The Best Streaming Devices

Fire-TV

Fire TV Stick 4K streaming device Amazon’s Fire TV OS operates atop an Android interface, so using it feels like an extension of a modern computer or mobile device with more freedom of choice and applications (over 12,000 available). The app store allows for more productivity apps and 3D games, which Roku lacks, in addition to complex operations like downloading files and sideloading applications. Annoyingly, ads are front and center at the top and bottom of the screen as your main menu hides in the center of the screen with tiny app icons that get buried among TV show cards. To Amazon’s credit, the tailored algorithm accurately recommends content based on what you watch, which can be helpful. But ultimately it just feels like a ton of ad bloat. Navigating the screen to the app you want to use can occasionally be downright difficult in comparison to Roku’s highly visible and organized channel layout and single, unobtrusive sidebar ad.

But look deeper into the chaos and you’ll see an OS and integration with other services that really benefits you if you’re invested in Amazon’s ecosystem. For example, you can control your entire smart home with Alexa and pull up a visual dashboard for things like viewing security cameras, set Amazon-drive saved photos as a screensaver background, and play the latest video games over the Cloud using Amazon Luna. But for those not already invested in Amazon, the biggest draw will be the low price for all the smart features, which bests Roku. There’s no AirPlay streaming protocol for iPhone, but you can mirror and stream your Android Smartphone or Windows laptop display using Miracast.

Things To Consider:

Size

The body size of a streaming device determines if you can fit it within your current setup. On the lower end of the price spectrum under $50, you can expect thin streaming sticks. They don’t require a separate HDMI wire—the connection is built right into a compact body, which is meant to be tucked away behind your TV. This format is lightweight and portable so you can take it on vacations or work trips. Step up to mid-range streaming, and you see boxes like the Roku Ultra below. Dedicated streaming boxes are larger and more powerful than a stick and offer advantages like a USB port for plugging in physical media storage sources as well as ethernet connectivity. At the higher end, streaming devices are discretely integrated into hardware like a smart hub or sound bar, so functionality extends to being a Bluetooth speaker for your room or a smart assistant for controlling your home.
MediaTechnology
If you want superior surround sound, you’ll want to make sure your device supports Dolby Audio, especially the latest surround sound of Atmos. For enhanced color, you’ll need HDR 10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG support to see enhanced palettes and brightness levels. You’re better off shelling out the few more dollars to ensure you make use of all supported enhancement features your TV provides to see the most optimal cut of content upon every viewing.

How We Test

If you want superior surround sound, you’ll want to make sure your device supports Dolby Audio, especially the latest surround sound of Atmos. For enhanced color, you’ll need HDR 10+, Dolby Vision, and HLG support to see enhanced palettes and brightness levels. You’re better off shelling out the few more dollars to ensure you make use of all supported enhancement features your TV provides to see the most optimal cut of content upon every viewing.I’ve used both brands devices in my daily life for years as they serve different purposes in my household. For testing purposes, I evaluated the six standalone devices below over the course of one week. During this time, I hooked them up to a 65-inch LG C1 television to confirm 4K 60 output as well as an Atmos-capable sound bar to confirm the Dolby sound output quality of each device. I linked up each of my subscription services from Hulu to HBO Max to compare streaming video quality, menu navigation, and overall speed performance while taking notes on any hangups or positives.

Key Specification

Size
Media Enhance Technology

3.9 x 1.2 x 0.6 in
Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR, HLG, and HDR10+

Feature:

The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K offers both Dolby Vision and Atmos, a freshly updated remote with a live TV guide, and a decently speedy processor. Which is shocking since it’s often on sale for under $30. This non-Max version loses the Wi-Fi 6 capabilities, lacking the improved stability and speeds of its big brother (below), but that doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Wi-Fi 6 router to make use of the bump in connection quality. Overall it’s quick enough, has the Android interface for plenty of tinkering, and is super affordable. If you want to explore content to find new shows to watch, download interactive apps or games, and view your smart home on your TV, there’s no cheaper way to do so.

Positive
Negative

Size
Media Enhance Technology

3.9 x 1.2 x 0.6 in
Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, HDR, HLG, and HDR10+

Positive
Negative

Review

The Roku 4K competes directly with the Fire TV 4K but in a smaller glossy body that’s about half the size. The more expensive (but not by much) 4K Stick Plus adds a headphone jack into the remote, personal shortcut buttons, and Dolby Atmos audio support. Otherwise, it’s not too far of a jump from this already excellent streaming stick. Setup is easy: Plug and play behind your TV without fiddling with any wires, and start streaming in seconds.

The thin design and streamlined menu is the biggest draw, as it’s less bulky than a FireStick and incredibly simple to use. The controller offers a 3.5 mm port on the remote for private listening with headphones–perfect for late night or early morning movie sessions without disturbing the rest of the household. In my week of testing, I didn’t experience a single buffering popup while watching 4K content. However, the Streaming Stick can struggle when retrieving casted iPhone video over Airplay. Roku’s Channel offers free Live TV and shows—I found myself enjoying the service’s exclusive shows like Ten Weeks over the course of testing. For the price, it’s surprising that Atmos support is limited to the more expensive Streaming Stick 4K+.

Apps load up in under 5 seconds, and navigating and controls are simple. Like all Roku devices, the 4K Streaming Stick suffers from slow scrolling, which is a headache once you have over a dozen or so apps. My library of 140+ apps is a slog to get through. Downloads are fast thanks to the extended Wi-Fi, which isn’t built directly into the body but cable itself for a stable and smaller format. You just need to be wary of this as you can’t replace the wire if you damage it without paying for it.

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