If you haven’t already joined the streaming revolution, it’s a great time to get started. Not only is there more content than ever online, but it’s easier to search through it and play it on your big-screen TV with a streaming media player.
The Easiest Way to Stream: Use the gadgets you already have
There’s a good chance you already have a streaming media player at home, even if you aren’t already using it to stream Netflix to your television.
Recently purchased TVs and Blu-ray players probably have “smart” features to get you online and streaming from a variety of services.
Certain TV brands let you mirror content directly from your mobile device to your big screen, if your mobile device is the same brand. For example, an LG phone or tablet can mirror to an LG television via LG Miracast, and a Samsung phone or tablet can mirror or send video to a Samsung TV via Samsung Screen Mirror or Smart View.
Any modern gaming console (PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii and Nintendo Wii U) comes with at least basic streaming capabilities.
You can plug your computer into your television with an HDMI cable to show anything you can play on your computer on your television.
You can expect to get basic streaming abilities from any of these services: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and usually Amazon Video. (iTunes fans are left out here, but more on that later.) You’ll often find a few premium channels, too, like HBO or Showtime. Does your gadget have the channels you want to watch? Then you’re good to go! What you get varies greatly from gadget to gadget, but if you’re happy with what you have, there’s no need to spend extra cash.
But while working with the tech you have is certainly the easiest way of getting Netflix (and more) in your living room, it may not be the best way. While all the aforementioned gadgets work as streaming media players, none of them were designed for it. Their interfaces can be clunky and unintuitive, and the manufacturer may not be interested in updating them. You could find yourself stuck with a limited number of channels.
If you upgrade to a standalone streaming media player, you can expect a better interface, more user-friendly search options, and access to more streaming options. There’s very little setup beyond plugging them in, and they’re affordable. The cheapest streaming media players start at $30.
Best for Watching Almost Everything: Roku
Roku’s streaming media players are our hands-down favorites. If you want the most content, you want Roku.You’ll find more content options here than on any other streaming device— thousands of channels including all the big names you’re likely to want. Roku offers easy access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, Sling TV, YouTube, HBO, Showtime, Starz, CBS All Access, PBS and lots more. The only thing you won’t find on Roku is iTunes content, which is only available on Apple TV.
Roku’s interface is simple. It uses a universal search that finds what you want to watch no matter what service it’s on. This feature is one of best reasons to pick up a streaming media player — especially a Roku, with its huge selection of channels — because otherwise, the amount of digital content creates a lot to sort through. Roku can easily find what you’re looking for, and the Roku app and the Roku Ultra remote both let you use voice search, so you don’t even have to type. The Roku app is a top-notch remote replacement. It lets you fully control your Roku, search by voice or text and send music, photos and videos from your iPhone or Android to your TV.
High-end Rokus, starting with the Streaming Stick +, feature 4K and HDR10 video technology and voice remote controls. The Ultra remote also has a headphone jack for plugging in your headphones for more immersive listening, and the ability to locate a misplaced remote by pressing a button on the Roku box.
The downside to buying a Roku is that there are a lot of different models to sort through, and it’s hard to tell what you need. While all offer the same selection of Roku content, they have different resolutions and bonus features (like the voice search we mentioned earlier).
- Roku Express ($29): At $29.99, this basic streamer is as cheap as it gets. It offers Full H 1080p resolution with absolutely no extras. If you have an older TV without an HDMI port, you’ll want the Express+, which is currently $28.90, but usually a little pricier at $39.99. The Express+ is one of the only ways to boost an older TV to smart status. If you’re looking for simple, these entry-level streamers are perfect.
- Roku Streaming Stick ($49): For an extra $20, this model some useful upgrades to the Express. It’s a bit more portable, plugging directly into your HDMI port without a cable, so it’s a good option if you want to move your Roku from place to place. It comes with a voice remote that will also control your TV’s power and volume.
- Roku Streaming Stick+ ($69): This is Roku’s cheapest 4K and HDR-capable streamer and it has four times the wireless range of last year’s Streaming Stick. That makes it ideal for any TVs that are far away from your router, whether you need 4K or not.
- Roku Ultra ($99): The Roku Ultra adds an advanced remote that you can locate by pressing a button on the Ultra box and, one of our favorite features, a headphone jack on the remote so one person can watch TV without bothering anyone else in the room.
Our recommendation? Get a Roku Express for the basics, or upgrade to the Roku Ultra if you have a television that supports 4K or 4K with HDR.
Best for Apple users: Apple TV
The priciest player on this list, Apple TV ($149 for 32GB HD model, $179 for the 32GB 4K model and $199 for the 64GB 4K model) is only a compelling option for people who buy content on iTunes or use iOS apps (some of which run on new Apple TVs). If you want to watch iTunes on the big screen, Apple TV is the only game in town.
Apple finally has a 4K model, the Apple TV 4K, which also supports two types of HDR – HDR10 and Dolby Vision. The others on this list only support HDR10, though it’s not deal breaker since most HDR content is available in HDR10.
Both models of Apple TV also include Siri for voice search, which (like Roku) can help you find content across different streaming services. Siri’s smart enough to help you find content even if you don’t know what it’s called, so you could ask for a list of popular TV shows or action movies from the ’80s. A TV app will bring most streaming services together in a single interface, including Netflix and Amazon. The content offerings, though, are limited compared to Roku, which is still our top choice for a general streaming player.
You’ll find a lot of iOS games and apps on Apple TV, so you can browse Zillow or play Real Racing on your TV. While Apple TV isn’t a full-fledged gaming console, iOS has a great selection of innovative games, and Apple TV is a great way to play them. Its remote features a touch-sensitive surface along with traditional buttons for both gameplay and navigating menus, or download the Apple TV app instead. While there’s no option to plug in headphones for private listening, you can pair your Apple TV with Bluetooth headphones.
Best value: Amazon Fire TV
Fire TV isn’t the best streaming media player or the cheapest streaming media player, but it does give you the best bang for your buck. Fire TV offers a decent feature set, including advanced features like voice search, plus a reasonable variety of channels for a modest price. It’s a solid option if you want a high-end streamer but don’t want to pay as much as the top-tier Rokus or Apple TVs cost.
There are two models, the Fire TV Stick ($39) and the Fire TV ($69). Both have fairly similar features. The pricier Fire TV adds 4K and HDR support and is faster, making it better for games and apps. Both Fire TV models offer games and apps from Amazon’s app store. There are fewer options here than on the Apple TV, but you’ll get some good games for a good price. You’ll also get Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant with full access to all of the Alexa services plus universal search that finds things from more than 190 streaming services including Amazon Video, Netflix and Hulu. If you’re already an Amazon Prime subscriber, there’s a ton of Amazon video content available at no additional charge. You can subscribe to a number of third-party streaming services like Showtime and HBO directly through Amazon, some of which offer a discount on standalone subscription prices.
Fire TV (but not the Fire TV Stick) is one of the best options for families, thanks to great parental controls and FreeTime, which offers unlimited access to over 13,000 kid-friendly apps, books and shows for as little as $2.99 a month.Content for kids is certainly available elsewhere, but FreeTime puts it all in one convenient place, something you won’t find on competing products.
The Fire TV Stick is the cheapest way to get a streaming player with built-in voice search, though you can search through the Roku app even on low-end Roku devices). Alexa is capable of a lot more than just searching for content, and getting a voice assistant in a sub-$50 player is a great deal.
Best for Putting Your Computer Screen on Your TV Screen: Google Chromecast
The Chromecast is an oddity amongst streaming media players. Instead of having its own interface, it’s primarily controlled through your phone, tablet or computer. You simply “cast” content from one screen or the other (or mirror screens, if you’re using an Android device). If you’re looking for a traditional menu interface, this isn’t it, but techies are likely to love the flexibility it offers.
The Chromecast comes in two models, the budget-friendly Chromecast ($35) and the 4K and HDR-capable Chromecast Ultra ($69).The Chromecast is a good budget streamer. It’s the same price as the competing Roku and brings you more flexibility to stream whatever you want from your computer. The Chromecast Ultra also works with Google Home, letting you use your voice to play Netflix and YouTube programs. You could say, “OK Google, play Stranger Things on Netflix,” and the Chromecast Ultra would load up the show and start playing.
What should you buy?
The Roku remains our top streaming device pick because of the number of channels it makes available. Pick up the Express for its bargain price, or get the Ultra for 4K and HDR quality. If you’re invested in iTunes content or iOS apps, an Apple TV is the best buy despite its high price. If you want to cast content from your computer, the Chromecast Ultra is what you want. And if you want access to Amazon Alexa and a voice remote, either of the Fire TVs will serve you well.
Updated on 12/1/2017 with next-generation products and pricing.
[Family watching TV image via Shutterstock, Roku, Apple, Amazon, Google]