Choosing The Best Streaming Device
A streaming media player can open up worlds of new TV entertainment options — and maybe convince some users to cut the cable cord. Amazon, Apple, Google, and Roku streaming devices dominate the market. The good news is that no matter which brand you're loyal to, all will let you access popular media streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Pandora, and many more. Some of them will also allow you to integrate virtual assistants, like Amazon's Alexa and Google Home, or stream 4K and HDR (high dynamic range) content. We consulted expert reviews and scoured major retail sites for consumer feedback in order to identify the best media streaming devices for under $75, as well as the best setups for Apple fans and gamers.
Do You Need A Streaming Device?These days, many people own high-definition televisions, which have a built-in HDMI port that will support media streaming players, gaming devices, and laptops. The majority of HDTVs sold are "smart" sets, meaning they can connect to the Internet using the TV's built-in browser. But, there are still good reasons to buy a streaming device even if you have a smart TV.
Compared to a dedicated media streaming device, most smart TV browsers and remote controls are not very user-friendly. You may have to hunt to find and install your favorite streaming apps, and sets may interrupt you in the middle of a show to install a software update, something that irks many users. If you watch a lot of TV and switch frequently between apps, a streaming device is the better choice, reviewers say. More importantly, you'll have access to much more content via these devices than you would using a typical smart TV interface.
And, of course, there also are still a fair number of cheap HDTVs available that aren't smart sets. If you want to stream TV and movies on these sets, you'll definitely need a media device. If you still own an older standard-definition TV with composite video inputs, your options for streaming are limited to buying an HDMI-to-AV adaptor or using the Roku Express Plus, link to capsule the only streaming player from the major brands that has AV outputs.
Choose Your Media Streaming ServicesIf all you want to do is binge-watch TV shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, then just about any streaming player will do. But if you also want to integrate exclusive content or be able to control your other digital devices, then you'll have to choose your streaming device more carefully to get the best streaming services. For instance, if you're already a Prime member and also subscribe to exclusive services like Amazon Music Unlimited and have an Alexa digital assistant, then you'll want to stick with one of Amazon's streaming devices so you can access all of your content. The same goes for those who inhabit Apple's media universe and want a service that can work with devices like iPads and iPhones, or those who are Google loyalists.
Make Sure Your Internet Connection Is Fast EnoughEven the best media player will behave badly if your home Internet service isn't robust enough to support your streaming. At minimum, you'll need around 5 megabits per second (Mbps) to stream high-def content to just one TV, though at that speed your media may sputter or stall. While SD streaming requires a bit less speed, certain services still recommend a 5 Mbps base threshold, and a home where more than one person is watching TV, playing online games, or surfing the web will likely need a connection speed of at least 10-25 Mbps, along with a dual-band wireless router that can juggle a family's data demands.
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Streaming Media Player Reviews: What We Considered
In order to determine the best streaming media players for budget-conscious consumers and others, we first consulted professional review sites like PCMag, CNET, TechRadar, and The Wirecutter to get an idea of what the experts have to say about the available array of devices and what potential buyers should be looking for in a player. We also read comments from hundreds of consumers on websites such as Amazon and Best Buy to assess the day-to-day performance of these devices. In general, both owners and experts are looking for the same thing in a good media player: ease of use and reliable access to their favorite movies, TV shows, and music.
Any good streaming device should at minimum allow you to watch high-definition TV and movies from your favorite content services. It should be easy to set up, with user-friendly controls and enough processing power to stream shows without stuttering or pausing. A cheap streaming device may come with a remote control, while pricier models have voice activation or an app for your phone. Media streamers may resemble small set-top boxes like the Apple TV 4K, thumb-drive-sized dongles like the Amazon Fire TV Stick, or larger dongles like the Google Chromecast, which looks like a small disc attached to a short cable. Most of these players require only a simple connection to your television's HDMI input.
Support for 4K and HDRAll of the cheap streaming media players we recommend support high-definition video at 1080p resolution. Pricier models also support streaming 4K and HDR content, which is becoming more common as the price of these ultra-high-definition TVs drops. But if you don't own a 4K TV and don't plan on buying one, there's no need to spend extra money on compatible streaming devices.
Available ContentJust because you buy a media streaming device doesn't mean you've got instant access to endless content; many streaming services, like Hulu and Amazon Prime, will still require a subscription. And you'll need to be a cable customer to access the apps for certain popular networks, like ESPN, AMC, TBS, and Bravo — otherwise you'll need to pay extra for live TV streaming offered by Hulu, Sling TV, DIRECTV, and similar service providers. The good news, however, is that Apple, Amazon, Google, and Roku devices all offer apps for the most popular of these streaming sites and, of course, you'll be able to easily sign into Netflix. Now, you can even get HBO on the internet via all of these streaming players (for a fee, of course).
You'll also find apps for hundreds of networks that don't require cable or live TV streaming, plus plenty of special-interest channels for movies, sports, news, kids' programming, and more. The list of these niche apps will vary from streaming device to device. Roku has by far the largest selection of apps in its ecosystem, with more than 1,000 to choose from, including access to the Google Play store in addition to other a-la-carte services like Vudu and FandangoNow. A reviewer for The Wirecutter notes that Roku's superior app selection gives it an edge over every other streaming player.
There are a few common apps that you won't find on every streaming device, however. Amazon and Google don't necessarily play well together, and you won't find Google Play on Amazon Fire TV or the Amazon Prime app on Google Chromecast. Likewise, you won't find music app Spotify on Roku. Roku also can't access iTunes content, which could be a sticking point for anyone deeply invested in Apple's ecosystem. (As always, there are workarounds for most of these absences, but these hacks often take more tech savvy and more time than the average user is willing to invest.)
Device CompatibilityAll the streaming media players we researched allow users to send content from a supported mobile device to a TV. With most current Roku players for example, you can directly "mirror" anything that appears on the display of an Android or Windows device. Screen mirroring is not supported for iPhones or iPads, which are limited to casting content from compatible apps, such as Netflix and YouTube. And iOS users who want to access personal media, such as photos, songs, and videos will need to use the Roku app or another third-party app to do so.
Similarly, Amazon's Fire TV Stick will allow screen mirroring, but only from Android, Kindle, and other Fire devices that support Miracast. (Third-generation Fire TV boxes and the Fire TV Cube do not mirror displays.) Apple TV uses AirPlay to mirror the screens of iOS devices and Macs, but Android and Windows users will have to rely on compatible apps to get content from their devices up on their TVs.
While these sharing options typically exist to augment content already available on the streaming players themselves, Chromecast dongles rely entirely on users to source all content for streaming — the device works more like a transmitter between the TV and the users' smartphones, tablets, or computers (which double as remotes) rather than as a standalone media player. The main draws of Google Chromecast: apps that support Google Cast abound across platforms (Android, iOS and Windows) and anything that can be accessed on a Chrome web browser can be cast onto a TV screen. Android users can also mirror their phone displays using the Google Home app.
Setup & NavigationGetting one of these players set up should be plug-and-play simple, and in most cases it is. We only found scattered consumer complaints about setting up streaming players. Media player menus have also become incredibly easy to navigate across the board; even a cheap TV streaming device like Roku's Express Plus has an intuitive menu that's easy to use with the included remote. Most of the models we looked at have voice control, either with the remote or via a home digital assistant like Alexa. Navigation of Google's Chromecast, which, again, relies exclusively on user devices, mostly works well, reviewers say.
SpeedIt might not seem like these tiny boxes and dongles need beefy processors, but even some of the cheaper streaming players pack some serious computing power. The result is that apps load more quickly on newer players using a quad-core processor than on models that are less robust.
Internet connection is the other major component affecting speed and performance. When it comes to wireless connections, streaming players that support the 802.11ac wireless standard are the best. Streaming 4K content requires considerably more bandwidth; Netflix recommends 25 Mbps. Ideally, a 4K-capable media streamer should feature a wired Ethernet port to connect directly to routers for the fastest, most reliable internet connection.