Streaming Media Device Buying Guide

Given the ever-increasing price of traditional pay TV, it’s no surprise that a growing number of us have either cut the cord with our cable or satellite company, or are considering doing so. Whether that’s true for you or not, there’s a good chance that you already subscribe to at least one streaming service.

In addition to the biggest names, such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix, viewers can choose among dozens of smaller or newer streaming services that may be less familiar. A number of streaming pay TV services, such as AT&T TV, Hulu + Live TV, and YouTube TV, offer the same live local TV and cable channels you can get from a cable or satellite TV company. Free ad-supported services such as Crackle, Peacock, Pluto TV, and Tubi TV are booming, and other paid services focus on niche interests, such as British shows or horror movies.

You may already own a streaming device to pull in the video from the internet. Many televisions these days are smart TVs, with the ability to access a variety of streaming services. Blu-ray players and the major video game consoles may have this feature, too.

Otherwise, a dedicated streaming media device is a simple, relatively inexpensive way to make any TV a smart one. And even if your TV is already internet-capable, a dedicated streaming device may be more convenient to use or more powerful, or it might offer some services you can’t get from the television.

At Consumer Reports, we test streaming media devices thoroughly, and we’ve found that generally they are reasonably priced and simple to connect. Plug ’em into your TV and then connect to your wireless network, and you’re good to go.

Types of Devices

The market for streaming media devices is dominated by just a few brands. These include Amazon, Apple, Google (Chromecast), and Roku. The newest models now support 4K videos with high dynamic range (HDR). You can choose between set-top boxes and stick-style devices that plug directly into a TV’s HDMI input—these small devices may have fewer connections and features, but they’re also unobtrusive.

Several types of set-top box streaming media players.

Set-Top Boxes

You can get a set-top-box streaming device from Apple (Apple TV and Apple TV 4K), Amazon (Amazon Fire TV Cube), or Roku (Roku Express, Roku Express 4K+Roku Ultra), among other options. They typically are a bit faster and more responsive than stick-style devices, and have more connections, such as USB ports for playing personal media. These boxes connect to your TV via an HDMI cable.

Several stick-style streaming media players.

Stick-Style Devices

Stick-style streaming media devices models are available from Amazon, Google, and Roku. Most offer both HD and 4K models that support HDR. Some stick-style devices are about the size and shape of a USB flash drive, although both of Google’s players—Chromecast, and Chromecast with Google TV, have a unique circular shape. All plug into your TV’s HDMI port and draw power either from the TV’s USB port or from an AC wall outlet.

Is Your Broadband Fast Enough?

Your internet connection will help determine picture quality: Netflix and other services adjust the signal you get based on the speed of your internet connection. So if Gal Gadot’s jawline seems less than chiseled or that rom-com won’t play without buffering, buffering, buffering . . . you may need a more robust broadband connection or some adjustments to your WiFi network

You’re Likely to Need a Speed of at Least 25 Mbps
Yes, 5 megabits per second is the absolute minimum to support a high-definition stream, but that’s barely adequate, and only if you are streaming to just one device at a time. Most homes these days will need at least 25 Mbps, the Federal Communications Commission’s latest definition of high-speed broadband. But with more of us Zooming with work from home, attending school online, and streaming more entertainment than ever, you may need much faster speeds. Note: Regardless of how fast your connection is, picture quality may initially be poor but then improve after a minute or so as the service adjusts to the connection speed. And if you’re connecting via WiFi, your router also needs to support a decent speed.

4K Video With HDR Is Now Common
All the services can deliver high-definition picture quality, but most—including Amazon, Apple TV+, FandangoNow, Fubo TV, HBO Max, and Netflix—now offer a growing amount of 4K content for those who have higher-resolution 4K TVs. Most of these services also now support 4K videos with high dynamic range (HDR). These screens have about 8 million pixels, which is around four times as many as a regular 1080p TV. But you’ll need a relatively fast connection, at least 15 to 25 Mbps, to stream 4K content.

Features That Matter

4K HDR capability
All the major streaming player brands now offer at least one model that supports 4K videos with HDR. Although most 4K TVs are now smart TVs with built-in access to streaming services, you may still want to use a 4K player with HDR capability because it might access 4K services you don’t get on your TV, support more HDR formats, or provide better performance or special features.

Simple Setup
WiFi Protected Setup (WPS) means you don’t have to manually enter a password. You simply press one button on the router and another on the device and, voilá, you’re securely connected.

The Right Connections
All streaming media devices have built-in WiFi, and some have an Ethernet jack for a wired connection to a modem or router. All can hook up to TVs via HDMI connections, but those with legacy analog-video connections for use with older TVs that lack an HDMI input are getting rarer. Some players include a USB port for playing your own media, such as music and photos, through the device. A DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) label means the device can access content—such as movies, videos, and photos—from other devices on the same network.

Organized Apps
As more channels become available on these devices, the ability to reorder (or delete) apps and customize your home screen is a plus. It helps you avoid having to scroll through seldom-used options.

Universal Search
You’ll appreciate models that can search across multiple services to find shows and movies, so you don’t have to check each service individually.

Dual-Band WiFi
A streaming device with dual-band WiFi can help performance by relegating video streaming to the higher 5-gigahertz frequency band, sidestepping possible interference with other devices in the home, such as cordless phones and microwaves, that operate on the 2.4-GHz frequency. Models that support the 802.11ac standard are now more common, but only a few (including the new Apple TV 4K) support the new WiFi 6 standard, which offers faster speeds and the ability to support more devices. Your wireless router also needs to support WiFi 6 to get those benefits, but a WiFi 6 streaming device can work fine with older routers.

Well-Designed Remotes
Some models come with remotes that have embedded microphones, so you can search using voice terms, which is easier than typing using an onscreen keyboard. Dedicated buttons for the most used services allows for easy access. Backlit buttons come in handy on family movie night when the lights are low. Most of the devices offer apps that let you use your smartphone as a remote control.

Picking the Right Streaming Service

New online streaming services offer unprecedented viewing options for either those looking to supplement what they get from cable or those who want to eliminate it entirely. (We can show you how to cut cable TV for just $25 per month.)

There are now several ways to go. All-you-can-eat subscription services (Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, but also now Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Paramount+, and Peacock) offer unlimited streaming for a monthly fee, typically around $6 to $16 per month. Cable-style live TV services (AT&T TV, Fubo, Hulu + Live TV, Sling TV, YouTube TV) offer both local and cable channels for anywhere from $25 to $85 per month. And free streaming services (Crackle, Pluto TV, The Roku Channel, Tubi TV) require you to watch advertisements instead of paying.

Finally, you can use pay-per-view services, where you rent or buy individual movies or shows on an à la carte basis.

If you opt for a subscription, it’s worth noting that they tend to get current movie and TV titles later than pay-as-you-go options, but they also offer a lot of original content you can’t get elsewhere. Subscription services make the most sense for those who watch a lot of shows and movies, like to binge-watch several shows or even entire seasons of a series, or are fans of exclusive shows and movies (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon, “Bridgerton” on Netflix) that aren’t available elsewhere. If you watch only one or two movies or shows a month and prefer more current releases, a pay-per-view service is the better bet.

Here’s a breakdown of the “Big Three” subscription services.

Image of Amazon Prime logo.

Cost: $13 per month or $119 per year, $9 per month for a video-only subscription

Content: Movies; original series, such as “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “Fleabag”; exclusives, including “Downton Abbey” and “The Americans”; and sports, such as NFL and New York Yankees games.

Pros: Free with an Amazon Prime subscription for two-day delivery, a growing content library, free Amazon Prime Music, access to Prime Day shopping event.

Cons: Lost access to HBO shows with the launch of HBO Max, time lag before release of blockbuster movies.

Devices: Wide device support, including smart TVs, streaming media players, and mobile devices.

Streaming Media Devices Ratings
Image of Huluplus logo.

Cost: $6 per month with ads, $12 per month without

Content: Current and past seasons of broadcast TV shows, movies, and some originals, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Little Fires Everywhere.”

Pros: Current and previous ABC, Fox, and NBC shows, and older ones from CBS; a few cable channels; and a growing number of original series. While Netflix has raised prices, Hulu dropped the price of its first year of service to $6 per month.

Cons: Lower price includes ads, the selection of movies is still modest, though growing, and local channels depend on your location. Service has been slower to offer compelling original content.

Devices: Almost universal device support.

Streaming Media Devices Ratings
Image of Netflix logo.

Cost: $9 per month for standard definition, $14 per month for HD, $18 per month for 4K HDR

Content: Movies, original series such “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Stranger Things,” plus past seasons of shows such as “Breaking Bad.” Also has several Marvel series, such as “Jessica Jones.”

Pros: Vast selection of content, compelling original TV shows and movies, wide device support.

Cons: Prices continue to climb, and there’s a lag before getting blockbuster movies. Netflix lost access to most Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars shows and movies with the launch of Disney’s own streaming service.

Devices: Almost universal device support.

Streaming Media Devices Ratings

Streaming Media Brands

A handful of big-name brands dominate the market.

Amazon sells a variety of streaming media players under its Fire TV brand, including both HD and 4K HDR models. They range from inexpensive stick-style players, which plug directly into a TV’s HDMI port, to the Fire TV Cube, a $100 model that lets you control other devices. All have Amazon’s voice-powered Alexa digital assistant.
There are now two Apple TV devices: the regular 1080p Apple TV and an updated, pricier Apple TV 4K that comes with a much-improved remote control. Both let you buy or rent movies and TV shows from iTunes; they also provide access to a variety of other services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Disney+. Apple TV can use AirPlay to share content stored on portable iOS devices or a Mac computer on the TV.
Google offers two streaming media devices—the 1080p Chromecast and a newer 4K HDR Chromecast with Google TV—that use the Android operating system. Both models are disc-shaped and plug directly into a TV’s HDMI input. The 1080p model requires you to use your phone or tablet as the remote control to “cast” streaming content to the TV; the Chromecast with Google TV comes with a remote. It also has built-in Google Assistant to control other devices, and it’s offered in a choice of three colors.
Perhaps best known for performance-based computer graphic cards targeted toward gamers, Nvidia now offers two set-top boxes, the Nvidia Shield TV and the Nvidia Shield TV Pro. Both models offer strong video game play. The Shield TV model has a cylindrical design, and the Pro has a unique, angular look. The Pro also has more memory and storage. Both are 4K models that support Dolby Vision HDR, plus Dolby Atmos immersive audio.
Roku shipped its first streaming device in 2008, helping to create the category. It now offers several set-top boxes, including the Roku Express (HD), and two 4K HDR models, the Express+ 4K and the Ultra. It also has a 4K stick-style model, the Roku Streaming Stick+. The Roku TV platform is also now built into TV sets from companies including Hisense and TCL, which use Roku as their smart-TV platform. Roku has a wide range of content, including access to Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, plus hundreds of niche channels.
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