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Best streaming device 2021: Top media players

You've never had so many options to stream your favorite shows.

Streaming our favorite shows and movies has become not only popular but during the pandemic, they became a necessity to keep ourselves entertained. Whether it's reruns of The Office or watching the hottest new series on Netflix, streaming devices and sticks bring hours of entertainment into our living rooms and bedrooms with the push of a button or two. 

And because of that, the devices you use to stream are one of the most important -- but often overlooked -- gadgets we all have in our living rooms. 

Apple TV 4K (2021)

It has a new Siri Remote!

apple-tv-4k-2020.jpg
(Image: CNET)

Apple just updated the Apple TV 4K, with sales starting on April 30. It's the first major update to Apple's streaming device since 2017, and it was long overdue. A new, faster processor may make some Apple TV users happy but the real star of the show is a completely redesigned Siri Remote. 

The new remote has a dedicated power button to control your TV, and the touchpad has been replaced with an iPod-like jog wheel. It remains to be seen if Apple added the ability to find the new remote using Siri. That would be useful for when it inevitably gets lost in your couch.

Enough about the remote, the Apple TV 4K will allow you to stream shows from every major streaming platform, play games available in the App Store or Apple Arcade and can stream Apple's Fitness Plus workouts. 

The only downside of the Apple TV 4K is its price. Starting at $179 for 32GB of storage, or $199 for 64GB of storage, it's by far the most expensive streaming device available. 

Pros:

  • Access to Apple's App Store
  • A faster processor should future-proof the new box 
  • New Siri Remote looks nice

Cons:

  • Expensive compared to the competition 

Roku Ultra

Everything you could want from a streaming box

2019 Roku Ultra
(Image: CNET)

The Roku Ultra is the company's high-end streaming box that comes with a built-in remote finder, and the ability to stream audio through the remote's 3.5mm headphone jack so you don't wake your partner when binging on your favorite show late at night. Heck, it even comes with a pair of earbuds. 

It will stream 4K content and has access to Roku's suite of apps and services and even supports Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. Roku added AirPlay 2 and HomeKit compatibility to all 4K streaming devices in its lineup, meaning Apple fans can stream directly to the box from their Apple devices, or even use Siri to control the TV. 

Prefer Alexa or Google Assitant? The Roku Ultra supports both of those assistants, as well. 

Pros:

  • Does just about everything you'd want from a streaming box
  • Built-in remote finder? What's not to love
  • Wide range of apps and service support

Cons:

  • The built-in voice assistant could use some work

Google Chromecast (third-generation)

Better than ever

chromecast-3rd-gen.jpg
Google

Google updated its Chromecast streaming device in late 2020, and for the first time, it was poised to compete directly with the likes of Amazon and Roku. The biggest change to the streaming device was the addition of a physical remote, something previous Chromecast models had all lacked. Instead of simply "casting" content from your phone or tablet, anyone in your home could stream their favorite shows with the click of a few buttons. 

In order to accommodate the new remote, the new Chromecast now uses the Google TV interface. 

At $49.99, it's one of the more affordable streaming devices you'll find. It plugs directly into the HDMI port on your TV, with a small disc-shaped unit attached. You'll get 4K content with HDR support and access to Google's growing app library that includes nearly every major streaming service available. 

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Integrates with Google Home and Assistant 
  • Finally has a remote

Cons:

  • Doesn't offer more advanced video protocols 

Fire TV Stick (third-generation)

Affordable streaming

fire-tv-stick-2021.jpg
(Image: Amazon)

Amazon's newest Fire TV Stick uses the same USB thumb drive form factor and plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port. The remote now includes direct access to Alexa, so you'll be able to control all of your smart home devices (like turning off the lights to watch a movie) or ask for information. 

It supports Dolby Atmos for the audio aficionados. As for streaming, you'll get access to the Fire TV catalog of apps and services with support for every major platform and even some games. 

The only possible downside is that you're limited to 1080p streaming, instead of 4K. However, at $39.99, what more can you expect? (If you expect more, read the next pick.)

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Reliable experience
  • Respectable streaming catalog

Cons:

  • No 4K support

Roku Express 4K Plus

4K for only $40

roku-express-4k.jpg
(Image: Roku)

Roku will start shipping the Roku Express 4K Plus on May 16, so you'll have to preorder the $40 streaming box until then. It'll be worth the wait, though. The small streaming device is a darn good deal for what it costs. 

You'll get access to Roku's Channel lineup, which includes every major streaming service, and free live TV from Roku. Sweetening the deal is that the Express 4K Plus, as its name implies, supports 4K streaming with HDR support. 

Included in the box is Roku's voice remote with TV controls, so you don't have to switch between remotes just to change volume or power your TV On/Off. You can still listen to your shows, a staple Roku feature, through your smartphone using the Roku mobile app. There's not much this small box can't do. 

Pros:

  • 4K for $40
  • Voice Remote included

Cons:

  • Doesn't support Dolby Atmos or Dolby Vision 

Our process

Narrowing down streaming devices to these top picks is done by using the devices ourselves. In the event of devices like the new Apple TV and the forthcoming Roku Express 4K Plus, we're relying on years of testing and experience of various streaming products. We also read reviews from users and fellow professionals to gauge whether a device is truly loved by all. 

How to choose  

When it comes to choosing a streaming device, there are many factors to consider. Does your TV support 4K? 4K HDR? Dolby Vision? Do you care if your streaming devices takes full advantage of what your TV supports? Other factors to consider include whether your home is better integrated with Amazon's Alexa platform, Google Assistant or Apple's HomeKit offering. 

Lastly, consider your budget. The Apple TV 4K is by far the most expensive device we included in this list, but for those who are deeply invested in Apple's ecosystem, it's worth the extra price. However, for those who want something more flexible, a Roku device with support for all three assistant platforms may make more sense.