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Best gifts: 2017's top five TV media-streaming devices

Now, more than ever, to make the most from your TV you must include an internet streaming device with it.
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1 of 6 Sarah Tew

Today's best internet TV streaming devices

When I first cut the cord back in 2009, I did it because I had enough of large cable or satellite TV bills. Now, I have an additional reason: Many of my favorite shows are only available on streaming services. I'm not the only one.

According to Hub Entertainment Research's Conquering Content report, 52 percent of people now watch streaming video over 48 percent of those using set-top boxes. Of these folks, two-thirds of them subscribe to at least one of the big three streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Of these, over a third now subscribe to more than one service.

It's easy to understand why. To watch such popular shows as Stranger Things, The Handmaid's Tale, or The Man in the High Castle you need to subscribe to streaming services. Traditional over-the-air (OTA) stations, such as CBS, ZDNet's parent company, are moving to streaming as well. Star Trek: Discovery, for instance, is only available on CBS's streaming service: CBS All Access.

To watch any of these you need a streaming device. True, most TVs now come with embedded streaming services, but I've yet to find a "smart" TV that's that smart. Even the best of them, such as LG WebOS-powered OLEDB6P or LG OLEDC7P, don't keep up with the ever-changing streaming TV world.

For example, last year I complained that the new TCM and Criterion streaming service, FilmStruck, wasn't supported on any smart TV. Guess what? It's still not supported.

So, for the foreseeable future, to get the most from internet TV you'll need a streaming device. Here's my pick of the best of the best.

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2 of 6 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Roku Streaming Stick Plus

Year in and year out, Roku builds the best streaming devices. This year's top Roku device is the Roku Streaming Stick Plus. In a single stick it supports 4K video and High Dynamic Range Video 10 (HDR10) for only $69.99 package.

Like all Roku devices, it supports more streaming services than any two of its competitors. If you, like me, enjoy exploring the hundreds of video services out there, this makes it a must buy.

True, it doesn't have a great voice-interface, but while I like Amazon Alexa and Google Home, I'm not crazy about using voice to search my TV shows. I'd rather use Roku's reliable old-style menu system.

If you have an older TV in a spare bedroom, the Roku Express+ for $39.99 can give it a new lease on life. This device uses composite A/V ports to work with TVs dating back to the 20th century.

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3 of 6 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Amazon Fire TV (2017)

Amazon has come a long way with their streaming devices. The latest and greatest, the Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD and Alexa Voice Remote, comes with 4K and HDR-10 support. Besides Amazon Prime, it supports most of the other popular streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. At $69.99, it's an excellent streaming gadget.

The new Amazon Fire TV's best feature is its voice control. You can order it to watch, say the latest episode of Archer, using either its remote or any nearby Alexa-enabled device such as the Amazon Echo. This doesn't do a great deal for me, but if you love Alexa you'll love this.

I'm not crazy about how the device places mostly Amazon videos at the top of the menu interface, but that's a minor complaint.

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4 of 6 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Nvidia Shield

What if you want to both stream video and play games? Well, you have many choices including Sony's PlayStation 4 Pro or the Xbox One X, but for streaming, I prefer the Nvidia Shield (2017) with its $179 price-tag.

That's largely because it does a great job of showing 4K and HDR video to my screens. You can use it to stream many services including Netflix, Amazon, and Vudu. Best of all, if you like have your own video library or an OTA antenna, you can use open-source Plex to watch your own movies and shows or watch and record local network televison. It's not as easy as using TiVo BOLT VOX for OTA DVR, but then it does a better job of streaming than the TiVo box.

You can aso get a $199.99 Nvidia Sheild includes both the remote and Shield Controller gamepad, This enables you to control the Android-powered Shield with your voice using Google Assistant. If you like gaming and streaming, I'd seriously consider the Shield.

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5 of 6 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Apple TV 4K

Are you still wedded to Apple gadgets? Do you the iTunes store for your video needs? Do you use iTunes for your personal media library? Then you'll want the latest Apple TV: The Apple TV 4K. On the other hand, at a starting price of $179, it's more expensive than your other choices.

As always, the new Apple TV's biggest salest point is it lets you buy or rent content from the Apple Store or your own iTunes library. It does support more third-party streaming services than it used to, but it still doesn't support Amazon Prime Video.

Technically, unlike the others, Apple TV 4K supports not only 4K and HDR10 video, but, in addition, the less common Dolby Vision HDR. In theory, Dolby Vision HDR is superior to HDR10 because of its potential to display more colors. In practice, there's no real difference between then yet in terms of content. As for quality, well if you've been around video long enough you'll recall that Betamax was better than VHS, and how much good did that do it in the long run?

Some people love the Apple TV interface and remote. I think it's good, but not all that. Still, if what you really want this holiday season is an iPhone X with all the trimmings, you'll love the latest Apple TV.

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6 of 6 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Chromecast Ultra

The originial HDMI dongle streaming device, the Google Chromecast Ultra is back and better than ever. For $69.99 you get 4K, HDR10, and Dolby Vision HDR.

One of the improvements is if your Wi-Fi isn't all it can be, the Chromecast Ultra comes with an ethernet port in its power adapter. This gives you one less cable to worry about, which is never a small deal when crawling under your display.

Once you've installed it, you can stream video content to it from any computer or device you have which supports Google Home. Yes, this also means you can order it about using your Google Home and voice commands.

You can also use Chromecast Apps to directly access streaming services like Netflix, Sling TV, and HBO Go. For services, which aren't natively supported with apps, you must start them from your smarphone, tablet, or PC. Once they're streaming, however, they won't drain your battery.

I've always liked the Chromecast, since I can literally put it in my pocket and turn any TV into "My" TV. As time has gone by, I like it more than ever.

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