These days you don't need to buy a smart TV to access services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or BBC iPlayer. You only need a little gadget that plugs into the back of your TV.
They go by many names - streaming sticks, streaming boxes, media players and more - but they all do the same thing. Plug into your TV via HDMI and connect to the internet so you watch a wealth of content. Many of them also have the ability to run other apps and even games.
Often costing under £50/$50, they are one of the best value smart home devices you can get.
Here, we round up the best media players and streaming sticks and boxes you can buy that let you watch endless TV shows and films.
Best streaming stick and box 2021
1. Nvidia Shield TV (2019) - Best overall
The Nvidia Shield TV offers the most complete media streamer experience on the market right now, although it’s not the cheapest gadget in our chart by a long shot. It features [email protected] playback, like its predecessor, but the new Shield TV takes things a step further with AI-based 4K upscaling that makes even 360p content look sharp and crisp. It’s not as good as native 4K content, but it’s certainly the next best thing.
Couple that with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision support across Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Google Assistant support, access to AAA gaming via GeForce Now and a new triangular remote with backlit media keys and you’ve got a truly premium media streaming experience.
Read our full Nvidia Shield TV (2019) review
2. Roku Streaming Stick+ - Best cheap 4K streamer
The Streaming Stick+ is another great media streamer from Roku, bringing a 4K option to the UK.
The device has a lot going for it including upgraded wireless, smooth performance, a decent remote and more content channels that your mind or free time can handle.
Even if you don't have a 4K TV yet, you'll be future-proofing.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick+ review
3. Chromecast with Google TV - Best Chromecast
It might not have Stadia support until 2021 and you can't switch users but the latter matches up to rivals.
Thanks to the remote control with Google Assistant and the excellent Google TV interface combine to create a great way to browse and discover content from a range of services and in 4K with wide HDR support, too.
The Chromecast with Google TV is the firm's best ever streamer. It's now up there with the best from Amazon and Roku. Even if you're not considering rivals, it's worth upgrading from an older Chromecast.
Read our full Google Chromecast with Google TV review
4. Manhattan T3-R - Best for Freeview
If you still primarily watch TV over streaming services, the Manhattan T3-R is a great option. It offers Freeview Play, complete with 85 channels (15 of which are HD), and you'll also find catch-up apps from all the main UK broadcasters if you miss something on TV.
Boasting a 500GB or 1TB HDD, you've also got the option of pausing, rewinding or recording TV shows, with the ability to record two channels while watching a third simultaneously. And, most importantly, the software is simple, easy to use and stutter-free.
The only complaint? The lack of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video apps, meaning there's a lack of 4K content beyond what's available on YouTube and BBC iPlayer.
Read our full Manhattan T3-R review
5. Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K - Best Fire TV streamer
A great-value media streamer if your 4K TV doesn't have all the apps you need.
Amazon could do with toning down the self-promotion but the inclusion of Alexa and useful new buttons on the remote mean it's a good deal overall at an affordable price.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review
6. Roku Express (2019) - Best budget media streamer
Without a doubt the best budget media streamer on the market, Roku Express undercuts the Amazon Fire TV Stick on price and ramps up user-friendliness over Chromecast with the fully featured and easy-to-navigate Roku OS. All the main free and paid catch-up and on-demand streaming services are catered for, and Roku Search makes it simple to find content at the best price, no matter the platform.
A free mobile app adds voice- and remote control, but the diminutive Roku Express will sit unobtrusively below a TV where it will happily operate with the bundled infra-red remote control. Small and light, it's difficult to believe such a tiny box can make such a huge difference to your entertainment experience.
Streaming maxes out at 1080p Full-HD at 60fps, so if you are looking to enjoy 4K or HDR10 content instead, look to the Roku Streaming Stick+ or Roku Streambar.
Read our full Roku Express (2019) review
7. Amazon Fire TV Stick (2020) - Great budget streamer with Alexa support
The Fire TV Stick is still great value: you get Alexa along with access to loads of streaming services as well as other apps (like Plex) and games.
The new interface is a noticeable improvement, even if there are still too many adverts for Amazon Prime Video content.
There's HDR support now, and the updated remote with controls for volume and power so you can control your TV without having to pick up a second remote.
It's a fine choice for those with older, non-4K TVs. If yours is 4K, or you plan to buy a 4K TV soon, then spend the extra on the Fire TV Stick 4K.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick (2020) review
8. Apple TV (fourth-gen) - Best for Apple users
For some people - mainly those with iOS devices and no 2nd- or 3rd-generation Apple TV - the updated box is a great media streamer and games machine. However, there's no escaping the high price and, if you're not interested in gaming or the apps available via the App Store, there are plenty of options in our chart for less than half the price.
Competition from other media streamers is stiff, too, with Amazon's Fire TV offering expandable storage and support for 4K content - you'll need to opt for the Apple TV 4K if you want the 4K Apple TV experience.
But, if you're an iPhone, iPad or Mac user, you'll love the AirPlay support the Apple TV offers, allowing you to wirelessly stream content from your phone or tablet to the big screen instantly, and it offers support for practically every streaming service too.
Read our full Apple TV HD (4th gen, 2015) review
9. Roku Streambar - A great all-in-one entertainment package
If you like the sound of the Roku system with its roster of catch-up TV and streaming apps, games and high-end features like AirPlay 2 support, and also want to upgrade your TV audio system at the same time, the Roku Streambar is a capable and budget-friendly option.
Offering the capabilities similar to that of the Roku Streaming Stick+, including 4K HDR support, it's a fully-fledged Roku streamer embedded within a great-sounding, compact soundbar that'll sit in front of your TV. It's a huge upgrade over your TV's built-in speakers and, with AirPlay support, it's a particularly great buy for Apple users.
It's at the high end when it comes to streaming boxes, but considering the audio capabilities on offer, it's well worth the price.
Read our full Roku Streambar review
10. Now TV 4K Smart Box - Best for Now TV subscribers
The Now TV 4K Smart Box provides an all-in-one solution for consumers, offering access to BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand5, UKTV Play and Netflix alongside Now TV content. It offers advanced features like Voice Search, and the UI is easy to use.
The only issue? Unlike the 4K Apple TV and 4K Fire TV which provide 4K content from iTunes and Amazon respectively, the Now TV content is capped at 1080p, with no 4K upgrade in sight.
Read our full Now TV 4K Smart Box review
What should I consider when buying a media streamer?
Even if you have a so-called ‘smart TV’, it's likely to offer an inferior experience - not to mention a deficit in content - compared to the media streamers we've reviewed here.
The content available through each streamer is the most important factor for a lot of people. This is why it's crucial to check that the services you want are available. It's rare for one device to offer everything, but many have a wide range, with hundreds or even thousands of apps to choose from. Sky Now TV is one that isn't widely supported.
Kodi is massively popular at the moment. While you can buy a Kodi box, you can also install this media player on any Android TV, and even on an Amazon Fire TV - because, at its heart, the Fire TV is an Android device.
Streaming stick vs box
The difference here is minimal but a stick is what you'd imagine; a stick-like device that plugs directly into your TV. Designs have changed a little over time so some, like the Fire Stick, have a small cable and tend to be called dongles.
Streaming boxes like the Apple TV are, well, boxes and they tend to sit underneath your TV and then connect via a long cable.
There are no huge benefits to either unless you have a wall-mounted TV and have nowhere to sit a box. In this case, get a stick so it can be hidden behind your set.
Key specs and features
When buying a streaming device, check it has the specs and features you need. Not all support 4K Ultra HD resolution output and you'll also want to check for HDR for a more vibrant picture.
Many of these devices come with a remote control but not all, and even if they do they are not all created equal. Some have the ability to control your TV (normally power and volume) and might even have a headphone jack so you can easily listen privately.
Others might support voice search via Alexa or Google Assistant.
Gaming is a bonus feature on some media streamers. You can play casual games such as Tetris on Roku and Amazon devices, or opt for the Nvidia Shield TV for something a little more console-esque. You can even buy optional gamepads for some if you're serious about wanting to play like that.
There's also Apple Arcade, available on the Apple TV, but in our experience, even the latest Apple TV isn't quite up to the task of 4K gaming.
Google Stadia is one of the most popular options for cloud gaming, although it's limited to the Chromecast Ultra until support arrives on the Chromecast with Google TV in 2021.