So what’s “the best” streaming device for watching Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and live TV on your television?
There is no runaway winner in the streaming hardware market.
The big three streaming device makers — Roku, Amazon and Google — are the best entry points for first-time cord cutters and veterans alike.
They’re inexpensive and easy to use.
Table of Contents
- Best Streamer Overall: Google Chromecast with Google TV
- Second-best streamer overall: Roku Ultra
- Best voice features: Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Generation)
- Best overall value: Roku Express 4K Plus
- Fastest streaming stick: Fire TV Stick 4K Max
- Best premium streaming device: NVIDIA Shield TV
- Why Apple TV didn’t make the cut
But it’s not so cut and dried. Roku and Amazon have a number of different models. So if you’re ready to jump ship with cable TV and finally cut the cord from cable TV, the real question is: what’s the best model for you to buy?
And what about Apple TV or lesser known devices such as NVIDIA Shield? This review will help you sort all that out.
I own just about every major brand of streaming hardware that’s currently on the market. I became a cord cutter years ago, and I buy streaming hardware throughout the year — every year.
Even though I don’t think there is one streaming device that stands above all the others, I do have some strong opinions on what will work best based on your TV watching preferences.
Here’s one of them out of the gate.
The three most important features for any hardware maker in the streaming game right now are:
- Ease of use,
Those three features play directly into what I call the “fewest clicks test”.
The “fewest clicks test” evaluates how many times you have to press a button on your remote control before you start watching a TV show or movie.
Integration is also important if, like me, you are using a combination of streaming services and free over-the-air channels that you can get with a TV antenna.
Each of these streaming devices have strengths and weaknesses, and should also be weighed by your own personal wants or needs.
Best Streamer Overall: Google Chromecast with Google TV
The new Google Chromecast with Google TV is the most exciting release for streaming hardware in the last few years.
Out of all the streaming devices discussed here, it rates the highest in my “fewest clicks” test.
The Google TV part of the Chromecast is what makes it so unique.
It saves you from scrolling through app after app just to find something to watch. This new software recommends movies and series on your home screen from 30 different streaming services.
This list is expected to grow. And the more you use the Google Chromecast, better your recommendations will be from Google TV.
People don’t want to spend an hour going from one streaming app to another after a long day or week at work. You should be able to sit down and quickly find either a favorite show or a new movie that you want to watch.
The bottom line is that the Google Chomecast with Google TV is performing that crucial task better than a number of streaming services.
Here’s the other thing that makes Google TV a significant value. Streaming services are constantly rotating in new movies and shows, while others leave the service. Even if you’re someone who faithfully reads every list of what’s coming to Netflix or Hulu, you’re not going to keep up.
Google TV helps with discovering movies and shows that you didn’t know were available through your subscriptions. The menu also has what I consider to be a premium experience across all your streaming apps.
What do I mean when I say premium experience?
When you select a movie to watch, you get a Rotten Tomatoes score, and many times a trailer to watch. The “ways to watch” tab also shows you whether a movie is available on a streaming service that you’re subscribing to along with some rental options.
Being able to turn on your TV and quickly find something to watch without endlessly scrolling through app after app is a big deal. Unfortunately, Netflix recently opted out of being included in Google’s recommendations, but I honestly don’t consider it a big deal.
The remote control is well-designed, and impressive; it can control the power and volume on your TV.
There’s a dedicated button for Google Assistant, which you can use for finding a movie, checking out a local weather forecast or finding out when the Red Sox are playing their next game.
The remote is small, but feels good in the hand. It packs a lot of convenience and time-saving in a small form factor. And Google Chromecast is competitively priced at $50.
Second-best streamer overall: Roku Ultra
The Roku Ultra is what I bought my parents, friends and family members when they asked me for help to cut the cord.
I went with the Roku Ultra for two reasons. The option to use an Ethernet cord instead of WiFi greatly reduces the possibility of a TV picture buffering.
That’s something you especially want to consider if you’re subscribing to a live TV service such as Sling TV or YouTube TV.
Nothing is worse than having a dramatic, high point in an NFL game freeze up because your kids are playing Fortnite in the next room.
Roku’s menu is intuitive and simple to use. That’s what you want if you’ve lived with a cable box for the last 40 years and you’re not crazy about big changes.
For my retired, non-tech savvy parents who were paying about $200 per month for their cable and phone bundle, keeping things simple was crucial for them.
The menu has a grid of apps that you can arrange in whatever order you like. Roku serves up its own slate of free, ad-supported movies and TV shows on The Roku Channel.
And the Featured Free section does a good job of aggregating a sampling of free shows found on various TV Everywhere apps. Featured Free cuts down on the time it takes to find something to watch because you don’t need to activate individual apps to watch a show.
The Ultra’s other features are some of the best on the market.
It supports the both standards of High Dynamic Range (HDR) known as HDR10 and Dolby Vision on 4K televisions. On the audio side, it supports Dolby Atmos.
The remote control on the Roku Ultra has a built-in headphone jack for private listening. Voice control is useful for quick searches of movies, or programs with specific actors. You can also program buttons for favorite apps.
Roku Ultra is also among the company’s 4K streamers that support Apple AirPlay and HomeKit. That allows you to easily share or stream photos and video directly from an iPhone, iPad or Mac.
But Roku’s software also has its shortcomings. It lacks some much needed aggregation with subscription streaming services.
There’s no single portal where a customer can see movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Disney+ on one screen.
Putting that option front and center would further simplify the growing army of streaming apps and services.
Having said that, the Roku Ultra is a top tier streaming device, really one of the best you can buy, and it’s reasonably priced at around $99 or less when there’s a sale. I picked up mine on sale for $69.99.
Best voice features: Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Generation)
The Fire TV Cube adds hands-free voice commands so you can simply walk in a room and tell your TV to turn on or off with just your voice.
You can also use your voice to turn on a favorite show on Netflix or even a local channel if you’re connected to a Fire TV Recast.
The latest software update for Fire TV devices now focuses on aggregating multiple streaming services. And in a way, Fire TVs have already been doing this for a while through its integrated channel guide.
My favorite addition to a Fire TV Cube is the Fire TV Recast, which is an over-the-air DVR that can add a lot of free live TV channels such PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX without any kind of monthly fees.
Having a single sign-on for TV Everywhere apps is really great. So if I subscribe to Philo or Hulu with Live TV, and I sign into my A&E app, you’re automatically signed into every other app that is supported by your live TV subscription.
The Fire TV Cube supports Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision, HDR and HDR10. There is an Ethernet port so you can have a faster Internet connection.
And of course, there’s some casual gaming options on the Fire TV either through Amazon’s app store or the new Luna Cloud gaming portal. You can pick up an inexpensive Bluetooth controller and start playing.
The new Fire TV Cube is going to add a lot to your living room no matter what TV-watching ethos you subscribe to. So even if you haven’t cut the cord yet, you can change your cable TV channel with your voice. The Fire TV Cube is regularly priced at $99.99.
Best overall value: Roku Express 4K Plus
In the world of streaming sticks and dongles, the Roku Express 4K Plus is the best value for the money.
You’re getting just about all the features you care about at less than half the price of the Roku Ultra, the company’s flagship model.
The Roku Express 4K Plus supports 4K HDR10, but not Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos. It has dual-band connectivity to WiFi.
The remote control for the Express 4K Plus controls a TV’s power and volume. And the remote control has a button for voice commands that can help you quickly search for movies or specific apps.
The private listening feature isn’t on the Express 4K Plus remote control. But you can use private listening through the Roku mobile app. I use a pair of Bluetooth headphones. And it’s pretty convenient when you’re watching a movie at night while someone is sleeping in the next room.
If you’re buying a brand new 4K or OLED TV for your living room that does support Dolby Vision or Atmos, then you’ll want a Roku Ultra.
The Express 4K plus supports Apple AirPlay and HomeKit. That allows you to easily share or stream photos and video directly from an iPhone, iPad or Mac.
The Roku Express 4K Plus retails for about $40.
Fastest streaming stick: Fire TV Stick 4K Max
The Fire TV Stick 4K Max is the first streaming device operating on the new Wi-Fi 6 band.
But most people are going to notice the speed of launching apps like Netflix and Disney+. Navigating the menu is a likewise zippy experience compared to previous Fire TV streamers.
The design of the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is essentially the same as previous generations.
Much like the Fire TV Stick 4K, it includes an HDMI extender which makes it easier to attach to a television or computer monitor.
The remote doubles as a universal remote for your TV; and has a power button, a volume rocker and mute button. The voice-control button is at the top. This remote also has four direct launch buttons.
Given the Max’s speed, performance and Wi-Fi 6 support, it is now a better buy compared to the Fire TV Stick 4K.
Best premium streaming device: NVIDIA Shield TV
The NVIDIA Shield is pretty much the digital work-horse in the streaming world. It’s best for people who are interested in streaming 4K video, but who also want a lot of PC gaming options.
The latest NVIDIA Shield models came out in late 2019, but with its high-end hardware and chipset, it remains the fastest and most agile streamer on the market. It’s also the only streaming device on this list that has a backlit remote that comes on when you pick it up.
AI upscaling is the most underrated feature on the new NVIDIA Shield. If you own a 4K TV, the Shield uses a powerful algorithm of artificial intelligence to upscale movies and TV shows to a 4K image.
I’ve tested the AI upscaling on a number of free and subscription-based streaming services. It works on free services such as Pluto TV.
But here’s where I see the real benefit, I’m a huge fan of watching older movies, and I pay for a subscription to The Criterion Channel. So I can watch an upscaled version of older movies that haven’t been remastered. That’s pretty cool.
The Shield runs its own version of Android TV software with full access to the Google Play Store.
Aside from streaming Netflix or Disney+, you can watch live over-the-air TV if you have a HDHomeRun, or Tablo setup in your home.
The Shield PRO model can also operate as a Plex Media Server. And there’s now a lot more gaming options — either by streaming games through your PC or GEForceNow, the cloud gaming service. The latest Shield models don’t come with a gamepad, but you can buy a bluetooth controller or even use a PS4 controller that you already have around the house.
The entry-level Shield costs about $149 and the Shield PRO is $200.
Why Apple TV didn’t make the cut
There is only one major player that didn’t make the cut. That’s the new Apple TV.
The Apple TV is currently available for pre-order, and might make sense for you if everything else in your home comes from Apple, and you want total integration.
But I generally don’t recommend Apple TV for cutting the cord from cable TV because of its price. The new Apple TV 4K costs $179 for the 32G model, and $199 for the 64G model. There is also a HD version that costs $149.
Just about every other major streaming player offers a much cheaper option for streaming — whether it’s in HD or 4K. You can get a high-end 4K streaming experience for as little as $40 or $50. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to drop $179 on an Apple TV unless you’re fully invested in the Apple ecosystem.
The new Apple TV+ streaming service is available on most other major streaming devices, including Roku and Fire TV.
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble