The Best Media Streaming Devices for Streaming Live TV
Media Streaming Devices
Live TV Streaming Services are available on most smartphones, tablets, TV streaming devices, computers, and video game consoles.
When streaming Live TV, we don't recommend getting the cheapest streaming device. Unlike while watching Netflix, Prime Video, or Hulu, getting a more powerful device for Live TV is important.
As more streaming players have entered the market, prices of the devices has continued to drop. You can now get 4K streaming players like Roku Premiere ($39.99) and Amazon Fire Stick 4K ($49.99) for less than $50. These device provide a happy medium of good performance, but without extra ports or storage of higher-end devices.
If you want a more powerful device like Apple TV 4K or NVIDIA SHIELD, expect to pay $150+. While those devices are expensive, you get what you pay for. With them you can stream content in 4K with HDR or Dolby Vision, play games, and control your smart home. They also include Ethernet for more stable streaming and large built-in storage so you can use them as your media server.
For those on a budget, the entry point for a streaming device can be under $35. Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast (3rd Gen), and Roku Streaming Stick each can steam in 1080p HD at 60fps with support for the same apps as their more powerful siblings. If you do stream a lot of live content, it’s worth spending a little more on your device to reduce buffering.
Every current generation streaming player we reviewed can stream video in 1080p HD at 60fps.
Most of the recent Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, Chromecast, and Fire TV streaming devices can stream in 2160p 4K UHD.
While there isn’t a lot of 4K content available, both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video have a full catalog of shows. Also, most movie on-demand services like iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu offer 4K movie downloads at the same price as HD.
The biggest difference between the high-end streaming devices is whether they support HDR (high dynamic range), HDR10+, or Dolby Vision.
HDR helps your television display more real-life color and improve contrast and brightness levels. Most lower-end streaming devices don’t support HDR, while the newer ones do.
Some of the latest streaming devices also offer support for HDR10+ and Dolby Vision. While HDR sets the picture color, brightness, and contrast for the entire film or show -- HDR10+ and Dolby Vision does it dynamically by optimizing every frame on-the-fly.
While you’ll notice this less for live streaming content, this will dramatically enhance on-demand TV shows and movies -- as long as your TV also supports the standard.
Every device we tested supported both stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 or 7.1. One of the more recent enhancements to streaming devices is Dolby Atmos.
Unlike Dolby Digital that assigns audio to channels, Dolby Atmos assigns it to a place. This more accurately represents where sound is coming from, especially as it moves.
To take advantage of Dolby Atmos -- stick with the Apple TV 4K, Roku Ultra, Chromecast Ultra, or Fire Stick 4K.
Just like HDR, even if your streaming device supports Dolby Atmos, the content and your soundbar/speakers will have to as well.
Unlike smartphones and tablets, it’s not as simple to rate streaming players on performance. For the most part it is a combination of their processor, GPU, memory, and operating system.
From our testing, Apple TV 4K and NVIDIA Shield lead the pack. They are the most powerful devices and at no point ever feel sluggish. They can stream 4K content, play graphics intensive video games, quickly respond to voice commands, and they never break a sweat.
In the mid-tier, we have the Fire TV Stick 4K, Roku Ultra, and Chromecast Ultra. While they’re not nearly as powerful as our top performers, they still stream everything with ease.
Unless you’re trying to save, we think you’re better off staying away from the Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen), Chromecast (3rd Gen), and Roku Express. There are just better options that still don’t require you to break the bank.
Most streaming devices now include support for both 802.11a/b/g/n, as well as 802.11ac (MIMO) which offers better wireless performance. Unless you get a Roku Premiere or Roku Express, you’ll be covered.
If you can, you will always have better streaming reliability using Ethernet with your device. Apple TV 4K and NVIDIA Shield offer Gigabit Ethernet, while Roku Ultra (built-in), Chromecast Ultra (included adapter), and Fire TV (optional adapter) offer 10/100 Ethernet (max 100 Mbps). Despite it being slower than your Internet speeds, even at 4K you will only need 25-30 Mbps speed, so it should be good enough.
Most of the cheaper players have very little storage on the device. For instance, Roku devices have only 500MB of storage, which means you may run out of space if you like to install a lot of apps.
Their highest end Roku Ultra streaming device includes a microSD slot which can be used for additional storage capacity.
Amazon Fire TV Stick and Xiaomi MiBox S include 8GB which is more than enough for most people, since content will be streamed from the cloud.
Apple TV 4K comes in 32GB/64GB variants, while Amazon Fire TV Cube and NVIDIA Shield offer 16GB in storage.
If the built-in storage isn’t enough, the Fire TV Cube (Micro-USB), NVIDIA Shield (2x USB 3.0), and Xiaomi MiBox S (USB 2.0) can each add external storage. This is a nice feature if you want to use the devices as a media server.
AirPlay, Cast, and Screen Mirroring
Most streaming players including Fire TV, Roku, Android TV, and Chromecast have adopted Google’s Cast which allows you to stream content from your smartphone to your television from both iOS and Android smartphones. If you want to mirror your screen, it will only work if you use an Android smartphone or tablet.
If you own an Apple TV, you will also be able to stream content from your iOS device (sorry no Android) using AirPlay. It is also the only way to mirror an iOS device on your television.
Control Your TV
One feature that you will absolutely want is the ability to control your television with the same remote as your streaming player. Fortunately, since Amazon updated their Fire TV remote -- most recent devices do.
Depending on your streaming device, it will either control power and volume using IR or HDMI-CEC.
Amazon added the ability to control volume and power to their All-New Alexa Voice Remote which comes with the Fire TV Stick (2nd Gen), Fire Stick 4K, and Fire TV Cube. If you have an older Fire TV device, like the Fire TV (3rd Gen, Pendant Design), you can add the updated Alexa Voice Remote for $15.
Roku devices can control power and volume on the Ultra, Premiere+, Streaming Stick, and Streaming Stick+.
The Apple TV (4th Gen), Apple TV 4K, Xiaomi MiBox, NVIDIA Shield can control power and volume. They also use HDMI-CEC (which must be enabled on your TV) to automatically switch to the input when you tap on the remote.
Point Your Remote Anywhere
The remotes on the different streaming boxes either use Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, IR or a combination of the above.
Those that exclusively uses IR, like on cheaper Roku Express and Premiere devices -- will need line of sight in order to interact with the streaming player.
The rest of the devices use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, which allow you to point the remote anywhere still interact with the player. This is a nice feature especially if you plan to hide the device behind a TV or in a A/V cabinet.
Control by Voice
Depending on the maker of the device, you will be able to interact with your streaming player with your voice. Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Android TV, and newer Roku devices all have built-in microphones in their remote.
This means that you can speak directly to the voice assistant in the remote to search, launch apps, control playback and more.
Amazon Fire TV devices use Alexa, Roku devices use Roku Voice Search, Apple TV uses Siri, and Android TV/Chromecast use the Google Assistant.
Even though these devices have built-in microphones, they are not “always-on” -- this means that you have to press a button in order to activate voice commands.
Smart Speaker Support
The lone exception is the Amazon Fire TV Cube which basically has an Amazon Echo built-in. This means you can just say “Alexa…” and it will respond, no key press required.
If you have a separate smart speaker, you can talk to your streaming player without interacting with the remote. Fire TV devices work with all models of Amazon Echo, while Apple TV streamers only work with Apple HomePod.
Roku devices and the NVIDIA Shield can support voice commands to both Google Home and Amazon Echo. Chromecast and Xiaomi MiBox S will work with Google Home.
Each streaming platform has their own app store. Fire TV has the Amazon Appstore, Roku has the Roku Channel Store, Apple TV has the App Store, and Android TV uses Google Play.
Chromecast devices use apps installed on your smartphone to stream. So if you have an iPhone, you would download from the App Store or if you have an Android Phone, from Google Play.
While most major streaming apps are available across all platforms, there are some exceptions. YouTube is not available on Fire TV devices, while Amazon Prime Video is not available on Android TV or Chromecast.
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The big three streaming services Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video work across Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV, and Android TV.
Unfortunately, you can’t stream Amazon Prime Video on Chromecast or Chromecast Ultra.
Surprisingly, cable-alternatives fuboTV, PlayStation Vue, and Sling all work across Apple TV, Roku, Fire TV, Android TV, and Chromecast devices. Free streaming services PlutoTV and Tubi do as well.
DIRECTV NOW, Hulu, and Philo won’t work on Android TV, while YouTube TV doesn’t support Amazon Fire TV.
Most streaming players give you flexibility in choosing which on-demand movie and TV service to use.
iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, and FandangoNOW each participate in Movies Anywhere. This allows you to access all your movies no matter where you made the purchase. For instance, if you’ve linked Vudu and iTunes, you would be able to access the movies you purchased from one on the other.
If you want to access your movies directly from where you made the purchase, Roku, Apple TV, and Chromecast work with Vudu Fandango Now, and Redbox.
Google Play Movies is accessible on Roku, Apple TV (via YouTube App), Chromecast, and Android TV, while iTunes Movies is only available on Apple TV.
Fire TV is the most limited. They only have access to Prime Video or through a native Movies Anywhere app.
The same apps that you use to download movies like Vudu or iTunes, you can use to download episodes of your favorite television shows.
Additionally, you can use your cable, satellite, or streaming service credentials to access TV Everywhere apps from your favorite TV channels. This will let you watch live shows even if you’re at your streaming services max streams. You can also stream some on demand shows that may not be available directly from your cable or streaming service.
One additional benefit is that sometimes you can access streaming shows on platforms that your streaming service might not already offer. For instance, while YouTube TV isn’t available on Fire TV, you could use your credentials on a number of apps (AMC, Bravo, etc.) to watch from the channel’s own apps.
If you’re a sports fan, with few exceptions, you will be covered regardless of the streaming player you buy. Outside of fuboTV, who stream weekly games on NBC and FOX in 4K, most streaming sports is still in HD.
Almost every device now supports HD at 60 fps, which will make sports look better than when you could only stream at 30 fps.
If you’ve signed up for an out-of-market sports subscription like NFL Sunday Ticket, MLB.TV, and NBA League Pass or a OTT streaming sports service like ESPN+ and DAZN -- you will be able to stream on all platforms -- Apple TV, Google Chromecast, Roku, Android TV, and Chromecast.
The lone exception is NHL.TV which doesn’t have a native Android TV app. However, some subscribers have been able to sideload the Fire TV app or use a Kodi extension to watch the games on Android TV devices.
Gaming and Apps
The only streaming player that can come close to a gaming console is the NVIDIA Shield. The device has a feature called GameStream that lets you play games from your GeForce-powered computer on your NVIDIA Shield. You can purchase a bluetooth controller separately or buy it as part of a bundle when you get your Shield.
If you don’t have a PC, the NVIDIA Shield also lets you stream games from GeForce NOW. For $8 a month you can access a wide library or older games or you can buy newer games individually.
Don’t expect the latest and greatest games that you would see on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but compared to other streaming devices -- you will get more than just mindless mobile games.
Other streaming devices like Apple TV and Fire TV offers some basic games, but they are more like TV versions of mobile games. With both devices you can use your remote as the controller or buy a separate bluetooth gaming controller.
If you subscribe to Amazon Music, Pandora, or Spotify, you will be able to stream music either through a native app or AirPlay/Cast on all streaming players.
YouTube Music works on Android TV, Roku (via YouTube App), Apple TV (via AirPlay), Chromecast, but not on Fire TV.
Apple Music is the most limited and only works on Apple TV devices.
For the most part, you can only natively view apps from one service on each streaming player. For instance, iCloud Photos only works on Apple TV, Google Photos on Chromecast/Android TV, and Amazon Photos on Fire TV.
You may be able to view them using other third-party apps, but it won’t be neatly integrated in the platform.
One recent addition to streaming devices has been their ability to become a smart home hub. Apple TV and NVIDIA Shield are the only devices that have taken advantage of this so far.
Apple TV natively supports HomeKit, which means you can use it to control any HomeKit-supported accessory like Smart Locks, Smart Light Bulbs, and Smart Doorbells.
To add Smart Home capabilities to the NVIDIA Shield, you need to add a SmartThings Link adapter ($40). By adding the dongle, your Shield can now interact with any device that is supported by SmartThings.
For people who use Nest camera, both Apple TV and Android TV offer a native app to allow you view your cameras from your streaming device.
While most people are using their streaming device to watch from streaming services, some people like to use them as local media servers. This gives you more flexibility to build your media library, as well as use your device to stream and DVR from your OTA antenna.
Two popular apps to manage your media server are Kodi and Plex. Kodi is available only on Android TV, while Plex is available on all major platforms.
If you plan on using your streaming device to watch from an antenna, you should consider Amazon Fire TV Recast or NVIDIA Shield (with USB Tuner). Both of those devices can stream from your antenna, record shows, and make them available on other devices.
In the case of the Fire TV Recast, you can store either 75 or 150 hours of shows. You can either watch them on the Recast, other Fire TV devices, or your mobile device.
Doing this on an NVIDIA SHIELD is slightly more complicated. You will need to add a USB Tuner, External Hard Drive, as well as a third-party service like Plex or Tablo for guide data. Once you do that, you can watch your OTA antenna across all platforms that those services support (pretty much all of them).