You may notice that we've excluded most stick-sized media streamers from this comparison, with the exclusion of Google's Chromecast. The reason is simple: Devices like Amazon's Fire TV Stick and Roku's Streaming Stick aren't as fast or full-featured as their box-shaped counterparts--they both lack voice search and Ethernet connectivity, for instance--and in most cases we'd recommend spending more for a proper set-top box. (One notable exception: You're trying to add basic smarts to a TV you won't use as frequently.)
Why include Chromecast, then? Google's stick is controlled entirely through apps on your phone or tablet. To watch Netflix, for instance, you open the Netflix's existing phone or tablet app, hit the "Cast" button, and pick the video you want. The sluggishness of other sticks is a non-issue with Chromecast, as it's arguably even faster than thumbing around on a remote control.
A word about codecs and containers
Codec and container support doesn't matter much if you're just planning to stream videos and music from online sources, but users with their own libraries of music and video need to make sure the device they buy can play it back. This applies to media stored directly on the device, on external storage connected to the device, and network storage devices (e.g., a NAS box). Here's what each device supports (file formats are listed first, with container formats following in parentheses):
Amazon Fire TV: H.263 (3GP and MP4), H.264 (3GP, MP4, TS), MPEG-4 (3GP)
Apple TV: H.264 (M4V, MP4, MOV), MPEG-4 (M4V, MP4, MOV), M-JPEG (AVI)
Nvidia Shield Android TV: VP9, H265, H264
Roku 3: H.264 (MKV, MP4, MOV)
Amazon Fire TV: AAC-LC, AAC+, enhanced AAC+, AC3, eAC3, FLAC, MIDI, MP3, WAV, Vorbis (OGG, MKV)
Apple TV: HE-AAC, AAC, MP3, Apple Lossless, AIFF, WAV
Nvidia Shield Android TV: AAC, MP3, OGG, FLAC, WAV
Roku 3: AAC, MP3, WMA, FLAC, WAV
Did you just skip to the bottom of this piece looking for our recommendation? That's okay, we're comfortable choosing Roku 3 as the best all-around option. It has the widest app selection (with Apple content being a noteworthy exception), a simple menu system, powerful voice search, and some pleasant bells and whistles, such as a headphone jack on the remote control. It simply gets the job done, even if its design and interface look a little dated next to the competition.
Having said that, Apple and Amazon have more advantages for users who are thoroughly entrenched in their respective ecosystems, while Nvidia's Shield Android TV is a powerhouse for 4K video and gaming. Chromecast is unique as the best low-cost way to turn your phone or tablet into a remote control. For more on these differences, dive into our individual set-top box reviews. (Click the arrows below to go through them one at a time, or scroll back to the top and click on "More stories in this series.")
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