Smart TV may be relatively ubiquitous in 2020, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should ignore the advantages of streaming sticks or boxes when it comes to tapping into the ever-expanding world of streaming content.
Some smart TV interfaces are pretty crummy, and many don't have the latest apps, games and content available from the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google.
Or, perhaps you don't have a smart TV, and instead you want to bring some internet-connected joy to your existing setup on the cheap, simply by plugging a top streaming stick into one of your TV's HDMI port.
Update: We first published this guide to the best streaming sticks a couple of year ago. We keep it updated with all the latest devices from the major players. As well as the devices listed below, be aware that a new Xiaomi streaming stick has just been announced. It's bound to be a great budget option and we'll deliver our verdict on it as soon as we've put it through its paces.
Jump to the information you need
- Best overall streaming stick
- Best for Android users
- Best streaming box for Apple users
- Best budget pick
- Media streamers: Know before you buy
Amazon's best streaming stick, the Fire TV Stick 4K does exactly what that unimaginative name suggests.
It's cheaper than the new second-gen Amazon Fire TV Cube, but still gets you high end features like 4K streaming, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, all from a HDMI port on the back of your television.
The Stick 4K has a power cable and is slightly longer than last year's but is easy to plug and play ‚Äď if you need it at an angle, there's a dongle to help. It gets you access to services including Prime Video, Netflix, HBO, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Disney, Curzon, Plex and more ‚Äď a very solid selection in both the US and UK.
Equally important is the bundled Alexa voice remote which Amazon is selling separately in the US for $30. You can hold down the button instead of saying "Alexa" for voice search, and there are IR control and volume buttons which can be used to control your TV, soundbar or AV receiver.
Unlike the Cube, keep in mind the Fire TV Stick 4K won't act as an Echo when the TV is off. But when surfing results it's generally really quick, with some room to improve on Netflix.
In use, it's faster and smoother all round thanks to a new quad-core 1.7 GHz processor inside. Fire OS has its positives and negatives ‚Äď it's easy to use but a bit cluttered and we'd quite like the ability to customize it a little more.
It's packed with features and services, its 4K streaming is excellent and Dolby Atmos is also on board to give you a sound boost. When it comes to HDR10+ and particularly Dolby Vision, though, we couldn't find many movies and shows that support it yet ‚Äď Apple's library is better served on the Dolby front, for instance.
Overall, though, this is an affordable and future-proof streaming stick option.
What we love
- Great value
- Lots of features and services
- IR Alexa remote
What we don't love
- UI needs work
- Lack of Dolby content
- Netflix can be slow
Read our complete Amazon Fire TV Stick review.
Less of a streaming stick and more of an ultra high definition Pandora's Box, the Apple TV 4K is a seriously smart TV companion, which also plays a major part in the Apple ecosystem as it can also be used as a HomeKit smart home hub.
As you‚Äôd expect from Apple, this richness comes from the host of apps, accessible from the Apple TV‚Äôs own App Store. The majority of these include the full range of content streaming platforms, both free and paid-for, live TV services and ported iOS games. You'll also be able to control it from Apple devices such as your iPhone or iPad.
Packing everything into the diminutive little black box, the Apple TV 4K is powered by a new A10X chip to handle all the 3840 x 2160 Ultra HD grunt. And there‚Äôs plenty to choose from, with Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and iTunes, all with growing reasonably priced 4K libraries. The only downside is that YouTube 4K isn't supported, so you'll have to settle for 1080p for now.
However, you are getting support for HDR10, Dolby Vision HDR (High Dynamic Range), Dolby Digital Surround sound and Dolby Atmos audio. The last of those really confirms the Apple TV 4K as an AV powerhouse, but you'll still need the right TV and speakers to make the most of these features.
Siri is also well integrated, and offers more contextual options than you might think, even if, yeah, Siri still pales in comparison to Alexa and Assistant.
Apple TV, as you'd expect, plays nicely with AirPlay 2 as a receiver and sender, so you can send the sound to an AirPlay speaker, or, preferably, a sound bar, by dragging down on the remote. And, if you're streaming video on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, you'll be able to ping those visuals over to your Apple box.
The box also has the ability to act as a HomeKit hub, automating actions based on your location.
There is one niggle though, as Apple has announced that its TV app and TV+ streaming service will make its way to every other streaming device. This will take some advantages away from the Apple TV 4K, but it's still a great piece of kit.
What we love
- Simple, intuitive interface
- AirPlay and HomeKit support
- Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos
What we don't love
- Comparatively pricey
- Fiddly remote
- Siri is still just Siri
Read our complete Apple TV review.
Best for Android lovers: Google Chromecast Ultra
Despite working in a very similar way to its competition, the way you use the Chromecast Ultra isn‚Äôt quite plug and play. Instead of using a central interface on your TV with a bundled remote, you use your mobile device and the apps you have installed on it to find things.
It connects to your TV via HDMI, can stream 4K HDR content up to 2160p (in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision) and requires power via a spare plug socket (it needs more power than your TV can provide).
The Google Home app has a go at suggesting popular content that might be of interest, but it‚Äôs not personalized to what you‚Äôve watched previously, like the Amazon Fire TV.
You‚Äôll get more of that from going into the apps directly. However you go about finding content, once you have something you want to watch, you‚Äôll use the ‚Äúcast‚ÄĚ icon to throw this content from your device to the TV.
Once it‚Äôs there, the Chromecast Ultra does all the work for you ‚Äď you can continue to use your device for other things, listen to music with it or even turn it off, and the program will continue to play.
There is one sticking point here. Not all apps play nicely with Chromecast, and Amazon is one of them. With a fairly limited amount of 4K content available to stream at the moment, and Amazon offering a decent chunk of it, that‚Äôs a bit of a blow for the Chromecast Ultra‚Äôs capabilities. There is a hack you can use to cast from a Chrome browser, but it‚Äôs not as slick, and won‚Äôt do playback in 4K.
Still, there‚Äôs a wealth of 4K HDR programming on Netflix and YouTube that does work with casting, plus a handful of films to buy from Google Play. There's also Stadia gaming if you're an early adopter and you've got hold of one of Google's gaming controllers.
Being part of the Google ecosystem also gives it some pretty hefty smart home points to stick it to the competition, with the ability to ask any smart speaker with Google Assistant built in to play something on your TV.
What we love
- Flexible 4K HDR streaming
- Google Home integration
- Ethernet port for hardwiring
What we don't love
- No home screen interface
- No Amazon support
- Needs a spare plug
Read our complete Google Chromecast Ultra review.
Best budget pick: Roku Streaming Stick+
From $29, Amazon
If you already have a smart 4K TV, you'll already have apps onboard, so why buy a streaming stick on top of that?
Roku has created a platform that offers you more for your buck and covers a range of price points, starting at just $29 for the new Roku Express.
The Roku Streaming Stick+, pictured above, costs $59 and therefore makes it a more expensive pick, but offers 4K, HDR10 streaming and ‚Äď appeal number one ‚Äď takes speeds to a new level thanks to a clever Wi-Fi upgrade.
By putting the antenna in the cable, rather than the stick which sits behind the signal-blocking TV, Roku has managed to enhance speeds by up to four times. This means the 802.11ac dual-band MIMO is likely faster than your TV and results in quality streaming without buffering.
Reason two for shelling out for this stick is to have all your favorite streaming apps anywhere you go ‚Äď a hotel with work or a buddy's house for a binge viewing session. Roku has the holy trinity on board: Netflix / Prime / Google Play but it's also now added Apple TV+.
Plug into the TV via HDMI and the stick will automatically work out what the TV can handle and set up the output signal to max ‚Äď which tops out at 4K and HDR running at 60fps. But this is also smart enough to pair the included remote with that TV model meaning you can control things like volume from the remote.
You also won't need to plug this one into an outlet, as it uses a USB cable to plug directly into the back of your TV. That's an easy option, though you will need a TV that has a USB socket on the back. One gripe here is that Alexa and Google Assistant don't work great.
They'll open apps and find movies and TV shows fine, but playing and pausing is a bit glitchy. There's also no Dolby Vision support, which makes the Stick+ feel dated compared to the Apple TV 4K and Fire Stick 4K.
Other positives includes the accompanying smartphone app, which lets you listen via your headphones wirelessly, a reliable casting option from your smartphone and the Vudu app, which has a large catalogue of 4K HDR movies.
What we love
- Super simple to use
- Good performance
- Great range of apps and services
What we don't love
- Alexa and Google Assistant are glitchy
- No Dolby Vision
Read our complete Roku Streaming Stick+ review.
Streaming devices: What to consider before buying
The services you're signed up to - or want to sign up to - is arguably the most important thing to consider when purchasing a streaming device.
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are the two heavyweights, but there's also apps like Hulu, Now TV, Mubi and Spotify to consider. If you just want to get these services onto your TV, with no fuss on specs or resolution, you can pick up a bargain streaming stick ‚Äď an original Chromecast say or a Now TV Smart Stick ‚Äď and away you go.
Do you need a nicely designed home screen, or are you happy firing up an app on your phone? Do you actually care about voice search from the remote control?
2. 4K, HDR and other specs
If you've got a high-spec TV, or you're forking out for 4K Netflix, say, then you'll need to look a bit further. Does the box or stick support 4K streaming, or even HDR10, to make it future-proof?
There are also some gaming focused options like the Nvidia Shield TV ‚Äď does Android gaming and a bundled controller sound like fun?
3. Streaming devices as smart home hubs
A simple streaming accessory can turn your TV into your smart home hub. Apple TV 4K is there for HomeKit users, the Chromecast Ultra and Chromecast represent Google Assistant and Amazon's Fire TV range is Alexa-enabled.
Make your choice carefully, based on what other smart kit you have in the house that's connected to one of the big three ecosystems. This area is only going to expand.
Smart support through the TV doesn't have to come from a streaming device, as you can also install a smart soundbar that houses a voice assistant, but it's definitely worth looking into.