How to Cut the (Cable) Cord
There are many ways to watch online content on your TV. Your television itself might have apps, or you might have a Blu-ray player or game system connected with built-in streaming services. If neither case applies, or if your TV, Blu-ray player, or game system doesn’t have the exact media features you want, you can get a dedicated media streaming hub. Most media streamers allow you to set up your TV with any online or local media streaming services you need for well under $100.
Among the media streamers currently available, four platforms stand out: Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, and Roku. No matter which you choose, they each give you access to many of the most popular music and video streaming services available.
Resolution is another big factor to consider. All of the platforms mentioned have options for ultra high-definition (4K) and HDR content. In the list above you’ll find the top-rated media streamers we’ve tested. Below is a closer looking at the top media streaming platforms.
What about 8K, you might be wondering? Don’t worry about it. Seriously, there’s no consumer 8K streaming service, or even consumer 8K media, available. 8K TVs have only started to trickle out, and they won’t be much more than novelties for early adopters for at least two more years.
Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s Fire TV platform is a modified version of Android designed with Amazon’s content in mind. Fire TV devices are focused heavily on Amazon Prime media, with Prime Video and Prime Music built prominently into the menu system. There are plenty of other content services available through Fire TV as individual apps, like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube, but the big advantage of Fire TV is having all of your Prime content right at your fingertips.
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Amazon has equipped Fire TV devices with Alexa, the same voice assistant used in the company’s smart speakers. It’s a handy tool to use with the voice remote included with the current Fire TV Sticks. If you want hands-free Alexa with your Fire TV, the Fire TV Cube features a far-field microphone array that can pick up your commands just like a speaker, without needing to use the remote.
The Fire TV Stick 4K recently replaced the Fire TV as the “standard” Fire TV device. It’s a budget-friendly $50 stick that supports 4K media streaming with both HDR10 and Dolby Vision (the Fire TV Cube curiously only supports HDR10). If you haven’t made the jump to 4K yet, you can save a few bucks with the basic $40 Fire TV Stick, which is basically the same device except it maxes out at 1080p. There’s also the $30 Fire TV Stick Lite, which is similar to the regular Fire TV Stick, but the remote it comes with can’t control your television.
If you still want to watch broadcast television even after you cut the cord, and enjoy a local DVR instead of relying on a streaming live TV service, Amazon’s Fire TV Recast has you covered. It’s a Fire TV-powered OTA tuner with a DVR, letting you watch local programming and record it at your leisure, and stream both live TV and DVR recordings to any Fire TV device in your home or any mobile device over the internet. It isn’t a replacement for a Fire TV; it has no on-screen interface or remote on its own. You connect it to your home network and access it through a Fire TV to manage recordings and watch live cable. Fire TV also supports most streaming live TV services as well, including AT&T TV Now, Hulu, and Sling TV.
Android TV is Google’s dedicated Android-based media streamer menu system, different from the heavily modified version of Android used in Amazon’s Fire TV products. The Chromecast With Google TV runs on Android TV, as does the TiVo Stream 4K. Android TV offers thousands of different apps and services, plus Google Assistant, putting it on the same footing as the Fire TV with Alexa and the Apple TV with Siri. Android TV devices are also all Google Cast compatible, so you can use your smartphone or tablet to stream content to them.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between Android TV in general and Google TV in the Chromecast, Google TV is just a new, streamlined user interface built on top of the somewhat cluttered Android TV. It offers all of the same app support and features of Android TV in a new menu system.
The Apple TV as a media streamer is likely on its way out. The advent of the Apple TV app, Apple TV+, and the availability of both (along with AirPlay 2) on various smart TV and media streaming platforms leads us to believe that Apple is planning to eventually phase out the Apple TV itself and rely on other companies’ hardware for accessing its content stores and libraries.
If you simply want to access iTunes content on your TV and already have an iPhone or iPad, your TV might be able to do just that without a media streamer. Several 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 LG, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio TVs are getting or have gotten Apple AirPlay 2 support, which lets you stream media from your iOS device directly to your TV over Apple’s own platform.
The Apple TV 4K is still available, though it’s expensive compared with nearly every other alternative out there. For the price, you get a remote that lets you talk to Siri, lots of streaming compatibility with your iOS and macOS devices, and a decent handful of apps via the Apple TV app store. However, with AirPlay 2 and the Apple TV app coming to other, much more affordable media streamers, we can’t find a great reason to recommend the Apple TV 4K much longer, even if you’re a dedicated iOS user.
Roku calls the services and apps available on its devices Channels, and currently offers thousands of choices in the Roku Channel Store. All of the big streaming media names are available, including Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix, Sling TV, and Twitch, along with many smaller, niche apps and services for movies, sports, weather, news, and international content.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ and Ultra stand out as our top choices, both offering 4K video with HDR10 support. The Ultra is more expensive and larger than the Streaming Stick+, but it offers benefits like wired connection options and a remote with a headphone jack.
On top of dedicated media streamers, Roku also offers a soundbar with media streaming functions, the Roku Smart Soundbar. As a media hub it’s expensive at $180, but that price is more than reasonable for a modest stereo soundbar with the added benefit of streaming 4K video.
Roku has also pushed into the television market with its Roku TV platform. The company doesn’t make TVs itself, but it offers its technology to manufacturers to incorporate into their screens. This has allowed many more budget-priced televisions to include connected features they couldn’t use a few years ago, while keeping prices low. Roku TVs work just like Roku media streamers, only they’re built directly into the sets themselves. Now the majority of Roku TVs natively support 4K as well, and some support Dolby Vision HDR while no standalone Roku streamers currently handle it (though the 4K-capable devices are compatible with HDR10).
Ultimately, any device here is a great choice for bringing online content to your TV. For even more options, check out our media streamer product guide.