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The best streaming devices of 2018

By Brendan Hesse

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While virtually all TVs ship with smart features these days, they may not be the features you want, as manystreaming services are only available viaexternalhardware. The best solution: Buy a worthy streaming media player. The problem is, a veritable smorgasbord of available choices makes this a more complicated and daunting task than ever before.

With TVs offering 4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR), you want to make sure you buy a streamer that is compatible, but that’s only the start. You also want to make sure that the streaming services you care about (and the content you want to watch) can be easily found, without having to scour the web for hours. This article serves up the cream of the crop — the best streaming devices out there — so you can get the absolute most from your streaming experience.

Our Pick

roku streaming stick+ review in tv
Caleb Denison/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this? It’s the best streamer on the market, and it’s affordable to boot.

Who’s it for?Anyone who wants to stream 4K and HDR through an easy-breezy interface.

How much will it cost? $55

Why we picked the Roku Streaming Stick+:

In our full review, we said the Roku Streaming Stick+ is the most sensible streaming TV device available at the time it was released back in 2017 for $70, and that statement still rings true over a year later, especially considering it’s now even less expensive.

At $55, The Streaming Stick+ delivers one of the best features-to-price ratios among streaming devices out there. You’ll be able to watch 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos Audio through this tiny device that looks more like a USB thumb drive and easily hides behind your TV.

The discreet design extends beyond just it’s physical profile. Thanks to powerful802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless support, you’ll be able to set it up anywhere within your home’s Wi-Fi range — no Ethernet cable-stringing required. The only actual requirement with the Streaming Stick+ is a TV, or any display with an HDMI port and USB. Just a plug the Stream Stick+ into your the HDMI port, and the power cable into one of its USB ports (or an adapter if it doesn’t have one), and you’re done.

One of our favorite things about the streaming Stick+ is something shared by all Roku devices, and that’s its awesome user interface. RokuOS uses an app-agnostic approach, which makes finding the best place to watch the content you want easier than Roku’s competitors. It so good, in fact, that in any matchup where the specs might be identical between a Roku and a rival device, we’ll almost always choose the Roku, and the Streaming Stick+ especially.

Our full Roku Streaming Stick review

The best premium set-top streaming box

Roku Ultra

best streaming devices roku ultra

Why should you buy this?It’s is the most powerful set top streaming box currently available

Who’s it for?Those who want the features of the Streaming Stick+, but desire a little more horsepower and stability

How much will it cost? $90

Why we picked the Roku Ultra:

The $90 Roku Ultra brings with it a slew of awesome features. Like any high-end streamer, it supports 4K and HDR (though Dolby Vision isn’t currently compatible), but that is just the beginning.

The Ultra sports an Ethernet port to help improve connection speeds and a MicroSD card slot to show people pictures from your most recent vacation (or whatever). It also has a USB port, so you can view content from any compatible device. The box itself has a “lost remote” button that will trigger a tone from the remote (even though we all know it’s under the couch), and said remote has both a headphone jack and dedicated power/volume buttons that can control TV volume, depending upon the model.

Night Listening mode automatically adjusts volume scene-by-scene to avoid waking up the kids. And you probably already surmised this from our words about the Streaming Stick+ (or anything else Roku ’round these parts), but we love the Roku OS. From the biggest library of apps (aka “Roku channels”) around to an incredible cross-channel search function, there is no digital ecosystem that can compete.

The best media streamer for gamers

The Nvidia Shield

Nvidia Shield

Why should you buy this?It offers 4K and HDR, paired with premium gaming features.

Who’s it for? Those who prefer their streaming with a healthy side of gaming.

How much will it cost? $180 to $300

Why we picked the Nvidia Shield TV:

Most of the products on this list are squarely focused on streaming video, but despite the “TV” in its name, the Nvidia Shield TV takes a different approach. The device features 4K resolution and HDR streaming capabilities based on the Android TV platform, but at its heart, the Shield TV is designed with gamers in mind.

More than 200 games are available to play via Android TV, with many exclusive to the Shield TV. If you’re a PC gamer, the ability to stream PC games to your Shield TV while you kick back on the couch makes it an even more attractive option. The base version, which sells for $200, includes just 16GB of storage. But $300 gets you 500GB, along with MicroSD and Micro USB slots.The included controller — which Nvidia has revamped— provides a familiar feel to experienced console gamers, and the device also supports most other Bluetooth controllers out there, including Sony’s DualShock 4 and Xbox One controller. For those who want the muscle of the Shield’s hardware but don’t want (or need) the wireless controller, a remote-only 16GB option is also available for $180.

For 4K streaming, Netflix, Vudu, UltraFlix, Amazon Video, and YouTube are currently supported, with HDR support available on select services. For HD streaming, many more options are available, includingHBO Now, Twitch, CBS, Fox, and Vimeo — basically, anything in the Google Play store — and live TV is available via Sling TV or PlayStation Vue. Many of these apps can easily be searched using the built-in Voice Search feature.

For $8 a month, GeForceNOW allows users to stream games to their Shield at 1080p resolution, but performance isdependent upon internet speed. On the audio side, the Nvidia Shield TV supports 5.1 and 7.1 surround sound, as well as Dolby Atmos object-based surround sound. High-resolution audio is also supported, with some formats supported natively and others supported via pass-through.

Our full Nvidia Sheild TV review

The best media streamer for Apple lovers

Apple TV 4K

Apple TV Review
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Why should you buy this?You want a seamless TV experience across Apple devices.

Who’s it for? Users heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.

How much will it cost? $180 to $200

Why we picked the Apple TV 4K:

After spending two years as an afterthought in the streamer market due to a lack of 4K support, the Apple TV is back and better than ever. With a bevy of cool features, it’s a no-brainer for Apple devotees and a worthy (if spendy) competitor to high-end offerings from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

The new Apple TV 4K has a few tricks up its sleeve, beginning with its A10X Fusion processor, which is superfast. Put it this way: The only thing holding this box back speed-wise will be your internet connection. For those with iPhones, iPads, and Apple laptops, there is a cool option that allows you to copy login info directly to the Apple TV from those devices, which drastically reduces the amount of time spent entering passwords. Plus, if you had a thirdi or fourth-generation Apple TV, it will automatically sync your previous TV OS layout to make life simpler.

You can use Siri to search for content, including cross-platform searches, though Apple’s library of apps isn’t as diverse as, say, Roku’s. You still have access to heavy hitters like Netflix, Hulu, Sling TV, and more recently, Amazon Prime Video (though the app is half-baked compared to other apps on the device). Plus, you’ll have access to the iTunes store and your entire iTunes library. You can also use intuitive questions and statements for voice-controlled search (“Show me 4K movies on Netflix”) instead of resorting to awkward jargon.

As far as picture quality goes, the Apple TV can’t be beaten. In addition to 4K, it supports HDR in both Dolby Vision and HDR10, so when you select the right content, it truly looks incredible. There’s one drawback: The box forces your TV into HDR mode, so standard dynamic range content ends up looking darker than it usually would (though rumor has it that the yet-to-be-released tvOS 11.2 update will solve this issue). Is the Apple TV 4K worth its hefty price tag? We’re on the fence there, but if you’re one of those “All Apple Everything” types, this is the streaming device for you.

Our full Apple TV 4K review

The best jack-of-all-trades media streamer

AmazonFire TV

Amazon Fire TV with Alexa

Why should you buy this? More 4K support than Nvidia Shield TV, better gaming than Roku Premiere+, built-in Alexa, and a great price.

Who’s it for? Users who want a bit of everything.

How much will it cost? $70 ($75 for HD Antenna bundle; $80 for the Echo Dot bundle)

Why we picked the Amazon Fire TV:

If you’re reading this article and every single devicesounds like something you want, the Fire TV (specifically the new model) might be for you. It doesn’t have every feature of the other streamers on this list, but it offers a compelling mix of some of the best features available.

Like many of the other streamers here, the Fire TV supports 4K resolution and HDR playback via HDR10, though not Dolby Vision. When it comes to gaming, the Fire TV also sits in the middle of the pack. It’s not a gaming-focused device like the Nvidia Shield TV, but it’s much better for gaming than any Roku model thanks to the available gaming controller (plus, Amazon’s selection features popular titles like Minecraft andShovel Knight, while Roku’s comprises a bunch of generic games). Amazon even sells a version of the Fire TV that bundles in the gaming controller.

In terms of content, you won’t find quiteas many apps as Roku devices, but all of the big players are here. In addition to Amazon’s own sizable library of content, Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Now offer on-demand content, while Sling TV and PlayStation Vue are available for live TV. As a bonus, the Fire TV version of PlayStation Vue offers an interface that is almost equivalent to the PlayStation 4 experience. If you’re looking to stream in 4K, however, you are limited to Amazon and Netflix content.

While Google has pulled YouTube support for Amazon devices, there is a workaround (for now). The Fire TV supports web surfing through the Firefox and Amazon Silk browsers, both of which are available in the Amazon App store, and you can use Firefox to access YouTube that way (it’s blocked on Silk). Plus, both browsers feature a full experience similar to desktop or mobile browsers, replete bookmarks and curated home pages, plus the ability to browse via voice search.

The price of the new Fire TV is currently just $70, making it an even better option for those who feel most comfortable with the Amazon ecosystem.

Our full Amazon Fire TV review

The best mini-streamer

Google Chromecast 2

best streaming devices chromecast 2

Why should you buy this?The Chromecast syncs with your phone or other media devices for easy casting

Who’s it for? Anyone who just wants a simple, affordable streamer.

How much will it cost? $35

Why we picked the Chromecast 2:

If you don’t have a 4K- or HDR-enabled television, you obviously don’t need to spend $50 to $100 on a device that streams in 4K. Thankfully, the Chromecast is a tiny, simple streaming device that works in tandem with devices you’re already using — namely your phone or tablet.

The second generation of Google’s tiny streaming stick has a lot going for it compared to the first version of the device. Most notably, the bump up to 802.11ac wireless support means better, more stable wireless connections.

Google has also iterated on the Chromecast app. Unlike other streaming devices, Chromecast devices (which also includes Chromecast Audio and the pricier but more powerful, 4K-supported Chromecast Ultra) use a smartphone app to control playback and search for content, rather than a dedicated remote. This means that all your watching is done via apps and content already on your phone, and then cast to the Chromecast. This new version of the app focuses on the apps you already have installed, making search snappier and more convenient than before. There’s also the addition of Spotify support, something the Chromeast lacked in the past.

The Chromecast is also deeply integrated into the Google ecosystem — or at least it can be — and supports Google Assistant for controlling what you’re watching, as well as any Google smart home devices. For Android and Google die-hards, this is likely going to be a key feature. However, users on iOS, Mac, and Windows will still be able to get plenty of use out of the Chromecast, as each of these support castingto the device.

Other information

How we test

We test our streaming players over a period of days or weeks, replicating exactly how you’d use them in real-life scenarios. That includes testing them for speed, convenience, intuitiveness, and a variety of features. Accessibility to a wide variety of apps is also crucial — after all, most TVs and Blu-ray players are already set up for basic streaming — so a designated streamer should offer something more.

A streamer might have the best hardware in the world, but this won’t matter if you can only watch content from one streaming service. In order to meet our standard, a streaming media player ideally supports all or most of the major content providers, as well as a wide variety of newer features like 4K Ultra HD and HDR. Finally, we look at how much quality and how many features you get on a dollar-by-dollar scale, to assure each of our top streamers is not only a great experience but also a great value.

Is now a good time to buy?

Whether or not now is the time to jump on one of these streaming media devices dependson what catches your eye. For Roku models, the answer is yes as long as you’re looking the models and price ranges covered here. Roku hasn’t launched its 2018 models, so everything here is from 2017. Upcoming models will likely have better specs in some way, but will also likely cost more. We’ll update once any potential new Roku devices hit the market.

Likewise, Amazon and Apple launched new editions of their Apple TV and Fire TV, respectively, in 2017. These new versions included 4K and HDR support. While Apple tends to take longer to update its hardware, a new model could drop at any time. Similarly, a new Fire TV hitting this year is also very likely, especially if recent rumors are to be believed.

The Nvidia Shield TV is a slightly different story. Nvidia had been planning a successor to the Shield TV, but dropped those plans and we haven’t heard anything since. Still, this streaming box packs plenty of horsepower, and continues to gain more features with every software update. Considering it’s likely to remain a viable in-home gaming streaming option for some time, we expect this iteration of the hardware to stick around.

Finally, we have the Chromecast. Google launched the second generation of the device in 2018, so the model here is the most recent version. As such, we don’t expect any announcements regarding further new Chromecast hardware any time soon.

Platform differences

Roku: Roku’s interface is common across every model, whether you’re talking the top-of-the-line Ultra model or the entry-level Express. There is also a certain look to Roku apps, and you won’t find interface differences across different apps as much as you might on other platforms. As we’ve mentioned before, you’ll find nearly every streaming service or channel you care about represented here, and unlike certain other platforms, you won’t find any gaps, with the notable exception of iTunes, which is only available on Apple streamers.

Amazon: Amazon only offers two Fire TV models — the Fire TV and the Stick — but the interface is the same for both. Apps differ much more here than those found on other devices, and this can be a benefit. PlayStation Vue, for example, currently offers a much more intuitive interface on Fire TV devices. However, as Amazon wants to drive users toward its own store, there are some missing services here: Google Play isn’t available (there is a workaround), nor is Vudu. Both are available on Roku devices, and Vudu is available on every other streamer listed here.

Apple TV: The Apple TV user interface lies somewhere between the Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Apps have a fairly consistent look, but you’ll always be able to tell when you’re watching on an Apple TV. Similar to Amazon, Apple would prefer users buy and rent content via iTunes, so you won’t currently find an app for Google Play, though an Amazon Video app has finally arrived. There is a fairly easy workaround, however, as Google play offers a mobile app that allows content to be streamed to an Apple TV via AirPlay.

Android TV (Nvidia Shield): Android TV is a little different than the other options here, in that manufacturers can put their own spin on the interface, similar to phone manufacturers with Android. The Shield TV implementation falls somewhere between the Roku and Fire TV in terms of looks, with apps exhibiting plenty of individuality. Amazon Video isn’t available out of the box, though it can be cast or sideloaded if you want to dive under the hood.

Chromecast:EAs the name might imply, Chromecast runs entirely on the magical power of casting — meaning beaming content from one device wirelessly to your TV. Everything about the Chromecast is controlled via your casting device — including app search, content playback, and even private listening modes — whether that’s anAndroid or iOS smartphone or tablet, a Windows PC, or a Mac. This is obviously a major difference between its competitors, which have their own operating systems, user interfaces, and dedicated versions of apps.

Words and terms you need to know

  • 4K Ultra HD: The highest resolution currently available, around four times that of 1080p HD (3,840 x 2,160). It is quickly becoming the standard for new TVs.
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi: The most recent and fastest Wi-Fi standard — not as fast as Ethernet, but faster than 802.11n.
  • Android TV: A smart TV platform powered by Android and available across smart TVs, set-top boxes, and more.
  • Casting: A term, popularized by Google, for sourcing content from the internet from a mobile device or computer to a TV or set-top box.
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR): Short for High Dynamic Range, HDR offers better contrast and more colors than standard dynamic range. It’s considered by many to be a more notable visual improvement than 4K Ultra HD resolution itself.
  • HDR10: One of the two most popular HDR formats, and an open standard backed by Samsung, Sony, LG, and other companies.
  • Dolby Vision: One of the two most popular HDR formats. Proprietary, and less popular than the other format, HDR10, Dolby Vision has advantages, such as the ability to gauge your HDR TV’s capabilities and tailor the HDR experience.
  • Single Sign-on (SSO):A feature that allows users to use a single login to automatically sign in to all linked apps, provided they support the feature. This is supported by each of the devices we’ve picked here, but requires an account through a paid TV provider.

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