Best Streaming Devices Android Central 2021
The quality of the best streaming devices has drastically grown in recent weeks, as one tech company after another launches new streaming dongles with superlative specs and shockingly low prices. Devices like the Chromecast with Google TV have shifted consumers' expectations, with Google proving that Dolby streaming and innovative AI tech doesn't need to cost you a ton of money. With so many fresh and affordable streaming devices to choose from, we're breaking down which fits your needs best.
- Best Overall: Chromecast with Google TV
- Best for Alexa Users: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
- Best for Apple Users: Apple TV 4K
- Best for Upscaling Content: NVIDIA Shield TV
- Best Remote Control: Roku Ultra
- Best Dual-Function Streaming Speaker: Roku Streambar
- Best Budget Stick for 1080p TVs: Fire TV Stick Lite
- Best Gaming Console for Streaming: Xbox Series X/S
Best Overall: Chromecast with Google TV
When Chromecast dongles could only cast content from your devices to the TV, many people reserved one HDMI slot for their Chromecast and another for a traditional streaming stick. Now, Chromecast with Google TV bundles both casting and Google TV streaming into one cheap dongle that will serve the needs of most streaming addicts.
For starters, the Chromecast with Google TV is disproportionately powerful for its size and price. It can stream 4K, HDR, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision content, plus Dolby Atmos soundtracks; most streaming companies lock-off Dolby streaming to the "premium" dongle that costs twice as much. Beyond that, it uses a rebranded version of Android TV called Google TV that employs machine learning to power Google's Knowledge Graph, which generates personalized recommendations from your favorite streaming platforms as well as Android TV's thousands of free apps and channels.
In our Chromecast with Google TV review, we found that the dongle was easy to set up, it gave us good recommendations based on our viewing habits, and menus of content are both fast-moving and well organized. And as most owners of the old Chromecasts will attest, having a remote control for streaming, casting, and voice commands were long overdue.
That said, Google's newest dongle won't be perfect for everyone. Casting only works with browser content or Android apps, so iPhone and iPad owners may want to invest in a Roku device, as the company recently announced its plans to add AirPlay 2 support for streaming 4K video from Apple devices. And while Stadia will be added to the Chromecast with Google TV next year, other streaming devices offer better gaming experiences in the meantime.
- Casting + Google TV streaming
- Supports 4K HDR10+ for cheap
- Works with Dolby Vision & Dolby Atmos
- AI-generated show recommendations
- Compact design with multiple color options
- Built-in Google Assistant in remote control
- Doesn't play nice with iOS / Apple TV
- No Stadia support at launch
- No fast forward/rewind buttons on remote
Best for Alexa Users: Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Most of our top streaming picks cater to Android or Apple users or are universally compatible but don't specialize in any one tech ecosystem or voice assistant. But many people consider Alexa to be the best voice assistant available today, and if you want a streaming dongle with built-in Alexa commands, then your best choice is, of course, a Fire TV Stick.
Of the Amazon Fire TV family, we selected the Fire TV Stick 4K as the device that most shoppers should choose, as a close rival to the Chromecast with Google TV in specs and features. Both streaming dongles have identical support for 4K, HDR10+, Dolby Vision, and Dolby Atmos. Each lets you contact their respective voice assistants with the touch of a button. We actually like the Alexa remote more because it has dedicated rewind and fast-forward buttons. For connectivity, Chromecast uses casting, while the Fire Stick uses Bluetooth 5.0.
However, we didn't hesitate to put Chromecast with Google TV above the Fire TV Stick 4K on our best streaming device list. For one thing, the Fire TV Stick 4K charges via MicroUSB, while Chromecast with Google TV uses USB-C; with the latter, you can connect your Chromecast to a USB-C hub, which can then connect to an ethernet cord and USB flash drive to add a wired PoE connection and to expand the piddly 8GB of built-in storage that both devices have. For another, the exciting new Google TV interface and machine-learning recommendations are exciting new innovations, while the Fire TV Stick 4K is two years old at this point.
Nevertheless, if you prefer Alexa and the Fire OS, the Fire TV Stick 4K gets you an excellent level of quality in a tiny, bargain-priced streaming device.
- 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision / Atmos
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Alexa VA built into remote
- Same cheap price as Chromecast with Google TV
- Simple, compact dongle hides behind TV
- No expandable storage
- No official support for Google apps beyond YouTube
Best for Apple Users: Apple TV 4K
For regular Apple users, the choice of the best streaming device truly is a simple one. Apple TV 4K is built to accommodate your iOS devices with AirPlay 2, serve as a HomeKit hub for your smart home cams, plays or displays your iTunes purchases or iCloud photos, allows you to play Apple Arcade games, and puts Apple TV+ shows front and center. For everyone else, it's a rather expensive streaming box that doesn't cater to other tech ecosystems.
That said, Apple TV 4K doesn't just coast on its brand name, cramming several useful features into its premium streaming device to try and justify the high cost. For instance, it has a Gbps ethernet port for consistent internet speeds while streaming Dolby Vision and Atmos content; it has a powerful Apple 12 Bionic chip that makes menus and searches move faster than the norm; it has a Picture-in-Picture mode that lets you use two different apps at once on your TV; and it supports several live TV services, including Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, AT&T TV, Sling TV, and Charter Spectrum. The latest version comes with an improved Siri remote, and the ability to use your iPhone to color calibrate the screen.
As for its negatives, they're fairly predictable. The price is still a bit steep, as you get many of the same specs that you'll find on the Chromecast with Google TV at a quarter of the cost. And you must rely on Siri for voice commands instead of Alexa or Google Assistant.
- Full support for all of Apple's services and devices
- Up to 64GB built-in storage
- 1 Gbps ethernet port
- Picture-in-Picture mode
- Support for live TV apps
- Enables Bluetooth controllers for Apple Arcade, iOS gaming
- Quite expensive
- HDMI cable sold separately
- We're not fans of Siri for voice controls
Best for Upscaling Content: NVIDIA Shield TV
Before Chromecast with Google TV hit the streaming scene, you had to look at companies other than Google for Android TV streaming dongles, and NVIDIA Shield TV was at the top of our best Android TV boxes list. Now, new Chromecasts have the retooled Google TV streaming library, while Android TV devices lack the new Knowledge Graph of personalized recommendations. Reportedly, NVIDIA and other third-party Android TV companies will get ahold of Google TV for their devices by 2022, but that's a ways off.
So why have we kept the Shield TV on our current list of best streaming devices in 2020? Thanks to its still-impressive specs highlighted by its unique upscaling tech. We break down NVIDIA's AI-enhanced upscaling in greater detail at that link, but the gist is that NVIDIA can take 720p or 1080p content and enhance it in real-time to 4K at 30 FPS. All 4K TVs upscale non-4K content by default to fill in the missing pixels, but this process does this intelligently so that it looks to be shot natively in 4K.
Upscaling aside, Shield TV also has Google Assistant built into the remote, plays content up to Dolby Vision and Atmos, has two Mimo wifi antennas, or Gigabit ethernet for fast streaming, and lets you expand its storage via the microSD card slot. Gamers can also take advantage of GeForce Now, the game streaming service that lets you access your Steam library of games wirelessly on your television.
- AI upscaling to non-4K content
- Best Android TV device outside of Chromecast
- Support for GeForce Now & Android TV gaming
- Google Assistant button on remote
- Compact dongle with easy device setup
- Fast ethernet and wireless connections
- Fairly expensive
- No Google TV for years
- No HDMI cable in the box
Best Remote Control: Roku Ultra
Roku is one of the most popular streaming brands in the world because of its near-universal compatibility with various apps and tech companies. The Roku Ultra, its new 2020 streaming device, hosts all of the major streaming platforms, just added Bluetooth 5.0 support to connect with any phone and works with both your Alexa or Google Assistant speakers. Moreover, Roku has plans to add AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support in the near future, making it a good future-proofed choice for Apple users.
It's also true that the Roku Ultra is somewhat pricey, considering the Roku Streaming Stick+ also offers 4K HDR video at half the price, and neither has an embedded voice assistant. Yet we still consider the Roku Ultra the best Roku device to buy. The cheaper Stick+ model lacks the Ultra's USB port for expandable storage, 100 Mbps ethernet port, Bluetooth connectivity, and vastly improved remote control.
The Streaming Stick+ comes with a basic remote featuring TV controls and a button to activate your smart speaker's listening mode. But the Roku Ultra remote has a built-in headphone jack and ships with JBL headphones to listen to your TV audio privately, as well as two customizable shortcut buttons that let you jump immediately to your favorite streaming platforms. Plus, if you ever lose the remote, the Roku Ultra has a button that activates a noisemaker on the remote to help you find it.
If you want a streaming device that doesn't bother with TV and film recommendations and just displays a simple interface of your favorite apps, then you should strongly consider the Roku Ultra.
- Works with Alexa, Google Assistant
- Future support for AirPlay 2 and HomeKit
- 4K HDR with Dolby Vision, Atmos
- Remote control with custom shortcuts, headphone jack
- "Find my remote" feature
- USB slot for storage, local play
- No built-in voice assistant
- Somewhat pricey
- Similar features available on cheaper Roku sticks
Best Dual-Function Streaming Speaker: Roku Streambar
Sticks, dongles, TVs — all the typical names for streaming devices fixate on how small they are or the video content they can stream. Yet certain streaming devices go far beyond that, bundling in other useful features like smart speaker tech. Of these hybrid devices, our favorite is undoubtedly the new Roku Streambar.
Along with all the streaming capabilities of a Roku Streaming Stick+, the Roku Streambar is also a fully functional 2.0-channel soundbar. It has four 1.9" full-range speakers, two front-firing, and two side-firing. Altogether, these speakers project a wide soundstage that will reverberate around your living room.
While not as advanced as the Roku Ultra — the Streambar can stream 4K HDR10 and Dolby Audio, but not Dolby Vision or Dolby Atmos, and has a non-customizable remote control — this device ensures your audio and video streaming combine to only take up one HDMI slot. With Bluetooth 5 support for your music streaming, an ethernet port for consistent internet, and continued support for Alexa and Google Assistant, the Streambar is more than worthy of sitting under your living room television.
- Streams 4K, HDR10, and HLG content
- Sound modes like Bass Boost, Night Mode, and Speech Clarity
- Works with Alexa and Google Assistant
- Wide soundstage with side-firing speakers
- Wired ethernet (with optional accessory)
- Basic Roku remote
- No Dolby Vision or Atmos
Best Budget Stick for 1080p TVs: Fire TV Stick Lite
Even if most streaming sticks today include 4K capabilities by default, shoppers with FHD TVs can save some money and buy the entry-level versions of our top picks. Amazon, Roku, and Google all sell 1080p-only streaming devices. Still, our personal favorite is the new Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite, which was built from recycled materials and has a low power mode whenever it's not in use to spare your electric bill.
Despite its lightweight name, the Fire TV Stick Lite is actually 50% faster with Alexa commands and more powerful than the last generation of Fire TV Sticks, and has the same quad-core processor and 8GB of storage as the Fire TV Stick 4K. Also, Amazon has promised a new upcoming Fire TV update that will let you make up to 6 discrete profiles with personalized recommendations, as well as add improved Alexa navigation controls. Once the update rolls out, the Fire TV Stick Lite will get access to the same new interface as all the other, more expensive Sticks.
Getting the latest version of Alexa and the Fire OS for this price is a great deal. Of course, the low price means you're missing out on key features like 4K video, a remote that can control your television, Dolby Atmos, and so on. But if you're happy with FHD- and HDR-resolution video, why waste money when the Fire TV Stick Lite gives you everything you need?
- Ties cheapest price for any streaming dongle
- Alexa Voice Remote Lite included
- 50% faster Alexa commands
- HDR support
- Low power mode and recycled materials
- Doesn't support 4K, UHD, or Dolby Vision
- No TV controls on remote
Best Gaming Console for Streaming: Xbox Series X/S
Of the current-generation video game consoles, the Xbox Series X/S is undoubtedly the best entertainment console overall, along with being a popular gaming console. Both versions can stream content in 4K and HDR, as well as Dolby Vision, though only the Series X comes with a physical Blu-ray Drive.
Unfortunately, this generation of Xbox consoles are removing the HDMI-In port, as well as the optical audio port for connecting it to a sound system. So while they'll still be just as handy for streaming content, they're not quite the same as the Xbox One series in terms of acting as a total entertainment hub.
Obviously, you won't want to buy the Xbox Series X/S solely for streaming, as you can get similar streaming specs with any dongle for a fraction of the price of a gaming console. And other streaming devices do offer gaming services like Apple Arcade, Stadia, and GeForce Now. Yet none of those services match the comprehensive library of console games you get with a true gaming console. And of the consoles available today, Microsoft has done the best job of curating an excellent collection of streaming apps.
- Supports 4K, HDR, and Dolby Vision
- Large library of games, including Game Pass
- Can connect with cable boxes or soundbars
- Series X has a built-in Blu-Ray player
- Expensive to buy just for streaming
- Doesn't have as many free channels as most dongles
If this guide shows anything, it's that the further a streaming device's price tag rises above $50, the harder it becomes to justify the amount. Google, Amazon, and Roku sell excellent devices at that threshold or lower, and they often incorporate tech like Dolby Vision that was once reserved for "pro" devices, at no extra cost.
Of these new, supposedly budget streaming options, the Chromecast with Google TV has the most disproportionately powerful specs and cool features for its price. It takes Google's casting tech, which previously stood on its own as an exclusive Chromecast feature, and adds in 4K and Dolby streaming for literally thousands of free Android TV apps. Then it builds a profile of your favorite content and sifts through those thousands of apps to find specific shows you'd like, so you don't have to look for them yourself.
Combining convenience and power, the Chromecast with Google TV is an obvious choice for any buyer who isn't already attached to another company's tech, such as Amazon's or Apple's.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Michael Hicks got his tech start in 2016, covering emerging tech like VR and self-driving cars before expanding to all things tech. When he's not gaming or reading SFF novels, he writes freelance for Android Central and Windows Central.
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