Best HD Streaming Sticks and Media Devices 2020: Fire TV vs. Apple TV - Rolling Stone
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These Streaming Sticks Get You Easy Access to HD Content on Any TV

Connect one of these devices to start watching content from all the popular streaming apps on your TV

Roku Express

Amazon

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If you have an older TV, it’s tempting to upgrade to a newer set to gain easy access to popular streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Maybe the apps built into your newer TV have started to get slow because the manufacturer has stopped pushing software updates, or you’ve heard that these apps could keep track of what you’re watching.

Instead of getting an entirely new TV, or only watching videos on your phone, computer, or tablet, you should get an HD media streamer (a.k.a. an HD streaming device). This standalone accessory is a dedicated mini computer that connects to your TV (don’t worry, it’s not complicated to set up), and lets you stream TV shows, movies, and music quickly and easily.

Modern streamers work over WiFi, and dynamically change their resolution based on your internet speed to avoid buffering (brief pauses) and frustration. The media streamers in this guide are all made by companies who support their hardware with regular software updates to add access to more services, security patches, and new features.

What Are The Best HD Media Streamers?

There are many factors to consider when choosing the best HD media streamer for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.

Resolution: All of the media streamers in this guide have a maximum resolution of 1080P (also known at Full HD). We also have a guide to 4K media streamers if you want to connect one to a more modern TV.

Connector: The HD media streamers in our guide all connect to one of your TV’s HDMI ports, a rectangular port built into TVs since the mid 2000s.

Streaming Hardware: A lot of HD media streamers are classified as “streaming sticks,” which means they have an HDMI cable or jack attached to them. Our guide features a mix of streaming sticks and more traditional looking streaming boxes that fit underneath your TV.

Smart Features: Most popular media streaming devices are made by big companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google, all of whom own larger smart-home platforms. These media streamers have access to smart assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, and Amazon’s Alexa, which allows them to do much more than play movies and TV shows.

1. Roku Express

Roku Express

Amazon

Roku’s has partnered with many TV makers to build smart TVs, but its standalone media streamers let you bring the same functionality to the one you already own.

The Roku Express is a mini media streamer with an HDMI port for transferring audio and video to your TV, and a MicroUSB port for power. Roku includes an HDMI and MicroUSB to USB port with the Roku Express, so you can use it right out of the box.

This is the only media streamer we recommend that isn’t made by a major tech company, which has its pros and cons. By staying neutral, it hasn’t angered any of its competition, which have competing interests. Amazon and Google have fought publicly for years, which is why there’s no YouTube app on Amazon’s Fire Tablet, for instance. On the other hand, the Roku Express is the only media streamer in our guide that doesn’t have any smart functionality.

Still, if you’re getting an HD media streamer to watch movies and TV shows, the Roku Express has you covered. The company says you can stream over 500,000 videos through streaming apps like Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, ESPN, and HBO Now. There’s even an Apple TV app, so you can stream content from Apple TV+.

The Roku Express is a small, simple media streamer that’s the perfect fit if you have an older TV primed for an upgrade.

Roku Express HD, $29, available at Amazon

2. Fire TV Stick

Fire TV Stick

Amazon

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick is the perfect compromise between a traditional media streamer and a smart-home device.

It’s a streaming stick, which means it has an HDMI jack on one end that plugs directly into your TV. There’s no cable required. The Fire TV Stick is powered by connecting a MicroUSB cable from the device to a power adapter.

Like the Roku Express, the Fire TV Stick allows you to stream movies and TV shows from every major video streaming service (except HBO Max). As I mentioned earlier, streaming hardware from big tech companies can lead to hiccups; it seems Amazon and WarnerMedia (a content partner partially responsible for HBO Max) cannot come to a licensing agreement. Bottom line: If HBO Max is really important to you, this may not be the right HD media streamer, at least not for now.

This is a good choice if you care about building up a smart home, though. The Fire TV Stick comes with a voice remote, which allows you to communicate with Alexa, Amazon’s smart home assistant. Alexa can take you directly to the movie or TV show you’re looking for just by asking, which is a lot faster than searching for it manually.

But Alexa can do a lot more. You can ask the Fire TV Stick questions, and it’ll display the answers on your TV; asking for the weather, for instance, will being up a full week’s forecast including the basic conditions for each day and the highs and lows. You can also ask Alexa to control smart-home accessories like smart light bulbs, or get a live video feed from a smart security camera.

If you want to stream movies and TV shows on a device that can also become the smart hub of your living room, the Fire TV Stick is the right HD media streamer for you.

Fire TV Stick, $39.99, available at Amazon

3. Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast

Amazon

Google’s Chromecast stands out from every other media streamer in one major way: it doesn’t have a remote or any built-in apps. Instead, this HD media streamer relies on apps on your phone (iOS and Android).

The Chromecast is a circular media streaming stick. It has an HDMI cable attached to it, and a MicroUSB port, which you need to plug into a power adapter. Once connected, the Chromecast will prompt you to set it up via the Google Home app (iOS and Android).

After you’ve set it up, you’ll notice a Chromecast Icon in the corner of your mobile streaming apps. The icon looks like a square with three curved lines (it looks like the WiFi symbol turned on its side). Tap the icon, and you’ll be given the option to “cast” whatever you’re watching onto the Chromecast.

I’ve used a Chromecast before, and this system works remarkably well. All major streaming apps (Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+ Plus, etc.) support the Chromecast, and you can even use it to stream content from HBO Max. Because Google relies on mobile apps rather than ones built into your phone, you’ll always be able to cast videos from the newest services.

The only downside to this system is that it does hit your phone’s battery pretty hard while you’re streaming. That shouldn’t be a problem when you’re home, but it makes the Chromecast a less appealing option to take with you when traveling.

If you have a Google Home smart speaker, you can ask the Google Assistant to stream movies or music to your Chromecast from a variety of services, which can save battery life. Ultimately, this means the Chromecast is a smart device if you own Google’s other hardware.

Overall, the Chromecast is a great HD media streamer if you don’t want to keep track of yet another remote, or wait for major tech companies to negotiate deals with streaming services. If you have a video streaming app on your phone, the Chromecast is an easy way to get it on your TV.

Google Chromecast, $29.99, available at Walmart

4. Apple TV

Apple TV

Amazon

If you primarily use Apple tech, the Apple TV may be the right HD media streamer for you.

It’s the only full-sized media streamer we recommend; it’s an actual box you keep under your TV and needs to be connected to an outlet with a typical power cable. You still plug it into your TV with an HDMI cable, which Apple provides.

The Apple TV works the same way most HD media streamers do: you download media streaming apps from an app store, log into your account, and start watching. Notably, the Apple TV is the only traditional HD media streamer to support HBO Max right now.

The Apple TV remote has a touch screen on top, which makes navigating inside different apps more comfortable. The remote also has a microphone built into it, which allows you to access Siri, Apple’s smart-home assistant. You can use Siri the same way you can use Alexa on a Fire TV Stick. You can ask to be taken to a particular piece of content, ask questions, or control smart-home accessories.

The Apple TV also has access to Apple Arcade, a gaming subscription service that costs $4.99 per month. Apple Arcade games are created by popular developers, have no in-app purchases (paid upgrades), and sync progress via iCloud, so you can switch between playing on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV.

This auxiliary functionality makes the Apple TV more than just a media streamer; it’s also a smart-home hub and gaming console. If you want one piece of gear underneath your TV that can serve multiple purposes, and you’re already a fan of Apple’s gear and services, this is the HD media streamer to get.

Apple TV, $144, available at Walmart

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