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The best streaming devices: Top media players compared

You've never had so many options to stream your favorite shows.
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Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributing Writer on

Streaming favorite shows and movies has become a popular pastime. Whether it's rerunsof 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 some of the most important -- but often overlooked -- gadgets we all have in our homes. 

Apple TV 4K (2021)

It has a new Siri Remote!

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

In early 2021, Apple updated the Apple TV 4K for the first time since 2017, and it was long overdue. Improvements included a new, faster processor that 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 on our list. 

Pros:

  • Access to Apple's App Store
  • A faster processor should future-proof the new box 
  • New Siri Remote is the star of the show

Cons:

  • Expensive compared to the competition 

Roku Ultra

Everything you could want from a streaming box

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Image: Roku

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. And you can use the Roku app on your phone to stream to your wireless earbuds if you want to get really fancy. 

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 has 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 Assistant? The Roku Ultra supports both of those, 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
  • Content deals with Google are distracting and concerning

Google Chromecast (third-generation)

Better than ever

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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 4K

Affordable 4K streaming

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Image: Amazon

Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K looks like a really big USB thumb drive that plugs directly into your TV's HDMI port. The remote offers 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 random bits of 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. 

It's normally priced at $49.99, but is currently on sale for $24.99 -- a price that makes it more affordable than non-4K streaming sticks. 

Pros:

  • Very affordable
  • Reliable experience
  • Respectable streaming catalog

Cons:

  • No 4K support

More: How to use Amazon Fire Stick

Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon's most powerful streamer

Amazon Fire TV Cube
(Image: CNET)

Don't want a streaming stick? Amazon's Fire TV Cube is a worthwhile option. Even though it hasn't received a hardware refresh in a couple of years, it's still considered the high-end streaming device from the online retail giant. The cube-like design doubles as an Echo device, allowing you to give hands-free voice commands without using the remote. There's a light bar across the top of the unit that lets you know when Alexa is listening. 

You can stream 4K shows through any of the supported streaming services (which includes all of the major players like Netflix, YouTube and Disney+), and if the service supports it, you can take advantage of the Fire TV Cube's support for Dolby Vision, HDR, HDR10+ and Dolby Atmos audio. 

What makes the Fire TV Cube appealing to some is that it can also be used to control the rest of your home entertainment setup, including your sound system or TV itself using the built-in IR sensor. 

Pros:

  • A dedicated Echo and Fire TV device in one
  • Controls your entire entertainment center

Cons:

  • Hasn't been updated in awhile

Our process

Narrowing down streaming devices to these top picks is done by using the devices ourselves. We also take into account 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. 


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