Binge-watching has come a long way from the days of Blu-ray box sets. Between gripping Netflix originals and remastered classics on Amazon Prime, entertaining yourself has never been easier. But with so many streams to pick between, what’s the best way to get fresh shows on your screen?
From affordable 4K sticks to comprehensive home entertainment hubs, the top streaming devices in 2021 give you instant access to an arsenal of arresting telly. Just plug-in, sit back and prepare to please your peepers.
Whether you want a simple stick for easy streaming or a top-notch box with voice control smarts, the list below features our pick of the best streaming kit – all comprehensively tested from the comfort of the Stuff sofa.
Best smart streaming hub: Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Gen) (£110)
Technically a cuboid, Amazon’s binge-watching box is a winner for high-res telly addicts. Twice as powerful and four times faster than before, the second-get Fire TV Cube feels noticeably quicker than the Fire TV Stick 4K when it comes to pulling up and buffering content. As with every Fire device, Amazon material is put front and centre – but the third-party app selection is comprehensive.
When you press play, content shines. It might not match the level of detail you’d get from 4K Blu-ray, but material streamed from Netflix and Amazon Prime Video looks absolutely gorgeous. Support for Dolby Vision and HDR10+ means you get the very latest visuals, too – as long as your Wi-Fi is quick enough.
Forever losing the remote? With Alexa built into the box, one vocal request is all it takes to load up a show, navigate apps and even control your smart home. Certain functions won’t work with every set – such as input-switching with a Philips TV – and Alexa can’t dig out content from the likes of BBC iPlayer. All the same, the ability to control the telly with your voice transforms the experience and makes the Fire TV Cube into a true entertainment hub.
Stuff says: ★★★★★
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube offers a slick way to control your TV with your voice, while serving up the best streaming services and all the smarts of Alexa in one clever box.
- 4K HDR content is superb
- Alexa can control your TV
- Some kit not fully supported
- No HDMI cable included
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Alexa • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth • Ports: HDMI, micro-USB, power, wired infrared • Internal storage: 16GB • Dimensions: 86.1×86.1×76.9mm • Weight: 465g
Best budget 4K streamer: Roku Express 4K (£40)
Don’t let its affordability fool you: the Roku Express 4K is an impressively versatile way to consume 4K content. It borrows the best bits from Roku’s premium streamers, yet undercuts every other 4K device in this list.
Not a stick to be hidden behind your box, the dinky domed receiver goes beneath your TV. And while its plastic finish reflects the price tag, setup is a cinch. Roku OS 10’s tile-based interface is simple, clean and responsive, with a wealth of watching options.
The app list is truly comprehensive, featuring pretty much every major streaming platform. That means Netflix, Now TV, Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+, BT Sport and more. All that’s missing is a proper content hub. While ‘My Feed’ allows you to follow your favourite shows, it doesn’t pull together suggestions from several services as seamlessly as some rivals can.
Navigation is straightforward with the simple remote, which features four handy channel shortcuts. What UK users don’t get is a volume rocker. Nor does it have a built-in microphone for voice control, unlike the zapper shipped with the marginally more expensive Streaming Stick+. That said, you can talk to your Roku via the free smartphone app. Voice functionality isn’t as smart as the likes of Alexa, but it’s useful for swiftly loading shows.
Provided your TV has an HDMI port that works with HDCP 2.2, the Express 4K can serve up 4K HDR video at 60fps. It also plays nice with HDR10/10+ and HLG formats for maximum streaming compatibility. Quality is reliably excellent: vibrant, detailed and lag-free. With Alexa and Google Assistant support also in the mix, plus Apple AirPlay compatibility and Dolby Atmos passthrough for cinematic sound, the Roku Express 4K delivers outstanding bang for buck.
Stuff says: ★★★★★
Compellingly versatile yet surprisingly affordable, Roku’s Express 4K is arguably the best value streaming device you can buy right now.
- Accessible and affordable 4K streaming
- Supports every major streaming service
- No voice control via the remote
- No volume buttons on the remote
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Works with Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri • Connectivity: Wi-Fi • Ports: HDMI, micro-USB • Internal storage: N/A • Dimensions: 20.8×86.3×39.3mm • Weight: 44.6g
Best 4K streaming dongle: Chromecast with Google TV (£60)
A powerful puck of pocket proportions, Google’s Chromecast has gone from passive receiver to full-fledged mini streamer. You can still ‘cast’ video from thousands of compatible Android and iOS apps, but the latest version also allows you to select content from Google TV’s home screen.
This fresh entertainment hub brings together content from your favourite apps on a single page. You’ll see personalised recommendations from across different subscription services – although it can take some time for the recommendations to actually match your tastes. Shows are displayed with a helpful Rotten Tomatoes score, as well as platform and rental info.
The interface itself is pretty slick, even if there’s sometimes a delay after pressing the home button. And with more than 6,500 apps supported by Chromecast, you’ll rarely come up short for content and platforms – unless you’re a fan of Apple TV+ or Now TV, neither of which are supported.
Locating content is now easier than ever, thanks to the long-overdue remote that comes bundled with the new Chromecast. Dedicated buttons for YouTube and Netflix make it easy to dive right in, while the Google Assistant shortcut puts voice control just a press away. Navigating is a cinch with the central ring and volume buttons are a boon, too.
Streaming quality is slick, with no buffering and impressively sharp 4K HDR at up to 60fps. Despite its plug-and-play simplicity, support for Dolby Atmos, as well as Dolby Vision and HDR10+, means the Chromecast has the skills to suit any cinema room.
Stuff says: ★★★★★
With a real-life remote and slick TV interface, this is the best Chromecast so far – even if it’s missing a few major apps.
- 4K HDR10+ with Dolby Atmos support
- Remote control (finally)
- No Apple TV+ or Now TV apps
- Recommendations aren’t great
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Google Assistant • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth • Ports: HDMI, USB-C • Internal storage: 8GB • Dimensions: 162x61x12.5mm • Weight: 55g
Best premium 4K streamer: Apple TV 4K (from £169)
Four years after Apple launched its first 4K TV box, competition for HDMI ports is hotter than ever. And in a world of affordable 4K streaming, its latest effort is only an incremental upgrade. But that still makes it one of the very best all-round video streamers you can buy.
An HDMI 2.1 socket boosts 4K HDR content to a slicker 60fps, while its A12 Bionic chip is zippy. Wi-Fi 6 improves connectivity, too, with a noticeable bump in speed and stability. Thread mesh networking is a welcome bonus, even if it only plays nice with HomeKit gear.
The new Siri Remote is beefier than before, but remains a polished controller. The Siri input moves to the side to make space for a universal power button, which can zap both your TV and home cinema setup. Less handy is the charging connector, which is still Lightning, rather than USB-C.
When it comes to content, all your favourite apps are on tap – from Netflix to Amazon Prime Video to Disney+. And they all support 4K HDR, Dolby Vision and Atmos. The Spatial Audio Apple Music upgrade also works well – and when tvOS 15 arrives later this year, streamers will get Atmos content with virtual surround sound and dynamic head tracking on AirPods Pro or AirPods Max.
Upgraders may find the lack of 60fps HDR content disappointing, but for first-time buyers the picture quality is invariably excellent. SDR shows get help from HDR processing, while a new Colour Balance feature uses your iPhone’s camera and light sensor to optimise the screen’s saturation against ‘industry standards’. It’s not Dolby Vision, but it’s neat.
The Apple TV 4K is pricier than most streaming sticks. But Apple fans won’t find a more convenient 4K media hub: from Apple Arcade to iTunes to AirPlay, the box brings it all together seamlessly. The improved Siri Remote makes aimless bingeing more enjoyable, while the 4K streaming is as good as anything out there.
Stuff says: ★★★★☆
A minor update, but still one of the best 4K streamers you can buy.
- Excellent Siri Remote
- Great selection of apps
- Not the biggest processor bump
- Not much 60fps HDR content yet
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Siri • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0 • Ports: HDMI 2.1, Ethernet, power • Internal storage: 32/64GB • Dimensions: 98x98x35mm • Weight: 425g
Best 4K stick for Prime subscribers: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K (£50)
Amazon’s Fire TV Stick line-up is larger than ever, with a Lite version now available alongside the updated standard edition (see below). But if it’s 4K content that you’re keen to stream, the aptly named Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is the one you want.
Despite its simple appearance and painless setup, the Fire TV Stick 4K is a flexible and powerful streaming device. Stick it in a spare HDMI port and Prime subscribers will have instant access to a vast catalogue of video content on their telly. While it plays nice with most mainstream services, including BBC iPlayer and Netflix, the Amazon streamer predictably puts this Prime material front and centre – even for non-members.
Still, a slick interface elevates the user experience, while voice control via the bundled remote makes it effortless to explore the Prime library with the help of Alexa – even if she’s less helpful when it comes to third-party apps.
Pickings remain slim for 4K HDR content, which is largely limited to Prime and Netflix originals. When you do find something worth watching, though, the reward is sharp, excellent video with impressive contrast and colour reproduction. The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is the first Amazon device to offer HDR support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10+, as well as HLG, with Dolby Atmos on audio duty. It might be fitted with a Prime jacket, but those specs make it one of the most versatile 4K streaming devices you can buy.
Stuff says: ★★★★★
Packing 4K, Dolby Vision and HDR10+ into a single tiny stick, this is a top option for Prime subscribers.
- Affordable 4K HDR
- Solid app selection
- Limited 4K HDR content
- No NOW TV app
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Alexa • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth • Ports: HDMI, micro-USB • Internal storage: 8GB • Dimensions: 99x30x14mm • Weight: 53.6g
Best value Full HD streaming stick: Amazon Fire TV Stick (2021) (£40)
Whether your Wi-Fi isn’t fast enough or your TV tops out at 1080p, there are good reasons why you might not need a 4K streamer. If that’s the case, Amazon’s standard Fire TV Stick is a stellar all-rounder for Full HD streaming, particularly if you’re a Prime subscriber. It’s not the cheapest stick in Amazon’s Fire TV family – that honour goes to the Lite version, which costs £10 less – but the extra tenner gets you TV controls and Dolby Atmos support. Which is why the Fire TV Stick is the Goldilocks option.
Nothing revolutionary here: the Fire TV Stick is a plug-and-play streamer that belongs in one of your telly’s HDMI ports. This model is slightly smaller than the 4K-flavoured version, yet 50% faster than the previous generation – and 50% more efficient when it comes to power consumption.
The accessible interface will be familiar to anyone who’s used a Prime device before. It’s easy on the eyes and straightforward to navigate, albeit dominated by Amazon content .Though with such an extensive catalogue of films and shows to choose from, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – as long as you’re a subscriber. You also get access to all of the usual apps, including Netflix and Disney+, but there’s no Now TV. Sorry, Sky fans.
Alexa integration is better than ever, with voice control proving a genuine time-saver versus typing to search. The updated remote also features a quartet of content shortcuts, plus a clearer Alexa button and an additional layer of dedicated TV controls for powering on and adjusting the volume of compatible screens, soundbars and receivers.
4K might be off the menu, but Full HD streaming looks lovely via the Fire TV Stick. Pictures are ace at 60fps, with no lag or buffering issues. HDR support is a nice touch, too, boosting colour and contrast for a more realistic picture, while Dolby Atmos will be a welcome bonus for streamers with a home cinema setup.
Stuff says: ★★★★★
The Lite version might be cheaper, but with Dolby Atmos audio, TV controls and a 50% boost in power, the latest Amazon Fire TV Stick is a solid HD streamer.
- Speedy interface
- TV controls and shortcuts
- Maxes out at Full HD
- Lite option costs less
Max resolution: 1080p • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Alexa • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth • Ports: HDMI, micro-USB • Internal storage: 8GB • Dimensions: 86x30x13mm • Weight: 32g
Best cheap streaming stick: NOW TV Smart Stick (£25)
If Sky programming is high on your watch list and you’re not fussed about 4K, the Now TV Smart Stick is worth a look. A straightforward streamer that’s simple to set up, the Smart Stick is an affordable, no-frills way to add smarts to an unconnected telly.
The interface is clear and easy to use, with menus for live TV, catch-up and apps, plus a home screen which pulls together highlights and half-finished shows. Voice search is useful, too: hold the button, speak into the remote and results will be revealed on screen. The search categories are pretty comprehensive and detection is reliable.
For most users, the biggest hook will be the option of paying for Now TV passes, which allow on-demand access to Sky content – from entertainment channels and movies to kids shows and sports. For a modest additional outlay, these grant you total flexibility to watch Sky programming when you want – without locking into a contract or sticking a satellite dish outside.
Besides Sky, the Smart Stick also supports a decent range of mainstream apps, including BBC iPlayer, ITV Player and All 4, as well as Netflix – but not arch-rival Amazon Prime.
The major drawback of the Smart Stick is streaming quality. Resolution is limited to a paltry 720p by default. This can be lifted to 1080p for Sky channels with Now TV Boost, which will set you back an additional £3 per month. A subscription also unlocks surround sound and allows you to stream on three devices simultaneously.
You can get smarter sticks for a similar price – such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite – but the Now TV Smart Stick is still a great choice if you want a simple streamer with pay-as-you-need access to Sky.
Stuff says: ★★★★☆
Lacking the latest features and stuck at 720p unless you pay extra, the Smart Stick is still the simplest and cheapest way to stream Sky without a satellite dish.
- No shortage of Sky content
- Good range of apps, including BT Sport
- Average video quality
- Rivals do more for the same price
Max resolution: Full HD (with Boost plan) • Dolby Atmos: No • Voice assistant: N/A • Connectivity: Wi-Fi • Ports: HDMI, USB • Internal storage: N/A • Dimensions: 83x21x11mm • Weight: 20g
Best power streamer for games and video: Nvidia Shield TV (2019) (£129)
A lesson in living room understatement, Nvidia’s aluminium streaming cylinder sits quietly beneath your TV. More distinctive is the Toblerone remote, with a triangular design that stands apart from other plasticky zappers. It feels good in the hand and features all the physical buttons you could need, including volume controls and a customisable input – although the absence of a 3.5mm headphone port is a shame.
Courtesy of a beefy processor and 2GB of RAM, the Shield TV is a speedy machine with a zippy Android TV interface. Streaming 4K content is a similarly stutter-free experience. Support for HDR10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos means the Shield TV plays nice with swanky home cinema systems, serving up stunningly detailed content. It won’t work with the HLG broadcast format, though, so 4K HDR from BBC iPlayer poses problems.
AI upscaling is another trick in the Shield TV’s arsenal. Feed in 1080p content from a variety of sources – such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube – and the device will use AI to enhance the detail in a scene. It’s very effective at boosting quality for high-res displays, though you may need to adjust the sensitivity to avoid over-sharpening.
The Shield TV also does a cracking job as a gaming machine. You can play Android games natively on the Shield itself, but the real magic happens when you bring your rig into the mix. Streaming from Steam to the Shield works well, though results will vary depending on your network speed and graphics card.
If all you need is easy content streaming, the Shield TV is overkill. But if you have the TV and audio setup to take advantage of its Dolby Vision and Atmos support – plus a decent PC and internet connection for gaming – Nvidia’s plug-in stick is a compellingly versatile streaming solution.
Stuff says: ★★★★☆
More than just a streaming device, the Shield TV has the power to handle your premium video needs – with clever gaming smarts to boot.
- Streamlined design
- Powerful specs
- Relatively expensive
- No HDMI cable included
Max resolution: 4K • Dolby Atmos: Yes • Voice assistant: Works with Alexa, Google Assistant • Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth • Ports: HDMI, ethernet, power, microSD • Internal storage: 8GB (expandable) • Dimensions: 40x40x165mm • Weight: 137g