Streaming video is nearly ubiquitous thanks to services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO GO, and more. It’s also been pushed by a youth audience that increasingly turns to the Internet instead of live TV viewing. There’s plenty of content to stream thanks to the mentioned services — everything from recent movies in HD to classic films in black and white, as well as many TV series in their entirety and brand new, exclusive TV series like House of Cards.
Of course, the problem with streaming is that you need a bit more than a screen and a cable. You may be able to use your computer or laptop, but getting the full experience on your TV would require more wires and a potential shift around of your hardware to set it up. Streaming boxes and sticks aim to make the process of turning your ordinary TV into a streaming centerpiece a cinch.
Here’s a look the top streaming devices as rated by Consumer Reports, with some insights into what makes them so good.
10. Apple TV (4th Generation)
Apple might make the most popular smartphone, but it’s streaming device comes in a little low in this competition. Still it manages to break into the top 10. With a 32GB ($150) and 64GB ($200) configuration, it’s no cheap streaming device, but it aims to make up for that with great picture quality, Siri integration, and the ease of use people have come to expect from Apple products. It connects to your TV via HDMI to deliver a 1080p signal, and can connect to your internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. If you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, you might like the integrations the Apple TV offers with iTunes and iCloud.
9. NVIDIA Shield Android TV
NVIDIA is a brand best known to gamers for making powerful graphics chips. The aim of the Shield Android TV is to bring some of that power to the living room. The device runs its own flavor of Android, and is easy to set up for Android users who sync their account to the Shield. It runs streaming apps similar to any other Android device. On top of the features of a normal streaming device, it comes with some perks: 4K compatibility, and a host of gaming features. If you have a 4K TV, fast internet, and your streaming service offers 4K content, the Shield Android TV is ready — don’t worry though, it still delivers a great picture if you have a 1080p TV. The thing that sets it apart most is it’s role in gaming. While the Tegra X1 chip inside doesn’t put it on the same level as a video game console, gamers have a lot of options with the ability to stream video games from an NVIDIA-powered computer elsewhere in the house (though this requires a very good connetion on both ends) or online through NVIDIA’s game streaming services. At $199 for a 16GB model and $299 for a 500GB model, it’s not a cheap option — part of why it doesn’t rank so high.
8. Roku Streaming Stick
On the cheap end, the Roku Streaming Stick can be had for less than $40. That price includes a controller, so it doesn’t require another device to function. With support for 7.1 channel surround sound and 1080p video, it does a big job for such a little device. Though these sticks can be a little slower than the bigger streaming boxes, and don’t feature ethernet ports for more stable connections, the Roku Streaming Stick offers solid performance once it’s streaming content and at a fraction of the cost of other devices. These stick style devices also take up less space, as they simply plug into an HDMI port and are powered by USB (which your TV might have a plug for). (Note: a newer model is available for a slightly higher price.)
7. Google Chromecast (2nd Generation)
Another entrant in the streaming stick field, the 2nd Gen Chromecast refines the original chromecast, with dual-band Wi-Fi for more connectivity options and a flexible HDMI cable to more easily attach to TVs. To top it off, the Chromecast is also less than $40. What makes the Chromecast a bit different from other devices is that it’s controlled by your smartphone. You don’t need to install any apps or add any accounts to the device itself. If you have Netflix on your phone, you just start Netflix and then tell it to stream to your Chromecast. There can be hiccups depending on your phone or internet connection, but at such a low price, those hiccups are easy to ignore.
6. Roku 1
If you hadn’t heard of Roku before today, you’re in for a surprise. This brand has been a powerhouse in the streaming device market, so much so that even today the Roku 1 ranks among the best streaming devices even though it came out in 2013. Because of its age, it can be found cheap, but it still supports a Wi-Fi connection and 1080p video. If you have an older TV, it even supports an analog connection.
5. Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition
The Amazon Fire TV Gaming edition may not come with the same gaming bona fides as the NVIDIA Shield, but it also doesn’t come with the same high sticker price. This streaming device comes with a controller made for gaming, so you can play rented games through GameFly’s streaming service. With 4K video support, the Fire TV Gaming Editiong a solid competitor for the Shield TV and a better option for those with only a light interest in gaming.
4. Amazon Fire TV (2nd Generation)
If you have no interest in gaming whatsoever, you can skip the Fire TV Gaming Edition and just go with the Fire TV, which is $40 cheaper and does an equally good job streaming. With 4K capability, an Ethernet port, dual-band Wi-Fi, and support for Alexa voice search, this streaming device is no joke. Alexa is the key feature that sets it apart from the higher ranking items on this list, so if you love Alexa, this might be the selling point for you.
Before we leap into the top streaming devices, it’s worth taking a look at the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Why? Because they offer a lot of the same streaming functionality and a handful more. The Shield Android TV and the Fire TV Gaming Edition pose as streaming devices ready for gaming, and they do so with a high price. If you shop for an Xbox One or PS4, you can likely find a sale that brings their price in close competition with other streaming devices while having similar streaming specs — the catch is the Xbox One and PS4 will have superior gaming performance. So, if you want gaming and streaming in equal doses, turn to the consoles. Don’t forget, they also can play Blu-ray.
3. Roku 2 (2nd Generation)
The sweep for top spots begins with the Roku 2. Great streaming selection, great picture at 1080p, Ethernet, and dual-band Wi-Fi all go to make the Roku 2 a solid option. With prices ranging around $50, it only costs a bit more than the streaming sticks, but comes in with a lot higher favor. Keep in mind that there are other generations of the Roku 2 that may not be quite the same.
2. Roku 3 (2nd Generation)
The sweep continues with the 2nd Generation of the Roku 3. If the Roku 1 was good, the Roku 2 great, then the Roku 3 is even better. It’s not very different from the Roku 2, but the remote control features a headphone jack, so you can watch videos on the big screen, but keep the excitement from waking everyone else up. In other words, you won’t have to let 2 A.M. stop your Game of Thrones marathon. The remote also has motion sensor for some light gaming.
1. Roku 4
Capping off the sweep is the Roku 4, which once again improves on its predecessor. The Roku 4 comes with same bells and whistles as the Roku 3, but this time with 4K video support. The remote has the same headphone option, but also has a speaker to help you find it if you’ve lost it somewhere in the couch or under a pile of stuff on your coffee table. At $130, it’s not the cheapest device on the list, but Roku knows what it’s doing — if you want a 4K-ready streaming device that’s easy to use and feature rich, you can’t go wrong with this device.
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