Looking for a new TV gadget to stream all of your favorite entertainment? Buying an excellent streaming device is easier in 2021 than ever before — and the prices only continue to drop and get more appealing: $50 is the sweet spot if you want a streaming stick or set-top box that can do crisp 4K resolution, Dolby Vision / HDR, and immersive Dolby Atmos surround sound. Each of the picks below has its own strengths, whether it’s a snazzier interface, better voice controls, or a more comprehensive universal search for digging through all of your services. Depending on your wants, there are several good contenders, but the Chromecast with Google TV stands out as the best streaming device for most people.
Pretty much any 4K TV you buy today will come with a batch of built-in streaming apps. But they won’t always have everything. (For example, my LG OLED still somehow doesn’t have HBO Max.) So a dedicated streaming device is the best way to guarantee you’ll be able to watch that show or movie everyone’s been talking about. You can spend less money on entry-level Roku or Amazon streaming players, but you’ll be better off with one of our recommendations if you want your purchase to last.
The best streaming stick for most people
Google has done the best job figuring out what the home screen on a streaming stick should look like. That’s really the long and short of why the Chromecast with Google TV has taken the crown of best streaming player. With its new Google TV software, the company has taken a content-first approach that feels more focused and refined than what Amazon and Apple have managed in their own attempts to aggregate popular shows and movies.
On a Roku or Fire TV, my instinct is always to head right for the app where I want to watch something. But with the Chromecast, I’m equally happy browsing through Google’s rows of recommendations. The Google TV software always clearly shows where content is coming from — you can pick which streaming apps get factored into these recs — and it also provides helpful information (like Rotten Tomatoes ratings) at the surface level when you’re hunting for that night’s entertainment.
When you actually hit play, you’re punted over to Netflix or Prime Video or HBO Max just like always, but there’s no avoiding that. In terms of app selection, Google’s got all of the main players covered. You can still cast content to the Chromecast from your phone or laptop, and Google Assistant voice searches consistently work well and showcase Google’s accurate voice recognition.
Everything about Google TV feels tasteful, from the fonts to the way the background color subtly shifts to match the artwork of whatever content is highlighted. And the universal Watchlist, which lets you put together a list of stuff you’re interested in from various streaming services, is super convenient — especially since you can add to it from the web or your phone.
But not everything about the Chromecast with Google TV is perfect. The software can slow down from time to time, and some customers have encountered significant bugs that Google has tried to iron out with software updates. More annoyingly, despite the hardware supporting both Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, there are still very popular apps like Disney Plus — which delivers both on other platforms — that aren’t doing so on the Chromecast. HBO Max says it does Atmos, but that hasn’t been my experience. Why? Who knows, but these inconsistencies are a mark against Google. And as for the Watchlist, some services like Netflix have already started removing their shows from it. Again, that’s something Google has no control over, but it does lessen the feature’s usefulness.
2. Roku Streaming Stick Plus
The best streaming device for people who want to keep it simple
It’s hard to really complain about a Roku. The company’s streaming devices are about as simple and straightforward as they come. All of your apps are laid out in a big grid, which can make the experience feel a bit siloed — but there’s no beating that ease of use. And Roku has tried to touch up and modernize the home screen a bit with new sections like “Featured Free” to highlight content you can stream without any subscriptions.
Despite some occasional spats with content companies, Roku now has pretty much all of the entertainment you could want, including (most recently) HBO Max and Peacock. And the wonderfully neutral universal search remains one of the best aspects of the platform, favoring your existing subscriptions and free-to-stream options over making you pay money to rent or buy. And the company’s Roku Channel has grown into a legitimate streaming app of its own, offering a mix of ad-sponsored movies, TV shows, and live news for those days when you’re burned out on combing through Netflix or Amazon Prime Video.
The $50 Streaming Stick Plus remains the best overall pick among Roku’s hardware when you weigh price and performance. It gives you HDR, Dolby Atmos, and speedy performance. The main thing you’ll miss out on is Dolby Vision. If that’s a must, you should look at the $100 Roku Ultra set-top box instead, which also includes an Ethernet port for optional wired connectivity and a helpful remote finder feature. Plus, the Ultra’s remote has customizable shortcut buttons and a headphone jack so you can listen privately to whatever’s on-screen if you’re trying to keep quiet at night. (Other Rokus let you do the latter with the company’s mobile app.)
If there’s one area where Roku falls flat, it’s probably voice search. Your voice queries for specific shows or movies should work well enough, but Roku lags Amazon and Google when it comes to natural language interactions. (And forget about using your voice to control smart home gadgets or look up entertainment-related facts.) Still, the company is adding other perks to offset that weakness. Late last year, it added support for Apple’s AirPlay, letting you easily send content from an iPhone, iPad, or Mac to the TV screen. Speaking of Apple…
The best streaming device overall experience (for a steep price)
It’s fair to look at the Apple TV 4K as overpriced compared to its competitors, but Apple’s set-top box still has its own set of appealing qualities. The interface is fantastic. It supports Dolby Vision and Atmos across a wide variety of services, has all of the important apps checked off, and also gives you add-ons like Apple Arcade and Apple Fitness Plus (if you pay for them) that you won’t find on other streaming devices.
Apps sometimes have a higher level of polish on Apple TV and are generally better about taking advantage of everything the box can do. Another benefit of the Apple TV is privacy — to some extent. Apple itself isn’t obsessed with tracking your viewing data in the same way that a company like Roku is, but the streaming apps can still see what you’re doing. I generally think consumers aren’t particularly averse to sharing their streaming habits, but Apple’s privacy practices might matter to you.
Even with AirPlay now on Roku, the Apple TV still wins out for people deeply invested in Apple’s ecosystem. You can use HomePods as its speakers or connect two sets of AirPods for private listening with audio sharing. You can view the feed from HomeKit security cameras or see who is at the door if you have a HomeKit video doorbell. The Apple TV still makes it easy to tap into content on a Mac in your home, and services like Apple Music and iCloud Photo Library are right there in easy reach on the TV screen.
And with the 2021 model of the Apple TV 4K, Apple has finally redesigned the Siri Remote with a much simpler, more intuitive button layout that adds power and mute controls. It’s larger and harder to lose in the couch cushions, too. The second-gen Apple TV 4K is also now more future-proofed as a smart home hub with the inclusion of Thread support.
The best streaming stick if you’re in Amazon’s ecosystem
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K is yet another popular pick in that $50 range of streaming gadgets. The latest model added support for Dolby Vision, which made it the only product to offer everything HDR (Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR10+, HDR10) for such little money — until the new Chromecast came along.
The Fire TV Stick 4K’s software is similar to the Chromecast in that the home screen takes a content-focused approach instead of just throwing a grid of apps at you. Amazon tends to showcase its own Prime Video content more prominently than shows and movies from other services, but the newly revamped software goes a long way in improving the look and feel of the Fire TV. Alexa voice commands with the remote also work reliably, whether you’re saying “open Netflix” or asking to dim the smart lights in your living room.
Amazon offers most major streaming apps, but there are some frustrating omissions: Vudu — a good source of Dolby Vision movies — and Peacock are both still absent from the Fire TV platform.
There’s also the $120 Fire TV Cube to consider. It essentially doubles as a streaming device and small smart speaker. Rather than make you press and hold a button to speak to Alexa like with the Stick 4K, the Cube takes a hands-free approach and has beamforming mics that respond to “Alexa” prompts just like an Echo speaker would. It also features something Amazon calls Local Voice Control, which allows it to understand more spoken commands without needing help from the cloud. The Fire TV Cube has a more powerful processor than the Fire TV Stick 4K, making it the fastest of the Fire TV bunch, but the difference isn’t very noticeable.
When it comes to their streaming capabilities, the Fire TV Stick 4K and Fire TV Cube are on equal footing. And you could always put the money you save by going with the Stick toward one of those new sphere-shaped Echo Dots, which will sound far better than the Cube’s tinny built-in speaker.
Best streaming device for home theater enthusiasts and gamers
Home theater enthusiasts, gamers, and people who like to tinker with their streaming devices have loyally stuck with Nvidia’s Shield TV and Shield TV Pro for a reason. They can serve as excellent players like any of our other picks, but you can also go more advanced and use them for cloud gaming or set up a Plex media library (in the case of the Pro). GeForce Now and Steam Link probably do more to sell gamers on the Shield lineup versus something like Apple Arcade on the Apple TV.
The Nvidia Shields currently run Android TV with Google Assistant built in, but it’s expected they’ll eventually get the same Google TV experience that’s on the Chromecast. Nvidia’s AI-powered upscaling can eke out some extra detail from the shows and movies you stream, and I’d rate the included remote control (with backlit buttons, even) as the most ergonomic of them all.
But like with the Apple TV, the main hurdle here is the price. The Nvidia Shield TV costs $150, so you’re looking at spending $100 more than devices that offer most of the same functionality. You get Ethernet and a very powerful streaming device for the added premium, and you can push the Shield TV farther and make it do more than just about any of its competitors.