Buying a suitable streaming player for your TV is easier and cheaper in 2020 than ever before. As long as you’re willing to spend at least $ 50, you can buy something that delivers 4K resolution and HDR color from apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney +. With a universal search that covers all the major services, streaming players make it easy to find something to watch when you’re finally sitting on the couch after a long day.
If you have a fairly new 4K TV at home, you may not see a need for a set-top box or streaming stick; many of your essential apps are probably already preloaded and ready to use. If you’re happy with what’s out there, no one is forcing you to buy an extra gadget. But app selection can vary between TV brands, so if you want everything under the sun, a streaming player is a great way to fill those gaps. Another benefit is speed: if you find the apps on your TV slow to use, a fast Roku or Fire TV can help ease that frustration. And sometimes companies will stop developing an app for older TVs, but you can bet that updates will continue for the streaming box equivalent well into the future.
1. Roku Streaming Stick Plus / Roku Premiere
The best streaming media player for most people
Roku is the best streaming player for people who want a no-nonsense device with a simple interface and a far-reaching universal search for many different entertainment services. Roku’s keep-it-simple home screen, while not flashy, is fully customizable and lets you put the streaming apps you use most at the top for quick access.
Thanks to the included long-range wireless receiver, the Streaming Stick Plus has better WiFi performance than most Roku’s lineup, which can be useful if your TV and router are far apart. It also comes with a voice remote, while the Premiere only includes Roku’s basic remote with no voice search. (If you want the better remote and Premiere box, Walmart exclusively sells the Premiere Plus.) If your TV is wall-mounted, the Streaming Stick Plus’s more discreet design is the better option.
Other than that, the Stick Plus and Premiere are basically identical: they both give you a 4K HDR picture, are punchy and responsive to use, and have what feels like an endless catalog of apps to choose from. While it has shunned a major redesign of its basic app icon grid, Roku also continues to improve its software: the ad-supported Roku channel offers TV shows and movies for free, and there’s now a dedicated section for kids to pick up family-friendly content . . The Roku home screen also has a “featured free” section that highlights content from multiple apps that can be viewed without a subscription.
The Roku devices don’t support Dolby Vision, but general HDR support means you still get the vivid colors and bright explosions that make movies and shows jump off the screen. And since there are so many existing Roku customers, companies often prioritize the platform when launching new streaming services or adding new features to existing ones. Then there are the little details, like a universal search that prioritizes money savings (by ranking free-to-stream results higher) and the ability to listen to TV audio privately using Roku’s smartphone app. These things, combined with the intuitive software experience, help keep the company’s gadgets at the top of our recommended list.
However, it’s worth nothing that Roku’s platform is currently missing HBO Max, as the company has failed to reach an agreement with WarnerMedia that satisfies both sides. (Fortunately, you can still watch HBO.) Both Roku and Amazon have been increasingly concerned with content owners.
The best streaming media player for people who want the premium experience
The Apple TV 4K controls all keyframes – 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR10 and Dolby Atmos audio – and has no obvious gaps in the selection of third-party apps. The user experience feels more modern than Roku’s and is no less intuitive. And for those in the Apple ecosystem, it offers benefits like AirPlay and free 4K upgrades for movies purchased from Apple in the past. In addition, there are no ugly ads on the home screen. It now also features Apple Arcade, so you can pick up where you left off with the same games you play on your iPhone or iPad. Despite being over two years old, the Apple TV 4K remains lightning fast in everyday use.
However, this far into its lifecycle, the Apple TV 4K’s price can be hard to swallow. It costs significantly more than a Roku or Fire TV, but from a purely entertainment standpoint, Apple’s streamer doesn’t do much to justify the $ 100 premium. If you are a privacy conscious person, it is worth knowing that Apple is less invasive in tracking your streaming habits compared to some of its competitors. Roku and Amazon, in particular, both keep extensive records of what you watch and how you interact with their products.
With the next big tvOS update this fall, you can finally watch YouTube in 4K resolution on the Apple TV 4K. Previously, YouTube had hit the 1080p maximum, but Apple finally gave in and will start supporting Google’s favorite VP9 codec this year. It’s good to see what used to be a significant downside to the device is being resolved.
But you’re still stuck with the Siri remote, which remains a source of frustration for some Apple TV owners and needs a redesign.
The best streaming media player if you don’t have a smart speaker yet
The 2019 Amazon Fire TV Cube (now with Dolby Vision) is a useful hybrid device consisting of part Alexa smart speaker and part streaming player. It is capable of hands-free voice commands, so you can jump straight to your favorite programs without having to pick up the remote. It is also able to control your TV, soundbar and even some cable boxes with the same voice controls.
Best cheap alternative to Roku
If you don’t need your streaming player to act as an Alexa speaker, the Fire TV Stick 4K is a solid alternative to Roku’s players. As you’d expect, Amazon puts a lot of emphasis on content included for free with a Prime subscription. But the app selection is more or less on par with Roku and Apple – again, minus HBO Max at the moment – and the Fire TV 4K supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos audio for a relatively low price.
Best streaming media player for gamers
Whether you want to stream the latest games through GeForce Now or load a ton of emulators and ROMs, the Nvidia Shield TV has you covered. With its interesting tubular design, this Android TV device is also a good choice for home theater enthusiasts thanks to an impressive 4K upscaling feature that makes your movies and shows look sharper and more detailed. Both the Shield TV and the more expensive Shield TV Pro (which has more memory and USB connectivity) are blazing fast and a joy to use, even if you don’t plan on using all the features on offer.