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 and HDMI socket.
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.
With many devices 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.
Roku & YouTube
Up until recently, Roku's Streaming Stick+ was our #1 choice, but as you can read in more detail below, a spat between Roku and Google means new Roku devices will not have access to YouTube from 9 December 2021. Existing users who already have the YouTube app can continue to use it, but you won't be able to get the app on a device bought after that date.
This means we cannot unreservedly recommend Roku streaming devices, though if you don't need or want to watch YouTube, they remain a good choice.
Best streaming stick and box 2021
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max - Best overall
- Broad range of apps
- Alexa support
- Dolby Vision and Atmos support
- Lots of Amazon self promotion
- PiP only works with Ring doorbells
The 4K Max is the best Fire TV Stick yet, with improvements including Wi-Fi 6, a faster processor and support for picture-in-picture. If you have a Ring doorbell, the video will appear when someone presses the button, too.
It will deliver 4K resolution at 60Hz, with support for Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos and other HDR and surround-sound formats.
The 3rd-gen remote adds more buttons for more TV control, while behind-the-scenes improvements (such as an upgrade to the underlying Android version) mean you’ll now get Atmos from Netflix, and you can control the volume of Bluetooth headphones and speakers using the remote control.
It doesn’t have hands-free Alexa like the more expensive Fire TV Cube, but for only £5/$5 more than the 2018 Stick 4K, it is the best choice if you have a 4K TV. If you only have a 1080p panel, opt for the 3rd-gen Fire Stick.
There are ads on the home screen, and heavy promotion for Amazon-owned content from Prime Video and IMDb TV. But, with a well-stocked app store containing all popular streaming services, it’s not difficult to recommend.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max review
Chromecast with Google TV - Best Chromecast
- Slick interface
- 4K with wide HDR support
- Google Assistant
- Can't switch users
- No headphone jack on remote
The Chromecast with Google TV is the firm's best ever streamer. It's now up there with the best from Amazon. Even if you're not considering rivals, it's worth upgrading from an older Chromecast.
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. In addition,
In addition, the device now has support for Google Stadia, so you can use it for gaming as well as streaming.
Whilst the remote doesn't have a headphone jack, you can connect Bluetooth earphones for private listening. You also can't switch users on this device.
Read our full Google Chromecast with Google TV review
Apple TV 4K (2021) - Best for Apple users
- Redesigned remote
- Slick OS
- Improved processor
- No increased storage
- Not all apps support remote functions
If you have an iOS device, then the latest Apple TV 4K is a compelling choice. The upgraded A12 Bionic chip brings support for high framerate HDR content, and the OS is simple and slick.
The redesigned Siri remote is easy to use, with a mix of click-based controls and swiping. Siri is also included on the remote, so you can control via your voice. There's also the option to play audio via the HomePod, should you prefer.
However, there's no escaping the high price, and competition from other media streamers is stiff, too. 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.
Read our full Apple TV 4K (2021, 32GB) review
Roku Streaming Stick+ - Best Roku steamer
- 4K streaming for less
- Smooth performance
- Great remote
- No HDMI extension cable
- No headphone jack
- Losing YouTube soon
The Streaming Stick+ from Roku brings 4K streaming for an affordable price. The device has a lot going for it including upgraded wireless, smooth performance, and a decent remote that is easy to use, with controls for both the volume and power, and voice support.
The Streaming Stick+ doesn't have a headphone jack directly on the remote, and the lack of a HDMI extension cable may make setting up a little tricky. In addition, the YouTube app won't be available from 9 December 2021, which could be a dealbreaker for some people.
If you don't watch YouTube, then it's still a decent device to consider.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick+ review
Amazon Fire TV Stick (2021) - Great streamer with Alexa support
- HDR & Dolby Atmos support
- Broad range of apps
- Alexa support
- Lots of Amazon self promotion
- Not much cheaper than the 4K Max
The 3rd-gen Amazon Fire TV Stick is a great-value media streamer if your TV doesn't have all the apps you need.
It has support for HDR10+ and Dolby Atmos content, and has an easy-to-use interface with a broad range of apps, including Twitch - which isn't available on other rivals such as Roku. Of course, Amazon could do with toning down the self-promotion.
The inclusion of Alexa voice support, volume buttons and power buttons on the remote also give you much more control over your TV than the Fire Stick Lite. That said, there's no 4K support, and the 4K Max Stick doesn't cost much more.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick (2021) 3rd-gen review
Nvidia Shield TV (2019) - Best high-quality streaming
- [email protected] HDR10 support
- Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision
- Google Assistant
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
Manhattan T3-R - Best for Freeview
- Easy to use
- Great selection of UK on-demand apps
- PVR capabilities
- No Netflix or Amazon Prime
- Limited access to 4K content
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
Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd-gen) - Best for hands-free Alexa
- Built-in Amazon Echo speaker
- Hands-free control
- Dolby Vision and Atmos support
- Prime Video heavy promotion
If you're looking to combine your media streamer with a smart speaker, then the 2nd-gen Amazon Fire TV Cube is one to consider. Whilst it's more expensive than other streaming sticks, it has all the apps you need and offers a built-in Amazon Echo speaker, which can be used for multiple things.
You can navigate your Fire TV interface hands-free (something none of the Amazon sticks offer) and use it to check weather forecasts, get news updates, set timers, reminders, control smart home kit and more. There's also support for picture-in-picture with Ring doorbells.
Speaker capabilities aside, the Fire TV Cube has support for 4K, Dolby Vision, HDR10+ and Dolby Atmos. The only downside is that it is not really a useful device if you already have an Echo speaker. If that's the case, you may as well save some cash and buy a Fire TV stick instead.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Cube review
Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite - Best budget streamer
- Affordable Price
- Clean layout
- Alexa voice support
- Heavy Amazon promotion
- No power button or volume controls
- No 4K
If you just want all the streaming apps for a low price, then the Fire TV Stick Lite is the one for you. All the main free and paid catch-up and on-demand streaming services are catered for, and Amazon's interface is easy-to-use - even if it is a little heavy on the self-promotion.
With Alexa voice support directly available on the remote, it's easy to search for what you need. It's also quick and easy to set-up, with a refined design that sits unobtrusively behind your TV. However, there are no volume or power buttons on the remote, something you do get on the more expensive Amazon sticks.
Streaming maxes out at 1080p FHD at 60fps, so if you are looking to enjoy 4K or HDR10 content instead, look to the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max instead.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite review
Roku Streambar - A great all-in-one entertainment package
- User-friendly interface
- Decent sound
- Huge range of content
- Older TVs without HDMI-ARC/Toslink not supported
- Losing YouTube
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.
However, it is at the high end when it comes to streaming boxes, and the loss of access to YouTube is something to keep in mind.
Read our full Roku Streambar 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. Amazon-owned app Twitch isn't available on devices such as Roku, for example.
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 an HDMI 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.
The design of the remote is also something to consider. 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, which the latest generation of Apple TV 4K is plenty capable of running. Google Stadia is one of the most popular options for cloud gaming, which you can get directly on Chromecast.
Whilst Roku devices have in the past been at the top of this chart, the devices lose one of the biggest streaming apps around - YouTube - on 9 December.
This is because of failed negotiations during the renewal contract for the app. Roku has accused YouTube of unjustly requesting user data which can be used to benefit its own services, amongst other things.
As a result of these disputes, Roku has already lost the YouTube TV app, and will no longer have access to the main YouTube app from 9 December. If you already have either app installed it will keep working, but new users will no longer be able to download them.
Rumours that Roku devices would also lose access to Amazon Prime Video appear unfounded: Roku has confirmed that the contract for renewal with Amazon isn't happening at the moment - so if it does go, it won't be anytime soon.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Roku told Tech Advisor, "We have renewal discussions with hundreds of partners each year in the normal course of business that are focused on achieving mutually beneficial agreements providing our customers the best possible user experience and value. Our Amazon agreement is not up for renewal at this time and there are currently no negotiations underway."
Regardless, YouTube is one of the most popular streaming services, so if you want to watch YouTube videos on your TV, Roku isn't an option at the moment. We've also reflected this change in the list above.
In addition, users in the UK should keep in mind that Now TV streaming sticks use the same hardware as Roku's. Now has declined to comment on whether it will also lose YouTube at the end of the year, so again, keep this in mind.
At the time of writing, you can still download both YouTube and Amazon Prime Video on Roku and Now TV devices - but YouTube TV is no longer available.