Best Media Streamers Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best media streamers you can buy in 2021.
The best media streamers have all the apps and that's exactly why we buy them, because most other AV devices simply don't. No BritBox or HBO Max? You need to get yourself a media streamer, but not all media streamers are the same. The best media steamers will provide a total and endless supply of TV shows, films and music but there are performance differences too. Some look and sound better than others.
Whether it's Netflix, Prime Video, Apple TV, Disney+, a service dedicated to skateboarding or free 1970s kung fu films, it's a media streamer's job to deliver them.
Few smart TVs cover all the apps and a media streamer will put that right without you having to spend big. It's a media streamer's raison d'etre to make sure that they're stacked with services. With more competition in the market than ever, prices are low, standards are high and any gaps in their app offerings could be a killer weakness.
TV streaming devices are pretty much foolproof too. All you do is plug them into your flatscreen, connect them wirelessly to your home wi-fi network and get watching. Despite their ease of use, though, there is quite some difference in how much they cost. More advanced models that offer 4K, HDR and voice controls will charge more, but there are plenty of simple streaming sticks for those on tight budgets too.
Before you chose, bear in mind that to enjoy HD and 4K content, you'll need a fast broadband connection. Netflix recommends a steady connection of 25Mbps or higher for 4K video, for example.
You should also check which services each device offers, especially as exclusive, original TV shows and films are all the rage. So whether you want to use Apple's library or Google's, watch the latest Netflix, Disney Plus or Amazon Prime Video TV show, independent films on MUBI, or live sport courtesy of Now TV, our round-up of the best media streamers has got you covered.
Google was in Amazon's media streaming shadow until the arrival of the most recent Chromecast and, specifically, the Google TV user-interface that comes with it. While this streamer and the Fire TV Stick 4K are an even match for performance, it's Google's superior operating system that wins the day.
Google TV is the successor to Android TV and is beginning its roll-out across smart TVs from 2021. It's better looking, more intuitive, more searchable and, crucially, excellent at making suggestions of what to watch next.
That's best underlined in the way that it presents search results with an even hand. Top suggestions will always be from streaming services to which you already subscribe, and in top quality where possible, rather than Google trying to sell you content to which you already have access.
While, natively, it doesn't have quite as many apps as some rivals, you can make up for that by casting anything it doesn't have from your mobile or tablet instead.
The 2021 addition of Apple TV and Apple TV+ has been a particularly important update when it comes to improving the 4K HDR PAYG film and TV options. There's still no Apple Music app, though. If you need that, then try Amazon Fire Sticks or the more expensive Apple TV 4K instead.
Read the full Chromecast with Google TV review
Amazon's 4K streaming stick is as worthy a no.2 as you'll find. It offers unbeatable value, 4K streaming, support for multiple HDR formats and all with the Alexa voice-activated personal assistant.
Amazon Prime Video comes as standard (of course), alongside Netflix, the terrestrial catch-up services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5), Now TV, BT Sport, Apple TV, Disney Plus and the bonus of music services Spotify, Deezer, Apple Music and Tidal. The only minor omission is an official Rakuten app.
The main reason that this device doesn't score quite as well as the Chromecast above is because its operating system isn't as good. It's too Amazon-focused doesn't perform quite as well for suggestions, even with the latest version of Fire TV OS onboard.
Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
It took four years to get a new one but this is the latest Apple media streamer. The remote control has been updated but there's very little difference to the physical design otherwise.
The other significant upgrade is the processor: Apple has swapped the A10X Fusion chip of the old model for the A12 Bionic, claiming “more realistic games, more lifelike videos, and more immersive sound”. There's also a new HDMI 2.1 socket, to add support for 4K HDR content in frame rates of up to 60fps, and compatibility with Apple's spatial audio via AirPods Pro and AirPods Max headphones too.
In terms of performance, the differences are small. There's marginally more contrast on offer. The blackest blacks are just a little bit blacker, and there's a little extra brightness and vibrancy at the other end. There’s a small but noticeable uptick on the audio side too with Dolby Atmos soundtracks and music in terms of weight, spaciousness and cohesion to the soundstage.
It’s not worth upgrading if you have the previous model, but if you’re simply looking for the best premium video streamer out there, this is it.
Read the full Apple TV 4K (2021) review
At just £30/$30, this is one of the cheapest video streaming devices around. Chromecast is a decent little device and if you don't have a 4K TV, its 1080p resolution is all you need. You can 'cast' Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, My5 and Now TV, along with Google Play Movies and YouTube TV. On the music front, Spotify, TuneIn and Tidal are all catered for. Amazon Prime Video is now included too.
You have to control Google Chromecast from your phone or tablet, so it's a different proposition from most of the streamers here. But it does what it does very well indeed.
Read the full review: Google Chromecast (2018)
This box of tricks offers the typically slick experience we've come to expect from Apple. Voice controls come courtesy of Siri - Apple's personal assistant - while 4K and HDR are all part and parcel of the package. There's plenty to watch too, thanks to Apple's extensive catalogue of 4K and HDR content.
And with the arrival of the Apple TV+ streaming service that's only got better. Netflix, iPlayer and Amazon Prime Video are offered with Now TV and All 4 both present now too. It's not cheap - it's positively exorbitant compared to some on this list - but if you're happy with life in the Apple ecosystem and you can afford it, it's money well spent for the home streaming enthusiast.
Read the full review: Apple TV 4K
There's very little not to like about this budget streaming stick apart from the price. Don't get us wrong, it's very cheap and offers some pretty decent value in isolation. The trouble is that the 4K and Dolby Vision-enabled version of the same device, above, is only a tiny bit more expensive. Why wouldn't you opt for its bigger brother, even just for the sake of future proofing?
If, for whatever reason, you would rather save the pennies, then you certainly won't be disappointed with what you find here. Ok, so there's no 4K or Dolby Vision but there's still Atmos and HDR in all the other formats, even if the resolution maxes out at 1080p. Nonetheless, the HDR performance is typically excellent and brings an enjoyable punch to lower res material.
Equally, it makes for a very easy listen with the kind of focus on clarity that ensures you'll appreciate high levels of detail when watching films and a decent rhythmic presentation to music.
Like all current Fire TV devices, Alexa is along for the ride too and makes an easy way to navigate around the OS. The six user profiles per household – each with its own preferences, apps, permissions, watchlists and settings – are also very handy.
Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV Stick (3rd Generation)
Roku might not be as well known in some parts, but it's a big global player in the streaming market and this device is a solid bet. It's affordable, boasts 4K and HDR (albeit limited formats for the latter) and doesn't need mains power to run. Because Roku doesn't make its own shows, there's no hard sell as to what to watch, as there is with Amazon devices, and all the major streaming services are supported, including Now TV (which you won't find on an Amazon device).
Read the full review: Roku Streaming Stick+
At under £30, this is one of the cheapest ways to turn your old TV into a smart TV. Most of the main streaming services are here, except for Amazon Prime Video, and as you'd expect, it gently nudges you towards Sky's Now TV streaming service at every turn. While it can stream in 1080p, Now TV tops out at 720p. If you can put up with these limitations, it's a bargain, and a great way to get Sky TV without a subscription.
Read the full review: Now TV Smart Stick