At this point, the set-top box market has decided on three major choices – or rather, two major choices and a dark horse. For most consumers who want something different from their smart TV’s built-in interface, or who are looking for a new TV and want a widely supported user interface, you have the choice between Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast.
All three come pre-installed on many televisions, mostly budget brands: TCL, Hisense, Element and Philips, Toshiba and Insignia all offer TVs with built-in Roku or Fire TV. Sony, the premium brand leading the trend of custom built-in operating systems, uses Android TV (aka Google TV, aka the new Chromecast, because Google is bad at branding).
But in different shapes and flavors, all three can be added to an existing TV, and there̵
Honestly, all three smart TV platforms are pretty good on this point, with years and years of development behind them and mostly universal support for the major streaming services. Trying to choose between the two comes down to small details, but it’s hard to really go wrong.
Roku: For bargain hunters and fans of simplicity
Roku gets our top spot for a number of reasons. First, it is the most available: in almost any electronics store, online or physical, you will find both Roku streaming sticks and TVs pre-loaded with Roku software. You might even find a soundbar or two running it. And all will be inexpensive compared to other options in the same form factor.
But Roku is also the most focused of the popular smart TV platforms, if only because the approach is a bit old-fashioned. The Roku homepage is all about the apps, just the apps, ma’am: users will see a grid of the services they can access, plus live TV and HDMI inputs if their TV is the Roku brand. You have to go to the apps themselves to browse content. And thanks to a recent update, Roku finally has access to HBO Max too.
By contrast, both Fire TV and Android TV / Chromecast tend to blow you with recommendations for individual shows and movies. There’s an argument for bringing the content to the forefront, but we still think it’s easier to manage breaking it down into separate apps and services. That’s an entirely subjective decision, by the way – if you don’t agree, you’re not wrong, and Roku probably isn’t for you.
The downside to Roku is performance. While Roku is dead simple, it slows down by focusing on breaking that content into separate apps, especially when switching from one service to another. If you want to check if Netflix has more seasons of the show you’re watching than Hulu, it’ll take a few more seconds on a Roku device. Roku is also less extensible than its competitors, with few options for non-TV apps, games, and tools, and voice control limited to search.
Which Roku to buy
For TVs with built-in Roku, TCL is the pretty clear winner. They offer a variety of models at different price points, although they lack the super high option for those on an unlimited budget. The 5 series is a good middle ground.
The best Roku powered TV
If you’re looking for a cheap streamer, you can’t go wrong with the Roku Streaming Stick +. With a super simple remote, support for 4K HDR content and an HDMI dongle that can be powered from the USB maintenance port on most TVs, it’s the easiest way to add tons of streaming apps to a big screen.
The best cheap Roku
For those who need a little more pizzazz with their stream, the latest version of the Roku Ultra is where it’s at. On top of all the capabilities of the stick above, the Ultra adds an Ethernet port for hardwired stability, lost external viewfinder, compatibility with Bluetooth audio streaming, and support for Dolby Atmos. You can also connect wired headphones directly to the remote for private listening. Note that the Roku Streambar does all of that too, with an included budget soundbar at the top.
The best premium Roku
Fire TV: For All Amazon, All the Time
If you choose an Amazon-powered streaming device or TV, you won’t miss out on much in the way of content: it’s compatible with every major streaming service, even including Amazon’s hardware and content competition, YouTube, and Apple TV.
What Amazon offers is integration with its corporate retail empire – which might be a good thing, if you’re all-inclusive at all. Those who subscribe to Amazon Prime Video who already have tons of Alexa-powered smarthome gear are clearly the main customers here, although you can use Fire TV to play video through subscription and free services all day long. Just be prepared to see ads for Amazon’s video content more or less everywhere outside of those apps.
Amazon also has one advantage that Roku lacks: add-ons for its Prime service. If you’d like, you can treat Prime like a standard cable package by adding extras like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Stars, CBS All Access, PBS Kids, and more, for between $ 5 and $ 15 a month. Nothing prevents you from subscribing to those services separately from Amazon and viewing them in their own apps, but if you go through Amazon, you can access them in the standard Fire interface, with no additional apps required.
YouTube TV does this too, but there are far fewer people actually using that service. The add-on factor is a definite consideration if you’re already all-inclusive on Amazon. Fortunately, all of these add-on plans can be activated and deactivated at any time, just like their standalone versions. So you can binge some HBO shows one month, and head to Starz the next month for his shows.
Which Fire TV to Buy
At the time of writing, only Toshiba and Insignia include Fire TV as their television’s default operating system. Toshiba is the clear winner there, although bargain hunters may be tempted by Insignia (strangely enough, the ‘house brand’ of Amazon’s competitor Best Buy).
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is almost the same device as the Roku Streaming Stick +, above, or at least the same form factor. It can handle 4K resolution and HDR, as even cheap TVs now have, with enough power in the processor to switch between multiple services. It also has a voice-activated remote, although you still have to press a button. It also supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision.
Best Budget Fire TV Device
Upgrading outside of the Fire TV Stick 4K isn’t really necessary. There’s the Fire TV Cube, which supports an Ethernet connection and a faster processor. But the big selling point is that it has an Alexa smart speaker built in … and if you’re set up on Amazon as a smarthome platform, you’ll almost certainly already have one in your living room.
Best Premium Fire TV Device
Chromecast: more options, more problems
The latest version of the Chromecast isn’t quite a Chromecast anymore: it’s ‘Chromecast with Google TV’, that is, Android TV, which is a full operating system. What does that mean? It means that Google really can’t tell you what things do. But what’s more active means that Chromecast can not only ‘cast’ video and music from your phone, laptop, etc., but also has all the standalone app capabilities of its competitors.
That is both a good and a bad thing. It’s great if you’re a fan of using a remote instead of your phone, for example: now you can use a familiar “couch” interface instead of poking a phone screen (although the phone screen is still an option too !). But the new Google TV interface is also a lot less baked than Roku or Amazon, and it tends to try and get you to watch stuff from services you don’t actually subscribe to. It’s not as good at learning your habits as Amazon, and not as focused on specific apps or services as Roku. That said, it has tight integration with Google Assistant, so you can use it for all normal searches and smart home control if you already have an Assistant powered home.
But the new Chromecast also benefits from years of Android TV development. There are a lot of interesting apps for it like the local MX video player or AirScreen for Mac screen mirroring. Android TV also has a much better selection of games than Fire TV, and it can connect to standard Bluetooth controllers, including the Xbox and PlayStation variant. That also means you can play games remotely, through services like Steam Link, GeForce NOW,
Wait, Google launched its own new set-top box platform with game support, but no support for its own streaming game platform? Yes, that’s sort of Google’s approach to its products in a nutshell. The new Chromecast is far more capable than the competition in terms of both hardware and software, but some odd choices make this only matter if you want to do something fairly specific with that extra power. That said, Google has confirmed that Stadia will be coming to the Chromecast with Google TV sometime in 2021.
Which Chromecast or Android TV to Buy
Only Sony offers a full Android TV operating system built into its televisions, but many cheaper smart TV systems (including Roku) are compatible with Chromecast streaming. Sony’s sets range from “expensive” to “ridiculously expensive,” but the X800H series runs on Android TV and is at least somewhat feasible.
Best TV with Android built-in
For those on a budget and who want a great selection of add-on apps and games, the new Chromecast with Google TV is the way to go. It’s extremely affordable, although that little bit of extra power means you need an open outlet, even though it has a “dongle” shape. It supports 4K HDR, comes with a remote control, and can still perform casting tasks from your phone.
If you really want to push your 4K television to the limit, both for streaming content and games, the NVIDIA SHIELD TV is the way to go. Not only does it have a surprising amount of power for games (it runs on hardware very similar to the Nintendo Switch), its “AI” scaling capability makes even older streaming content look great in 4K. Throw in a MicroSD card, or opt for the more spacious “Pro” model, and you can even use it as a Plex server.
Best high-end Android TV streamer
One final note: Apple TV
If you’re a fan of Apple’s mobile and computer hardware, you may be wondering, what about Apple TV? And if you’re already an Apple fan, you’re probably already considering buying one. For you, and specifically for you, it may be a good idea.
Apple TV is a lot like Android TV: it has all the basic features of a standard streaming box, plus the ability to easily broadcast video from your Apple devices. If you’re already all in on Apple, especially if you’re paying for the Apple TV + service (which is available on other platforms) or Apple Arcade (which isn’t), it makes sense to get the official Apple TV 4K set-top box .
But with a starting price three-fold from most options on this list, despite offering few benefits outside of Apple integration, it’s a high cost to pay for integration. And even some Apple fans aren’t fans of the over-simplified external design. So unless you play a lot of Apple Arcade games, or you constantly stream straight from your iPhone or MacBook, it’s probably not worth the splurge.