The easiest, and cheapest, way to upgrade your TV is with a smart streaming device. You’ll get instant access to all your major accounts like Netflix, Hulu+, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Apple TV, HBO. Of course you do need to have a paid subscription on those in order to watch. There is still the option to stream for free with Pluto, IMDB TV and some other providers.
A streaming device is a quick way to turn a non-smart TV (one that doesn’t have built-in WiFi or Apps) into a smart one.
You’ll also want one of these devices if you have a smart TV which has been getting messages from Netflix and Prime that your device will no longer be supported (read more on that issue here ).
Here’s our round-up of the most popular streamer options:
Amazon Fire TV (starting at $19.99)
Amazon Fire TV Cube (about $90)
Roku (starting at $29.99)
Google Chromecast (about $35)
Apple TV (starting at $149)
Nvidia Shield (starting at $149)
PlayStation 4 / Pro 1 TB (about $275)
Xbox One / S 1TB (about $149)
Top Pick – Amazon Fire TV Stick
The Amazon Fire products top our list for streaming devices. Its hard to beat their low cost, combined with high level of support for streaming services. While you can get the HD (1080p) base version Fire TV Stick for about $20, we recommend spending just a little more (another $5) for the Fire Stick 4K (about $25).
The reason for the pricier version is to the the 4K Ultra HD video with support for HDR, HDR 10, HDR10+, HLG, and Dolby Vision. These are all the video standards you could want for your TV, and the device will output the highest resolution your equipment can handle. This means 2160p, 1080p and 720p, all up to 60 fps.
You can choose from over 500,000 movies and TV episodes. Enjoy favorites from Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV, STARZ, SHOWTIME, CBS All Access, and others. Just remember that you need to have an account / subscription in order to get the programs.
And you can stream millions of songs and use your Alexa Voice Remote to request a song, artist, playlist, or control playback through services like Amazon Music, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora and iHeartRadio. Again, subscription fees may apply.
The Fire TV comes with everything you need to get started right out of the box. The actual “stick” part that houses all the electronics for the streaming looks very much like a plain USB Flash Memory stick. Except it has an HDMI connector on it, and it needs external power. You plug the stick into any available HDMI port on your TV.
They also considered that the stick may be too thick to fit all TV port configuration and provided the HDMI extension cable. So if you can’t easily fit the stick directly onto your TV, then use the cable to solve that issue.
Amazon includes one of their USB power adapters along with a good length USB cable. Just plug the adapter into any 110V outlet and connect the adapter to the stick with the USB / Micro-USB cable. Now it’s powered!
Connecting to the home network was easy with the set-up screens, and the connection was good in each of the rooms we tested. Fire TV builds dual-band (2.4GHz / 5.0GHz), dual-antenna Wi-Fi (MIMO) for faster streaming and fewer dropped connections than standard Wi-Fi. Supports 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi networks.
We also like that you get Bluetooth 5.0 + LE (Low Energy). So you can pair with compatible Bluetooth speakers, headphones, video game controllers, and more.
The remote is an IR Device Control with included Alexa Voice. The included Alexa Voice Remote can control the Fire TV Stick 4K and certain functions (such as power and volume) on a wide range of compatible IR-enabled devices, including TVs, soundbars and A/V receivers. Note: Certain functions may not be available on some IR-enabled devices.
Voice Support – Yes, with the Alexa Voice Remote (included) or free Fire TV app (available for download on Fire OS, Android, and iOS).
Amazon includes the 2 batteries you’ll need to power the remote – and these should be good for up to 2 years before you need to change them.
We like the buttons on the remote, and the navigation ring makes it easy to quickly scroll through menus. You’ll find all the standard controls you need right at your fingertips.
There are no dedicated buttons for Netflix or Prime, but that’s not a deal-breaker for us.
The system is quick to access all your content and apps, and we like the embedded features.
At just $25, Fire Stick 4K isn’t something you should pass up. Especially if your TV one of the devices no longer supported by Netflix and Amazon!
Alternative – Amazon Fire Cube
If you want a little more, and don’t mind paying a premium, another step up is the Amazon Fire TV Cube (about $90). Amazon promotes this as their fastest, most powerful Fire TV.
It’s a 4K Ultra HD (plus support for Dolby Vision and HDR, HDR10+) streaming media player similar in capabilities to the Fire TV Stick. But what sets it apart is the built in speaker and hands-free Alexa operation.
So from anywhere in the room, just ask Alexa to turn on the TV, dim the lights, and play your show.
You can control compatible soundbar and A/V receiver, and change live cable or satellite channels with your voice. Compatible services includes Samsung, Sony, LG, Vizio, Comcast, DISH, and DIRECTV/AT&T U-verse.
With the built-in speaker, ask Alexa to check the weather, turn off the lights, and more – even when the TV is off.
Fire TV Cube has eight microphones that hear you from any direction.
And for the cord-cutters, over-the-air HD antenna support is coming soon.
You no longer need the remote to use as a microphone to talk to Alexa, which is pretty cool. And Amazon did consider your privacy – press the microphone on/off button to disconnect the microphones.
It does come with an IR remote – it’s the same one as the Fire TV Stick, and works great with the Cube. There are also 4 buttons on the cube itself for basic functionality controls.
With Alexa on Fire TV Cube, you can control a wide range of devices through the cloud, infrared (IR), and HDMI-CEC, with more being added all the time. Learn more about voice control compatibility.
So if you are looking for a more connected experience, get the $90 Amazon Fire TV Cube .
Worth Considering – Roku
The Roku Streaming Stick+ (about $29) is a HD/4K/HDR Streaming Device with Long-range Wireless and Voice Remote with TV Controls, and very similar to the Amazon Fire TV Stick.
Resolution is standard 1080p HD through 4K UHD up to 2160p at 60 fps, HDR 10, HLG. Audio is DTS Digital Surround, Dolby Audio. With an attached HDMI cable, you can also get Dolby ATMOS pass through over HDMI and Digital stereo over HDMI.
The WiFi connection is 802.11ac MIMO dual-band wireless – again, nearly identical to the Fire TV.
Roku does spec their device as a “long-range wireless receiver”. They say it gives you up to 4x the range and a stronger signal for smooth streaming even in rooms farther from your router. This may be a benefit if you have a TV in an outdoor area – like a BBQ, Pool House, Sports area – or in your converted garage.
However, if distance from your router or poor signal strength are issues, you may consider upgrading your equipment. This will benefit all your devices, not just the TV.
Related – Top Inexpensive Home Routers
The IR remote also has embedded voice capability that is Roku only (sorry, Alexa). It also works with multiple devices, so power up your TV, adjust the volume, mute, and control your streaming.
The voice features does let you quickly search across channels, turn captions on / off, and more in a touch. Although we do think if you really want voice option, to go with one that does more than just the entertainment cent.
Set-up is simple – plug it in, connect to the internet, and start streaming. Of course you’ll still need to load in all your emails and passwords for any of your paid services, but that’s easy with the on-screen menus.
One thing we like is the “Private Listening” mode for your mobile devices. With the free Roku mobile app, you can turn your iOS or Android device into the ultimate streaming companion. Audio goes to your device (and your earbuds / noise cancelling headphones) so you can crank up the volume on your shows without disturbing everyone else in the house.
The app also lets you turn your smart device into another Roku remote controller – a nice feature!
The other nice thing is that you can cast from your mobile devices to your TV. See your photos, videos, and music up on your big screen.
On the downside, there have been a few reported customer issues with setup and activation. Some have reported that Roku limits the number of devices freely registered to any account. If you have had Roku’s in the past, there’s a possibility Roku will want you to upgrade from a free account to a Premium account (which can cost about $70 – ouch!).
Another issue is that customers couldn’t get their Roku to download the recent software updates needed to work with some TVs (Samsung seems to have the issue). The included customer support than requests a service charge (again, up to $70) to have Roku activate the download update. We feel that updates should be user enabled or free.
USB Ports – Nvidia Shield / Shield Pro
The base version Nvidia Shield (starting at $149) gets you everything you’ll need:
The Dolby Vision 4K HDR video resolution provides a crisp, rich image (as long as your TV supports that high pixel count). The built in AI adjusts the video output to match your TV specifications, so you’ll always get the best available.
The streaming experience wouldn’t be good without great audio. Nvidia provides Dolby Atmos surround sound so you’ll get everything the film-makers intended!
Data streaming is fast with dual-band WiFi Gigabit Ethernet. No worries about image stutter, buffering or drop-outs on your home network. Just make sure your router and service provider can keep up!
(Related – Top Inexpensive Home Routers )
We like that this device is very compact and fits discreetly behind your screen. It has a built-in power supply, and a microSD card slot for storage expansion.
The buttons are good sized, and easy to use. We especially appreciate the extra-large Netflix button on the controller, since that’s our go-to streaming service. If you are more at ease with the voice commands, you have the option of using the built-in Google assistant or you can connect to your Alexa devices.
Another nice feature is Chromecast 4K is built-in to the hardware. You can “cast” your favorite apps, photos, and videos from your mobile devices directly to your TV.
If you’d like even more out of your new streaming device, the Nvidia SHIELD TV Pro (about $50 more at $199) levels you up to more storage space, 2x USB 3.0 ports, Plex Media Server, and premium Android gaming. The Pro version adds Bluetooth 5.0 option to the Gigabit Ethernet.
This all-new remote is more advanced than ever with motion-activated, backlit buttons—including a customizable menu button. Plus, with voice control, Bluetooth, IR control for your TV, and a built-in remote control locator, you have the most advanced remote yet.
We like all the features and the how well the Nvidia works, and you can check out more on Amazon for both the Nvidia Shield (starting at $149) and the Nvidia SHIELD TV Pro (about $199). If you want the option for the USB ports, this is the one for you.
Minimalist Design – Google ChromeCast
What sets Chromecast (about $35) apart from the other streaming devices is there is no dedicated remote controller and no on-screen menu systems. Google Cast relies on a PC, smartphone, or tablet, with Cast-compatible apps to stream content.
Similar to the other streaming sticks, it plugs directly into the HDMI port on your TV. There is a short cable attached to the streaming stick, so no problem with fitting the plug in. However, the small hardware does hang down from the cable, but should still be hidden from view behind your TV.
Power is provided via the Micro-USB port on the device. Google, like Amazon, includes the USB power adapter and a short cable, so everything you need is in the box.
The standard ChromeCast supports up to 1080p resolution; You’ll need to upgrade to the ChomeCast Ulta (about $69) for 4K Ultra HD and HDR resolutions. It will automatically optimize your content for the best picture quality possible based on your TV, streaming devices, service and bandwidth.
Connectivity is via dual-band (2.4GHz/5GHz) WiFi; The Chromecast Ultra comes with an Ethernet adapter so you can enjoy smooth streaming over a wired connection – this is great if your TV is in a WiFi dead-spot.
We’d recommend this to people that are already using or considering Google’s “Home” or Nest Cameras, so that you have an integrated smart home.
Gaming Consoles – PlayStation & Xbox
The latest gaming consoles can also be used as streaming devices for all the major services. It’s worth looking into the Sony PlayStation 4 / Pro 1 TB (about $275) and Microsoft’s Xbox One / S 1TB (about $149) as a dual purpose device.
And if this helps you justify getting a new console – hey, you’re welcome!
Here’s our round-up of the devices from this review. Please use the links below for more details and for ordering.
Top Pick – Amazon Fire TV (starting at $19.99)
Alternative – Amazon Fire TV Cube (about $90)
For Consideration – Roku (starting at $29.99)
For Nest / Home Users – Google Chromecast (about $35)
For Apple Users – Apple TV (starting at $149)
USB Ports – Nvidia Shield (starting at $149)
Gamers – PlayStation 4 / Pro 1 TB (about $275)
Gamer Alternternative – Xbox One / S 1TB (about $149)