We’re officially in the age of streaming. Netflix, Amazon, Apple, BBC – all the big players have platforms to allow you to watch their content on demand, thanks to the wonders of the internet.
Today, most TVs come with smart services built-in – but these can be limited and fiddly to use. If you bought your TV even as little as a few years ago, they might be entirely absent.
So, what’s the solution?
Step forward TV streaming devices – or streaming boxes, as they're also known. These plug directly into one of the HDMI ports in the back of your television and allow you to connect to all the major platforms – and any number of minor ones, too.
Streaming devices tend to be small and come with their own remote, which can be programmed to control basic functions such as on/off and volume on your TV. With any luck, you'll find you don't need multiple remotes resting on the sofa's arm.
While testing the market leading streaming boxes for this review, I found that they're all incredibly simple to set up. Plug your device in, enter your WiFi details, sign into a Google/Amazon/Apple account (depending which device you’re using) and start watching. No fuss, no mess, no more than five minutes of your life.
So those are the similarities shared by all the products. As for differences, the big one is the content they allow you to access. Some only allow you to use certain streaming services. NowTV, for example, can only be accessed from a NowTV streaming stick and will be unavailable on other devices.
Functionalities also vary – and the remotes range from brilliant to terrible. It pays to shop around.
There’s a lot of different options out there, but only a few market leaders, so I gathered these together and put them through their paces. Here’s my pick of the best TV streaming devices, starting with my favourite…
1. Nvidia Shield TV
Why we like it: A huge range of functionalities, and a remote to savour
I’ll forgive you if you've never heard of Nvidia Shield. Even I only came across it recently. Still, the Shield has a solid pedigree and a swathe of fans.
The box is in fact a thick black tube, about the same size as a torch, with a power outlet port at one end and a HDMI port at the other. The cable that comes out of it is long – longer than other products I reviewed – so if you have a wall mounted TV, you might want to think of how to hide it; but personally, I was able to shove it down the back of my TV cabinet and forget about it.
As for the Shield's remote, it's just fantastic. Thick, triangular, with ergonomic buttons, it feels great in your hand and it includes a variety of cool features, such as voice control. My favourite part about the remote is that if you lose it, you can use the Nvidia Shield app or ask any Google or Alexa device to help find the remote, causing it to play a little alarm until you locate it.
The software that runs the Shield is equally impressive. It uses Android TV, a very good, clean operating system which is proficient at surfacing the content you actually want. I never had to go looking for apps or services while using the Shield TV as the menu recognised what I was looking for and showed it to me immediately.
Pre-installed apps include Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, iPlayer, ITV Hub, and Google Play Movies, though you can get more. Anything that is available from the Google Play store on your Android phone is available here. The only major missing feature platform is Apple TV which, for the time being, isn’t a huge issue as Apple has only just started producing original content. In the future, it might be more worrisome.
The Shield TV also uses Chromecast, so if you’re watching something on a mobile phone, you can ping it to the TV in the touch of a button. There's a lag of about a second between pressing the button on the phone and the content streaming on the TV – that's fast, compared to the others I tested.
Because the Shield TV is meant to be connected with your Google account, you can also use the remote’s in-built microphones to control any smart home gadgets you have and ask questions. “Hey Google, turn off the lights”, “OK Google, what’s the movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Luke Wilson”, etc. It works well if you like this kind of stuff, but equally, you can easily turn it off if you don't.
Another handy facet is that it features physical storage which can be expanded via MicroSD card. That means you can download content from Google Play Movies or Amazon and take the device to your friend’s house to play it on their TV, or keep watching even if your internet goes down. You can also stream games, which is impressive. Google just launched an entire console with great fanfare based around streaming video-games but Nvidia have been doing it for a while.
Arguably the jewel in the Shield TV’s crown, however, and the reason it's my recommended pick, is the 4K functionality. Shield TV is one of the few streaming devices which support Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos streaming. These are the industry standards when it comes to delivering top quality colour and sound. A lot of devices simply don’t have the processing power to deal with streaming content of this quality; it’s a testament to Nvidia that they managed it.
The Shield TV can also do AI upscaling, which is where it generates extra pixels, turning regular old high-definition footage into 4K ultra-HD. Some TVs can do this to but usually the results are slushy and mean colours blend into each other. Not so here.
Alright, so I’ll admit that the AI upscaling isn’t necessarily quite as good as content is native 4K – but the step up from regular HD is enormous. And, as I’m sure anyone who has forked out for a 4K TV will notice, it might just save you money. After all, a HD Netflix subscription costs £8.99 per month, whereas a 4K subscription costs £11.99 per month. It costs £9.99 to buy Avengers: Endgame in HD, but it costs £17.99 to buy it in 4K. If you’ve got a device which can upscale HD content into 4K content, you can choose the cheaper rate and get the better service.
As for quibbles, it's annoying that the remote uses normal rather than rechargeable batteries. You'll find yourself changing them more often than you'd like. And the device is certainly pricey.
Even so, when all’s said and done, the Nvidia Shield TV is the best TV streaming box I tested, because it simply offers the most bang for your buck with its wide range of functionality and top quality software.
2. Fire TV Stick 4K
Why we like it: A top quality user experience at a wallet-friendly price
There are three different devices in the Fire TV family, and while they’re all variations on the same device, they differ enough to warrant a quick explanation. Bear with me here...
The original Fire TV Stick is the cheapest of the lot at £39.99. It’s a simple stick, a bit larger than a traditional USB stick, which plugs into the back of your TV and allows you to stream from Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and all the rest. However, it does not support 4K streaming at all. It comes with 8GB of storage for offline use.
The Fire TV Stick 4K is £10 more expensive, but can stream in 4K and is certified to the top quality industry standards with HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos.
The Fire TV Cube, which sells at a steeper £109.99, is like the lovechild of a Fire TV 4K Stick and an Amazon Echo smart speaker. It has all the functionality of the stick, including those beautiful industry standard 4K visuals, plus an in-built microphone and speakers, so you can use voice control and Alexa. It also has a better processor for more handsome streams and 16GB of offline storage.
Right, now that's out of the way, let me assure you that, 4K and Alexa aside, these devices are exactly the same. The menus are the same, the controls are the same, even the remotes are the same. And that’s very good because as a package, Fire TV is really solid.
The home menus are lively and everything is available at your fingertips, with all your most recently used apps surfaced to you. If you’ve been watching on Amazon Prime Video, the specific programme or film will be right there on the menu waiting for you to pick it back up.
The menu also contains a little bit of advertising, even for non-Amazon programmes, which is handy. As I’m writing this I’ve just seen an advert for BBC One’s War Of The Worlds on iPlayer, and I’m quite charmed that in the dog-eat-dog world of tech, Amazon are using their influence to point out programmes on other services than their own. Then again, I guess when you’re worth a trillion dollars, you don’t exactly need to stress about the competition.
Yes, the remote is simple – but does contain voice controls to help find content, as well as play, pause, fast forward and rewind. Obviously you can do all this sans remote on the Fire TV Cube. Physical buttons can turn the TV on and off and control the volume.
Like the Nvidia Shield TV, you can cast from your phone onto the TV screen which is nice, although it does take ever so slightly longer here. You can even play some games on the device but they’re very retro flash games that pale in comparison to the offering on the Shield TV. Sadly, unlike the Shield, there’s nothing in the way of upscaling so you’ll have to let your TV handle that, if it can.
There’s a huge variety of apps which can be downloaded to the Fire TV from the usual suspects like Netflix, iPlayer, and YouTube to Sky News, My5, Spotify, a Firefox browser and even Apple TV.
3. Google Chromecast
Why we like it: Simplicity incarnate
Chromecast is a different proposition to the devices above in that, as the name suggests, it’s entirely based around casting content from your phone.
Plug the tiny little dongle into your HDMI port, sign into your Google account, connect to WiFi and you’re done. The device will sit dormant from that point: there’s no menu, no remote, no nothing.
Instead, users jump onto their phone and open a streaming app; YouTube for example. Start watching on your phone, then tap the button to cast the video onto your TV screen. And that’s it.
The upside is that this means that almost any streaming app which works on your phone will be viewable through your TV, including the likes of Apple TV and Apple Music. The downside is that your phone gets cluttered up with a lot of apps and no content is ever surfaced to you.
It’s also worth remembering that the Chromecast itself can only play regular HD content. If you want 4K, you’ll need to invest in the significantly pricier Chromecast Ultra (£69, Argos).
Whether the simplicity of the Chromecast itself is a boon or a frustration will be up to you, but I think it’s ideal for those who do a lot of watching on their mobile devices while commuting, for example. And it's wonderfully affordable, of course.
4. Roku Streaming Stick+
A streaming devices go, the Roku Streaming Stick+ is one of the smallest. Scarcely bigger than an old-fashioned pen drive. It’s a shame, then, that the cable is so long and inelegant. The power cable is divided into two halves that must be plugged together, a big adapter sitting between them. The reasons for this I cannot fathom.
The inelegance continues in the software itself. The menus are clunky; they work fine but it’s a bit of a hassle to find all the content you want and need, forcing you to flick through several sub-menus just to find the apps you want. I don’t think they’re especially awful but they will take some getting used to.
Roku proudly boasts on the box that 150,000+ movies and TV episodes are available therein, and it’s not wrong. Every app imaginable is here, and in fact the remote has dedicated buttons for the most popular ones: Netflix, Google Play, Rakuten TV, and Spotify. Press one of those and it’ll take you directly into the app, bypassing awkward menus.
Even if you’re using another app, Roku’s quadcore processor means that everything launches at lightspeed so there’s little lag between opening an app and getting down to watching.
One feature I did really like was when searching for a movie, you get a handy price comparison to see whether it’s cheaper to buy your movie through Apple, Google Play, Amazon, and whether it’s available on a subscription-based streaming service like Netflix. It can be a bit hit-and-miss. Toy Story 4, for example, showed prices on Apple TV and Google Play, with no mention of Amazon, while a search for Call Me By Your Name yielded all three plus Netflix.
This allows you to quickly and effectively compare prices and work out whether you’d prefer to buy the digital content and own it outright, or stream it on a service you already subscribe to.
And the quality is there too. 4K streaming up to 60 frames per second which looks smooth and is great to watch, with HDR. The Roku Streaming Stick+ doesn’t have Dolby Vision or Atmos, but considering that it costs much less than rivals which do support these formats, I’m prepared to forgive it.
But it’s the little things that are disappointing. It’s one thing being asked to sign into a Google, Amazon, or Apple account; most people have those. It’s slightly more of an imposition for it to demand you set up a Roku account. Similarly, you need to have the Roku smartphone app if you want to cast to and from the streaming device. Voice controls on the remote also lag behind rivals.
Overall though, while aspects are dated, this remains a solid little device.
5. Apple TV 4K
Apple TV has been in this game for a lot longer than any other streaming device. The first generation of the device launched all the way back in 2006. That’s one hell of a pedigree.
And it’s a very polished product. The box is sleek in appearance, and the menus are minimalist to the extreme, which I suspect Apple users will appreciate. I found it only mediocre at surfacing the content I like – but at least Siri voice searching is there to speed things up. It’s very good and very fast. You can even use Siri to control your home, should you so wish.
Weirdly, my favourite content to play off it was not TV or movies at all, but podcasts. It makes them so easy to find and listen to. Still, the video streaming is genuinely great. 4K, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos. It’s a lovely little setup, right up there with the Nvidia Shield TV and the Fire Cube.
However, I just couldn't make peace with the remote. Visually, it’s a beautiful device, slim and rounded like a handsome iPod nano. But here’s the rub: the touchpad. There’s no directional buttons to find and select things. You must flick back and forth with your finger or thumb. It's not accurate, nor quick – which makes typing in particular a nightmare. Searching for a particular film name is no fun at all. Honestly, however good it looks, I'd say this is the worst TV remote I have ever used.
One other thing to bear in mind: you can only cast to the Apple TV if you have an iPhone. Android users, take note.
6. NowTV Smart Stick
NowTV’s streaming sticks are the only way to access any catch-up content from Sky channels. You won’t find NowTV on Fire Sticks, Nvidia Shield, Apple TV or anywhere else. If you want to watch Sky content, you’ve got no other option. Of course, you can get Netflix, Vevo, iPlayer and various other apps, but the real focus is NowTV’s own Sky content. You even get a two month pass when you buy the streaming stick to sweeten the deal.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the whole thing feels so dated. 4K isn’t an option at all. The processors are noticeably sluggish and it takes longer to get from selecting what you want to watch to playing it than on other devices. It’s also got a much smaller selection of apps than other devices – there’s no sign of big streaming services like Amazon, Spotify, Rakuten or Apple TV.
All in all, NowTV is fine, but let’s be honest, you’re here to watch Sky content without having to pay the fees a Sky subscription entails. If you’re doing much else, there are better options.
Frequently asked questions about TV streaming devices
Do I need a box with a Smart TV?
Probably not, but it really depends on the TV. Some older ‘smart TVs’ really have the bare minimum of streaming services on them. I have one which claims to be a smart TV but is only capable of streaming Netflix and BBC iPlayer, so if I want to stream content from elsewhere, I need to use my streaming device.
But if, for argument’s sake, your smart TV has all the streaming services you want built into it, then no, you probably don’t need a box or streaming device. However, with functionality such as voice control, casting from a phone, and the like, you might find that they offer some functionality that your TV doesn’t.