The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

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The best streaming sticks and boxes

Similar to smart speakers, streaming sticks and boxes can bring a lot of extra internet-connected love into the living room, without breaking the bank – by turning your dumb TV smart or adding extra apps and services. They're normally very easy to use and they feed our addiction to this binge TV moment we're living in.

We've picked our top five TV streaming stick/box options below from Google, Apple, Amazon, Now TV and Roku.

Streaming sticks: What to consider

First, we'd say that what streaming services you're signed up to – or want to sign up to – is arguably the most important decision. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are the two heavyweights but there's also apps like Mubi, Spotify or Sky's movie and sports packages to consider in the UK.

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 – an original Chromecast say or a Now TV Smart Stick – 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 – does Android gaming and a bundled controller sound like fun?

Lastly, be aware that a simple streaming accessory – like the Apple TV – can turn your TV into your smart home hub. The Chromecast Ultra works 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'll expand 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 Sonos' future hybrid sound bar, which could come with Alexa, Assistant or both. 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…


The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Google Chromecast Ultra

$69, store.google.com

On one hand, the Chromecast Ultra is about as simple as streaming sticks get. On the other, it’s probably not the one to buy for your technophobe grandparents. That’s because, despite working in a very similar way to its competition, the way you use the Chromecast Ultra isn’t quite plug and play. There’s no remote control, no central interface, and you’ll need to use your smartphone or tablet to make it work.

But let’s 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).

Instead of a USB-stick shape, it’s a circular puck design, which makes it a little easier to squeeze into a crowded HDMI line-up on your TV’s 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 – especially if your router is located a little way from your TV.

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Setup is pretty simple. Once you’ve 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’re 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’s not personalised to what you’ve watched previously, like the Amazon Fire TV. You’ll 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’ll use the “cast” 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’s there, the Chromecast Ultra does all the work for you – 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’s a bit of a blow for the Chromecast Ultra’s capabilities. There is a hack you can use to cast from a Chrome browser, but it’s not as slick, and won’t do playback in 4K.

Still, there’s 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’s the 1080p stuff, of course, from all of the UK’s catch-up services, plus Sky’s 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 “Hey Google, play Better Call Saul from Netflix,” and it’ll jump into life, playing the first episode you haven’t watched – 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’s a small handshake delay between the request and the content playing, but nothing too lengthy.

the ambient verdict
Google Chromecast Ultra
The Chromecast Ultra is a brilliant 4K streaming option for Netflix subscribers and YouTube addicts, but especially Google Home owners who want to control their TV using their voice. Its lack of interface means it’s not quite as straightforward to use as some of the competition, though, and no Amazon support restricts its 4K capabilities.
PROS
  • Flexible 4K HDR streaming
  • Google Home integration
  • Ethernet port for hardwiring
CONS
  • No homescreen interface
  • No Amazon support
  • Needs a spare plug


The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Apple TV 4K

$179.99, apple.com | Amazon

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’d expect from Apple, this richness comes from the host of apps, accessible from the Apple TV’s 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.

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’s plenty to choose from with Amazon Prime Video, Netflix and iTunes, all with growing 4K libraries. What’s more pleasing is that iTunes 4K movies don’t cost any more than HD, with rentals at around $5: it’s 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’s remote can be infuriating.

Visuals are fantastic across the board, and the Apple TV 4K supports HDR and Dolby Vision to give video content an even better gloss. Upscaling of boring old high definition streams to 4K tellies is also superb.

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Siri is also well integrated, and offers more contextual options than you might think. You can ask Siri “what did he/she say?” to have dialogue repeated with subtitles, as well as questions like “who’s that actor” or “show me comedies” to help find the right flavour of entertainment.

There are other nifty tricks too: Apple TV plays nicely with AirPlay as a receiver and sender, so you can send the sound to an AirPlay speaker, or preferably soundbar, 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.

Overall, the Apple TV 4K is a superb streaming option, and one of the best out there. In many ways it’s a costly choice given the price tag, but considering the expense of accessing 4K entertainment, it may actually work out cheaper in the long run. And let's not forget that the Apple TV 4K doubles as a hub for your Apple HomeKit setup, enabling remote access to your smart home, which opens up another reason to invest.

the ambient verdict
Apple TV 4K
One of the best streamers money can buy, the range of Ultra HD content available is superb, as is the addition of of HDR and upscaling of high definition video. And it's not just visual performance. Siri is a great addition to the Apple TV, as are the range of games, apps and those gorgeous screensavers.
PROS
  • Netflix, Amazon… and everything
  • iTunes 4K is decent value
  • HDR and top quality upscaling
CONS
  • Comparatively pricey
  • Fiddly remote
  • No Dolby Atmos


Amazon Fire TV

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

$69.99, Amazon

The latest Fire TV (referred to as the “All New Fire TV” by Amazon) went live last year, adding 4K to the mix. It comes in at the same price-point as the Chromecast Ultra but we’d argue it’s much more feature rich and is more on a par with the much more expensive Apple TV when it comes to the smart home.

Let’s start with the 4K smarts and we’re looking at a streaming stick that only really falls at the Dolby Vision hurdle. What it does have is 2160p up to 60fps, HDR and Dolby Atmos audio. That HDR isn’t constant though, as it is with the Apple TV, (and doesn’t always look quite right), but it can switch to 60Hz 4K if needed.

The big win for Amazon is that, apart from the Roku Streaming Stick+, it’s got the widest range of content on offer, especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member – and you really should be if you’re going to buy the latest Fire TV. Netflix and co. aren’t treated as second class citizens though; when it comes to search results and recommendations you’ll obviously be presented with a lot of Prime content, but Netflix is widely represented as are other popular services and apps from your region such as the BBC iPlayer, Disney Life, Showtime and HBO.

Talking of those latter two and another string to the Fire TV’s bow – in the US, at least – is that you can add premium channels as and when you want, starting as low as $2.99 a month. Most offer a month’s free trial as well.

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

One of the biggest selling points for Fire TV – especially for smart home enthusiasts – is that Alexa is built right in, you simply tap the microphone button on the (somewhat basic) remote control. Alexa’s not just for searching movies and telling you about actors though (although she can do that too). The Alexa in the Fire TV is full-blown Alexa; you can tell her to turn your lights off, start your robot vacuum, show your security camera stream – anything you can do on an Echo device using Alexa, you can do with her on Fire TV.

In fact, you can even control your Fire TV using your Echo speaker, using just your voice; there's no need to pick up that remote control. Plus, if your TV supports HDMI-CEC, you'll also be able to power it on from standby simply by saying a Fire TV command such as, "Alexa, show me movies with Tom Hanks in them".

Like the Chromecast, you’ll need to wire the Fire TV to the mains – that USB port on your TV will let you down – and there is also an Ethernet option, although that requires you paying a bit extra for an adaptor.

the ambient verdict
Amazon Fire TV
The latest Amazon Fire TV may not win any prizes on the design front – although for some TVs it may be more practical than a stick shaped device – but on the features front it's doing just fine. If you're platform agnostic and you cherry pick from the best streaming services, the Fire TV has you covered. It's also a bargain price to get Alexa even more engrained in your life.
PROS
  • Fantastic range of content
  • Alexa smarts built in
  • Can be controlled with Echo speaker
CONS
  • Odd design
  • Prime is another cost
  • No Dolby Vision


The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Now TV Smart Stick

£15, nowtv.com

Getting down to the budget end of streaming sticks, Now TV's Smart Stick is all about the packages. Yes, this UK only streaming stick has had some upgrades, most notably voice control via the remote, but the main selling point remains the affordable, flexible access to Sky Sports, Sky Cinema, Kids and Entertainment.

At this price, Sky is essentially giving them away. The Smart Stick is a very beginner friendly set up – just plug it into a HDMI port – with a fairly easy to use interface (you do jump in and out quite a bit). You won't need an extra plug socket either here as you can loop back the USB cable to draw power from the TV, which is always nice for keeping things tidy.

And if you want Sky without Sky, it might just be a no brainer for the live and on demand Sports, for example. The Movies and Entertainment packages have some killer current shows and quality classics too – so even if you're tied into other subscriptions, it might be worth a rethink once you see what's on offer here.

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

The whole thing is powered by Roku but it is a fair bit more limited. Streaming is only 720p – currently – when for not much more, you can get a futureproof 4K stick. Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are two huge omissions on the apps front, which does include BBC iPlayer, YouTube, Vimeo, 4OD and ITVHub – so all the main UK catch-up services. Playback is A-OK but navigation can be slow to load sometimes.

As for the voice controls, it's welcome but very basic so don't expect anything fancy. You press and hold the mic button on the remote to speak – which takes some getting used to if you're acquainted with say Android TV – and we found that we had to really speak into the remote to get it to pick up what we were saying. When we were sat on the couch with our arm at normal remote level, it just could not pick us up. When up close, though, it was super accurate – you can ask for TV shows and movies, as well as suggestions featuring actors and directors.

Voice controls also only work within Now TV, which means, for instance, if you set up apps like BBC iPlayer and 4OD within Now TV, you can't navigate to or within these apps.

the ambient verdict
Now TV Smart Stick
This is a super simple, super cheap entry into Sky's sports, movie and TV packages that's more about what it gets you access to than what it does in terms of features. Voice is basic but still impressive considering the price.
PROS
  • Cheap, easy to use
  • Gets you Sky plus catch up
  • Voice search for Now TV
CONS
  • No Netflix or Amazon
  • Voice is limited
  • 720p streaming only


The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

Roku Streaming Stick+

$79.99, roku.com, Amazon

If you already have a smart 4K TV, that means it has 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 $70, you get plenty. A couple of major things stand out.

The Roku Streaming Stick+ not only offers 4K and HDR10 streaming but – appeal number one – 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’s 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 an Apple device. And it's all so easy to use.

The best streaming sticks and boxes to get a smart TV on a budget

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 right from the remote.

The only negative here is that the power cable (the one with the antenna smarts) to the Streaming Stick+ is a mini USB, meaning you need to have that correct cable. If it were micro-USB or USB-C then you’d be able to use your phone charger and carry one less cable. A minor gripe, but worth it for that extra connectivity. There's also no Ethernet connection, as on the Chromecast Ultra, and the lack of HDR streaming content might also give you pause.

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

the ambient verdict
Roku Streaming Stick+
For your money you get 4K and HDR quality playback at super speeds, go-anywhere functionality with simple setup and a smart dedicated remote, plus access to the Private Channels. All that makes it worth considering next to the big names in streaming sticks.
PROS
  • Super simple to use
  • Good performance
  • Great range of apps and services
CONS
  • Not great selection of HDR available
  • No Ethernet
  • Proprietary cable

Additional words and testing: Paul Lamkin, James Stables, Luke Edwards, Husain Sumra

TAGGED   televisions

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