If you're after the very best media streaming TV box to complete your home cinema setup in 2021 we're here to help – you've got a ton of options to pick through these days, but this guide will cut through the jargon and explain the key differences between the best media streamers.
The key thing is that they all add new streaming services to an older or budget TV that may not get all the latest updates and apps – so, if you want new apps such as Disney+ to entertain the kids or Apple TV for the largest library of 4K movies to buy and download, or you've heard about more obscure streaming apps that have content you'd love to watch, you can just plug these in to get started.
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All the best streamers will carry the most famous services, but there are some variations in features and capabilities that you should know about before parting with your cash.
Media streaming boxes are a great way to upgrade what your TV can do without having to splash out for the smart capabilities that the best TVs have built into them. Why spend thousands when you can spend under £50/$50? So read on to find out what the best TV streamer is for you.
- Upgrade your TV's audio too, with the best soundbars
- Check out the best TVs under £1000
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How to choose the best TV box for you
The best media streamer for your neighbour's home cinema setup may not be the best dongle for your particular setup, so proceed with caution.
You need to consider the content you want to watch, on which channels, and decide on the devices you're going to be using with your new hardware to pick the best TV box – an iPhone works much better with an Apple TV than an Android flagship does, for instance.
That extends to movie and TV show libraries too: where is all your money invested – iTunes movies? Amazon Video? Movies on Google Play? You can't get all of these stores on all of these media streamers (though are on most of our top picks), so this can help you narrow down your choices.
The best media streamers you can buy today
The Roku Streaming Stick+ will get 4K, HDR video up on your screen for not much money at all – and it's notable for not being linked to Google, Amazon or Apple, so it shows no bias towards particular apps.
It has a smooth and clean menu, effortless setup and a familiar remote design. The HDR support is only regular HDR10 – not the more dynamic HDR10+ or Dolby Vision, so it’s not quite the picture-quality nerd’s choice from those here.
But with support for just about every stream you could want – including Apple TV (and well-priced 4K HDR iTunes movies), Disney+, Now TV, Netflix, Amazon, iPlayer and BT Sport – this is the best option for the majority of buyers.
We love the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, and if you're a Prime subscriber with access to Amazon Prime Video then this is definitely a strong option to be your next media streamer. There are tons of others services to watch, even Alexa voice control thrown in.
As the name suggests, the stick can handle 4K with aplomb, and it has both high-end HDR options (which the Roku above lacks), so provided you know whether something you're planning to watch supports these, you can watch in the best quality. That's usually no problem with Dolby Vision content on Netflix and Apple TV, but Prime Video is the only service to use HDR10+, and that's not very well signposted.
Amazon's interface is a breeze to use. The app selection is excellent, including all the major services, plus Apple TV as a recent addition. The search function is geared towards promoting Amazon content, rather than the more neutral search of the Roku. And while it’s easy to use, there are a few other small interface foibles that lead us to recommend the Roku more as the all-rounder, but this is top value if you want high-end video support.
The Chromecast Ultra is slightly different in that you need another device – like a phone or a laptop – to make it work. It's compatible with a host of apps across Android and iOS, so you should be able to get most of your audio and video content up on the big screen.
That excludes iTunes and the Apple TV app, so movies and TV shows from iTunes are out, but a lot of other stuff is in, making this one of the best media streamers around. If you don't want to spend quite so much money, try the cheaper 1080p Chromecast instead.
Why go for Nvidia's high-powered, high-priced streamer when you can get the Roku and Amazon sticks for so much cheaper? It has a few unique tricks that may well tempt you over.
The show-piece here is an AI-powered upscaler, which converts HD footage to sharp 4K incredibly well – if you have a mid-range or lower TV, this high-end processing could be a revelation, and can make this worth the cost on its own, since so much stuff is still in HD. If you want to get really video-nerdy, we'd say it actually over-sharpens just a little, but it's excellent overall. And backing up the high-quality videos claims are support for Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support.
It’s all powered by Android TV, which is solid for apps (though there’s no Apple TV) and has Chromecast support, unlike a lot of streamers. It responds really well, but isn’t our first choice when it comes to the interface. It's perfectly usable, though. It comes with a very simple remote control, and we're not sure about the triangle shape, but again, it doesn't cause any problems.
The second unique features is that it works with GeForce Now, Nvidia’s cloud gaming system. This can be used from free, and enables you to play games you own on your PC, but they run on a powerful Nvidia server somewhere. It's the best of the cloud gaming platforms right now, and this is the cheapest way to get it on your TV, so it's a great option for that alone.
We have to say that this is something of a niche buy overall – excellent if you want its specific mix of features, but they won't be worth spending the money on for everyone.
Any discussion of the best TV box has to involve a mention of the Apple TV 4K, which offers Dolby Atmos sound support as well as 4K Dolby Vision HDR visuals. It's fast, versatile, and better kitted out with components than most of the media streamers you'll find.
iTunes has the biggest digital catalogue of 4K HDR movies (with support for both Dolby Vision and Atmos), and this used to be the only way to play them on your TV, making it a natural choice for movie lovers. But you can now get the Apple TV app, which includes that library, on other devices, so the price of this box is hard to justify.
It has great app support, excellent image quality, and a friendly interface… but so do the others. It does tie into your iCloud photos and Apple Music if you're an Apple user, and it can play games that are (occasionally) console-like, but it’s still so expensive compared to the competition. It does nothing wrong, but only hardcore Apple fans should go for it these days.
The Nvidia Shield is like the Apple TV for Android lovers: expensive, but packed with power and features. Android TV has all the big apps on it, except for Apple TV, really, but since you get Chromecast support, it's a good trade.
What this offers over the non-Pro version of the Shield TV is a more powerful processor, meaning it's all juiced up for playing fancier Android games like it's a mini-console. But it has the same issue as the Apple TV 4K above and its game support, which is… will you really play them? With no controller included (though there's wide controller support)? And even if there was, are those games what you'd play, when you could get an actual Xbox for the same price as this?
All the same pros apply as the less expensive Shield TV box above, and in terms of achieving what it sets out achieve, it does the job extremely well! But we're not sure that £199 is really the price most people will want to pay for that job.
The Now TV devices are adapted from Roku hardware, which means they offer the same sort of ease-of-use. In particular, they're great for getting Sky Sports or Sky Cinema on your TV, without committing to a full Sky Q subscription.
This box offers 4K support (unlike the cheaper Now TV Smart Stick), but given that the sky content isn't available in 4K, and not all other apps support it, it does feel somewhat needless as an addition.
It does what it aims to do – make it easy to dip into Sky content on any TV – but we'd always go for the Roku Streaking Stick+ over this, since it has more apps, more 4K content… and still has access to Now TV.
That said, this is sometimes available for as little as £24.99, so you pays your money and takes your choice, really. Though we would generally choose the Roku or the Amazon.
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