Investing in the best streaming stick or box brings internet-connected love to the living room, without breaking the bank. But streaming sticks aren't just a way to access binge-worthy TV ‚Äď they can provide the easiest way to access Ultra HD content via Netflix 4K, and plug into smart home systems too.
We've picked our top TV streaming stick/box options below including Google Chromecast, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Roku and more.
Streaming sticks: What to consider
First, we'd say that what streaming services you're signed up to ‚Äď or want to sign up to ‚Äď is arguably the most important decision. 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 homescreen or are you happy firing up an app on your phone? Would you use voice controls from the remote?
If you've got a higher specced telly 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 HDR as some now do to make it futureproof? There are also some gaming focused options like the Nvidia Shield TV ‚Äď does Android gaming and a bundled controller sound like fun?
Lastly, be aware that a simple streaming accessory ‚Äď like the Apple TV ‚Äď can turn your TV into your smart home hub. The Chromecast Ultra and Chromecast (2018) with Google Assistant and Amazon's Fire TV is there representing Alexa. Make your choice carefully, based on what other kit you have in the house that's connected to one of these big three ecosystems. This area is only going to expand.
This year, it's expanded with the renewed presence of Android TV and the emergence of new hybrid sound bars with TV powers. Google and JBL have already announced the Link Bar, a sound bar that comes packed in with both Google Assistant and Android TV. It plugs into your TV via HDMI and you can use Assistant to control your TV via Android TV, which has a robust ecosystem filled with the major streaming apps (not to mention Chromecast powers).
There's also the Sonos Beam and Polk Command Bar, which come with Amazon's assistant on board (Sonos Beam Google Assistant support is promised for later this year). If you're looking at a streaming stick, it's worth pausing to consider whether you'd like to buy one of these high-end devices in the future, as they can both make your TV smart and deliver much better sound.
Anyway, on with the main event: here's our pick of the best streaming sticks you can get right now‚Ä¶
On one hand, the Chromecast Ultra is about as simple as streaming sticks get. On the other, it‚Äôs probably not the one to buy for your technophobe grandparents. That‚Äôs because, despite working in a very similar way to its competition, the way you use the Chromecast Ultra isn‚Äôt quite plug and play. There‚Äôs no remote control, no central interface, and you‚Äôll need to use your smartphone or tablet to make it work.
But let‚Äôs start at the beginning. At the crux of it, the Chromecast Ultra is a 4K streaming dongle like any other. 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).
Brush up: Chromecast tips and tricks
Instead of a USB-stick shape, it‚Äôs a circular puck design, which makes it a little easier to squeeze into a crowded HDMI line-up on your TV‚Äôs back panel. It also gives it the space to add an Ethernet port, for hardwiring the Ultra to your router. If you can, we would suggest you do so. The Ultra comes with dual-band Wi-Fi to make it super sturdy for 4K playback, but hardwiring is much more reliable for the very best in sharpness and stability ‚Äď especially if your router is located a little way from your TV.
Setup is pretty simple. Once you‚Äôve plugged it in to a spare HDMI port and chosen it as your source, on-screen instructions will prompt you to download the Google Home app on your smartphone or tablet for setup. The app will walk you through the steps needed to get your Chromecast onto your home network, which takes minutes. You‚Äôre then able to name your Chromecast at the end of it all, so if you have a few in the house, you can be sure you cast to the right one.
And this is where Chromecast differs to other streaming sticks. 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 to watch.
The Google Home app has a go at suggesting popular content that might be of interest, but it‚Äôs not personalised 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 (which looks a little like a TV with some curved lines radiating from it) 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 programme 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. Then there‚Äôs the 1080p stuff, of course, from all of the UK‚Äôs catch-up services, plus Sky‚Äôs Now TV (currently 720p only), and music from Spotify, TuneIn Radio and Google Play Music.
Being part of the Google ecosystem does give 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.
Say ‚ÄúHey Google, play Better Call Saul from Netflix,‚ÄĚ and it‚Äôll jump into life, playing the first episode you haven‚Äôt watched ‚Äď for Netflix and YouTube. If there is a 4K version of it available, and your signal is strong enough, the Chromecast Ultra will opt for that by default. There‚Äôs a small handshake delay between the request and the content playing, but nothing too lengthy.
If you can do without 4K, the new Chromecast for 2018 has a new design, faster Wi-Fi and supports 1080p Full HD streaming for ¬£30.
- Flexible 4K HDR streaming
- Google Home integration
- Ethernet port for hardwiring
- No homescreen interface
- No Amazon support
- Needs a spare plug
Apple TV 4K
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.
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.
Read this: Best Apple TV apps
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 4K libraries. What‚Äôs more pleasing is that iTunes 4K movies don‚Äôt cost any more than HD, with rentals at around ¬£5: it‚Äôs cheaper than buying Blu-rays or taking out a Sky Q subscription. The only downside is that YouTube 4K isn't supported, so you'll have to settle for 1080p for now.
The box comes in 32GB or 64GB versions and this storage will only really be touched by any games you download to play on your TV, so the low volume shouldn't concern you too much. There are big-name games to choose from on the tvOS App Store, just like the iOS one, although unless you fork out for the controller, playing using the Apple TV‚Äôs remote can be infuriating. Yes, even now, the remote is a nightmare, insisting you navigate using the touchpad.
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. You can ask, ‚ÄúWhat did he/she say?‚ÄĚ to have dialogue repeated with subtitles, as well as questions like, ‚ÄúWho‚Äôs that actor,‚ÄĚ or, ‚ÄúShow me comedies‚ÄĚ to help find the right flavour of entertainment.
There are other nifty tricks, too: Apple TV 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. It will also appear in your list of AirPlay destinations, so you can use your TV setup to listen to music as well. 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.
That not enough? Well, the box even 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 soon-launching TV+ streaming service will make its way to every other streaming device. That will take some advantages away from the Apple TV 4K, but it's still a great piece of kit.
Overall, the Apple TV 4K is a superb streaming option, and one of the best out there. In many ways, it‚Äôs a costly choice, but considering the expense of accessing 4K entertainment, it may actually work out cheaper in the long run.
- Simple, intuitive interface
- AirPlay and HomeKit support
- Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos
- Comparatively pricey
- Fiddly remote
- Siri is still just Siri
Amazon's best streaming stick yet, the Fire TV Stick 4K does exactly what that imaginative name suggests. It's cheaper than a Fire TV (see below) but still gets you high end features like 4K streaming, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision.
The Stick 4K has a power cable and is slightly longer than last year's but is easy to plug and play - 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 - a very solid selection in both the US and UK.
Equally important is the bundled Alexa remote which Amazon is selling separately in the US for $30. You can hold down the button instead of saying "Alexa" and there's IR control and volume buttons which can be used to control your TV, soundbar or AV receiver.
Unlike the Fire TV Cube, bear 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 - it's easy to use but a bit cluttered and we'd quite like the ability to customise 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 - Apple's library is better served on the Dolby front, for instance.
Overall, though, this is an affordable and futureproof streaming stick option.
- Great value
- Lots of features and services
- IR Alexa remote
- UI needs work
- Lack of Dolby content
- Netflix can be slow
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, at less than ¬£60, you get plenty. A couple of major things stand out.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ not only offers 4K and HDR10 streaming but ‚Äď appeal number one ‚Äď it 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 favourite streaming apps anywhere you go - a hotel with work or a mate‚Äôs house for a binge viewing session. Roku has the holy trinity on board: Netflix / Prime / Google Play. Sure, there's no iTunes but you'll never see that anywhere other than Apple and Samsung devices. And it's all so easy to use.
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 - 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
- Super simple to use
- Good performance
- Great range of apps and services
- Alexa and Google Assistant
- No Dolby Vision
Now TV 4K Smart Box
The second Now TV device on this list isn't quite so budget as the Smart Stick but it's slightly more futureproof.
Sky's own Now TV services currently stream in 720p with 1080p due by the end of 2018 so what's it doing launching a 4K streaming box? Well, the addition of Netflix to the platform goes someway to explaining that.
If you're in the UK and you're looking to be completist about your streaming services, Netflix was the big, missing piece for Now TV. (Though Amazon Prime Video remains MIA as does Google Play Movies, Spotify etc).
So if you go for the 4K Smart Box you can now watch 4K movies and TV shows from Netflix in 60fps or watch 4K HDR YouTube content in 30fps. Here, 4K Netflix looks nice and crisp as you'd expect but you really can get that from a lot of other streaming sticks, devices and TVs.
Everything else in terms of third party apps - BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand 5, streams in 1080p and the 720p streaming on Now TV is fine but a shame if you're spending money on that Sky Cinema Pass.
It's all very easy to set up and use, the bundled remote works well and voice search is OK, certainly not best in class. The service's UI has always been a little slower than its rivals but nothing you'll find too irritating and the 4K Smart Box does improve on the Smart Stick slightly on performance.
You'll notice that it's all Roku powered so well worth looking at Roku's own options, especially if you want Prime Video in the mix.
Compared to the Smart Stick and Chromecast, it's quite a big old thing, at 12.5 x 12.5cm and 2cm tall - it connects to your TV via HDMI and needs its own power, the design is... fine, a little glossy for our liking. Though what's nice is that you can tuck it away amongst your consoles and soundbars as the Now TV remote doesn't need line of sight to work.
All in all, the Now TV 4K Smart Box has put itself in a tricky spot. You still get the no contract access to Sky's Cinema selection, Entertainment box sets (HBO shows etc), Kids, reality TV on Hayu and - a biggie - Sky Sports. But Netflix is available on the Smart Stick too and if you care about picture quality, hence looking at a 4K streamer, why would you accept lower resolutions for Now TV's main selling point, the Sky packages?
That said, if you want Sky Sports (or the other two passes) + Netflix and you're willing to wait for Sky to catch up on resolution, this is still a beginner-friendly, affordable option.
- Easy to use
- Sky's great passes
- Netflix in 4K
- No Prime Video/Google Play
- Now TV isn't 4K
- Voice could be better