Updated January 2020: Added the new Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K.
When it comes to getting rid of cable TV — that's what we call "cutting the cord" in these parts — there's a world of hardware available. It's dizzying. We don't blame you if you don't know where to start. There are boxes and dongles and sticks. There are televisions with streaming capability built in.
What do we look for? Consistency. We look for a good, fast overall experience. We look for hardware whose software is kept secure and up to date, with regular improvements.
And there actually are a few entries that fit that bill. But if you were to ask us which is the one streaming box you should buy above all others, this is what we'd tell you:
The Apple TV 4K is the best streaming box you can buy
Wait — before you Android using folks tune out, hear me out. I've used every major streaming hardware you can use. Android TV. Roku. Amazon Fire TV. Each is a fine streaming solution, and you can't really go wrong with any of them. So long as it supports whatever service you're going to use, go nuts. You do you.
But Apple TV is the one I'd recommend without any real caveat. And for this reason: I know Apple's going to support it for the foreseeable future. Apple is going to keep the software secure and up to date. It'll keep adding features. And ever major streaming service's app works great on Apple TV. (Yes, even Amazon Video, despite what Apple purists may say.)
The 4K Apple TV comes in a couple of flavors. The 32-gigabyte model likely will have plenty of storage if you're just focusing on streaming. It runs $179. But if you don't mind shelling out an extra $20, go ahead and get the one with 64GB of storage. Because there are no easy options for external storage on Apple TV. And storage is one of those things that you'll never wish you had less of.
You iPhone (and iPad and Mac)-using folks get the added bonus of all the synergy and synchronization that comes with keeping things in the family. Plus that massive iTunes library. And you also get AirPlay.
What about for an Android person?
Fine. If just don't want to use an Apple TV, I'd get an NVIDIA Shield TV. It's an Android TV box, and it's the only Android TV box I'd recommend. It also rocks 4K resolution, and does so without complaint. All the apps for the major streaming services are fast. You've got the full Google Play library, and Chromecast is built in.
If you use Android for your phone, you'll do great with this box. If you're into something like a Plex server, it'll also serve you well (ahem) as that, too, thanks to easy USB external storage.
And if you're a casual gamer, Shield TV has a large stable of excellent games at the ready, with proper gaming controllers to go with it.
Still need more? Shield TV works with Samsung's Smart Things system, in addition to having Google Assistant built in. So it's great for building out a connected home.
The next best — Roku Ultra
If you just don't care about being in the Apple ecosystem, Roku is excellent. It's what I call "the best streaming box for normal folks." That is, you just want to watch things and don't care about Android or Apple tie-ins.
There's one small caveat here, though.
We recommend getting the Roku Ultra, which can be had for about $100. It's Roku's most powerful box, and that makes a difference. First, it's got 4K resolution and HDR. Even if your TV doesn't do either of those today, you'll be future-proofed for when you upgrade. Second is that you don't want a laggy experience — and sticks just aren't as powerful as Roku Ultra.
Beyond that, you'll have access to pretty much every streaming service available, save for anything you've bought in iTunes.
Roku Ultra also has a really cool remote control. It's simple and easy to use, with large buttons. (It also doubles as a gaming remote. Yes, Roku has games.) It's got a headphone jack so you can listen privately without disturbing others around you, too. Very cool.
What about Amazon Fire TV?
Here's the thing: While we tend to think all of these other boxes are better — more powerful hardware goes a long way — Amazon Fire TV is still a perfectly good streaming solution, especially for the price.
The top two Fire TV options — the new Fire TV Cube, and the slightly older Fire TV Stick 4K (it's an HDMI dongle) — have the same internals, but are very different devices. The Fire TV Cube is a mash-up of an Amazon Echo Dot and the Fire TV dongle. But it goes farther in that you get Alexa control without having to have the TV turned on — and it can control most devices that are physically connected to your TV via HDMI. So, yeah. It's a really good option at this point, especially at the $119 price.
The Fire TV Stick 4K is what you'll want if you don't care about having Alexa built in, or if you have a TV mounted so that you want any connected streamers hidden behind the set. It's also the first Amazon device to support both Dolby Vision for HDR, and Dolby Atmos for Audio. And it's a good bit cheaper than the Fire TV Cube.
Plus, the Fire TV OS is the best way to get straight to all that Amazon Video content — including Amazon Prime Video Channels — and it looks great in the process.
Yeah but what about those really cheap sticks?
You get what you pay for, right? Roku and Amazon each have sub-$50 streaming sticks. They're even slower, and they don't do 4K resolution.
If you're fine with that and you really want to save some money, cool.
But don't say I didn't warn you.
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