There’s no question about it: we are in the middle of a significant transition in the the world of television. On the content end of things, we’ve got more and more high quality shows and movies going straight to streaming platforms like Netflix. On the hardware end of things, there are a plethora of options for getting that content onto the devices you want them on—the hardest of which has always been the living room television.
There are a huge variety of factors to consider—most of them depending on what kind of television you have, what content you’re interested in, and how much you’re willing to spend. It should be noted that I left out major gaming consoles like the Xbox One, PS4, and Wii U, which can do some of the same things these products can do. Keeping all that in mind, here is our ranking of the 10 best streaming boxes, sticks, and set top boxes you can buy right now.
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10. Amazon Fire TV: The Fire TV was Amazon's first dive into the set top box world—and it was pretty successful for what it set out to do. The focus on gaming it had never fully panned out though. Due mostly to the lack of gaming content on the platform, it's hard to recommend, especially since Amazon isn't currently selling it (or is at least out of stock) at the moment. If you're looking for an Amazon product that is good for streaming on television, you'll find another option in this ranking further down that is a much better option at this point.
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9. Slingbox M2: This product is for a very specific consumer. As the box that can bridge the world of digital internet content and world of traditional cable services and DVR programming, the Slingbox M2 is going to be the perfect device for the person who never wants to miss the big game or big debate. The cool thing is that although it's expensive ($149), it lets you watch traditional television programming on every device, including when you're out of town or even overseas. A device like the Slingbox M2 might not be necessary in five years, but as it's a great transition device for right here and right now.
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8. Roku 3: This older version of the Roku box is still a pretty good buy. At $89, it's significantly cheaper than the Roku 4, while giving you many of the same features. The only thing you're missing out on is the ability to stream 4K content. For many people, I'd recommend the Roku Streaming Stick over the Roku 3 because of the price and ease of use. However, if you need that ethernet port or analog audio jack for your particular home theater system (and don't care about 4K content), the Roku 3 is probably right for you.
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7. NVIDIA Shield Android TV: When so many of these set top boxes offer the same features and streaming services, it can be hard to see what makes one stand out from the other. The first big stand-out feature of the Shield Android TV is that it can stream 4K content, a feature you can only find elsewhere on the Roku 4.
While the NVIDIA Shield TV's content offerings aren't quite as fleshed out as Amazon or Roku, it has a unique focus on gaming that gets it some attention. Like the company's tablet, the Shield Android TV has GeForce Now, an app that lets players stream games from their NVIDIA gaming computer elsewhere in the house at 60 fps. It runs for $199, but it's an awesome way of getting your PC games streaming in the living room and is a good alternative to both major game consoles and other set top boxes. It's not for everyone, but if you're a PC gamer, this is the best option you've got.
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6. Roku Streaming Stick: It seems like just about every company out there has got a streaming stick these days. The idea was started by Google with the Chromecast—a device that plugs straight into your television's HDMI port and gives you access to all your favorite streaming services and channels. Roku ramped up the competition with its now $39 Roku Streaming Stick. As with most of these streaming sticks, the Roku version doesn't give you an ethernet port or access to analog audio output. Outside of that, the Roku Streaming Stick gives you pretty everything you might like about the Roku set top box at a much cheaper price.
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5. Apple TV (third generation): The older Apple TV kept a lot of Apple users happy for many years—and for good reason. It might be missing some of the fancy new features of the recently updated Apple TV, but if all you're looking for is the basic streaming services and AirPlay support, the cheaper $69 Apple TV is the way to go.
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4. Amazon Fire TV Stick: Amazon got into the streaming stick game back in late 2014 with the Amazon Fire TV Stick. When it comes to the basics, the $40 Fire TV Stick is actually very similar to the $100 Fire TV. The difference? You won't have the quad-core power that the Fire TV has—nor does it come with the Amazon game controller. But if you're looking for solid streaming stick that's firmly planted in the Amazon ecosystem, the Fire TV Stick is still a good buy.
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3. Google Chromecast 2: As you can see, there are a ton of streaming stick options out there, but the best is the Chromecast. While it's very similar to the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku Streaming Stick, the Chromecast stands out thanks to its support from Google and its ability to "cast." The Chromecast not only gives you easy access to things like Netflix and YouTube—it also lets you easily cast apps from your devices right up to your television. Outside of Apple's AirPlay feature (which only works with Apple products), it's the only set top box that makes wirelessly moving your screen around nearly effortless.
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2. Roku 4: If you want to keep your content free from the hands of Google or Apple—or if you just want a really reliable, high-end set top box—the Roku 4 is a fantastic option. There are also things on the Roku 4 that you won't find elsewhere, most notably the ability to play 4K content. So if you're looking for that ultra-high resolution playback, the Roku 4 is your best choice. It's also got a couple other handy features such as a remote finder and optical audio output and comes in at $129.
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1. Apple TV (fourth generation): For many years, the Apple TV was the neglected product in the lineup, famously called Apple's "hobby" by Steve Jobs. But back in September, Apple finally brought us an updated Apple TV that actually felt like the next step forward for Apple's set top box. The new Apple TV has everything people love about the old Apple TV, including the excellent AirPlay feature and all the channels/streaming services we've come to expect on such a device.
However, this iteration now comes with a new interface that looks great, a remote with a really intuitive swiping function, and support for gaming. The added bonus is the App Store—which has only begun to really take off—but has the potential to really transform the living room television experience. The promise of what this could be almost makes it worth the cost on its own.