I stream. You stream. We all stream. By March 2019, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) reported streaming video subscriptions passed cable television customers for the first time.
But how do you get to all that content? After more than 10 years of streaming, I know a thing or two about streaming devices. Here’s my pick of the best.
I also know streaming services. I recently reviewed both the best free streaming services and best subscription-based live TV streaming services. You’ll also soon be seeing my pick of the best Video-on-Demand (VoD) services. In short, I know my way around streaming.
You may be thinking, “Why bother with a streaming device? Can’t I get all the streaming services I want from a smart TV? Actually, no, no you can’t.
I wish you could, but today smart TVs are still a poor choice. That’s because, generally speaking, TV manufacturers do a poor job of supporting streaming services. For example, last year, older smart TVs from Samsung and Vizio stopped supporting Netflix. If they can do that to Netflix, the most popular of all subscription-based video streaming services, you know they’ll neglect other services as well.
Some smart TVs also don’t support newer channels. For example, if your kids are demanding Frozen 2 on Disney+ and you have a non-supported Vizio Smartcast TV, you’ll have to explain to your five-year-old that they can’t watch Anna, Else, and Olaf after all. Good luck with that.
A related problem is that smart TVs don’t tend to support the more obscure channels. For example, I like the sport cricket, so I subscribe to Willow TV. If there’s a smart TV out there, which supports it, I haven’t found it yet.
Eventually. true streaming devices may become obsolete. We’re not there yet.
Besides, it’s a lot cheaper to buy a new streaming gadget than it to buy a new TV. So, before you buy any of these, if you like a particular, non-mainstream streaming service, make sure your device supports it. Only Roku supports pretty much everything and anything. And, even then, thanks to business fights, some services may not be supported. For example, until recently, you couldn’t get HBO Max or Peacock on a Roku.
So, with all that in mind, let’s dig into today’s best streamers.
The Stick+ streams 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) video. Like all Roku devices, it includes the best streaming service search function of all streaming devices.
The remote, which now includes a TV volume and power control, is also easy to use. Thanks to its Advanced Wireless Receiver, you can control your viewing experience from anywhere in your living room or even the largest home theater.
As an option, you can also get the remote with earbud headphones. With this, you can watch the show you want without bugging your spouse who’s reading next to you.
Really, there’s no reason to look any further if all you want is an excellent video streamer. The Roku Streaming Stick+ is the best of the best.
What’s that you want the Rolls-Royce of streaming devices? In that case, you’ll want Roku’s latest of its top-of-the-line streaming device: The 2020 Roku Ultra.
For a list price of $100, the Roku Ultra has everything the Stick+ and more. Like what? I’ll tell you.
In addition to 4K and HDR, the Ultra also supports Dolby Vision and three-dimensional audio Dolby Atmos acoustics on compatible TVs. With the right television, sound system, and video content you’ll get the best possible streaming experience.
Notice I said with the “right” equipment and set up. Most new high-end TVs support Dolby Vision, with the notable exception of Samsung, which supports its own HDR10+ format. Dolby Vision will give you a slightly better HDR experience than generic HDR. Dolby Atmos is a surround sound format. It goes beyond Dolby Digital’s 5.1-channels to add “height” audio channels for improved realism. The only way you can experience this is with a home theater audio rig setup to use it. To do that, the Ultra will be the cheapest component of your home theater by an order of magnitude.
The streaming device supports 802.11ac for an excellent high-speed Wi-Fi connection. It also comes with an Ethernet port, if you want the security of a wired network connection. Personally, I prefer the Ethernet port.
It also includes a USB port. With it, you can connect an external hard drive or a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) so you can watch your own video library. That way you don’t need to worry about setting up a media server. Personally, I prefer setting running my own Plex server so I can watch my collection of 30s and 40s movies no matter where I am in my home. But you can’t beat just plugging in your video collection into the USB port for ease of use.
If you want the best possible streaming experience, and you have the rest of the home theater gear to go with it, get the Ultra. It’s that simple.
I’ve been a fan of the Google Chromecast since day one back in 2013. All it could do was mirror my Android smartphone and tablet’s screens and my Chrome web browser’s display to my TV. That was it. Screencasting, as it’s been come to be known, is actually pretty powerful. But, this fall, Google decided to make the Chromecast, under the name Chromecast with Google TV, a full-fledged streaming device.
This next-generation Chromecast now comes with a remote. Earlier versions required you to use your Android device to control it. This remote also supports TV power and volume controls. It also lets you change your TV inputs making it something of a simple universal remote. Although if you want a true high-powered universal remote, you’ll still want to buy a Logitech $70 Harmony 665 or $250 Harmony 950.
Like the Roku Ultra, it supports 4K UHD streaming with HDR and Dolby Vision video support for video and no holds barred Dolby Atmos for outstanding sound. It also comes with the Google TV interface. Behind that, you’ll find the Android operating system with over 6,500 Android TV apps.
It’s best feature, however, is that while other streaming devices make you hop from service to service to find your show. (Example: Is The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix or Amazon Prime? Netflix.) On Google, all your favorite shows, across all your streaming services, are shown on one screen. It’s a killer feature.
Last, but never least, it has a list price of $49.99. With all that, you may wonder why I still prefer the Roku models. Frankly, the only reason at this point is that Roku has a long track history, while this radical new Chromecast is only a few months old. All other things being equal, by this time next year, Chromecast with Google TV may well be my first choice.
The Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Gen) comes with Alexa built-in. Now, I was an Amazon Echo user from the start, so I’m fine with that. If you’re not, keep looking. But if you’re OK with Alexa listening in, then you should check out the latest generation Fire Cube.
This $120 list price version of the Fire TV Cube is faster than its ancestor. It also supports 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos. It’s also one of the few devices that supports Samsung’s HDR10+.
It and the rest of the Amazon Fire TV devices also –finally — support YouTube and YouTube TV. For a long time, Amazon and Google were squabbling, and even though you could get Amazon Prime Video on Google devices, such as Android TVs, you couldn’t get Google-based content on Fire TV devices.
Where the Fire TV Cube excels, as you might imagine, is with voice commands. With this box, you’ll never need to worry about where the remote is hiding this time. It’s inside your couch, by the way; it’s always hidden between the couch cushions, in my vast experience of losing remotes.
It also, thanks to Alexa, will let you, after setting it up properly, let you switch HDMI inputs and even change cable channels.
There’s only one real problem with the new model Fire TV Cube, and it’s one it shared with the rest of the Fire family: Amazon is not shy about putting its Prime video offerings front and center in its interface. And there’s no way to change that. As it happens, I watch a lot of shows on Prime, but even for me, it’s gotten a bit old.
Amazon also offers a wide array of other streaming devices in its Fire family. At $50, the Amazon Fire TV Stick an affordable, high-quality streaming gadget.
Apple TV (2019)
Ted deeply into the Apple entertainment world? This is worth the money.
I haven’t been happy with the last few Apple TV generations, but Apple finally got its groove back with the 2019 edition of the Apple TV 4K. For example, it finally supports 4K streaming, HDR, and applications for most of the major streaming services. But I really hoped there’d be a 2020 Apple TV. Alas, there wasn’t.
Of course, the Apple TV 4K is heavily Apple-centric. That’s great if you have your own iTunes or Apple TV app-based media library. On the other hand, it can’t stream a full 4K HDR video from such external services as Netflix, YouTube, or Vudu. It will play them, yes, but it downscales them to 1080p HDTV.
At $179 for the 32GB version or $199 for the 64GB version of the Apple TV 4K, like all Apple products, it’s not cheap. You can save some money by simply getting the $179 version. Unlike earlier models, the Apple TV only uses its onboard storage for applications and games. It streams all its videos. So, if all you’ll ever do with it is steam videos, there’s no reason to buy the pricier model.
The Apple TV 4K’s bottom line is it’s great for anyone whose life is built around Apple products or the $4.99 Apple+ streaming service. Others can spend far less to watch the same shows.