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Years before Amazon brought Fire TV to the world or Apple TV made its debut, there was Roku, an impossibly simple device that brought your favorite streaming channels right to your TV. The best part? It didn’t matter what type of TV you had, Roku made it “smart.”
Today, Smart TVs are everywhere, and many come with built-in streaming features, and yet, Roku (and now Amazon and Apple) still reign supreme. This is the case for a variety of reasons, but the biggest boon these companies have on every TV manufacturer out there is that they’re well designed and accessible. You can go from unboxing your device to watching Netflix in about as much time as it takes to pour three fingers of Lagavulin 16 and get settled on the couch. Installation is at most plugging in a couple of wires, and in the case of Roku’s Streaming Stick+, it’s literally just jamming the device in your HDMI port and pressing the power button. These devices are designed to be easy to use and easy to navigate. But which should you buy? With so many options within each company, not to mention the differences between brands, finding the right streaming service can feel overwhelming.
Here are our favorite offerings from each company to help you decide which streaming service is right for you.
Roku has become synonymous with streaming, and for good reason. They offer a range of low-cost but high-quality streaming sticks to take just about any TV and turn into a genius right before your very eyes. From their basic model, the Roku Express, to their high end device, the Roku Ultra, there’s no doubt Roku has a product suited for your TV watching habits.
While we love the range of products Roku offers, we prefer the Streaming Stick+. Though the Ultra is technically Roku’s top of the line product, the Streaming Stick+ offers nearly everything the Ultra offers, at almost half the price. Both the Ultra and Streaming Stick+ offer the same picture quality (1080p HD, 4K UHD, HDR10, HLG), movie and show selection and HDMI capabilities. Yes, the Ultra has a larger wireless range, but outside of that, the Streaming Stick+ can do anything the Ultra can do. With this little device plugged into the HDMI port in your TV, you can immediately troll Netflix or Hulu for your favorite shows and movies with the press of a button.
At $58.95, Roku’s Streaming Stick+ is an exceptional device that can transform any run-of-the-mill TV into a Smart set with the ability to stream your favorite movies and television shows. If you’re tired of your regular TV and want to upgrade without paying a premium price, the Streaming Stick+ is impossible to beat. Purchase: $58.95 on Amazon.
If you’re willing to jump up in price from the affordable Roku Streaming Stick+, Amazon’s Fire TV line offers an impressive alternative. Though they also offer a range that includes the low cost Fire TV Stick and its 4K equivalent, we prefer the Fire TV Cube for Amazon’s streaming service. The Cube is great because it does more than just give you streaming content like Apple TV or Roku’s Streaming Stick. The Cube is essentially an Echo speaker that controls your television, turning your TV into your Smart Home hub, all with exceptional voice control. It doesn’t pack the storage that the Apple TV brings to the table (16 GB vs Apple’s 64 GB), but with the way streaming is going these days, it’s possible to get around that lack of physical space.
As far as functionality is concerned, the Fire TV Cube works just like Roku’s Streaming Stick+. Some users felt the Fire TV screen design wasn’t as user-friendly as the Roku’s interface, but the ability to call out to Alexa for help with movie recommendations easily overrides that issue. You can browse your favorite channels and platforms by way of remote (or voice) and the Cube also allows you to check the weather, get your daily news updates and more even when the TV is off, just like a regular Echo speaker. And like the other options on our list, the Cube gives 4K clarity and Dolby Atmos sound (with applicable Dolby Atmos devices like TVs, sound bars, or home theater systems). If you’re already in the Amazon ecosystem (read: Amazon Echo owner and Prime Member) the Cube is a great addition to the lineup. Purchase: $119.99 on Amazon | Get a 30-day free trial to Amazon Prime here.
Bonus: Apple TV
Since we’re on the topic of streaming services, it would be unwise to leave out Apple. Apple’s foray into the smart television scene comes in the form of a little black box no wider than a coffee mug and about half as tall. It’s has two wires (an HDMI plug that fits into your TV) and a power cord. And that’s it. Forget the triple pronged, three-colored plugs of days gone by. All you do is plug one cord into the TV, one into an outlet and you’ve officially upgraded the IQ of your set.
So what does it do? The device will “Apple-ize” your television set, allowing you to slide through different channels and services (like Hulu, Netflix, HBO) at your leisure.
The specs on the Apple TV come in a few shapes and sizes. At the top of the line sits the 4K version. You can grab either the 32 GB or 64 GB version, with a price difference of about $16. If you’re going to buy the 4K version, we recommend picking up the 64 GB addition, simply because it costs only $16 to double the storage space. The 4K model is also Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos certified. Essentially, this means that the device will heighten the sound experience for your TV, so long as you have a compatible Dolby system.
The other model available is the previous generation Apple TV, the Apple TV HD. The HD version features 1080p resolution and an A8 chip. All of this is to say the HD version offers great picture and sound that is slightly worse than its 4K sibling. But, something to note with Apple TV and all of the products listed: the device is limited to your TV’s specs. If you have a cruddy TV with terrible speakers and poor picture quality, this device won’t suddenly transform it like Cinderella at the ball. However, if you’re TV was born a princess from the start, it will bring high-quality audio and video to all of your programs.
Overall, Apple TV is a solid bet. The voice guidance through the remote is surprisingly accurate and the menu is intuitive and user-friendly in a way that only Apple tends to be. Yes, this is the most expensive of the products listed, but if you’re looking for a high-quality device, and you tend to lean towards Apple products already, you won’t regret this one. Apple TV is an easy to use device that brings all of your streaming channels, games, pictures and music into one seamless and beautiful package. Purchase: $199.99 on Target.