At this point, the set top box market has settled on three major choices—or rather, two major choices and a dark horse. For most consumers who want something besides their smart TV’s built-in interface, or who are shopping for a new TV and want a widely supported UI baked in, you’ve got a choice between Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast.
All three are preinstalled on many televisions, mostly budget brands: TCL, Hisense, Element, and Philips, Toshiba, and Insignia all offer TVs with either Roku or Fire TV baked in. Sony, the one premium brand to buck the trend of custom-built operating systems, uses Android TV (aka Google TV, aka the new Chromecast, because Google sucks at branding).
Update, 9/2/21: Checked content for accuracy.
But in various forms and flavors, all three of them can be added on to an existing TV, and there’s a good reason to do so: All of them are better-supported and more expandable than, say, the prebaked TV operating systems that come from LG, Samsung, and Vizio. And they’re all extremely accessible, with 4K streaming capabilities at the $50 level (or lower), so they’re a good add-on to even a budget TV.
To be frank, all three smart TV platforms are pretty good at this point, with years and years of development behind them and mostly universal support from the major streaming services. Trying to choose between them comes down to small details, but it’s hard to go truly wrong.
Roku: For Bargain Hunters and Fans of Simplicity
Roku gets our top spot for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the most widely available: In pretty much any electronics store, online or brick-and-mortar, you’re going to find both Roku streaming sticks and TVs preloaded with Roku software. You might even find a soundbar or two that runs it. And all of them are going to be inexpensive compared to other options in the same form factor.
But Roku is also the most focused of the popular smart TV platforms, if only because its approach is somewhat old-fashioned. Roku’s homepage is about the apps, just the apps, ma’am: Users see a grid of the services they can access, plus live TV and HDMI inputs if their TV is Roku-branded. You have to go into the apps themselves to start browsing content. And thanks to a recent update, Roku also finally has access to HBO Max.
In contrast, both Fire TV and Android TV/Chromecast tend to blast you with recommendations for individual shows and movies. There’s an argument to be made for putting the content front and center, but we still think dividing it into individual apps and services is easier to manage. That is an entirely subjective determination, by the way—if you disagree, you’re not wrong, and Roku probably isn’t for you.
Roku’s downside is performance. While Roku is dead simple, focusing on breaking that content into individual apps makes it slower, especially if you’re switching from one service to another. If you want to check and see if Netflix has more seasons of the show you’re watching than Hulu does, it’s going to take you a few more seconds on a Roku device. Roku is also less extensible than its competitors, with few options for non-TV apps, games, and tools, and voice control that’s limited to search.
Which Roku to Buy
For TVs with Roku built in, TCL is the pretty clear winner. They offer a variety of models at different price points, though they’re lacking the super-high-end option for those with an unlimited budget. The 5 series is a good middle ground.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive streamer, you can’t go wrong with the Roku Streaming Stick+. With a super-easy remote control, support for 4K HDR content, and an HDMI dongle that can be powered by the USB maintenance port on most TVs, it’s the simplest way to add tons of streaming apps to a big screen.
For those who need a little more oomph with their stream, the latest version of the Roku Ultra is where it’s at. On top of all of the capabilities of the stick above, the Ultra adds an Ethernet port for hardwired stability, lost remote finder, compatibility with Bluetooth audio streaming, and support for Dolby Atmos. You can also plug wired headphones directly into the remote for private listening. Note that the Roku Streambar does all of that, too, with an included budget soundbar on top.
Fire TV: For All Amazon, All the Time
If you go with an Amazon-powered streaming device or TV, you’re not missing out on much in terms of content: It’s compatible with every major streaming service, even including Amazon’s hardware and content competition, YouTube and Apple TV.
What Amazon offers is integration with its corporate retail empire—which might be a good thing, if you’re already all-in on it. Those who subscribe to Amazon Prime Video and who already have tons of Alexa-powered smart home gear are obviously the primary customers here, though you can use Fire TV to play video via subscription and free services all the live-long day. Just be prepared to see ads for Amazon’s video content more or less everywhere outside of those apps.
Amazon also has an advantage that Roku lacks: add-ons to its Prime service. If you like, you can treat Prime like a basic cable package, adding on extras like HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, Stars, CBS All Access, PBS Kids, and many more, for between $5 and $15 a month. Nothing’s stopping you from subscribing to those services separately from Amazon and watching them in their own apps, but going through Amazon lets you get to them in the standard Fire interface, no extra apps required.
YouTube TV does this, too, but there are a lot fewer people that actually use that service. The add-on factor is a definite consideration if you’re already all-in on Amazon. Helpfully, all of those add-on subscriptions can be activated and deactivated at any time, just like their stand-alone versions. So you can binge a bunch of HBO shows one month, then go over to Starz for its shows the next.
Which Fire TV to Buy
At the time of writing, only Toshiba and Insignia include Fire TV as their television’s default operating system. Toshiba is the clear winner there, though bargain hunters might be tempted by Insignia (which is the “house brand” of Amazon’s competitor Best Buy, oddly).
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K is almost the same device as the Roku Streaming Stick+, above, or at least the same form factor. It can handle 4K resolution and HDR, as even cheap TVs have now, with enough oomph in its processor to handle switching between multiple services. It also has a voice-powered remote, though you still have to press a button. It also supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby vision.
Upgrading beyond the Fire TV Stick 4K isn’t really necessary. There is the Fire TV Cube, which adds on support for an Ethernet connection and a faster processor. But its big selling point is that it has an Alexa smart speaker built in … and if you’re set on Amazon as a smart home platform, you almost certainly have one in your living room already.
Chromecast: More Options, More Issues
The newest version of the Chromecast isn’t really a Chromecast anymore: it’s “Chromecast with Google TV,” which is to say, Android TV, which is a full operating system. What does that mean? It means that Google is really bad at telling you what stuff does. But more actionably, it means that in addition to being able to “cast” video and music from your phone, laptop, etc., Chromecast has all the standalone app capabilities of its competitors.
That’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s great if you’re a fan of using a remote instead of your phone, for example: Now you can use a familiar “couch” interface instead of poking a phone screen (though the phone screen is still an option, too!). But the new Google TV interface is also a lot less baked than either Roku or Amazon, and has a tendency to try and get you to watch things from services you aren’t actually subscribed to. It’s not as good at learning your habits as Amazon, and not as focused on specific apps or services as Roku. That said, it has tight integration with Google Assistant, so you can use it for all of the normal searches and smart home control if you already have an Assistant-powered home.
But the new Chromecast gets some benefit from years of Android TV development, too. There are a ton of interesting apps for it, like the MX local video player or AirScreen for mirroring a Mac display. Android TV also has a much better selection of games than Fire TV, and it can connect to standard Bluetooth controllers, including the Xbox and PlayStation variety. That also means that you can play games remotely, through services like Steam Link, GeForce NOW,
Wait, Google launched its own new set top box platform with support for games, but without support for its own streaming game platform? Yeah, that’s kind of Google’s approach to its products in a nutshell. The new Chromecast is a lot more capable than the competition in terms of both hardware and software, but some odd choices mean that this only matters if there’s something fairly specific you want to do with that extra power. That said, Google confirmed that Stadia will be coming to the Chromecast with Google TV sometime in 2021.
Which Chromecast or Android TV to Buy
Only Sony offers a full Android TV operating system built into its televisions, but many lower-price smart TV systems (including Roku) are compatible with Chromecast streaming. Sony’s sets range from “expensive” to “ridiculously expensive,” but the X800H series runs Android TV and is at least somewhat attainable.
For those on a budget and who want a great selection of add-on apps and games, the new Chromecast with Google TV is the best bet. It’s extremely affordable, though that little extra power means you’ll need an open wall outlet, even though it has a “dongle” form factor. It supports 4K HDR, comes with a remote, and can still handle casting duties from your phone.
If you want to really push your 4K television to the limit, for both streaming content and games, the NVIDIA SHIELD TV is the way to go. Not only does it have a surprising amount of power for games (it’s running on very similar hardware to the Nintendo Switch), its “AI” upscaling capability makes even older streaming content look amazing in 4K. Throw in a MicroSD card, or opt for the more capacious “Pro” model, and you can even use it as a Plex server.
A Final Note: Apple TV
If you’re a fan of Apple’s mobile and computer hardware, you might be wondering: What about Apple TV? And if you’re already an Apple fan, then you’re probably already thinking about buying one. For you, and specifically you, it might be a good idea.
Apple TV is a lot like Android TV: It has all the basic capabilities of a standard streaming box, plus the ability to easily broadcast video from your Apple devices. If you’re already all-in on Apple, especially if you pay for the Apple TV+ service (which is available on other platforms) or Apple Arcade (which is not), it makes sense to get the official Apple TV 4K set-top box.
But with a starting price of triple most of the options on this list, despite offering little benefit beyond Apple integration, it’s a high cost to pay for integration. And even some Apple fans aren’t a fan of its overly simplified remote design. So unless you play a lot of Apple Arcade games, or you’re constantly streaming directly from your iPhone or MacBook, it’s probably not worth the splurge.