Streaming Media Device Buying Guide

Binge-watching TV shows has become an all-American pastime. Streaming devices are ideal for marathon watchers, as well as for cord-cutters, cord-shavers (those cutting back on their pay-TV service), and even the new crop of cord-nevers. Using devices such as Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or Roku, along with subscription or pay-per-view services such as Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix, you can watch newly released and classic films, seasons of past and current TV shows, and shows and networks you used to have to subscribe to cable to get. You can even use these streaming devices to access photo apps and social media sites on your TV. 

You may actually already own a streaming device. Many televisions these days are smart TVs, with the ability to access a variety of streaming services directly from the set. Many Blu-ray players, as well as the major video game consoles, have this feature. But for many of us, 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 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; a few companies, such as Roku, have several models with different sets of features and specifications. 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.

Picture of several typse 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), and Roku (Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Ultra), among others. 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.

Picture of several stick-style streaming media players.

Stick-Style Devices

Stick-style streaming media device models include Google Chromecast and Google Chromecast Ultra (4K), Amazon Fire TV Stick (4K), and Roku Streaming Stick and Roku Streaming Stick+ (4K). Some stick-style devices are about the size and shape of a USB flash drive, although the Chromecasts are disc-shaped and the Amazon Fire TV Stick dongle has a diamond-shaped design. 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 because Netflix and other services adjust the signal you get based on the speed of your internet connection. So if Tom Cruise’s grin seems less than sparkly or that rom-com won’t play without buffering, buffering, buffering . . . you may need a more robust broadband connection. Also, if you’re connecting to your network via WiFi, make sure your wireless router is up to snuff.

You’ll Need a Speed of at Least 5 Mbps
This is the absolute minimum to support a high-def stream, and that’s adequate only if you are streaming to one device at a time. Most homes will need 10 Mbps or more, and the FCC recently updated its definition of broadband to 25 Mbps. 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. Also, if you’re connecting via WiFi, your router also needs to support a decent speed.

4K Video Is Now Here
All the services can deliver high-definition picture quality, but most—including Amazon, FandangoNow, Netflix, and Vudu—now offer a growing amount of 4K content for those who have higher-resolution 4K UHD 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 can access 4K services you don’t get on your TV, or it offers 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 only a few have analog-video connections for use with older TVs that lack an HDMI input. Some 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 scrolling through seldom used options.

Universal Search
We prefer devices that can search across multiple services to find shows, without favoring one service over another.

Dual-Band WiFi
A streaming device with dual-band WiFi can help performance by relegating video streaming to the higher 5-GHz 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. Some newer models now support the 802.11ac standard, which has the potential to deliver stronger, faster signals, but only if your wireless router also supports it.

Well-Designed Remotes
Some models come with remotes with 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. Some devices, including Chromecast, have no remote and are controlled via an app downloaded to a mobile device such as a phone, tablet, or laptop.

Picking the Right Streaming Service

New online streaming services offer unprecedented viewing options. There are basically two ways to go: all-you-can-eat subscription services that offer unlimited streaming for a monthly subscription, typically around $8 to $12 per month; and pay-per-view services, where you rent or buy individual movies or shows on an à la carte basis. There are now also several cable-replacement services—such as DirecTV Now, Hulu With Live TV, Sling TV, Sony PlayStation Vue, and YouTube TV—that offer a cablelike package of programming that can cost anywhere from $20 to $70 per month.

If you opt for a subscription, it’s worth noting that they tend to have fewer current movie and TV titles than pay-as-you-go options. Pay-per-view titles are often available sooner. Subscription services make the most sense for those who watch a lot of shows and movies, or who like to binge-watch watch several shows or even entire seasons. 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 three top subscription options.

Image of Amazon Prime logo.

Cost: $11/month or $99/year

Content: Movies, original series such as "Transparent" and "The Grand Tour," older HBO series, exclusives such as "Downton Abbey" and "The Americans," plus HBO's back catalog of shows.

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

Cons: Few current episodes of programs from channels other than HBO, time lag before release of blockbuster movies.

Devices: Wide device support, including the long-awaited Apple TV. It's not directly available on Google Chromecast, though.

Streaming Media Devices Ratings
Image of Huluplus logo.

Cost: $6-$8/month with ads; $12/month without

Content: Current and past seasons of broadcast TV shows, and some new originals such as "The Handmaid's Tale."

Pros: Current and previous ABC, Fox, and NBC shows, and older ones from CBS; a few cable channels; and now some 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, selection of movies is modest, selection of older shows is limited, and service is slower to offer compelling original content.

Devices: Almost universal device support.

Streaming Media Devices Ratings
Image of Netflix logo.

Cost: $8/month for SD; $11/month for HD; $14/month for 4K

Content: Movies, original series such "House of Cards," newer hits such as "Stranger Things," plus past seasons of shows such as "Breaking Bad." Also has several Marvel series, such as "Jessica Jones."

Pros: Vast selection, compelling original programming, wide device support.

Cons: Limited programs from other channels, lag before getting blockbuster movies. Netflix will lose access to new Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars movies starting in 2019 as Disney launches its 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 currently sells two streaming media devices under its Fire TV brand. The Amazon Fire TV is a small, 4K-capable set-top box, and the Amazon Fire TV Stick is a diamond-shaped 4K dongle that plugs directly into a TV’s HDMI input. Both devices have access to Amazon Instant Video, a pay-per-view service, and Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Prime Music, which are free to those paying the $99 yearly (or $11 monthly) fee for Amazon Prime two-day delivery service. The device can also access TV shows and movies from several other services, including Hulu and Netflix. The Fire TV has received an update that enables support for 4K videos.
There are now two Apple TV devices: the regular 1080p Apple TV and the newer Apple TV 4K. Both let you buy or rent movies and TV shows from iTunes; they also provide access to other services, such as Netflix, YouTube, and, finally, Amazon Prime. 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 the 4K Chromecast Ultra—that use the Android operating system. Both models are disc-shaped and plug directly into a TV’s HDMI input. They require that you use your phone or tablet as the remote control for access streaming content from several services. They also let you “cast” content from computers using the Chrome browser.
Mohu is primarily known as an indoor antenna company, but it now offers a device, called Mohu Channels, that targets cord-cutters by combining free over-the-air broadcasts with streaming. Users can connect an antenna to the device, which has a cylindrical shape, and it connects to your home network to receive streaming services, including Hulu, Netflix, and Vudu.
Perhaps best known for performance-based computer graphic cards targeted toward gamers, Nvidia now offers a set-top box, the Nvidia Shield, that’s half game console, half streaming media device. The unit has a unique, angular look, and it’s based on the Android TV platform, so you can cast content, and it has access to Google Play apps. Also, it supports 4K videos.
Roku shipped its first streaming device in 2008, helping to create the category. It now offers several set-top boxes—the Roku Express, Express+, and Ultra, and a 4K model—as well as 1080p (Roku Streaming Stick) and 4K (Roku Streaming Stick+) stick-style devices. The Roku TV platform is also now built into TV sets from companies including Haier, Hisense, Insignia, and TCL, which use Roku as their smart-TV platform. Roku has the widest range of content of any device, including access to Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, plus hundreds of niche channels.

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