For people who don't have the luxury of owning a smart TV, and would rather use their computers for better things, streaming devices have been somewhat of a godsend. It gives your TV a hefty upgrade so that you can watch all your favourite shows, but without having to cough up an obscene amount of money in the process. But which are the best TV and movie streaming devices?
It's an increasingly complicated question. The last couple of months has seen a large number of updated streaming devices hit shop shelves, so we've put them to the test to find out. Here you'll find a run down of the new Apple TV, Amazon's 4K Fire TV, the Fire TV stick, the new Chromecast, Now TV's dedicated set-top box, the Roku 3, and the Roku Streaming Stick. Read on as we discuss each, and why we've crowned the top box king among the best TV and movie streaming devices.
A fair bit comes into play looking at each device, but the main brunt of it comes down to the user experience and what content is available. The ideal box will have an interface that's attractive, easy to navigate, and offer streaming performance that is enjoyable and doesn't make you want to throw your remote through the window every five minutes.
In terms of the content, I'm mainly looking at availability of the most popular services (the likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, Spotify, and so on). Bonus points will also be given to other features, like gaming, screen mirroring, and specialised hardware features.
One thing that isn't really of any concern is the internal hardware of each device. It doesn't matter if X device has less RAM than Y device, as long as it doesn't have any effect on actual use. Similarly the design of each device is mostly irrelevant since they'll spend most of their time hiding away behind your TV. I will, however, be fairly critical about the remotes, since they're what you'll spend the majority of your time dealing with.
All the devices are being tested over Wi-Fi, so you don't need to worry about devices that are exclusively hardwired into the net. Not that there are many of those around these days.
The Best TV and Movie Streaming Devices:
First Place: Amazon Fire TV Stick, from £35
Out of all the streaming devices tested, Amazon's Fire TV range were the clear winners. Every other device had certain limitations on what it could achieve, but Amazon's hardware manages to take the best of everything and package it all together in a tiny HMDI stick.
This is down to Amazon's huge range of apps, which allows you to make up for any of the features that you might feel are missing. The Apple TV doesn't have a monopoly on AirPlay, because there's Amazon app for that. The same is true of Google's Casting system. Heck, there's even an app that forwards calls and text messages onto your TV screen. On top of that it offers virtually all the major apps that you'd expect. Netflix, iPlayer, Spotify, YouTube, VLC, and (obviously) Amazon Prime Instant Video. The only things its missing is Channel 4 (and ITV if you opted for the Fire TV Stick).
Out of the two Fire TV devices I used, the Fire TV Stick is the sure winner because it offers almost everything the Fire TV box offers but at a much lower price-point. I'll go into this in a bit more detail below.
That's not to say that the Fire TV is not without its problems. In fact, I feel that there is far too much emphasis on Amazon's own video content. The homepage is absolutely dominated with sections dedicated to getting you to watch TV and film content provided by Amazon, and not just stuff offered by Prime. That leads onto my other annoyance, in that search results mix and match films and TV content that you have to pay to watch with the stuff you can freely access if you subscribe to Prime. Prime videos do have the little Prime logo in the corner, but as far as I can see there's no way to filter out one or the other.
Annoyingly, setting up the box for the first time led me to a prompt asking me to sign up for Amazon Prime. I already have a Prime account, so this was a little confusing. Then again I share a single subscription with other people, so maybe it's unable to differentiate?
The lack of homescreen customisation was also noticeably missing, as these were features offered on the Apple TV and both Roku devices. If you have zero interest in Amazon videos, it would be nice to be able to relegate them to the very bottom of the screen so that you don't have to scroll through them every time you switch on your TV.
One of the things I liked was that it's automatically linked to your Amazon account, so if you've bought any digital media (including CDs that qualify under the Autorip programme), or stored any photos in Amazon Cloud Drive, that media is automatically available to you once you've completed the setup. The same is sort of true of the Apple TV, but that can't access your own personal music collection without setting up a connection to iTunes on your computer. Doing things through the cloud, and not having to go through an extra setup, is incredibly useful. If that's something you're likely to want, that is.
The remote is fairly standard, and nice and easy to use. My only issue is that the directional pad is shaped like a circle, but it isn't an iPod-style scrollwheel. That's a little bit disappointing. You can also opt to use your phone as the remote using the Fire TV app, which lets you use a touchscreen keyboard and voice search (if it's not included on your remote already). Unfortunately it does connect via Wi-Fi, which means it can't be used until after setup has been completed and is rendered useless if your internet cocks up.
I really liked the voice search function, especially since it meant not having to type using an on-screen keyboard. It never had any problems understanding what I said, even when I was mumbling, and the results show up everything relevant: films, TV, apps, music, games, you name it. You can't say that about Siri, which was incredibly limited with its search results.
There are plenty of mobile games on option, but you shouldn't expect any recent AAA titles. It's mostly mobile games that you'd find on your phone, including Flappy Bird, and Crossy Road (a.k.a. that Frogger clone Apple wouldn't shut up about when it launched the new Apple TV).
My final point to make, though, involves actually downloading the apps. Every single time you download an app Amazon treats like an ordered product, sending you an email notification and adding it to your order history in the process. This is a problem I've had with the Amazon Android App Store before, and it pisses me off to no end. I can understand an email invoice if you paid for an app, but doing the same thing for the free ones is pointless. That's something that needs working on.
Second Place: Amazon Fire TV 4K, from £80
In virtually all respects, the Fire TV and Fire TV stick are identical. There are the obvious differences in hardware, like the fact that the Fire TV box lets you plug in USB drives and microSD cards, and that it's, you know, box-shaped rather than stick-shaped.
You'd think that the fact that it's a more advanced piece of hardware means it's the better choice, right? Not especially. Yes the Fire TV box has more RAM and a faster processor, but there's no real difference in actually using it. The remote is the same, the interface is the same, and you can use the app in exactly the same way. The only noticeable difference is that the Fire TV box lets you stream 4K video content. If you have a 4K TV it might be worth the extra cost, but if you don't then it's just wasted money. All you'll be paying for is the option to use expandable storage and access to ITV Hub.
One thing to note about the Fire TV box, is that it would occasionally disconnect from my Wi-Fi network and refuse to play anything. I can't quite figure out why this is happening, because, while it's more than possible that my shite broadband connection is to blame, none of my other devices have been experiencing problems at the same time. In fact, as I write this paragraph the Fire TV is telling me it can't connect to Amazon services, but my laptop, phone, tablet, and iPod Touch are having zero problems browsing the web. The only way I seem to be able to get it to reconnect to the internet is to restart the router, restart the box, or forget the network and reconnect manually. I didn't have any of these problems with the Fire TV Stick.
Third Place: Google Chromecast (2015), £30
The thing that needs to be understood about Chromecast is that it's very different from the other streaming devices featured in this list. Those devices are able to function independently and have their own software and apps/channels. Chromecast does not, and requires that you have another device with the necessary apps installed. So the Chromecast device doesn't have an interface of its own; that's taken care of by the Chromecast app on your phone, tablet, or computer.
I can't really think of any significant disadvantages to this system, other than you might find your phone without power when you want to watch Netflix. It does have a few advantages, though. For starters the setup was an absolute breeze, primarily because typing in a Wi-Fi password is a heck of a lot easier with a touchscreen than it is with an onscreen keyboard and a remote control d-pad. It also means you don't have to wait for a company to create a dedicated app, since all they have to do is add casting support to the software they already have available in the Apple App Store and on Google Play.
Plus, having something like your phone function as a remote control means you won't end up losing it down the side of the sofa as often.
The interface on the Chromecast app is fairly basic, due to the fact that most of the heavy lifting is being done by the apps themselves, but it's easy to use and navigate. You have three basic tabs to play with: one with all the Chromecast-compatible apps you have installed, one to see what all your Chromecast devices are doing, and other for discovering new apps. There's also a side menu that lets you cast whatever your device is doing onto the big screen. Ever wanted Tinder on your TV? Chromecast makes it a breeze. That's on Android, by the way, that option was mysteriously absent on my iPod Touch.
If you're using an app, all you have to do is tap the Chromecast icon and select the device you want to connect to. As the meerkats would say, 'simples'.
The apps available are a bit of a mixed bag. Amazon has infamously refused to acknowledge the platform, so Prime Instant Video does not have Chromecast support. Oddly neither does ITV or Channel 5, so if you want to watch Eastenders, Neighbours, Downton, or... erm... whatever else, those two channels show, you'll have to go elsewhere. That's a bit of a bummer.
You will find most of the other big names. BBC iPlayer, Now TV, Spotify, and everything made by Google. There are also plenty of apps for sending local files over to your TV, because the people at VLC still don't seem to have got around to that yet.
The fact that Chromecast is powered by cast-enabled mobile apps, rather than apps that have to be coded to a specific interface, it means there's no limit to what you can do. In theory, anyway. There are apps for drawing on your TV using your phone's touchscreen, games that let you use your phone as a controller, and much more.
Chromecast is fairly basic, but if you're looking for a hassle-free experience and don't mind a few missing apps, then it's a decent low-cost option. There's no need to learn to navigate any fancy new interfaces, and everything can be powered by the device you carry around with you everywhere. There are no real complaints, but it's certainly not as full-featured as the likes of Amazon's Fire TV.
Fourth Place: Roku Streaming Stick, £50
Roku's one of the big names in the world of streaming hardware, yet it's all the way down in the middle of the list. Why? The Roku is a great piece of kit, but it is a lot more limited compared to the other offerings in this list. It's more a device if you want to give your regular TV a basic smart-upgrade in the form of an apps hub.
Roku is a great place to watch all your favourite services, but that's about it. Amazon's Fire TV offers more, and Chromecast makes it all incredibly minimalist and simple. What Roku offers is also offered by Amazon and Google, so it doesn't hold up to them.
How much you like the Roku's interface will depend on how much you like the colour purple. If you love it then you're in luck, because it is purple as hell. You can change it to a few other themes, like grey, beige, or something akin to the wallpaper from Toy Story. If you're not fond of those there are 20 other random themes that will cost you real money to download. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It is fairly easy to navigate, though, and finding new channels to add to the homescreen was a breeze. The only issue was sifting through the sheer amount of crap that's out there. Thankfully the big names were mostly at the top of their respective lists.
The remote is fairly nice, and fairly simple to use, but if you're not a fan you can swap over to the mobile app instead. Not only does it turn your phone into a remote control, it also lets you use it as a keyboard so you don't have to keep tapping a d-pad to log into your favourite services. It does work over the local Wi-Fi network, though, so it's no good for making the set-up process any easier.
I'm not overly fond of the buttons that took you straight to either Google Play, Netflix, Rdio, and YouTube. While I tend to favour Netflix for streaming, I generally found myself hitting home and flicking across to the app. Plus, Rdio is no longer taking new members, making that particular button worthless to many. It would be better if you could reprogram those buttons, but there doesn't appear to be any easy way to do that.
One of my fairly minor gripes, however, is that the Roku devices automatically default to 720p resolution. What's up with that? 1080p has been fairly affordable for a great many years, so let people with the lower-res displays alter it if they need to.
Fifth Place: Roku 3, £99
At this point some of you may be thinking, "Hey, Tom, what's up with including the Roku 3? Didn't the Roku 4 just come out?" You would be correct there, but also slightly wrong. I tried to get hold of a Roku 4, but couldn't due to the fact that Roku is keeping it as a US exclusive for the time being. I did ask if there was any rough timeline for a UK release, but I didn't get an answer.
Kind of annoying, but then again, the Roku 3 is cheaper! From the looks of things the only real difference is that the Roku 4 supports 4K content (the 3 is restricted to 1080p), and has an extra gigabyte of RAM. To be honest, the Roku 3 is almost exactly the same as Roku's streaming stick as well. At least in terms of day-to-day use, that is. This, and the fact that the Roku 3 is the more expensive of the two, is why I would recommend the streaming stick over the set-top box.
The interface is the same, the apps offerings are the same, and the remote is basically the same as well. The only difference in hardware is that the Roku 3 has ethernet, microSD, and USB. The Roku 3's remote is also more advanced, with extra bits and pieces that turn it into something akin to Nintendo's Wiimote. In fact, it has exactly the same layout as the Wiimote, but just happens to come a little bit smaller.
One of the things I really like about the Roku 3 is the fact that the remote has a 3.5mm jack you can plug your headphones into. It's something I've recently taken advantage of on games consoles, and it's incredibly handy if you don't want to disturb anyone else and don't feel like plugging a very long wire into your TV. I ended up using that quite a lot, and it also made me grateful that I could control the volume using the Roku remote rather than seeking out my TV remote all the time.
The motion controls in the remote were OK, but there's nothing that special there. While I don't have a Wii on hand to compare it with, it feels pretty similar in terms of responsiveness. The problem, though, is that it's not entirely clear which games support motion controls. An indicator of that would be nice, as would a filter for finding them all more quickly. Are you going to be playing many games on your streaming box, though? Roku (and Apple) would certainly like to think so, but the kinds of games being offered are more suited to playing on a phone or tablet. No next-gen AAA titles here.
Sixth Place: Now TV, £15
The first thing that I noticed as soon as I pulled it out of the box was that it's exactly the same design as the Roku 3. The branding is a little bit different, but even if you didn't know Now TV boxes are made by Roku it would be pretty obvious just by glancing at them. But they're not the same inside, because the Now TV is apparently based on the older Roku 2.
Not that it's really noticeable. If you're familiar with a Roku, then using the NowTV will only feel slightly different. The interface is almost exactly the same, albeit a much more miserable grey colour that you can't seem to be able to change. Sky also removed the search function, which is slightly irritating.
The remote is also virtually the same as the one bundled with Roku's streaming stick. The only differences are that it's much blander, lacks any Roku branding, and has quick-access buttons for the NowTV and Sky Store apps. The Instant Replay button has also been removed, for some reason.
The biggest problem with the NowTV box is that two of the major streaming channels, Netflix and Amazon Prime, are completely unavailable. The catch-up services for the terrestrial channels are all accounted for, but clearly Sky didn't want people opting to pay £6 a month for someone else's streaming service. Aside from those two glaring omissions, the main stuff you'll find on a Roku is available on the NowTV box. So you can access Spotify, Facebook, YouTube, and so on.
There are a lot fewer channels than the Roku 3, nor are there any games, but since most of it was crap it doesn't matter so much. The only other glaring omissions I noticed were Plex and Google Play Music. The lack of Plex means that you won't be using this as a portable conduit to the media your home PC, and really the best way to think of the Now TV box is as a glorified Freeview box with some extras attached. Albeit, one that lets you watch past programming rather than just live broadcasts.
Really the NowTV is very cutdown compared to the other streaming devices, and its limited channel offering makes me feel that it's really not worth saving yourself a few quid. What it does is great, it's just not as great as actual Roku devices. Especially since they have NowTV and other Sky apps available to download. Heck, even Sky's own video rental service is available elsewhere.
Seventh Place: Apple TV, from £129
Tim Cook proudly boasted that the Apple TV was the future of television, because watching television hasn't really changed since the 1970s. Is he right? Hell no. He's totally wrong on both counts, especially the part about the Apple TV being the future of television. As it stands, the 4th gen Apple TV is a number of steps behind all the other streaming devices I tested, so in my eyes it isn't the future of anything. It wasn't all bad, but the bad definitely outweighs the good.
One of the things that makes the Apple TV's remote immediately stand out is the fact that it doesn't take batteries, and is recharged by a lightning cable. I'm surprised that none of the other remotes did this, to be honest. That said there's no indication that it's even charging, much less when it's done. Not unless you have the Apple TV switched on, anyway. I imagine it's not a very big battery, but an LED light would have been nice to see.
I'll be totally honest though, I hated using the remote and it's all down to the touch-sensitive panel you're forced to use. It's a weird combination of being too sensitive and not being sensitive enough, which made it incredibly awkward to navigate, especially when using the atrocious on-screen keyboard. Lack of touch-sensitive space is the main problem, because there just isn't enough room to scroll slowly without moving your finger/thumb back every two seconds. My advice to Apple? See about making the back of the remote touch sensitive, that might improve things.
To make matters worse, Apple's own Remote app appears to be incompatible with the new Apple TV box, meaning you can't switch over to one of your iDevices instead. You also have to physically push the touchpad down to click, rather than tapping the way you can with laptops. That struck me as an incredibly odd, and disappointing, design choice. Not the end of the world, but still.
Moving onto the on-screen keyboard which, as I said before, is fucking atrocious. Why? Because it lays out all the letters on your television screen in a single horizontal line, and navigation feels like it takes forever. Seriously, though, a single horizontal line? I remember the awkwardness of typing things on screen with an Xbox 360 controller back in 2006, but even that used a layered format that meant you could navigate up and down to quickly reach letters and numbers. 10 years later and Apple apparently never figured out that system. Just logging into this thing made me hate it, and that's certainly not the mindset any company should want a user to be in before they've even got to the good stuff.
None of the boxes tested were particularly pleasant to activate, since typing with a d-pad is awkward and annoying, but Apple managed to make it worse. It would be an impressive achievement if it wasn't so incredibly sad.
Well if the remote is that bad, at least we can fall back on Siri, right? Hah. As if. Siri's search results are almost useless. I came into the Apple TV after using Amazon's stellar voice search function, expecting a similar experience. I was wrong. While Siri didn't have a hard time understanding me (except when I say the word "Plex"), her functions are limited at best. The only thing Siri is any good at is opening up apps you've installed and searching for films and TV shows. Anything else and you're out of luck.
That means no searching for music, and no searching for apps unless they're in the App Store's 'Trending' list (which makes the whole thing absolutely worthless anyway.)
Thankfully the Apple TV isn't big on bloatware, and aside from the usual Apple apps (Music, Photos, iTunes, etc) it was completely empty. That's rather nice to see, since it means you don't have to deal with uninstalling apps before you've even begun. It also means you don't have to worry about much uninstallable bloat filling up your storage, since the Apple TV does not let you plug in USB drive or microSD cards.
Speaking of external storage The Roku 3, Now TV, and Amazon Fire Box all offered both USB and microSD expansion, but as usual Apple is ignoring the fact that either of them exist. If you want your own files playing on the box you'll have to go through iTunes or third-party apps like Plex.
I will say this, though, the interface is quite nice. It's fairly basic, but it's not got any bizarre colours, and everything is laid out nice and neatly. You can customise the order of your apps on the homescreen (but sadly you can't hide away in folders the ones you know you'll never use), and you won't be getting lost trying to find things. Plus, if you search for a film or TV show and it's available to watch in one of your apps you will get told about it. Amazon didn't offer that, and it's incredibly nice to see that Apple isn't limiting search results to its own services.
Sadly the apps selection is pretty fucking poor. You've got Netflix, YouTube, NowTV, Plex, TVPlayer, and not much else. If you're looking for Amazon Prime or any of the terrestrial catch-up services then you're out of luck. Oh and surprise surprise, there are no music apps like Spotify or Google Play. If you want to stream music (without videos) you'll have to use Apple Music or set your playlists up in apps like Plex or DLNA.
Seriously, the apps support is fucking dreadful. It's worse than Windows Phone 8 for crying out loud. This is the 4th generation of the Apple TV, this really should not be an issue.
To round things off on a high note, the AirPlay integration is rather nice. Not that there was ever a question of whether it would be included. It's not as easy to use as Google Casting, but if you have an iOS device in your home it adds a little bit more to the Apple TV's repertoire. If there's something you can't do on the box itself (and there is a lot of it), you can always mirror your screen as a backup of sorts.
Right now, I would not recommend the Apple TV. If you've just bought one, I would suggest trying to take it back. It's incredibly far behind the capabilities of the other streaming devices I tested, and it's going to take quite a bit of work to make everything an even match.
Wildcard: Games Consoles, Budget PCs
Microsoft and Sony have really been pushing the idea that games consoles are home entertainment devices, not just machines designed for playing video games. That means that Xbox and PlayStation consoles have a decent selection of apps for you to take advantage of. Current gen consoles are now in a great place in terms of price and games, and the last gen consoles aren't going to cost the earth.
First and foremost, the PS3, PS4, and Xbox One are also Blu-ray players, so you can use them to play all the films and TV shows you have on disc. The Xbox 360 is not so lucky, and only plays DVDs. The PS4 and Xbox One are also capable of playing pretty much every media filetype under the sun, in case streaming from USB devices is your thing.
On the PS3 you have a lot of the basics, and nothing is really missing from all of the basics. Prices vary based on which version you get (and how much hard drive space it has), but you'll be able to get yourself a decent pre-owned one for less than £100. The PS4 is similar in terms of apps' availability, but still doesn't have dedicated apps for Channel 4 and ITV. A brand new PS4 will cost you somewhere between £250 and £350, depending on the specific bundle.
The Xbox 360 isn't go great on the apps front, given that it doesn't have apps for the likes of Spotify, ITV, or Amazon Prime. It also requires you to have an Xbox Live Gold subscription to access many of them. Unless you still have one lying around, it's probably not worth it.
The Xbox One is even less equipped than the 360, missing key apps like 4oD/All 4, ITV Player, Spotify, and Now TV. It does have live TV capabilities if you buy the tuner accessory, but if you're only looking for streaming then you're better off looking elsewhere.
These days you can also get yourself a full-featured laptop running on Chrome OS and even Windows for less than £200, so if you feel a streaming box isn't for you then you always have a backup option. PCs don't have the issue of dealing with things like app compatibility, and you get a web browser that isn't buggy and annoying to use. Plus, with the amount of remote mouse/keyboard apps out there, you'll be able to use your smartphone or tablet as a remote. But it is important to remember that more advanced machines do need more space, especially if you want to make sure their fan ports aren't blocked.