Best Streaming Devices: Apple TV vs. Roku vs. Amazon Fire
A streaming player gives you easy access to your favorite TV shows and channels without being tethered to cable. We looked at expert and owner reviews of set top boxes and streaming sticks to identify the best media streaming devices from Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google, and more. We also name the best system for gamers.
What We Considered
In order to determine the best streaming media players for budget-conscious consumers and others, we first consulted professional review sites like PCMag, CNET, TechRadar, and The Wirecutter to get an idea of what the experts have to say about the available array of devices and what potential buyers should be looking for in a player. We also read comments from hundreds of consumers on websites such as Amazon and Best Buy to assess the day-to-day performance of these devices. In general, both owners and experts are looking for the same thing in a good media player: ease of use and reliable access to their favorite movies, TV shows, and music.
We Looked At
All of the cheap streaming media players we recommend support high-definition video at 1080p resolution. Pricier models also support streaming 4K and HDR content, which is becoming more common as the price of these ultra-high-definition TVs drops. But if you don't own a 4K TV and don't plan on buying one, there's no need to spend extra money on compatible streaming devices.
All the streaming media players we researched allow users to send content from a supported mobile device to a TV. With most current Roku players for example, you can directly "mirror" anything that appears on the display of an Android or Windows device. Screen mirroring is not supported for iPhones or iPads, which are limited to casting content from compatible apps, such as Netflix and YouTube. And iOS users who want to access personal media, such as photos, songs, and videos will need to use the Roku app or another third-party app to do so.
Similarly, Amazon's Fire TV Stick will allow screen mirroring, but only from Android, Kindle, and other Fire devices that support Miracast. (Third-generation Fire TV boxes and the Fire TV Cube do not mirror displays.) Apple TV uses AirPlay to mirror the screens of iOS devices and Macs, but Android and Windows users will have to rely on compatible apps to get content from their devices up on their TVs.
While these sharing options typically exist to augment content already available on the streaming players themselves, Chromecast dongles rely entirely on users to source all content for streaming — the device works more like a transmitter between the TV and the users' smartphones, tablets, or computers (which double as remotes) rather than as a standalone media player. The main draws of Google Chromecast: apps that support Google Cast abound across platforms (Android, iOS and Windows) and anything that can be accessed on a Chrome web browser can be cast onto a TV screen. Android users can also mirror their phone displays using the Google Home app.
It might not seem like these tiny boxes and dongles need beefy processors, but even some of the cheaper streaming players pack some serious computing power. The result is that apps load more quickly on newer players using a quad-core processor than on models that are less robust.
Internet connection is the other major component affecting speed and performance. When it comes to wireless connections, streaming players that support the 802.11ac wireless standard are the best. Streaming 4K content requires considerably more bandwidth; Netflix recommends 25 Mbps. Ideally, a 4K-capable media streamer should feature a wired Ethernet port to connect directly to routers for the fastest, most reliable internet connection.
Our Top Pick
This Roku streaming stick has long been a favorite of experts and earns an impressive 9.2 rating from CNET. Although it's no longer the absolute cheapest 4K-ready device, it's nearly one-third the cost of the new Apple TV 4K, and the best option for all but the most devoted Apple fans. (For what it's worth, CNET gives the Apple TV 4K only an 8.7.) The Roku Streaming Stick Plus is loaded with content choices, more cross-platform-friendly than its competition (Google Play and Amazon Prime Video are readily available here), and said to offer better video quality than all but the premium-priced Apple TV. What you don't get for the money is a virtual assistant like Alexa or Siri. Nor is there an Ethernet port or Dolby Vision support, which limits access to 4K HDR content, although there is support for Dolby Atmos surround sound. For many reviewers, Roku gets enough right with this basic but remarkably robust little device that it remains the clear top choice among 4K media players.
More content options (especially 4K and HDR) than Apple, Amazon, and Google streaming devices.
Included remote has a voice-control feature.
On-screen menu is simple, intuitive, and very easy to navigate, owners say.
Screen mirroring for Android and Windows devices; iOS users can access select personal content via the Roku app.
No Ethernet port for faster streaming speeds; some reports from owners of content freezing up.
No access to Spotify.
Voice search doesn't always work, some reviewers say.
If all you want to do is watch your favorite Amazon shows on your TV, and you don't care about 4K or HDR content, then the Amazon Fire TV Stick is your best bet, reviewers say. It's a few dollars more than similar models from Roku and Google but offers access to nearly the same array of apps (the Google Play store and YouTube are glaring exceptions). We read a handful of complaints from owners who say the on-screen menu isn't very easy to use, and some say the Fire TV Stick makes it challenging to find non-Amazon apps. Still, reviews are overwhelmingly positive, if not glowing. The seamless integration with Amazon's digital world, including Alexa, packed into a portable stick make this streaming media player a favorite of many consumers.
Links with other Amazon devices and content easily, owners say.
Alexa-enabled voice remote.
Screen mirroring with Android and other Amazon devices.
Very fast; users say they never have to wait for content to load.
No official app for Google Play; YouTube app no longer available.
No 4K or HDR support.
Apple fans are fiercely loyal to the brand in nearly all its pursuits, and media streaming is no different. Although the Apple TV 4K is definitely on the pricier side, it has the ability to mirror iOS mobile devices and Mac laptops on a TV. Users have access to their iTunes libraries and can store their media on the 32GB hard drive, or opt for the 64GB version (est. price: $199). ITunes has an early lead in the amount of 4K content available. If you don't care about 4K or HDR playback (or the recent addition of hardware that supports Dolby Atmos surround sound) but want to remain in the Apple universe, you could opt for the older Apple TV 4 (est. price: $149)).
Seamlessly integrates with Apple mobile devices and Macs and provides access to iTunes inventory.
Streams 4K and HDR content, with support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision.
Motion remote with Siri voice controls and search options.
Ethernet output for faster streaming.
Sleek design and a slick interface that shows availability and trending content across services.
Among the most expensive streaming media players on the market.
No official app for Google Play or Spotify.
Can't play YouTube videos in 4K or HDR.
All streaming media players from big brands offer access to games through their app stores, but none can be confused for a dedicated gaming device. The Nvidia Shield is the exception to that rule, streaming games from PC to TV while offering access to thousands of titles via GeForce Now, Android, and Gamestream. Users can also stream TV shows, movies, and music from popular apps like Netflix and Hulu. It uses the Android operating system, so it plays nicely with any Google or Android device. Throw in an Amazon app, voice commands, smart home control, and 4K and HDR capability, and you've got a lineup that many other streaming media players can't beat. Some reviewers say the Nvidia Shield is trying to be too many things to too many people. Although it has its own exclusive gaming ecosystem, it can't match rivals Sony and XBox for selection or processing power. And while it competes with Apple TVs on price, it can't match their functionality and user-friendliness in terms of interface. Still, for the person who enjoys gaming and wants a bit of the best of both worlds, the Shield is a good, if pricey, option.
Dedicated gaming ecosystem with exclusive content and a custom controller.
With built-in Google Chromecast, it mirrors Android devices and can display content from Chrome web browsers.
Streams 4K and HDR media.
Included remote has a voice feature and Google Assistant integration.
Apps available for Google Play, Spotify, Amazon Video, and YouTube.
Built-in Ethernet port and lots of power.
No support for iTunes.
Can't match the performance of consoles like the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
Games from GeForce Now service are streamed, so there can be lag.
Remote lacks many standard touch controls and leaves many users frustrated; complaints of lags and unresponsiveness.
The latest 4K version of Amazon's Fire TV Stick offers users all of the same streaming features and content as its cheaper sibling, plus the ability to watch ultra-high-definition and HDR movies and shows. There are also some new features, including an upgraded remote that can control other devices like your TV or home theater sound system. It also has some of the same drawbacks of the previous model, reviewers say. Notably, it lacks apps from rival Google, and several owners complain the Fire Stick doesn't work with their TV sets or TV providers like DirectTV. Others say that 4K versions of their favorite shows and movies either weren't available or were difficult to stream without glitches. Some also lament the loss of the ability to mirror devices onscreen. Those complaints aside, most users — especially those already committed to Amazon's media universe — are satisfied with the upgraded Fire Stick.
Google Chromecast takes a different approach to media streaming than its competitors. Instead of a dedicated remote control to navigate an on-screen menu, this small dongle employs a phone, tablet, or PC to control TV content through the Google Home app. Setting up and syncing devices is fairly simple, reviewers say, but may be a little confusing for those who are not particularly tech-savvy. With its capabilities and low price, it's an ideal choice for those who are deep in the Google techniverse; have a large library of music, movies, and shows on Google Play; or who own a Pixel phone. Google loyalists who want to stream 4K and HDR TV shows and movies must upgrade to the Google Chromecast Ultra (est. price: $69). Non-loyalists who really just want to binge-watch Netflix should probably consider other options on our list.
Syncs with the Google universe, including Home, Pixel, and Nest.
Mirrors the displays on Android devices to a TV.
Casts web content to a TV via the Chrome browser.
Easy access to Google Play media.
Unobtrusive and easily portable.
No Amazon Prime Video app, and no iTunes access without third-party apps.
No 4K or HDR support.
Scattered owner complaints about frozen or delayed streaming.
We may live in a high-definition world, but there are still plenty of old standard-definition TVs lurking in basements, bedrooms, and spare rooms. These older TVs don't have the HDMI inputs that most media streaming devices require, but the Roku Express Plus doesn't care. It has composite A/V cables to send favorite TV shows and movies to an old-school set (plus an HDMI output so you can use it with an HDTV). Added benefit: The Roku mobile app lets users listen to music and shows with headphones, a nice feature when you don't want to disturb other people. On the downside, this Roku is slower than other streaming devices, making it more likely that content may freeze or stutter.
Designed for TVs without HDMI inputs, as well as HDTVs.
Larger app library than Apple, Amazon, or Google.
Relatively low price.
Can't stream 4K or HDR content.
Uses slower Wi-Fi b/g/n.
No Spotify app.
The new Premiere Plus is very similar to Roku's Streaming Stick Plus with a couple of exceptions. First, the positives: The Premiere Plus, a Walmart exclusive, has an upgraded remote control that now can be used to adjust your TV's functions (something the Streaming Stick's remote can't do); and it's Bluetooth-enabled, meaning you don't have to point the remote directly at your set in order for it to work. Better yet, this Roku is compatible with Google Assistant, so it can be used to control other smart home products like the Nest thermostat if you're already wired into Google's digital ecosystem. Another small improvement: The Roku has a dedicated menu item for free content. On the downside, the Premiere Plus doesn't support faster 802.11ac internet connections like its cousin the Streaming Stick Plus, but most reviewers say this isn't much of a drawback considering the many other perks.
If you want to dive head-first into Amazon's world of "smart home" products and make your TV a part of that ecosystem, Amazon's Fire TV Cube will appeal. It's definitely not cheap, and it doesn't give you access to any media you can't get with cheaper Fire streaming devices. What sets it apart is the fact that the Fire TV Cube is essentially an Alexa digital assistant that can also control your home theater setup (with a few exceptions, such as gaming consoles) and connect to compatible smart products like the Ring doorbell — all with simple voice commands. There's also an Alexa-enabled remote included for those services that don't support hands-free operation, but many say they've rarely had a use for it and are happy to leave behind the days of constantly hunting for lost controllers. That said, some users do complain that unless you speak very clearly, the Cube may not always respond accurately, and sometimes the processor can't quite keep up, resulting in occasional lag time. Many reviewers also dislike the number of promotions and ads that appear on the Cube's interface.