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Best media-streaming stick: Our favorite tools for transforming the boob tube into a full-fledged smart TV

Jared Newman | July 7, 2016
Our buyers guide and hands-on reviews will help you choose between the current offerings from Roku, Amazon, and Google.

In addition, I regularly use all of the major streaming platforms (Roku, Fire TV, Google Cast, Apple TV, and Android TV) to get a feel for how their software works, and I maintain a chart that compares availability of major streaming apps. Beyond just a short-term evaluation, I am drawing on years of experience to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of each platform.

What to look for when shopping

While I try to make firm recommendations, the reality is that no streaming device is one-size-fits-all. The streaming services you use, the frequency with which you use them, the importance of voice search, and your tendency to keep a phone or tablet handy near the couch should all help inform your purchase decision.

Here are the main factors you should consider, which I’ll discuss further in each product review:

Performance: While raw processor speed doesn’t matter much once a video is playing, a sluggish device can frustrate while you’re browsing for things to watch. You can’t gauge speed from what device makers advertise on the box, but streaming sticks generally don’t perform as well as set-top boxes. The form factor just can't provide adequate cooling for the fastest chipsets. 

App availability: The fastest streaming device in the world won’t do you much good if it doesn’t support the streaming services you use. Our streaming app showdown chart will help guide you through that thicket.

Remote control: Not all streaming remotes are created equal. Some support voice search, while others have shortcut buttons for popular apps. Some remotes feel cheap, while others feel sturdy. Chromecast doesn’t have a remote at all. Don’t underestimate the importance of a remote that you’d be happy to hold in your hands every night.

Universal search: Nowadays, every streaming platform includes a way to search for content across different apps. Unfortunately, each one also has blind spots and quirks in terms of what they’re able to display.

Navigation: Beyond just launching individual apps, some streaming devices try to provide a more holistic picture of what’s available with recommendations or watchlists. These features can help you decide what to watch without jumping into a dozen different apps.

Inputs/outputs: Unlike streaming set-top boxes, streaming sticks generally don’t support hard-wired ethernet, optical audio (useful for connecting to an A/V receiver), or onboard media storage.

Video resolution: Currently, all streaming sticks support 1080p video. For 4K, you’ll need a more powerful set-top box.

Phone controls: Do you prefer to navigate with a touch screen instead of a traditional remote? Some streaming sticks are better at this than others.

Private listening: For those who want to watch TV without disturbing anyone else, some streaming devices allow private listening via the remote control, a smartphone, or Bluetooth headphones.

 

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