’s a Spotify app, and Deezer is another option. Apple Music works, but only via voice command, so you won’t be able to dig into albums and playlists on-screen, and you can’t currently use YouTube Music with Amazon Fire TV hardware. A decent selection, but not the best.

As always, Amazon excels on price, and these streamers are simple to set up and use. The Cube upgrade comes with an integrated speaker and can control a variety of smart home gear as well, so it essentially doubles as an Echo Dot. The $50 streaming stick with support for 4K content is probably the sweet spot for most people.

Nvidia Shield

While Google’s Android TV platform comes built into numerous television sets, the only standalone device it’s really available on is the Nvidia Shield. Fortunately for Google fans, the two Shields—the $150 Shield TV and the $200 Shield TV Pro—are top-notch pieces of hardware.

Their app selection is very good, with Netflix, Hulu, YouTube TV, Plex, Disney Plus, HBO, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify, YouTube Music, Deezer, and many more. The Shield devices work as Chromecasts, too, which means you’ll be able to beam content over from other apps on your phone, including Apple Music, Google Photos, and your favorite podcast app.

The major gap is a lack of support for anything from the iTunes Store, as the Apple TV app hasn’t yet made the leap to Android TV. But with so many other apps available, and the Google Assistant on board, we’d say the Shields are an excellent choice for your next media streamer.

It’s worth mentioning the Shield devices outshine both Chromecast and Roku in their gaming capabilities. Both can play games over the web via Nvidia’s GeForce Now platform and work with a ton of Android games as well. For $50 extra, the Pro box has somewhat better specs, a slightly bigger selection of more sophisticated Android games, and extra USB ports if you want to hook up wired gaming peripherals such as a mouse and keyboard.