While current TVs come preloaded with a smart interface, many are clunky, don’t offer the latest streaming services and can lag months behind on updates to the services they do offer. The solution? Streaming sticks and boxes. These plug-and-play devices can enhance even the smartest TV and provide up-to-date access to the services you’re looking for. To help you find the best ones, we’ve spent countless hours with the top streaming boxes and sticks on the market, from Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV and Google Chromecast.
Best overall streaming device: Roku Ultra
$99.99 $59.99 at Amazon
We previously named the 2019 version of the Roku Ultra CNN Underscored’s best overall streaming device. With the 2020 version of the Ultra, Roku took another winning approach and made it even more attractive. From the moment you switch it on, the Roku Ultra presents one of the most seamless experiences of any streaming device we tested.
It was easier and quicker to locate preferred apps and services and to move those used most to a higher spot for even quicker access compared to other devices we tested. We were able to open Netflix, select “Parks and Recreation” and be in the world of Pawnee, Indiana, in about 10 seconds flat.
That swiftness is thanks to its quad-core processor and improved Wi-Fi, which makes the Ultra noticeably faster than other streaming devices we tested. Comparatively, the Roku Premiere takes a handful of seconds to open up an app and a few more seconds to start a stream.
Roku Ultra automatically upscales content to the highest resolution your TV can handle, up to 4K, and calibrates it to make sure it’s optimized for your screen. So if you’re streaming 720p content on a 1080p TV, it will upscale to that resolution, or if you have a 4K TV, it will deliver it at a full 4K resolution.
Content looks great, and with the addition of Dolby Vision HDR, the 2020 Ultra makes it look even better. In action titles, such as “Fast & Furious” and “Star Wars,” we didn’t experience any skips in fast scenes, and colors were vibrant but not overexposed. We previously knocked the Ultra a few points due to the lack of Dolby Vision, but with Dolby Vision joining Dolby Atmos on the Ultra, we have no more complaints.
Roku has access to some of the most popular streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Sling TV, AT&T TV, Philo, Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video are all supported
The cherry on top is the included remote, which provides a simple layout with navigation buttons, voice functionality and volume controls. There’s a headphone jack built right in for personal listening (earbuds are even included in the box), and it has a speaker built in so you can ping the remote if it gets misplaced or lost in the couch cushions.
If you’re looking for a streaming box that’s fast, responsive and future-proofed with features, the latest Roku Ultra delivers at a reasonable price point of $99.99.
The upgrade pick: Apple TV 4K
$179 $169.99 at Amazon
The Apple TV 4K kicks things up a notch compared to the Roku Ultra, adding gaming and countless additional apps to the menu. It’s ideal for anyone in the Apple ecosystem who subscribes to Apple’s many services.
The upgraded 2021 model of the Apple TV 4K looks identical to its predecessor. It’s the same small block with a white LED indicator on the front and power, HDMI, optical and Ethernet connectors on the back. The big change is a fast chip; inside is the Apple-made A12 Bionic in place of the A12. It proved faster during most everyday tasks in our testing, providing a fluid experience with near-instantaneous responsiveness — tvOS and the respective apps fly.
It can handle having multiple streaming services open all at once (much like how you can multitask between different apps on the iPad). You can quickly switch between Netflix and opt to open Disney+ without experiencing any slowdowns. At times, other devices we tested experienced delays when going back to the home screen, but this happens instantly on the Apple TV 4K.
The big and welcome change is the all-new Siri Remote. It’s a solid aluminum remote with a click wheel reminiscent of the iPod; you can click and hold or just touch it to control the interface. It’s much easier to navigate around the user interface. In supported apps you can even use the wheel to scroll back and forth through content. Quite handy. You also get dedicated buttons for back, play or pause, mute, the TV app and volume. Apple’s also finally included a power button that can turn on or off your entire TV setup.
The Apple TV 4K works flawlessly for anyone within the Apple ecosystem via an interface that will be familiar to anyone with an iPad or iPhone. For instance, when you need to fill in a text field (like a password or search box), you’ll get a notification on your iPhone that allows you to use that keyboard to type on your TV screen. It’s leagues better than locating and selecting one letter at a time with a TV remote. It can also autofill an email field for you, and you can access your iCloud Keychain to auto-complete logins to services. It worked like a charm when we tried it on Netflix.
The Apple TV 4K supports all of the major streaming services. Via the App Store, you can find Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Sling TV, HBO Max, Peacock, YouTube, AT&T TV, Philo and tons of others. Countless gaming titles are available through Apple Arcade, while Fitness+ subscribers will be right at home with an app that displays workout metrics from the connected Apple Watch right on the big screen. You’ll also find other core apps, including Facebook’s Apple TV app, which focuses on Facebook Watch.
You can also cast content with AirPlay or AirPlay 2 from your iOS, iPadOS, macOS and watchOS devices — everything from viewing photos or videos from your iPhone to a YouTube video and even mirroring your display.
Like the Roku Ultra, Apple TV 4K will auto-scale content up to 4K Ultra High Definition, and it also supports HDR, HDR 10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. If you currently have a 1080p HD TV, the TV 4K will present content at that resolution and calibrate it for your TV panel. There are minute differences between the calibrations Apple and Roku make, but either way you’ll get an accurate, clear and vibrant picture. The Apple TV 4K goes a step further with support for high-frame-rate content, but that’s basically future-proofing at this point, and only makes a difference right now in the Red Bull app, and only if you have a compatible TV. Don’t upgrade just for this.
You pay more for Apple TV 4K, but Apple users will enjoy the ease of control and added ability to game and access the full App Store for that extra money. At $179.95, it’s not the cheapest streaming device option, but it is the complete package with the best remote we’ve ever used.
Best budget buy: Chromecast with Google TV
$49.99 $39.99 at Target
With a full operating system, a remote (yes, that’s worth a callout) and support for multiple video standards, the Chromecast with Google TV delivers a tremendous amount of value at $49.99. And on top of all that, you also have the ability to cast content straight from your phone.
Unlike the Fire TV Stick 4K (our previous budget pick), you don’t have a clunky software experience that pushes the content you want lower. With Google TV, the software running on Chromecast, it’s pretty clean and puts your preferred content upfront.
The interface features six main categories: For You, Live, Movies, Shows, Apps and Library. Many of these are self-explanatory, but the real kicker here is that Google serves up recommendations from a plethora of services all in one spot. That means under For You, you’ll see suggested content that’s live on YouTube TV, a classic from Netflix and even new titles on HBO Max or Peacock. So no clicking around to find content you want within different apps.
Under the Apps section is where you can find your streaming services and download the respective apps. All the big players and even smaller ones are here — like Netflix, Hulu, Plex and countless others. The latest streaming services on the block, HBO Max and Peacock, both work out of the box on the Chromecast. That bests Amazon’s Fire TV platform and even Roku, which both only have one or the other. For some, that’s reason enough to opt for the Chromecast. The only big one missing here would be AppleTV+. YouTube is of course front and center, along with YouTube TV. The latter is Google’s cord-cutting solution and if you use the platform, this is the streamer for you. It’s integrated directly into all the categories and has a dedicated guide found under the Live section. It will even place your favorite shows, as they’re airing, in the respective content recommendation tabs. On a Roku or the Apple TV, it’s just another app and doesn’t offer deep integration throughout.
Choosing content is as simple as selecting the tile and the Chromecast starting the stream. It all happens very swiftly and the performance of this smaller dongle is on-par with that of the Roku Ultra.
And rounding out the Chromecast with Google TV is the Google Assistant. You can ask for any query or question your brain can think of — and that extends to TV content. You can ask for a specific show or movie, and it pulls up a page about the title, including multiple ways to stream it.
After countless hours of bingeing content –— ahem, we mean testing — we can safely declare the Chromecast with Google TV to be the best budget play at just $49.99. You’d be hard-pressed to get more value from the Fire TV Stick 4K (which is the same price), and this performs better than cheaper options from Amazon or Roku.
How we tested
While some of these are sticks and others are boxes, the core use case is to stream content to your TV. And we crafted categories that best reflect that core premise.
Under the Ease of Setup category, we focused on what came in the box and the process for getting the device working. In some cases, it was as simple as plugging it in and connecting to Wi-Fi; for others, we held a device nearby for fast pairing.
Performance tackled more areas, notably the ecosystem, quality across watching the content and available apps and services.
On the quality perspective, we calibrated each streaming device for the TV and then checked out the upscaling. Most importantly, we ensured that it reached 4K UHD or 4K Ultra High Definition as well as checked out the supported standards.
In terms of the build, we looked at the outside and the overall quality of the design. Did the materials live up to the price point? Was space wasted? And what did the controls and ergonomics of the remote mean for the user experience?
We tested all of these streamers with a range of TVs: a 55-inch TCL 6-Series, a 55-inch LG CX55, a 65-inch Sony A8H, a 65-inch TCL 8-Series, a 55-inch Vizio V-Series, a 65-inch Vizio M-Series and a 75-inch Vizio P-Series. Additionally, for the network, we tested hardwired and wirelessly with a FiOS Gigabit connection. We also tried 4G LTE and 5G hot spots from AT&T and T-Mobile for Wi-Fi streamers.
Others we tested
$144 at Amazon
The standard Apple TV tested nearly as well as the upgraded Apple TV 4K. It has a slightly slower processor but still runs tvOS, offers deep integration to the Apple ecosystem and uses the Siri TV remote. But we think it makes more sense to opt for the Apple TV 4K, as it future-proofs you.
$39.99 $24.99 at Amazon
The non-4K Fire TV Stick is nearly identical to the 4K Fire TV Stick. What’s the big difference? It only supports up to 1080p HD streaming and lacks Dolby Atmos audio. It has the same processor, and in our testing it performed nearly the same. But for $10 more, you’re better off opting for the 4K variant to truly future-proof your TV.
$29.99 at Target
The Chromecast has come a long way, and the current one is quite nice. It still just plugs into the back of your TV and allows you to cast via the “Google Cast” standard to your TV. It doesn’t provide an interface, so you need to use an Android device, iPhone, iPad or laptop to control the experience. To some degree, it’s nice, since you don’t need to re-sign in and can open the Netflix app, hit the Cast icon and send it to the big screen. At $29.99, it’s cheap, and if you’re sold on Google Cast, it’s a good option, but it’s only 1080p HD.
Currently unavailable at Google
As we said, the Achilles’ heel to a degree of a Chromecast was 1080p HD and that it doesn’t have an interface. For $69, the Chromecast Ultra solves part of that. The Ultra supports up to 4K UHD and more than 2,000 services. But for that price, you can score the Roku Ultra, which is a full-fledged streaming box that doesn’t simply rely on your connected phone.
$119.99 $69.99 at Amazon
We really enjoyed our time with the Fire TV Cube, but to a degree, it feels like it’s trying to be too much. The premise? It combines an Alexa smart speaker with a Fire TV streaming device. It’s a square box that’s taller than most streaming devices and has the classic blue light strip on the front. You can ask Alexa to turn on the TV, but it doesn’t offer full voice control. Performance-wise, it’s fast and it meets the quality standards with 4K UHD and HDR support.
$29.99 $18.99 at Amazon
This is Roku’s entry-level device, which is affordable at $30, but for $10 more, you can get the Streaming Stick+, which is faster, has a voice remote and features 4K UHD streaming. It’s just better by every stretch of the imagination. Although the Express comes with an HDMI cord, we think you’re better off with the Streaming Stick+.
$34.99 at Roku
The Roku Premiere is kind of like an enhanced Roku Express that adds 4K support and keeps the non-voice remote. You also get an HDMI cable, but it’s not as fast as the Streaming Stick+.
$44.99 $29.99 at Amazon
Yes, Roku’s Streaming Stick+ is faster than our budget pick and gets a more feature-filled remote. We really like the built-in volume controls but found that voice control wasn’t critical to the core streaming experience. Especially when price was a key focus. If you don’t mind the unique design and a more basic remote, the Roku Premiere still delivers 4K support at an even cheaper price.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: