(Pocket-lint) - There are countless TVs out there that might have amazing picture quality and resolution, but a bad software experience - whether it's slow and annoying, or missing key apps.
Media streaming sticks are the easiest and generally most affordable way around problems like these. They're one-stop shops for your streaming needs, packing in your favourite apps like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video into a small package that generally plugs into an HDMI slot behind your TV.
They don't need space for a set-top box, and are quick and easy to set up - but which ones are the best? Read on to find out - we've fully reviewed all the options.
Which is the best streaming stick for you?
Amazon Fire TV 4K
Amazon's 4K stick is a marvel that boasts all the major streaming apps in one place, and is quick and responsive to use.
Its 4K output is reliable and also speedy, and the stick itself is unobtrusive enough, while the remote is similarly intuitive. The inclusion of Alexa means that you can use voice search if you're so inclined, although we're not always convinced by its results.
Chromecast with Google TV
Google's recent return to the world of streaming has produced the new Chromecast with Google TV - it's not technically a stick, but it's small and hangs off your TV, so in every way that matters, it counts.
The software experience is great, and being able to cast to it is super helpful, although there are a couple of services that haven't quite made it to the new Google TV yet, which is the only thing holding it back.
Roku Streaming Stick+
Roku's been making good in-roads in the last few years by making really low-cost streaming devices that are easy to use, and this stick is no exception.
It's well-priced, and the UI is really easy to use, plus it's got all the major apps accounted for to make sure that you can watch whatever you want - in 4K.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
If you fancy the Amazon experience for your streaming (and that's sensible - it's great), but you don't have a 4K TV or don't think you want to spend that much, this is a great alternative.
It's basically Amazon's full package, just without 4K capability, and it works great as just that. You'll save a bit of cash, although if you think you'll go 4K soon we'd probably splash out for the pricier, future-proofed version. For an even bigger saving, check out the Fire TV Stick Lite.
Now TV Smart Stick
You might notice the similarities between the remotes on Roku's stick and this Now TV-branded one - they're near identical, and the experiences are similarly close.
For those in the UK, Now TV has a range of good options available that make it a great place to start with streaming, and while it's not quite as adaptable as some of the others on this list, and is missing some key services, it's a good pick if you want a simple solution. It maxes out at 1080p, though.
How to buy a Streaming Stick
The convenience of plugging a small dongle into the back of your TV is hard to overstate. So, what are the questions you should be asking as you decide which one to buy?
Which channels do you want to watch?
Among most streaming sticks (and boxes, for that matter) there are popular channels that are common to most. You’ll find Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and catch-up services like BBC iPlayer on many devices, for instance. Some boxes and sticks also have Apple TV+, the other big source of premium content. Of course, as well as buying the hardware, you need to pay for a subscription to each service. Some sticks, like those from Roku, offer literally thousands of services (which it calls channels).
So, why not settle for the apps in your TV?
Good point, after all, many new smart TVs have apps like Netflix built-in or easily downloadable. Some even have a dedicated Netflix button on the remote, for instance. But the convenience of having the app onboard in the TV doesn’t mean that it’s the easiest way to use it. Rewind and fast-forward are important controls and it’s often easier on a streaming stick remote rather than the controller that’s primarily meant for your TV.
Do you want microphone control?
Again, very few TV remotes have microphones built-in, whereas Apple TV 4K, Amazon Fire TV Stick and others have smart remotes which, at the touch of a button, let you control the stick with your voice. There are other benefits no TVs have. For instance, with Apple TV when you miss a snippet of dialogue, you can press the button and ask, “What did he say?”. The Apple TV box responds by rewinding 15 seconds and replaying the video with subtitles which are switched off again after.
Should you pay for 4K or HDR?
Well, that depends on what TV you have. Obviously, it’s not useful if your TV is not 4K or HDR-capable. On the other hand, there’s often only a small price premium to pay for future-proofing if you think you might be upgrading your TV soon. Oh, and by the way, there are no 8K-capable boxes available and are unlikely to be for quite a while.
Do you want other apps besides TV channels?
For instance, how about gaming? Apple TV has many games onboard. It’s true that the Apple remote is not ideal for gaming, but there’s compatibility with several games console controllers which makes for the best of both worlds. Gaming is the main reason the Apple TV box comes with different storage capacities, so you can download and store games rather than just streaming them, as you do with movies. As well as apps like Netflix, there are also services where you can rent or buy the latest films or TV shows.
How much do you want to pay?
As always, this will be a key factor. Apple’s box is pricier than most, while Amazon’s and Roku’s sticks are much more affordable, for example.
In short, whatever your budget, you can find a highly capable streaming device.
Additional reporting by David Phelan.