A lot of TVs nowadays have some variation of streaming service built in, but there are still plenty of us that still have “dumb” TVs. And in that case, if you want to access streaming services, you’ll need a streaming box.
With such a vast range of streaming services on offer, and a wide range of set-top-boxes that support a combination of them, choosing the right one can be tricky.
Lucky for you, we’ve consolidated all the major options into one place, in price categories, to help you decide which box is for you and your budget.
These are the contenders you should consider.
Jump to a Specific Section
Best media streamer under £50
Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote
Coming in the form of a dongle you plug directly into your TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is mainly centred on the Amazon Prime experience, with Prime Video, Amazon Music and a link-up to images stored on the Amazon Cloud being at the forefront.
That doesn’t mean it is solely for Amazon content streaming though, with Netflix and many other streaming apps available on Amazon’s extensive app store. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, Plex – for those with home stored content they want to stream – and many games and other experiences are available too.
The latest model comes with an Alexa Voice Remote, so you can quickly find Amazon or Netflix content using just your voice. It also does pretty much everything an Amazon Echo speaker does too, with the ability to find out the weather or latest news headlines by simply asking or even control your smart home.
The Fire TV Stick doesn’t have the 4K support of the more powerful Fire TV box (below), but does offer a smooth, speedy experience and excellent Full HD pictures and surround sound, thanks to its 1080p output and 7.1 Dolby Digital audio.
You can even take it on holiday with you as Amazon has added a cunning way for you to input room and log-in details for connection to hotel Wi-Fi.
Like the Amazon Fire TV Stick, the Google Chromecast device is a dongle that plugs directly into a HDMI port on your TV. However, it more resembles a small hockey puck.
It’s not quite a movie and TV show streaming solution like many of the others listed here. Instead, it works with compatible apps you have on your smartphone or tablet and plays their video or music content on a larger screen.
Unlike Apple TV though, which does similar over Airplay, that’s not done by mirroring a device, using the processing power of the phone or tablet. Instead, the Chromecast pulls the content from the internet itself. It effectively turns your mobile device into a remote control.
It is capable of playing Netflix, YouTube and any Google Play movies, TV shows or music you might have bought. Android, iPhone and iPad apps that have also added support include BBC iPlayer, My5, BT Sport, Now TV, Blinkbox, Wuaki.tv, Deezer and there are plenty of others too. Spotify is part of the mix too.
Plex support also means you can stream your own content through a computer too.
Gaming is available on the latest model, with certain games having the ability to Cast the action to the device and then onto the big screen. The list of titles is small, to be honest, but Angry Birds Go is one of the biggest name games already featuring support.
The Roku Express gives access to the vast library of applications on the Roku store, most of which are free to download (although you will still need subscriptions for most). It’s an all-new design from the Streaming Stick of old, coming in the form of a tiny box that can be attached to your TV by way of an included double-sided piece of sticky tape.
It also comes with a remote control (that’s actually bigger than the device itself), that works on IR, so you’ll need to make sure the Express is in your line of sight.
Like all Roku devices, the Express has access to hundreds of apps (channels), including the solid line-up of main movie and streaming services. You get access to Amazon Video, Netflix, Now TV, BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4 and My5.
While it can’t be plugged out of sight and out of mind into an HDMI socket around the back of your TV, its diminutive size means it won’t exactly be an eyesore.
It is capable of outputting up to 1080p video and has dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity like its larger cousin (although there is no wired internet connection, so you’ll need to be in range of a decent wireless signal).
The latest Now TV box is made by Roku and is therefore similar in size and style to that manufacturer’s own-branded devices. Its purpose is to present Sky’s Now TV content in as easy a way as possible for those who don’t already own a home entertainment device capable of accessing the service.
It accesses all of the Now TV movies, TV channels, kids channels and sport, but since its original launch, it has effectively become a basic version of the Roku box service, although the user interface is completely different. A number of key apps and services are included on the box as well as Sky’s own channels and catch-up.
Naturally, the Now TV box’s raison d’être is to provide access to Now TV – Sky’s streaming service that offers separate contract-free subscription or pay models for movies, entertainment, kids and sports.
However, there is also access to BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, All 4, My5, Vimeo, YouTube, Flixster and other streaming services. And you can use the Sky Store to rent or buy modern day-and-date films as they are released on Blu-ray and DVD. All of these you can access and use, even if you don’t subscribe to any of the Now TV packages.
While the box is capable of outputting video at 1080p, Now TV content is only in 720p.
Now TV Smart Box
The Now TV Smart Box offers the same access to Now TV services and other streaming apps, but adds a digital TV tuner so you can use it as your main TV provider to access Freeview channels too. All of the 60 standard and 12 high definition Freeview channels are available, with complete integration into the user experience.
It is slightly smoother in operation too, thanks to a quad-core processor over the standard Now TV box’s dual-core equivalent.
Like the Now TV box, the main reason for the Now TV Smart Box is to provide access to the different, contract-free passes offered by Sky. However, it also has the terrestrial catch-up apps and other services.
The interesting part is the ability to pause and rewind live TV, as broadcast through the digital TV tuner. You cannot record onto the device, however.
If you have an old TV without a Freeview tuner this is a no brainer as it will also offer smart, connected functionality for a reasonable price.
You might also favour all your viewing from the same source, so the box works nicely as you don’t have to switch from service to service on your TV.
Best media streamer under £100
New Amazon Fire TV
As part of a device refresh for 2017, Amazon has reimagined its Fire TV. It has ditched the set-top-box form in favour of a dongle that plugs directly into your TV through an attached, short HDMI lead. This is in addition to the Amazon Fire TV Stick above.
Where this new device differs is that it supports 4K video and in HDR, and can play Ultra HD content at up to 60 frames per second. That might become important somewhere down the line. And thanks to the cable being built-in, you don’t have to worry about whether your existing HDMI cables are high-spec enough.
The new Amazon Fire TV also supports Dolby Atmos surround sound, something Netflix has said will be added to its platform soon. We expect Amazon Video to follow now it has a device that is compatible.
Like the Fire TV Stick, the Amazon Fire TV now comes with an Alexa Voice Remote, which opens up the world of the voice assistant to use on your TV. And Amazon recently said that it is working with partners, including Netflix, to add voice control to their apps too.
The Amazon Fire TV immediately offers Amazon-based content as soon as you fire it up. Content includes music, movies, TV shows – some to buy and some to rent – and the box is intrinsically linked with Amazon Prime, the company’s subscription service.
However, other, rival services are also available, including the aforementioned Netflix, Sky News and YouTube, with content being integrated in the new design almost as much as Amazon’s own. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 are also available as catch-up services in the UK.
Google Chromecast Ultra
The flagship of the Chromecast family is Google’s first device with 4K Ultra HD streaming capabilities. The Chromecast Ultra supports Dolby Vision and HDR for those with compatible TVs. And an Ethernet connection means you can hard wire it to ensure your video streaming remains smooth and stable.
It is also a dongle like the conventional Chromecast (above), with a similar form factor. And again, you use a smartphone or computer to control it, with the Ultra streaming video over the internet based on what you “Cast” to the device.
The exact same app line-up for the standard Chromecast is supported here. The main difference however, is that the Chromecast Ultra is capable of streaming 4K video from relevant services, such as Netflix and YouTube.
Netflix, for example, is capable of streaming 4K Dolby Vision (or HDR) video to compatible televisions. You can also stream from terrestrial apps, like BBC iPlayer, All 4 and Now TV, although they do not currently support 4K.
If you have a 4K TV and want the best video quality it is worth paying a bit extra for the more capable Chromecast. Its Dolby Vision support is welcome and not found on many rival devices.
The faster internet connectivity, needed for 4K video streaming, also ensures than non Ultra HD video is presented at its best too.
Best media streamer under £200
The fourth generation Apple TV box was launched in 2015 and is still available, even though a 4K version has now been launched too (see below).
It has a touchscreen remote control with Siri voice recognition, and access to its own App Store to purchase and download tvOS apps based on their iOS equivalents.
It provides access to movies, TV shows and music bought or rented through iTunes, plus the Apple Music streaming service. And it can search for content across multiple services through the one search bar, bringing up results no matter the source.
There is an impressive line-up of applications and games to download and enjoy – many of them free.
More importantly though, in video streaming terms, Netflix and Now TV apps are available. TVPlayer and iBox TV UK are present to watch British TV channels through the device. And there are several home media streaming apps, including Plex and Infuse. Amazon Video is also coming to the platform soon.
While there is a BBC iPlayer app on the platform, we’re still awaiting ITV Hub, My5 and All 4 – although content from a couple of them will be available through the dedicated Apple TV app soon. In the meantime, you can always stream content through the iPad or iPhone equivalent apps to the box thanks to Airplay, and even mirror your iOS device’s screen.
Like Amazon Fire TV and the Nvidia Shield Android TV, another major aspect to the Apple TV is that it doubles as a great casual games console too. There are plenty of titles already available, some of which almost identical to their dedicated console counterparts, such as Skylanders Superchargers and Guitar Hero Live.
Apple TV 4K
- Dimensions: 35 x 98 x 98mm
- Main apps: Netflix, Now TV, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video coming soon
- Connections: HDMI, Ethernet
- Maximum resolution: 4K (2160p) + HDR
- Price: £179 (32GB), £199 (64GB)
Although it will continue to sell the HD version of Apple TV for the foreseeable future, for just a little more you can upgrade to a 4K version, which also supports high dynamic range (HDR) visuals in both the HDR10 and Dolby Vision formats.
That means streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Video (to launch on the platform soon) both offer up to Ultra HD content in HDR – the best format possible. In addition, Apple offers 4K HDR versions of movies through iTunes to rent or buy.
A bold and welcome step that Apple has taken is that 4K versions of films cost the same as the current HD versions. And any compatible HD movie in your library is automatically upgraded to the 4K version for free.
iTunes-streamed 4K films will also be shown in HDR where possible. You’ll need a compatible TV, of course, but Apple plans to expand its 4K offering rapidly, so now is probably the best time to invest in one if you don’t already.
Everything else about the Apple TV 4K is similar to the HD model, except it has a considerably faster A10X Fusion processor – the older model uses the A8 processor. This ensures the new box runs twice as quickly and with four times the graphics power.
Nvidia Shield TV
The second generation Shield TV box is more than a media streamer – it’s a capable games machine too. It has a load of firepower under the hood so is significantly more powerful than most on the market. It is also capable of outputting 4K video in 60 frames per second and HDR.
In addition, it utilises an Nvidia chipset that is very capable with gaming, so has a stack of optimisation abilities for games that none of the other rival boxes can match. And you can choose to buy one version with an included, dedicated games controller or opt to knock a bit off the price with a version with just the Bluetooth remote.
As an Android TV box, the Nvidia Shield TV has access to Google Play content, including its app store, a dedicated app for video and one for music. Google’s YouTube service is also represented too, which is important as it’s one of the sources for 4K content.
It also comes with Plex and Netflix pre-installed, with the latter capable of Ultra HD streaming in HDR. You can subsequently download Amazon Video, which also has 4K HDR programming.
There are Nvidia dedicated apps for its different game services, such as the enhanced versions of Android games that require the box’s beefier graphical specs to run, the ability to stream games from a local PC, and the firm’s own cloud gaming service, GeForce Now.
Thanks to the Google Play Store, hundreds of other apps are available too, including the much-loved free media streaming app Kobi. Disney’s streaming service Disney Life is also available, as is Twitch.
It can even double as a Google Chromecast, so you can use an Android or iOS device to send other content to it. And Google Assistant coming for the device, so you will be able to control other smart devices around the home.