(Pocket-lint) - A lot of new TVs have streaming services available as part of their Smart TV platforms, but there are still plenty of us that still have "dumb" TVs, or an incomplete selection of services, or are just plain unhappy with the experience offered by a cable box or TV when it some to streaming.
If you want to boost access streaming services, you'll need a streaming box or dongle and with the selection of content expanding rapidly, opting for a streaming device will often give you access to new services sooner than relying on software updates to TVs.
There are a number of players in this market, with Roku and Amazon dominating, but with Apple and Google also having a seat at the table. There are other suppliers, but those four dominate the market and usually present the biggest decisions when looking to buy.
Our top recommendation
We have a full breakdown of the best streaming devices right here, but the device we recommend is the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max. This is a good price, offers excellent performance and quality, and offers a great platform for entertainment on your TV.
But there are a lot of other factors to consider, because these devices do a lot more than just stream Netflix, so here's everything else you might want to consider.
Value for money
- Roku: From $29.99 / £29.99 / €29.99
- Fire TV: From $29.99 / £29.99 / €29.99
- Chromecast with Google TV: From $49.99 / £59.99 / €69.99
- Apple TV: From $149.00 / £139.00 / €159.00
Over the past few years, streaming devices have generally got more affordable. Both Amazon and Roku offer a range of devices in a range of positions, but there are basically three tiers of devices:
The Roku Express and the Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite both being the top choice when it comes to value for money. Watch out for sales like Black Friday, where these devices hit seriously low prices - but be aware that they are only 1080p.
Those devices above are cheap because they miss out the top streaming resolutions, but both Amazon and Roku again offer devices that introduce 4K. The best value if you want 4K HDR streaming comes from the Roku Express 4K, before you get to the Fire TV Stick 4K or the Roku Streaming Stick 4K. These are great devices in the middle of the pack.
Apple TV finds itself much more expensive so is the least appealing if it's bang for your buck that you're looking for. But there are a lot more features offered by Apple TV, which account for its price. There are two versions, the Apple TV HD and the Apple TV 4K. The Apple TV 4K is triple the price of other 4K devices and if you're only interested in streaming, not worth the expense.
Design: Stick or set-top box?
- Roku: Set-top box and HDMI stick options
- Fire TV: Mostly HDMI stick
- Chromecast with Google TV: HDMI dongle
- Apple TV: Set-top box
There's quite a lot to consider when it comes to design, with two distinct divisions here: compact set-top boxes and HDMI sticks.
That's how the Roku Express gets the price down, because it's a set-top box and you attach it via an HDMI cable. For the Roku Express models you'll need line of sight for the remote, so these boxes will always be visible.
The Fire TV Cube and the Apple TV are also set-top boxes, but are pretty large. In the case of the Fire TV Cube, the size allows more functionality - it supports Alexa voice control with its own mics and it has IR controls to power other devices. Apple TV offers more connections, like Ethernet and optical, hence the bigger frame. Roku also offers larger set-top boxes in some markets, the Roku Ultra, although this model has mostly been supplanted by the Roku Streaming Stick 4K in terms of functions.
Many choose the smaller and more discrete design of the HDMI stick. That's what you get from most of the Amazon Fire TV Sticks (hence the name) and from Roku's Streaming Stick devices. These connect to HDMI around the back of your TV and then have Bluetooth remotes, so once installed, it's out of sight and out of mind, meaning a cleaner installation.
Chromecast with Google TV has a similar arrangement, with an HDMI on a short cable, so the device can be installed behind a TV, with no need to remain visible.
Which is the best streaming quality?
- Roku: Up to 4K HDR with Dolby Vision
- Fire TV: Up to 4K HDR with Dolby Vision
- Chromecast with Google TV: Up to 4K HDR with Dolby Vision
- Apple TV: Up to 4K HDR with Dolby Vision
At the top end, all these devices support 4K with Dolby Vision. You'll need a 4K display with Dolby Vision to get the best visuals. The device we've found to offer the best performance is the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max, but the Apple TV 4K is also very good. This mostly comes down to the power these devices offer rather than improved visuals. The Roku Streaming Stick 4K is also very slick, as the latest device from Roku.
Roku, Amazon and Apple all offer a lower quality device that only has 1080p - that's fine if you have a smaller TV or an older TV that doesn't support 4K resolution. In most cases these devices are cheaper, but watch out for Apple TV HD - this is really expensive for the quality it offers, because you're mostly paying for other features, like access to other Apple services.
With so many devices available from Roku and Amazon, it's important to make sure you're getting the support you want. Some devices don't have Dolby Vision support, for example, so make sure it's listed - if you buy an old model, you might miss out.
Chromecast with Google TV comes in one variety, there's currently no cheaper option. There is a standard Chromecast device, but with no remote and no user interface, we wouldn't recommend it as the experience isn't as good as you'll get from Roku or Amazon at that price.
How do the features differ?
- Roku: All major streaming services, Spotify Connect, Google Cast, AirPlay 2, voice control
- Fire TV: All major streaming services, Spotify Connect, Google Cast, Alexa
- Chromecast with Google TV: All major streaming services, Spotify Connect, Google Cast, Google Assistant
- Apple TV: All major streaming services, AirPlay 2, Apple Fitness, Apple Arcade, Siri
Many will buy one of these devices for streaming TV and movies. All will deliver the major services, but it's always worth checking that the apps you subscribe to, or the services you want, are supported. In the UK, for example, the Chromecast with Google TV doesn't support All 4. If you want apps like Plex, for local streaming for example, you need to make sure it's available.
The big difference between Roku and the other platforms is that Roku has a basic interface - it's basically a grid of apps, there's no discovery or shortcuts back into the content you want, so it's less visually engaging on the home screen. But some might take that simplicity, because they will just open and app and start watching. Roku is also well supported by other services - Google Cast, AirPlay 2 (on many models), Spotify Connect - and these all make it a great choice to control via your phone.
Amazon's Fire TV is more visually engaging and is pretty close to Chromecast with Google TV in terms of how it looks as you navigate around. But it supports Alexa through the remote, so it's ideal for anyone familiar with Alexa. That means you can also control your Alexa devices and on the top device, you can have picture-in-picture to view security cameras connected to Alexa.
Chromecast with Google TV is similar to the offering from Amazon, but with Google Assistant in place. That means you can get access to a whole load of information and home control for smart devices. Some will argue that Google Assistant is a little better at search than Alexa, but it's a pretty level experience in our opinion.
Apple TV really is a slightly different proposition and there's immediate appeal for Apple fans, especially if you are tied into lots of Apple services. While all the other devices have an Apple TV+ app and can access your old iTunes purchases, there's an expansion with things like Apple Fitness, seamless connectivity with AirPods (and Spatial Audio on Apple TV 4K), as well as Apple Arcade games and an enhanced Apple Music experience with music videos and lyrics. It's also a slightly tighter experience when interfacing with your iPhone and can also play its part as a HomeKit hub. That's why it's more expensive, because it does a lot more.
The most affordable devices to get you started are the Roku Express or the Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite, but they aren't fully featured and for anyone with a big TV, they'll want to step up to the range of mid-range devices on offer.
As we said at the start, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max offers a great experience, we like the user interface and the performance is great. Chromecast with Google TV is close in experience and Roku Streaming Stick 4K also delivers the goods. The important thing is to consider what access you want and what you're going to use it for - and, of course, how much you want to pay.