Video streaming has been one of the fastest growing areas of entertainment technology over the last few years, but it has never been as accessible or enjoyable as it is today.
Not only do we have swathes of different streaming services, each offering thousands upon thousands of hours worth of movies and TV shows to watch on demand, but there are plenty of standalone set-top-boxes to play them through.
Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and many others are all available on subscription or as a free service, but unless you have a Smart TV you'll need a separate device to use them.
Thankfully, as long as you have a broadband internet connection capable of over 2Mbps speeds, there are plenty of options out there in the media streaming box market to add smart capabilities to an existing TV. And they needn't cost the Earth.
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For less than £150 - sometimes considerably so - you can buy a small device that gives you all of the content you could ever want and then some. What's more, some of them even support Ultra HD streaming to match your latest 4K TV.
So these are the contenders you should consider.
Apple TV (4th generation)
Price: From £139
What is it?
The fourth generation Apple TV box is more powerful than previous iterations, has a touchscreen remote control with Siri voice recognition, and access to its own App Store to purchase and download tvOS apps based on their iOS equivalents.
It provides access to Apple movies, TV shows and music bought or rented through iTunes, plus the Apple Music streaming service. And it can search for content across multiple services through the one search bar, bringing up results no matter the source.
There is an impressive line-up of applications and games to download and enjoy - many of them free. There are plenty of big name services available, including Flickr, YouTube and Airbnb.
More importantly though, in video streaming terms, Netflix and Now TV apps are available. TVPlayer and iBox TV UK are present to watch British TV channels through the device. And there are several home media streaming apps, including Plex and Infuse.
There's no Amazon Video sadly. And while there is a BBC iPlayer app on the platform, we're still awaiting ITV Hub, My5 and All 4. In the meantime, you can always stream content through the iPad or iPhone equivalent apps to the box thanks to Airplay.
Like Amazon Fire TV and the Nvidia Shield Android TV, another major aspect to the Apple TV is that it doubles as a great casual games console too. There are plenty of titles already available, some of which almost identical to their dedicated console counterparts, such as Skylanders Superchargers and Guitar Hero Live.
Having a decent amount of power under the hood gives the latest Apple TV more oomph to move quickly and offer many features. You can use voice search contextually, for example, by asking the box to filter movies by a genre and then a certain star by saying things like, "Siri find action movies" and then "only those that star Roger Moore as James Bond".
The remote control is also a motion controller, which might make family gaming a little more fun without the need for a full console. Plus, the touchscreen is a great new addition.
It also still performs many of the other functions its former Apple TV boxes were capable of, including Apple Airplay to stream iPhone and iPad content to the box. Although this time it has better Wi-Fi built in (up to 802.11ac) so should have better range and attain better data speeds on a home network.
There are few main issues with the new Apple TV, although we are disappointed that it does not support 4K video. It can only output 1080p at present.
Sound is better served though, with Dolby Digital 7.1 support.
Even without 4K, the new Apple TV is an attractive prospect. The inclusion of an actual App Store is a much-needed improvement, although only time will tell whether it will become as jam packed with useful applications as Apple's other devices.
It's worth talking about the price though, with the 32GB model weighing in at just shy of £140. You get the remote in the box, but if you want to use it as a games console substitute you'll also need to buy a third-party Bluetooth controller. And you don't even get a HDMI cable with it - although you can pick one up for around a quid these days.
We suspect those who are already happy within the Apple ecosystem will get the most from it, considering it taps into iCloud, Apple Music and other existing iTunes content. We especially like that you don't have to repurchase games if you have already bought them for iPhone or iPad.
Amazon Fire TV
What is it?
After enormous success with its 2014 model, Amazon updated its Fire TV set-top-box in 2015 with some key new features - not least 4K video streaming.
It's built on an Android base, much like Amazon's tablets and Fire OS, and has had a brand new operating system update in the last few months to make it more simple to find and view content, regardless of the source. The box is powered by a quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM, plus has some interesting features including a microphone in the remote control to allow for voice operated search.
It will also be getting Alexa support, much like the new Fire TV Stick below, soon.
A separate, compatible games controller is available too (for £34.99) which illustrates that gaming is equally high on Amazon's agenda as movies, TV shows and other content.
It's worth pointing out though that the latest versions of the remote and game controller connect through Wi-Fi rather than Bluetooth, so have lower latency.
Like with Apple TV and Apple content, the Amazon Fire TV immediately offers Amazon-based content as soon as you fire it up. It offers music, movies, TV shows - some to buy and some to rent - and the box is intrinsically linked with Amazon Prime Instant, the company's subscription service.
However, other, rival services are also available, including Netflix, Sky News and YouTube, with content being integrated in the new design almost as much as Amazon's own. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 (previously known as Demand 5) are also available as catch-up services in the UK.
One big draw is that, when compared with its closest competitors in box terms, the box supports 4K Ultra HD video. You can purchase or rent a healthy collection of higher resolution films to play through the box to a compatible television, or stream 4K versions of Amazon's own originals TV series at no extra cost if you are a Prime subscriber. It doesn't have HDR support, however.
Amazon has rapidly become of the biggest in the TV set-top-box business because it offers so much for an affordable price.
The latest user interface even integrates its rivals' content into the experience so you can search for a show across platforms. And its gaming prowess is still an interesting prospect, even though it's not the box's primary purpose.
This version of the box also has 802.11ac Wi-Fi for greater range, more stability and higher bandwidth than before. And a microSD card slot is present to expand the storage for app downloads by up to a further 128GB (from the initial 8GB).
But the 4K video output is its headline positive feature, of course.
Like with its Fire tablets, the operating system of Fire TV is closed and task specific. That might put off some, but it's hardly original amongst the company here. You also might not fancy investing all your money in Amazon products, so that would dampen its use somewhat for you.
It's disappointing that there's no support for HDR content, even on Amazon's own videos, but what's the betting that a replacement device is in the pipeline?
Amazon entered the market with a bang and the latest iteration is quite simply superb. The box is, on paper and in the flesh, a powerful proposition. It's great if you are a keen Amazon purchaser or Amazon Prime Instant subscriber, and even better if you love dabbling with casual games too.
The retailer has also kept it cheap enough to compete directly with Roku, yet also offers 4K video. Compelling.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
What is it?
Amazon's Fire TV Stick isn't as powerful as the main set-top-box, featuring a dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM instead, but it does the same job and will also get a user interface update in early 2017.
Like the Fire TV box, the stick version is mainly centred on the Amazon Prime experience, with Prime Instant Video, Amazon Music and a link-up to images stored on the Amazon Cloud being at the forefront.
All other apps are available on the stick too, save for some of the more graphically intensive games, which require the beefier processor.
That means Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, Plex - for those with home stored content they want to stream - and many more are available on the store.
Bar 4K video, just about everything the Fire TV STB can do the Fire TV Stick can too. It's just not as quick in operation. It does have dual-band Wi-Fi though.
Its remote doesn't require line-of-sight, which is obviously really as the stick will invariably be hidden from sight.
It is capable of 1080p output with 7.1 audio through the HDMI. And you can even take it on holiday with you as Amazon has added a cunning way for you to input room and log-in details for connection to hotel Wi-Fi.
To keep the cost down, the remote that comes with the Fire TV Stick is more bare bones than the one with the larger unit. It doesn't therefore have voice search capability as there is no microphone. Those who do want to utilise that feature can use a dedicated Fire TV remote app on their iPhone, Fire Phone or Android device.
Alternatively, you can buy an optional remote with the mic for an additional £25. Or even choose a slightly pricier version of the Fire TV Stick that comes with the more fully-featured remote in the box.
It is still best served when coupled with an Amazon Prime subscription.
Amazon came to the dongle market at an opportune point. It had hindsight on its side so introduced a direct rival to Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick that offered better tech inside to ensure a smoother experience. Both of its rivals have improved recently, but the Fire TV Stick is still incredibly useful for its price.
Its price is also very attractive.
What is it?
The Roku 3 is Roku's top-end streaming box, but if you can make do with fewer features there is also the Roku 2 box for around £60.
Like the Apple TV and Fire TV, it offers 1080p output through HDMI, but has access to a much larger library of applications, some very useful, many very niche.
The Roku 3 comes with a wireless remote control that is not IR dependant so can be used anywhere and at any angle. It also has motion sensors like a Wii console remote and can double as a basic gamepad.
There are almost 2,000 apps (called channels) available through Roku's Channel Store, many free but some will cost - especially games. BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and My5 (Demand 5) are present, completing the catch-up foursome. There are also apps for Netflix and Amazon Video.
Because BSkyB is one of Roku's investors, Now TV has a fully-functioning application on the box that gives you access to the entertainment, movie and sports packages. The Sky Store app adds access to day-and-date releases for purchase or rental. Or, if you are a regular Android user, you can access your Google Play account on Roku boxes to stream bought or rented movies and TV shows. Even if you are not, you can still sign up for an account.
Roku also gives access to YouTube, Vimeo and Flixster for the more casual video watcher. The latter gives access to your UltraViolet digital film library if you've been collecting vouchers from Blu-rays.
Roku has an excellent name around the tech industry and home streaming fans alike. Its boxes are simple to understand and install and the wealth of content available from the off is quite staggering.
The Roku 3 also has apps that can stream media from your home network servers, including Plex. A paid-for Dropbox app will even let you access your cloud files and pictures in a similar way to Apple's iCloud access.
The Roku 3's remote control is excellent. You don't have to point it at the box to use it, meaning you can tuck the Roku device away out of sight (not that it's that large anyway), and because it doubles as a motion controller and gamepad, you can use it to play titles such as Angry Birds on the big screen. It also features a headphone port on the side, which allows you to listen to shows and movies through a headset remotely and wirelessly.
The box is capable of outputting up to 1080p visuals and has dual-band Wi-Fi as well as an Ethernet port for direct connection - handy if you plan to use it in a bedroom, far from your wired internet connection.
Like Google's Chromecast, you can cast Netflix and YouTube content from within their respective smartphone apps straight to the TV.
There are a few app omissions, and many of the downloadable channels are junk, to be honest.
The user interface is either basic and sparse or simple to use, depending on your point of view, and there are quite a lot of gaps in its file compatibility for native media sharing. However, the Plex app will stream other file types (if you have a system set-up to take advantage of it or a Plex server running on a computer), and some rivals don't even offer the option in the first place.
Sadly, although the US has had 4K support for a while, the flagship device in the UK is not capable of Ultra HD playback.
Roku is an excellent platform if you don't want to lock your content or subscriptions to just one or two places. It could really do with supporting 4K in the UK though.
Check out roku.com for information on the Roku 3 and its lesser spec'ed family member, Roku 2. They each offer just as much in the way of movie and TV show streaming. The Roku Streaming Stick too.
Roku Streaming Stick
What is it?
Like the Roku 3 and the other members of the family, the Roku Streaming Stick gives access to the vast library of applications on the Roku store, most of which are free to download. However, it more resembles the first generation Google Chromecast or Fire TV Stick in shape and size. Rather than a set-top-box, it is a dongle-like device that fits into a HDMI port and therefore out of sight.
It also comes with a remote control (that's actually bigger than the device itself), although it's not the wireless motion controller the Roku 3 uses. It still uses wireless technology other than IR though - after all, with it tucked behind a telly, you don't get line of sight.
Like the Roku 3, the Streaming Stick has access to hundreds of apps (channels), including the solid line-up of main movie and streaming services.
Amazon Video has recently been added, and you also get Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, My5 (Demand 5) and the others mentioned for the device's stablemate above.
Without the games control aspect of the remote though, it is not compatible with the games titles, such as Angry Birds.
Its stealth design means that a flatscreen can be turned into a smart TV without the need for extra wires or fuss.
It is capable of outputting up to 1080p video and has dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity like its larger cousin (although there is no wired internet connection, so you'll need to be in range of a decent wireless signal).
Like all Roku products, it is simple to set up and get working within minutes. And if you download a dedicated application for your smartphone, you can stream your video, music and picture files to the stick, in similar fashion to Airplay.
The lack of an Ethernet connection might be a problem for some, especially those who don't have a great Wi-Fi signal throughout the house.
It is sadly not completely wire-free as it needs to be powered through USB. You will either need to plug it into the wall via an included power adapter or, if your TV has a powered USB port, you can hook it up to that to keep cables discrete.
Like the Roku 3, some of the missing apps leave holes in what you can watch - although there is so much else you might not care.
This isn't the first time that Roku has offered a Streaming Stick solution. However, the first one used a specific type of port that is not available on a vast number of sets globally. The HDMI version is ideal therefore.
It has also been updated more recently, with a quad-core processor that makes it much smoother to use. It certainly offers an ideal way to turn a TV into a smart one without much fuss. Ideal for a bedroom perhaps.
What is it?
Refreshed from the first generation, the latest Now TV box is made by Roku and is therefore similar in size and style to that manufacturer's own-branded devices. Its purpose is to present Sky's Now TV content in as easy a way as possible for those who don't already own a home entertainment device capable of accessing the service.
It accesses all of the Now TV movies, TV channels, kids channels and sport, but since its original launch, it has effectively become a basic version of the Roku box service, although the user interface is completely different. A number of key apps and services are included on the box as well as Sky's own channels and catch-up.
Naturally, the Now TV box's raison d'être is to provide access to Now TV - Sky's streaming service that offers four separate subscription or pay models for movies, entertainment, kids and sports.
But since launch it has also added apps for BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, My5 (Demand 5), Vimeo, YouTube, Flixster and other streaming services. There is also access to the Sky Store to rent or buy modern day-and-date films as they are released on Blu-ray and DVD. All of these you can access and use, even if you don't subscribe to any of the Now TV packages.
The main selling point of the Now TV box is clearly its price. At £14.99 it undercuts all rivals dramatically. You can buy it from £24.99 as well, which includes money saving bundles for sports, entertainment or movies access, but for just fifteen quid you actually get so much included.
It connects to your network through Wi-Fi or Ethernet (a recent addition), and is very simple to set up. The user interface design is fresh and new, but it could be considered a very entry-level Roku box in many ways.
The box also includes USB and microSD card slots, to play back local media files.
There are a few caveats to the price of the Now TV box. For a start, the Now TV service only offers 720p video at present and stereo audio, even though the box is capable of 1080p. That might change in future, according to Sky staff posting on its dedicated forums, but this puts it at a disadvantage when compared to many rival devices.
Also, because this is a box designed to encourage you to take out a subscription to the Now TV streaming packages, it is unlikely to ever offer direct paid-for rivals, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Wuaki.tv or others.
Services that Sky doesn't offer, such as music streaming, are catered for however. At present that includes a Spotify app and TuneIn Radio for internet radio stations.
Some might say that with the Now TV box you get what you pay for. It's own content is only 720p and stereo and the box has a limited library of apps available for it compared to others, but we would argue that you get far more for your money that you can rightly expect.
Also, with the potential to output 1080p video and 7.1 surround sound, there is a possibility that the content will end up matching the technical specifications. And it cannot be denied that this is a cheap way to ensure you are up to speed with the streaming revolution. As a bedroom machine, it is quite simply perfect.
Now TV Smart Box
What is it?
The Now TV Smart Box is a recent addition to Sky's streaming device family and represents a step up from its cheaper, older sibling.
That's because, as well as offer the same access to Now TV services and other streaming apps, the Smart Box also contains a digital TV tuner so you can use it as your main TV provider too. All of the 60 standard and 12 high definition Freeview channels are available, with complete integration into the user experience.
It is slightly smoother in operation too, thanks to a quad-core processor over the standard Now TV box's dual-core equivalent.
Like the Now TV box, the main reason for the Now TV Smart Box is to provide access to the different, contract-free passes offered by Sky. However, it also has the terrestrial catch-up apps and other services.
The interesting part is the ability to pause and rewind live TV, as broadcast through the digital TV tuner. You cannot record onto the device, however.
If you have an old TV without a Freeview tuner this is a no brainer as it will also offer smart, connected functionality for a reasonable price.
You might also favour all your viewing from the same source, so the box works nicely as you don't have to switch from service to service on your TV.
If you're after a no-contract combination deal of broadband, TV and phone line, you can also get the Now TV Smart Box for free as part of the deal.
Sadly, like its stablemate, while it is capable of 1080p output, Now TV streams are 720p and stereo. You do get Full HD with broadcast HD TV channels though.
Again, there is a lack of rival services to Sky's, such as Netflix and Amazon Video.
The Now TV Smart Box is definitely a step-up option, but we're not sure of its market. Just about anyone interested in media streaming will likely have a TV with Freeview already, so don't really need the TV tuner. And if that's the case, the £14.99 Now TV box is ample.
Still, if you do opt for a contractless combo, it's a nice add-on to have.
What is it?
Like the Roku Streaming Stick and Fire TV Stick, Google's Chromecast device is a dongle that plugs directly into a HDMI port on your TV.
It's not quite a movie and TV show streaming solution like many of the others listed here. Instead, it works with compatible apps you have on your smartphone or tablet and plays their video or music content on a larger screen. Unlike Apple TV though, that's not done by mirroring a device, using the processing power of the phone or tablet, instead the Chromecast pulls the content from the internet itself. It effectively turns your mobile device into a remote control.
It is capable of playing Netflix content, YouTube and any Google Play movies, TV shows or music you might have bought. Android, iPhone and iPad apps that have also added support include BBC iPlayer, My5, BT Sport, Now TV, Blinkbox, Wuaki.tv, Deezer and there are plenty of others too. Spotify is part of the mix too.
Plex support also means you can stream your own content through a computer too.
Gaming is available on the latest model, with certain games having the ability to Cast the action to the device and then onto the big screen. The list of titles will expand as the feature develops, but Angry Birds Go is one of the biggest name games already featuring support.
Google Chromecast is cheap and ridiculously simple to use. You just tell the specific app to send video to the device by tapping the dedicated icon and the rest is done for you.
As the stream is taken by the Chromecast over the internet, not from your phone or tablet, you can carry on using your mobile device as normal.
Chromecast may be a Google product, but it also works with iPhone, iPod touch and iPad as well as Android devices and computers running Chrome. You can even cast a tab through the Google browser to your big screen, so can watch online video from websites too. That makes up for the shortfall of supported apps..
Even though app support is growing rapidly, there are still some glaring holes, especially with British broadcasters and content delivery services.
The second-gen Chromecast has solved the problem for owners who wall-mount their sets, as it no longer sticks out the back and has a flexible USB cable built-in, but it does still require separate power.
And not having its own user interface, you'll always need a phone, tablet or computer to hand to operate it.
Google's Chromecast is cheap - remarkably so - and interesting. It is the most simple solution for getting Google Play content onto a big screen TV and is a great alternative to Apple Airplay. It does have an interesting rival in the Amazon Fire TV Stick but the latest version has enough oomph to work well for the price.
Google Chromecast Ultra
What is it?
A newer, more expensive addition to the Chromecast family is Google's first device with 4K Ultra HD streaming capabilities. It also supports Dolby Vision and HDR for those with compatible TVs. And an Ethernet connection means you can hard wire it to ensure your video streaming remains smooth and stable.
It is also a dongle like the conventional Chromecast, with a similar form factor. And again, you use a smartphone or computer to control it, with the Ultra streaming video over the internet based on what you "Cast" to the device.
The exact same app line-up for the standard Chromecast is supported here. The main difference however, is that the Chromecast Ultra is capable of streaming 4K video from relevant services, such as Netflix and YouTube.
Netflix, for example, is capable of streaming 4K Dolby Vision (or HDR) video to compatible televisions. You can also stream from terrestrial apps, like BBC iPlayer, All 4 and Now TV, although they do not currently support 4K.
If you have a 4K TV and want the best video quality it is worth paying a bit extra for the more capable Chromecast.
Its Dolby Vision support - which can only really be found on LG OLED TVs at present - is welcome and not found on many rival devices.
The faster internet connectivity, needed for 4K video streaming, also ensures than non Ultra HD video is presented at its best too.
If you don't have a 4K TV you do not need a Chromecast Ultra.
You might also find that your swanky UHD set actually has all the apps and features you need anyway.
The Chromecast Ultra is an interesting proposition but is possibly more one for the future than right now, thanks to a lack of 4K services. As Amazon Video doesn't yet support casting, it's missing a major player in the field.
It's also highly priced for a dongle, especially when you consider the more capable Fire TV box is only slightly more expensive.
Nvidia Shield Android TV
Price: From £189.99 (including game controller and remote)
What is it?
Available with the Shield controller and Bluetooth remote included in the bundle, the second generation Shield TV box is a tad over our £150 budget but is, by far and away, the most powerful option in our round-up. It has much more firepower under the hood so is significantly more powerful than anything else on the market. It is also capable of outputting 4K video in 60 frames per second and HDR.
In addition, it utilises an Nvidia chipset that is very capable with gaming, so has a stack of optimisation abilities for games that none of the other rival boxes can match.
As an Android TV box, the Nvidia Shield TV has access to Google Play content, including its app store, a dedicated app for video and one for music. Google's YouTube service is also represented too, which is important as it's one of the sources for 4K content.
It also comes with Plex and Netflix pre-installed, with the latter capable of Ultra HD streaming in HDR. You can subsequently download Amazon Video, which also has 4K HDR programming.
There are also Nvidia dedicated apps for its different game services, such as the enhanced versions of Android games that require the box's beefier graphical specs to run, the ability to stream games from a local PC, and the firm's own cloud gaming service, GeForce Now.
Thanks to the Google Play Store, hundreds of other apps are available too, including the much-loved free media streaming app Kobi. Disney's streaming service Disney Life is also available, as is Twitch.
As well as bundle a Shield game controller in the box, which shows exactly where Nvidia's heart lies, the biggest advantage the Shield Android TV has over nigh-on every other competitor here lies in its chipset. It runs on an Nvidia Tegra X1 processor with a 256-core GPU and 3GB of RAM.
Not only does that ensure that gaming is almost console level, but it can output 4K Ultra HD video at 60fps as capably as most can handle 720p or 1080p. It also has a HDMI 2.0 output too - another thing few others sport.
There are two USB 3.0 ports on the device, so external hardware can be added to expand the storage (16GB is available in the starter model), the same can be said through the microSD card slot. However, the USB ports are also capable of accepting any other USB device, such as a keyboard and mouse, or even a wired Xbox 360 controller.
It can even double as a Google Chromecast, so you can use an Android or iOS device to send other content to it. And Google Assistant is coming to the device soon, so you will be able to control other smart devices around the home.
In design terms, the Shield TV is very gamer-ish - even the remodelled smaller version that launched in 2017. It looks best standing up when attached to an optional Shield Stand, and its glowing green LED lighting makes it look like a miniature gaming PC. It can't therefore hide quite so comfortably as one of its peers.
That said though, it is tiny these days, so if you have an AV cabinet it's easy enough to tuck away.
There's also a lack of terrestrial TV catch-up services, save for BBC iPlayer, so you have to cast the rest of the content you want to watch - such as from ITV Hub or All 4 - from your smartphone.
There's little doubt that of all the streaming boxes available on the market right now, the Shield TV is the most powerful and most capable. It is the only box currently on the market to offer 4K video at 60 frames per second.
It is also ideally placed to rule the roost when it comes to casual gaming - something both Apple and Amazon are keen to exploit too. The included newly-designed controller works over low latency Bluetooth so has little lag and the graphics processor is geared up exactly for games.
If you are looking for something a little more powerful it's definitely worth considering stretching your budget a bit further.