A few years ago, a streaming box seemed like a nice luxury addition to your home theater, ideal for the few times per week you wanted to access Netflix on your big screen TV. These days? They’re necessities, and if you’re cutting the cord they’re likely your go-to every time you turn on your TV.
While back then there were only a few options, there are now nearly a dozen streaming devices available. Roku, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Nvidia all make boxes, and usually more than one model. If you’re trying to pick, where do you even start?
How much does it cost?: The Apple TV 4K retails for $179 with 32GB of built-in storage or $199 for a 64GB model, though you can usually find it for about $20 off online. What we like about Apple TV: The newest iteration plays 4K content as well as HDR (High Dynamic Range) with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos sound.
It uses a powerful A8 processor and runs the slick tvOS interface. It features most of the major streaming players, with well-designed apps from Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Hulu, DirecTV Now, Amazon, Youtube, and a host of other players.
The Siri remote is still a sore point among users (especially the iffy touchpad), but it’s a big improvement over older Apple TV remotes and includes voice search and voice entry for passwords and things like that. Apple is also attempting to corral the most popular streaming options with a single “TV” app that you’d only have to sign into once. It’s a good idea that needs some work.
The 5th Gen Apple TV 4K plays 4K content—obviouslyHave. Tweet It
What we don’t like about Apple TV: Apple’s interface looks great, but it’s not the easiest to navigate. Apple’s TV app could theoretically fix this, bringing content from all your favorite apps into one interface, but it doesn’t bring in Netflix shows or movies.
That said, the only other major drawback here is cost. The most expensive (and best) Roku device is just $99. Though you can usually find the Apple TV 4K for around $150 on sale, that’s still a big price jump over a competitor that has almost all the same features.
How much does it cost? Roku streamlined its lineup for 2017 and 2018, though it still has quite a few models. The best is the 2018 Roku Ultra, which costs $99. One step down from that is the new Roku Streaming Stick and Streaming Stick+ for $49.99 and $69.99, respectively. The main difference is the Streaming Stick+ has 4K and HDR support and a better remote that features a headphone jack for wireless audio.
The lowest level Rokus are still the Express and Express+, which go for $29.99 and $35, respectively. They’re both basic 1080p streamers and don’t support HDR. The main difference is the Express+ has composite AV cables that can output to older TVs and A/V systems that don’t have HDMI ports.
What we like about Roku: Roku has been around for nearly a decade, with a clear focus on streaming video from apps like Netflix. It has support for all the major players, and is totally platform agnostic, unlike Apple and Amazon which both heavily promote their own content and partners.
The Roku itself is generally beginner-friendly, with a dead-simple interface and an easy-to-use remote that features dedicated buttons providing one-touch access to popular apps like Netflix. The more advanced models also feature a headphone jack on the remote, so you can listen to your TV wirelessly while streaming without needing dedicated gear.
Roku is the easiest to use, but not all Roku players come with the platform’s best features. Tweet It
What we don’t like about Roku: Roku’s interface isn’t as slick as the competition these days and some of the newer apps lag slightly behind the competition because of that—though that’s getting better. Also while some models include voice search in the remote that can cut across around 100 popular services, it doesn’t have the wider feature set of smart assistants like Siri and Alexa.
And while having so many streaming boxes means you have options across the price spectrum, the differences can be hard to suss out.
Amazon Fire TV
How much does it cost?: The Fire TV comes in several flavors right now: the 1080p-supporting Fire TV Stick for $39.99, the 4K and HDR-capable Fire TV for $69.99, and the new Fire TV Cube for $119.99.
What we like about the Fire TV: All of the Amazon Fire TV devices support searching for content with your voice, and all ship with voice-enabled remotes (the Cube itself has mics built right into it, like the Echo Dot). Alexa can search across tons of popular apps, set reminders, automatically rewind or fast forward what you’re watching, and even control your smart home devices.
Fire TV is also a very robust streaming platform, with support for all the top apps and services. I’ve personally had a few issues with certain apps on the Fire TV stick (HBO Now seems to crash periodically and needs to be uninstalled and reinstalled), but overall the experience is seamless.
The Amazon Fire TV is fantastic, but you need a Prime subscription to get the most out of it. Tweet It
What we don’t like about the Fire TV: Amazon does a fantastic job of surfacing content for the user in horizontal bars (similar to how Netflix organizes its content). While it can (and does) pull in popular content from services like Netflix, it really comes into its own with a Prime subscription. Prime is 100% worth it, but if you don’t have Prime and don’t use Alexa, we’d recommend Roku hands-down.
The Fire TV Stick is also not the fastest streaming solution. Though it has lots of features (considering its affordable price), the processing power feels lacking. It’s faster than the similarly priced Roku options (the Express and Stick), but still sluggish. I used one for several months and Alexa seemed borderline unresponsive at times. It’s the best sub-$50 option, but we strongly recommend jumping up to the $89 Fire TV or Roku Premiere+.
Voice search on all the Fire TV devices is astoundingly good, and Alexa on these devices can do everything it can do on all other Echo devices. The new Fire TV Cube takes this to the next level, with a built-in mic for truly hands-free control of your TV, and IR blasters for controlling devices in the room.
Which should you buy? Roku vs Amazon vs Apple TV
All three platforms have their pros and cons. Apple’s has the best design and high-end features like Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos, but it’s way more expensive.
Roku’s the best about giving every service a level playing field and it has the best remote, but it lacks the polish and smart features of the competition. Amazon has great hardware, Alexa, and a lovely interface—but it’s at its best only when you have a Prime subscription.
For most people, it’ll come down to which platform has the hardware and features that match their interests. Overall, we’d recommend the 2018 Roku Ultra for most people. It supports 4K, HDR, has the best remote, has voice search, and it’s just $100 (less on sale).
The Apple TV 4K is a very compelling option for people who have higher-end entertainment systems, own a lot of Apple devices, have bought a lot of iTunes movies, or just plain like Apple more. It’s expensive, and most people won’t benefit from the extra features, but it’s a great all-around streaming device.
The Fire TV devices are ideal if you have a Prime subscription and already use Alexa for a ton of stuff. The new Fire TV Cube seems to have some real issues, but we love the mid-range Fire TV and that supports 4K/HDR as well.