Best set-top box: the top six streaming media players for 4K and HD TV reviewed

If you're only here because you want to cut the cord and stop the rich, monopolistic cable overlords from siphoning your hard-earned money every month, I only have one thing to say to you: you've come to the right place.

Look, we believe that paying for great TV shows and movies shouldn't cost more than your groceries, and that there's no better way to save some green every month than ripping that money-sucking cord out of the wall and delivering that long-winded "you're fired" speech to the cable company.

We're here to help you make that next buying decision the best one possible by ranking the three best set-top boxes in two categories – for 4K TVs and for Full HD TVs – and tell you which one will best fit your home entertainment center.

So how did we narrow down the field? We looked at the amount of content available on the system – not only the number of apps available, but the quality, too – as well as its feature-set, usability and potential to grow in the coming year. The competition is fiercer than ever in 2018 as the big guns battle for supremacy, but there’s now a capable streamer for every budget. 

The best streaming boxes for 4K TVs

If you've recently upgraded to a 4K HDR TV, it's a safe bet that you want a streaming box that can give you every one of those 3840×2160 pixels. You're in luck, because most of the major streamers have released 4K upgrades of late. However, so numerous are they that some excellent 4K streaming boxes have been squeezed out of our top three. The super-talented Google Chromecast Ultra just misses out on the podium, as do the Nvidia Shield TV and even the Xbox One S. However, it's clear that our remaining trio are the best streaming boxes for 4K and HDR content.

Okay, so Android users may not be invited to its 4K party, but there's no denying that Apple's waiting game has paid off. Yes, it's locked to the Apple ecosystem, but iPhone users will love the tvOS operating system, which looks nothing short of sublime. It packs in the pixels and looks sharper than ever, while a souped-up A10X processor means navigation and app loading is fast.

Whether you go for the 32GB or 64GB storage versions, every streaming app you can think of is here, with one glaring omission; there's no Amazon Prime Video. However, we do like the 4K HDR ‘room’ within its iTunes movies app, which makes it easier to discover hi-res video content. Dolby Vision is a real asset that few other streaming devices support right now (with Dolby Atmos to follow, we've been told), just as impressive is universal search and the addition of Apple Music, the later of which which makes Apple TV a competent jukebox as well as a top-tier movie streamer. And the integration of the proprietary Apple HomeKit smart home tech could be a feature to watch. Our only criticism is that Siri makes too many mistakes.

Read the full review: Apple TV 4K (2017)

Why buy a box when a dongle will do? In a move that makes the impressive Roku Premiere+ obsolete, this streaming stick has two incredible advantages; every app you could ever want, plus an improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna that increases the range by four times. That double-act should give the Roku Streaming Stick+ an easy win, and yet we two have two issues with this diminutive dongle. Try as it does, a few niggling issues like slow pop-in time and lack of Dolby support prevent it from winning top accolades.

Also unwelcome is a proprietary power cable, but this Roku beats the Chromecast Ultra by shipping with a remote that has a microphone built-in for voice search, and dedicated media buttons for Netflix, Sling, Hulu and PlayStation Vue. Also in Roku OS 8 is Amazon Video, Amazon Music, YouTube, Crackle, Vudu, Pandora, Spotify, Deezer, VEVO, SiriusXM and TuneIn. There's also a free network of films and TV shows the company has licensed from studios like Columbia and Paramount amid a dizzying 3,000+ streaming channels. Tiny reservations aside, this peerlessly egalitarian approach to streaming make this a hugely impressive and good value product.

Read the full review: Roku Streaming Stick+ (2017)

If you are already on the Amazon train with a Prime account and plenty of Amazon Echo units dotted around the house, then the Amazon Fire TV (2017) will slot into your home with ease.

Despite being one of the core apps of the streaming age, getting Amazon Video is not easy. It's not available on Apple TV or Google's Chromecast products, but Amazon Fire TV devices are much more than merely workarounds to the giant retailer's own video content. 

A discrete box of media tricks that can sit unobtrusively in your home, the latest Amazon Fire TV device is smaller than ever and incredibly easy to install and use. Redesigned as a dongle that plugs directly into your TV's HDMI slot, it does require a separate power connection. However, it also comes with an excellent remote control that allows you to use Alexa voice commands to control playback, which is a boon to anyone who has embraced the Amazon Echo range of smart speakers. The interface itself is similar to Apple TV, and includes a host of Fire TV apps – including Amazon Video, obviously – as well as Netflix. However, the flipside of Amazon Prime Video not being available on other streamers is that Google's YouTube is not available on this device.

4K HDR content, though sparse, looks great, though performance depends on the strength of your Wi-Fi network. Dolby Atmos support is welcome, too, but barely visible. Minor niggles aside, we enthusiastically recommend this latest Fire TV. 

Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV (2017)

If you're yet to invest in a 4K TV, streaming devices dealing in 4K, HDR and Dolby Vision/Atmos are way over-specified for your needs. So swerve the high prices of the 4K streamers and head for the bargain basement, where you will find some excellent value streamers dealing in all the same content, only in fewer pixels. It also comes with miniaturisation; any search for a Full HD 1080p streamer quickly turns into a 'best dongle' dogfight. 

Google is almost giving away its flagship streaming device. In fact, the Chromecast is the most insanely obvious device you should consider if you have a Full HD 1080p TV… and don’t subscribe to Amazon Prime Video. One of the easiest ways of getting video streams onto any TV, this puck plugs into an HDMI port on the rear of your TV, is powered by micro-USB, and is controlled by a smartphone.

No remote control, then. Or even a user interface. However, it's devilishly easy to use; fire-up the compatible app (which now has an effective universal search function) on any smartphone, and tap the 'Cast' button to immediately have content streamed to the big screen. Easy. Whatever's on your phone, or available via apps on your phone, can be streamed to your TV. That makes it very different from the way its main competitors work, and it outperforms Amazon Fire TV devices thanks to its new-and-improved 802.11ac Wi-Fi antenna.

There are thousands of apps that come with the Cast button built in, from Netflix, HBO Now, Spotify, NFL Sunday Ticket, Tidal and Twitch here in the US to Sainsbury's Movies and TV, Blinkbox, BT Sport, NowTV, Napster and, of course, BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport in the UK. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

However, there is one small problem; if you are an Amazon Prime subscriber you won't be able to watch the service on Google's streaming stick – Amazon's mobile app doesn't support Google Cast functionality.

Read the full review: Google Chromecast

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick isn’t meant to be the company’s top-of-the-line streamer, but just because you’re buying a budget streaming stick that doesn’t mean you should accept a sluggish interface and meager apps. A stick designed to plug directly into an HDMI port on the back of your TV, the Amazon Fire TV Stick's user interface – including its Alexa voice search via an Alexa Voice Remote – is snappy and fast, and it allows access to most of the apps you’d need on a regular basis.

That would be Amazon Video and Netflix. With those two apps, it’s almost flawless, and if you just watch Amazon or Netflix content, then the interface is a dream. It’s quick, voice search works well, and it’s easy to find what you want to watch. However, venture into more niche streaming services and the stick’s functionality is much more basic, offering merely a portal to each app’s own interface rather than functionality of its own. The foundations are here for a solid streaming device, but it’s a little too inconsistent to be the perfect budget streamer. Oh, and it's not got access to YouTube, thanks to a corporate spat between Amazon and Google.

Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV Stick

If you use an iPhone and don't have a 4K TV, the older Apple TV from 2015 will do you just fine. It's all about Apple; you'll be shown the latest hits on the iTunes Movie and TV show storefronts, as well as be directed towards Music for all your audio needs. It can be slightly overwhelming if you're not used to Apple's lush, content-rich financial minefield, but anyone who's used an iPhone or iTunes in the past few years will be able to navigate around (though the finicky remote doesn't help).

However, find the epicenter of the new Apple TV, the App Store, and you'll enter a world of streaming video apps (HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, Netflix and Hulu are all here), and many of the top US sports apps including MLB.tv, NHL GameCenter Live, NBA.com League Pass and Watch ESPN.

OK, so it's expensive for a streamer that doesn't deal in anything above Full HD 1080p, and besides, it concentrates mostly on Apple's own video stores to find content. However, taken on its own merits, it's a good – if aging – streaming video player that's perfect for iPhone owners with a Full HD 1080p TV who want to stream and indulge in a little AirPlay awesomeness.

Read the full review: Apple TV