Whether you’re a dedicated cord-cutter or just want to give your dumb TV an IQ boost, streaming devices are a perfect living room accessory. Providing easy access to services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, they offer snappy interfaces and a wealth of video, music, and even gaming content.
But with so many options, how can you make sure you’re picking the right one? To help you figure that out, we’ve spent countless hours with the latest models from Apple, Roku, Amazon, Google, and even Nvidia—we’re talking everything from the $35 Chromecast to the $200 Apple TV.
Read on to find out which is best for the average user, 4K early adopters, shoppers on a budget, and more.
Apple TV (4th gen.)
In addition to a familiar, painless user interface, the 4th generation Apple TV introduces Siri integration, voice search, and swipe/touchpad controls. Not all of these innovations are unique (Roku and Amazon also offer voice search), but they’re welcome additions. This isn’t the budget buyer’s option, but it’s a supremely well-made device that’s tailored to appeal to a broad range of users. Just keep in mind there’s no expandable storage, so if you need more than 64GB, keep reading.
Google Chromecast (2nd gen.)
If you’re not afraid of a slight learning curve, you’ll find the Chromecast is perhaps even more content-rich than the competition. As a screen-mirroring device, its only limits are your imagination. It’s not a viable choice if you want 4K streaming, and if you aren’t taking advantage of Google’s services already, you may end up feeling shoehorned into them if you go with Chromecast. On the other hand, Google vets who are on their phones/tablets/laptops all the time already shouldn’t hesitate.
The best argument for buying a Roku over competitors from Apple, Amazon, and Google is that it offers a huge array of content sources without locking you into those companies’ ecosystems. For instance, aside from Amazon’s own Fire TV, it’s the only streaming device to offer a native Amazon Instant Video app. In contrast, you can’t get the most out of an Apple TV without using an iTunes account, and heavy Prime users will certainly benefit most from a Fire TV. It’s not as polished as the Apple experience, but at $129.99 it’s a relative bargain.
Amazon Fire TV (2nd gen.)
It’s possible to enjoy the Fire TV even if you’re not an Amazon Prime member, but membership has its perks—Prime subscribers receive access to Amazon’s original TV series and a selection of movies free of (additional) charge. The new Fire TV offers more processing power than its predecessor, with a focus on gaming (the Fire TV game controller retails for an extra $50). The $99 price tag undercuts both Roku and Apple, but there are a few notable trade-offs: a UI cluttered with Amazon ads, and an overwhelming focus on Prime content. The base model also includes only 8 GB of storage, which is going to fill up quickly; you’ll have to spend more for a MicroSD card if you plan on downloading a lot of apps.
The powerful, unique Shield gets you everything from native 4K streaming to Nvidia’s “GeForce Now” game streaming service. With 3GB of ram and a Tegra X1 processor, it’s far and away the most powerful streaming box on the market, letting you do things like stream PC games to your TV over WiFi. The optional GeForce Now subscription will set you back $7.99 per month, but the system comes bundled with a very well-made gamepad. Just keep in mind that if you want flawless 4K and game casting, you’ll need a seriously robust internet connection to get the most out of this thing.