At this point, the set-top box market has settled on three major choices – or rather, two major choices and a dark horse. For most consumers who want something beyond their smart TV’s built-in interface, or who buy a new TV and want a widely supported user interface, you have a choice of Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast.
All three come preinstalled on many TVs, mostly from budget brands: TCL, Hisense, Element and Philips, Toshiba and Insignia all offer TVs with built-in Roku or Fire TV. Sony, the only high-end brand to counter the trend of personalization. integrated operating systems, uses Android TV (aka Google TV, aka the new Chromecast, because Google fears the brand).
But in various forms and flavors, all three can be added to an existing TV, and there’s a good reason for doing so: they’re all better supported and more scalable than, say, the operating systems of precooked TVs that come from LG, Samsung and Vizio. And they’re all extremely accessible, with 4K streaming capabilities down to the $ 50 (or less) level, making them a nice addition to even a budget TV.
To be frank, all three smart TV platforms are pretty good at this point, with years and years of development behind them and mainly universal support for major streaming services. Trying to choose between them comes down to the little details, but it’s hard to really go wrong.
Roku: for bargain hunters and fans of simplicity
Roku gets our number one spot for several reasons. First of all, this is the most available: In virtually any electronics store, online or physical, you’ll find both streaming sticks and Roku TVs preloaded with Roku software. You might even find a sound bar or two that runs it. And all of them will be inexpensive compared to other options in the same form factor.
But Roku is also the most targeted smart TV platform, if only because its approach is somewhat dated. The Roku home page is all about apps, just apps, ma’am: users see a grid of services they can access, as well as live TV and HDMI inputs if their TV is Roku branded. You need to go to the apps themselves to start browsing the content. And thanks to a recent update, Roku has also finally has access to HBO Max.
In contrast, Fire TV and Android TV / Chromecast tend to give you recommendations for individual shows and movies. There’s an argument to be made to put content front and center, but we still think breaking it down into individual apps and services is easier to manage. It’s an entirely subjective determination, by the way – if you don’t agree, you’re right, and Roku probably isn’t for you.
The downside to Roku is performance. While Roku is extremely straightforward, focusing on dividing that content into individual apps slows it down, especially if you’re moving from one service to another. If you want to check and see if Netflix has more seasons of the show you watch than Hulu, it’s going to take you a few more seconds on a Roku device. Roku is also less expandable than its competition, with few options for non-TV apps, games, and tools, and limited search voice control.
Which Roku to buy
For TVs with Roku built-in, TCL is the pretty clear winner. They offer a variety of models at different prices, although they don’t have the super high end option for those on an unlimited budget. Series 5 is a good middle ground.
The best Roku powered TV
If you’re looking for a cheap streamer, you can’t go wrong with the Roku Streaming Stick +. With an ultra-simple remote control, support for 4K HDR content, and an HDMI dongle that can be powered by the USB maintenance port on most TVs, it’s the easiest way to add tons of apps streaming to a big screen.
The best cheap Roku
For those who need a little more oomph with their flow, the latest version of the Roku Ultra is where it is. In addition to all of the capabilities of the dongle above, the Ultra adds an Ethernet port for wired stability, remote search loss, Bluetooth audio streaming compatibility, and Dolby Atmos support. You can also plug wired headphones directly into the remote for private listening. Note that the Roku Streambar does all of that, too, with a budget soundbar included on top.
The best Roku Premium
Fire TV: for all Amazon, all the time
If you go with an Amazon-powered streaming device or TV, you’re not missing out on much when it comes to content – it’s compatible with all major streaming services, including competitors in hardware and content. ‘Amazon, YouTube and Apple TV.
What Amazon is offering is integration with its corporate retail empire – which might be a good thing, if you’re already into it. Those who subscribe to Amazon Prime Video and already have tons of smart gear powered by Alexa are obviously the main customers here, although you can use Fire TV to play videos through subscription and free services all day long. live. Just be prepared to see ads for Amazon video content more or less anywhere outside of these apps.
Amazon also has one advantage that Roku lacks: add-ons to its Prime service. If you want, you can treat Prime like a basic cable plan, adding extras like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Stars, CBS All Access, PBS Kids and many more, for between $ 5 and $ 15. per month. Nothing prevents you from subscribing to these services separately from Amazon and watching them in their own apps, but going through Amazon allows you to access them in the standard Fire interface, no additional apps are required.
YouTube TV does this as well, but there are far fewer people actually using this service. The additional factor is a definite consideration if you are already all-in on Amazon. Fortunately, all of these add-on subscriptions can be turned on and off at any time, as can their stand-alone versions. So you can binge on HBO series one month, then head to Starz for their shows the next day.
Which Fire TV to buy
At the time of writing, only Toshiba and Insignia include Fire TV as their TV’s default operating system. Toshiba is clearly the winner, although bargain hunters might be tempted by Insignia (which is the “house brand” of Amazon competitor Best Buy, oddly enough).
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is almost the same device as the Roku Streaming Stick +, above, or at least the same form factor. It can handle 4K resolution and HDR, as even inexpensive TVs currently do, with enough power in its processor to handle switching between multiple services. It also has a voice-activated remote control, although you always have to press a button. It also supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision.
Best Budget Fire TV Device
Upgrading beyond the Fire TV Stick 4K isn’t really necessary. There’s the Fire TV Cube, which adds support for an Ethernet connection and a faster processor. But its main selling point is that it has a built-in Alexa smart speaker … and if you’re defined on Amazon as a smart home platform, you almost certainly already have one in your living room. .
Best Premium Fire TV device
Chromecast: more options, more problems
The latest version of the Chromecast isn’t really a Chromecast anymore: it’s “Chromecast with Google TV”, Ie Android TV, which is a complete operating system. What does it mean? This means Google is really bad at telling you what things are doing. But more concretely, this means that in addition to being able to “stream” video and music from your phone, laptop, etc., Chromecast has all the standalone app capabilities of its competitors.
This is both a good and a bad thing. This is great if you are a fan of using a remote control instead of your phone, for example: you can now use a familiar ‘couch’ type interface instead of touching the phone screen (although the phone screen is always an option!). But Google TV’s new interface is also a lot less fancy than Roku or Amazon, and tends to try and get you to watch things from services you don’t subscribe to. It’s not as good at learning your habits as Amazon, and not as focused on specific apps or services as Roku. That said, it’s tightly integrated with Google Assistant, so you can use it for all normal searches and smart home control if you already have an assistant powered home.
But the new Chromecast also takes advantage of years of Android TV development. There are a ton of cool apps for this, like the MX local video player or AirScreen to mirror a Mac screen. Android TV also has a much better selection of games than Fire TV and can connect to standard Bluetooth controllers, including the Xbox and PlayStation variety. It also means that you can play games remotely, thanks to services like Steam link, GeForce NOWand Stadia.
Wait, Google has launched its own new set-top box platform with gaming support, but without support for its own streaming gaming platform? Yes, that’s sort of Google’s approach to their products. The new Chromecast outperforms the competition a lot in terms of both hardware and software, but some weird choices mean it only matters if you want to do something pretty specific with that extra power. That said, Google has confirmed that Stadia will be coming to the Chromecast with Google TV. somewhere in 2021.
Which Chromecast or Android TV to buy
Only Sony offers a full Android TV operating system built into its TVs, but many low-cost smart TV systems (including Roku) are compatible with Chromecast streaming. Sony’s sets range from “expensive” to “ridiculously expensive”, but the X800H series uses Android TV and is at least somewhat achievable.
Best TV with built-in Android
For those on a budget and want a great selection of complementary apps and games, the new Chromecast with Google TV is the best choice. It’s extremely affordable, although that bit of extra power means you’ll need an open wall outlet, even if it has a “dongle” form factor. It supports 4K HDR, comes with a remote control, and can still handle streaming tasks from your phone.
If you really want to push your 4K TV to the limit, both for streaming content and gaming, NVIDIA SHIELD TV is the way to go. Not only does it have surprising power for gaming (it runs on hardware very similar to Nintendo Switch), but its “AI” upscaling ability results in even older streaming content in 4K. Discard a MicroSD card, or opt for the larger “Pro” model, and you can even use it as a Plex server.
Best high-end Android TV streamer
A final note: Apple TV
If you are a fan of Apple’s mobile and computing hardware, you might be wondering: What about Apple TV? And if you’re already an Apple fan, you’re probably already thinking about buying one. For you, and especially for you, this might be a good idea.
Apple TV is very similar to Android TV: it has all the basic features of a standard streaming box, plus the ability to easily stream videos from your Apple devices. If you’re already all-in on Apple, especially if you’re paying for the Apple TV + service (which is available on other platforms) or Apple Arcade (which isn’t), it makes sense to get the official Apple TV 4K decoder.
But with most of the options on this list starting at three times the price, although they offer little benefit beyond Apple integration, the cost of integration is steep. And even some Apple fans are not a fan of its oversimplified remote control design. So unless you play a lot of Apple Arcade games, or stream straight from your iPhone or MacBook, it’s probably not worth it.