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The next television you buy is likely to be a 4K smart TV, ready right out of the box to stream TV series and movies.
Still, you might want to add a streaming device to your smart TV. These add-on devices may outperform or be easier to use than your television, or they may have features or services you can’t get from that TV. If your smart TV is a few years old, you may find that the apps for streaming services you subscribe to are missing or outdated.
In fact, in a recent online national survey, we found that 60 percent of respondents with a smart TV ended up using an external streaming device instead of the TV's built-in system.
Also, of course, standalone streaming players let you add smart TV capability to any television that lacks this ability, allowing you to use a variety of streaming services.
What You'll Find
The 4K streaming media device market is dominated by just four platforms: Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku. So you need to decide on a platform as well as a specific model.
Generally, streaming devices are either set-top models or small players that plug directly into a TV's HDMI slot. Prices of the five models below range from $30 to nearly $200, but they often fluctuate at this time of the year.
The newest 4K models in our streaming media device ratings support high dynamic range (HDR) technology. When done right, HDR boosts a TV’s brightness, contrast, and color, making the pictures on the screen look more like real life. All models support the HDR10 format, and some also support the Dolby Vision format. (CR can help you find a TV with good HDR performance.)
The streaming devices below are listed alphabetically. All work well, so your decision comes down to price and personal preference.
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Amazon Fire TV Cube (2nd Gen)
This is the updated version of the 4K-ready Fire TV Cube, essentially a mashup of two of Amazon's popular Alexa-powered devices, the Fire TV streaming player and the Echo Dot smart speaker. Like its predecessor, it adds an interesting element into the mix: universal remote control capability.
Compared with the first generation, the new model adds a more powerful processor, a faster response time, and Dolby Vision HDR. There are buttons on top of the unit to adjust the volume and mute the microphones, but the Cube is really all about voice control. What really makes the Fire TV Cube unique, though, is that it lets you control a host of other compatible A/V gear, including TVs, sound bars, receivers, and even some cable and satellite boxes.
Best for: Amazon Prime subscribers who like the Alexa voice assistant. This device doesn't have as many services as Roku, and it prioritizes Amazon content when you're looking for something to watch.
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
If you want a 4K HDR player but don't want a visible set-top box, then this stick-style player streamer may do the trick. You may be able to find this model at Black Friday sales for as little as $25.
Like other stick-style players, it pops into your TV's HDMI port. Although it does push Amazon's own streaming services a bit aggressively, it has a nice array of content and features, including voice control and Dolby Vision HDR. Bonuses include being able to control it from Alexa-enabled devices such as the Echo or Dot, and using the included remote to control power and volume on many TVs and sound-bar speakers.
Best for: Like other Amazon streaming players, the Fire TV Stick 4K is best for Amazon Prime subscribers looking to either add or beef up the streaming options on their 4K TV.
Apple TV 4K (32GB)
Apple TV has always made sense for those who already live in Apple's world, and the new 4K Apple TV is no exception, though it remains the priciest option available.
The newest models (there are 32GB and 64GB versions) have a sleek interface plus a faster processor, the commendable Siri voice assistant, and an updated touchpad remote. They also support both HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR formats, and 4K HDR titles cost less on iTunes than on other services. Apple sweetens the deal by automatically upgrading your other iTunes purchases to 4K, free.
Also, Apple TV now supports the Amazon Prime Video app, overcoming an old drawback for Apple TVs. But the platform still doesn’t work with 4K videos from YouTube.
Best for: Those who already are invested in the Apple ecosystem and use iTunes for content—and who don't mind paying a premium for an Apple device. But with the Apple TV app now becoming available on more devices, such as smart TVs and streaming players, owning an Apple TV may become less necessary than in the past.
Google Chromecast Ultra
The Chromecast Ultra has a cool-looking circular design, and underneath the hood it’s a solid-performing 4K HDR streamer that supports Dolby Vision HDR.
But it works a bit differently from most players, because there's no remote control. Instead, you use the Google Home app on your smartphone or tablet to find content, then “cast” it to your TV to start playing.
One drawback to Chromecast is that it takes a couple of extra steps to play Amazon videos. Instead of using a mobile app, you'll need to sign in to Amazon in the Chrome browser on your mobile device.
Best for: Tech-savvy users who are comfortable finding and sending content to the TV from their phone.
Roku Ultra - 2019
Roku's flagship streaming player got a slight refresh earlier this year. The updated version offers some enhancements, including faster performance, thanks to smart caching of popular streaming service to launch channels faster. It also has new programmable shortcut buttons on the enhanced voice remote, and includes a microSD card slot for adding more storage.
You still get the wide assortment of channels that makes the Roku platform a top pick for many users, and Roku’s agnostic approach to search across multiple streaming services. Like its predecessor, the remote has a headphone jack for private listening and a remote-finder button on the unit that causes the remote to beep if you misplace it. Like last year's model, the new Ultra comes with JBL earbuds.
Best for: Almost anyone looking for a top-performing player with lots of content and all the bells and whistles a streaming device can come with.
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