Lots of people are "cutting the cord", ditching satellite and cable in favor of the greener pastures of Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+, YouTube TV, and more. But, which streaming device should you buy? We get this question all the time, often several times a week in fact.
Please note that there some apps/services that may not offer certain capabilities like HDR or Dolby Atmos on one platform while they may on others. The number of services and streamers, and the apps being constantly updated means tracking all those variations is beyond the scope of this article. Just know you should do your research to make sure that the service(s) you want to use work with all the features you want and need on the streamer you choose.
With that, here's a short guide of the best options for home theater enthusiasts.
Nvidia Shield Pro
The Nvidia Shield is widely-regarded as one of the best two streamers on the market. The Shield Pro has what Nividia calls "AI-Enhanced upscaling”, which is a fancy way of scaling lower-res content to your display’s native resolution. For instance, if you watch a 1080p movie from Netflix or Vudu on your 4K display, it should look better on the Shield than on other streamers.
Because Nvidia Shield is based on Android TV, there is huge developer support, and because the hardware is powerful, even services like Steam are available on Shield.
One big advantage to the the Shield over the Apple TV is that it will play Blu-ray rips from a media server with full Atmos support.
There is also a slightly cheaper Nvidia Shield TV available. However, if you're going to get a Shield TV, get the Pro; it's the enthusiast product.
The Shield Pro is priced the same as the 64GB Apple TV 4K at $200.
Apple TV 4K
If you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem (you have iPhones, iPads, and a MacBook or iMac sitting around), the Apple TV 4K is an excellent choice. It has a beautifully-designed, smooth and responsive UI. Developer support is excellent with lots of third-party apps, and it is widely-regarded as one of the two best streamers on the market.
One major advantage to the Apple TV is the iTunes movie store. The store offers regular deep discounts on movies, high-quality rentals with 4K UHD and Dolby Atmos, and another big bonus: if you've already purchased HD movies from the iTunes store, they'll automatically be upgraded for free when and if 4K UHD versions are released. Nice!
The two big drawbacks to the Apple TV 4K are the remote that many people dislike (and so they use a third-party remote or the phone/tablet remote app), and if you want to play Blu-ray and UHD Blu-ray disc rips from a local media server like Plex, the Apple TV won’t play the rips with Dolby Atmos.
There are 64GB and 32GB models available at $199 and $179 respectively.
Amazon Fire TV Cube
The Amazon Fire TV Cube is the more powerful and capable of the Fire streamers. It's a little more expensive than the other entry-level products, but still relatively inexpensive compared to the premium options. With Alexa capability built-in, you can holler, "Alexa, watch Netflix" and with HDMI-CEC and/or IR blasters, the Fire TV Cube will turn on the TV and launch Netflix. Of course, as with all Alexa devices, it can integrate with lighting, locks, thermostats, and more.
The Amazon Fire Stick is one of the cheapest streamers on the market, but is well-liked and offers a lot of value. If you’ve used one of the more premium devices, the Fire Stick may feel a little cheap. You can feel it in the remote and in the user experience and on-screen user interface. Still, it works well for a lot of people.
Like all Amazon devices, the Fire TV devices are oriented toward pushing Amazon products and services so the UI can appear a little cluttered with marketing. If you're entrenched in the Amazon ecosystem and like shopping with Alexa and on the TV screen, the Fire products are a good choice.
The Amazon Fire Cube and Fire Stick are $70 and $45, respectively.
Finally, the Roku Ultra is still a well-regarded lower-priced option. It has good hardware so it offers a nice, smooth UI. Developer support is also good, though certainly not as robust as Nvidia Shield or Apple TV. Not as many enthusiasts are using Roku devices anymore, but they're still a good, solid device and very affordable.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is a cheaper, less-powerful version of the Roku, and in the "stick" form factor. It's a good lower-cost option, but the enthusiast-oriented Roku Ultra is the better, more powerful choice.
The Roku Ultra is about $99, while the Streaming Stick is about $70.
Microsoft Xbox One and Series X
The newer Xboxes are powerful game consoles. In addition to all the usual streaming apps, the Xbox (disc versions) can both also play Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray discs and of course a huge variety of games. Both machines have powerful media and control capabilities, and will be supported by Microsoft and developers for many years.
The downsides are that these are more complex devices and so generally take a little longer to start up and are slightly more clumsy to operate with game controllers, and of course they are quite expensive.
The Xbox One X and One S are $430 and $299 respectively, though there are a variety of different bundles with included games and/or controllers that may save you some money. The Xbox Series X is $499 when you can find it in stock.
Sony Playstation 5
All the same pros and cons to using the Xbox also apply to the PS5. The "Disc Version" will also play UHD Blu-ray discs.
The PS5 is $499 - when you can find it in stock.
Custom Media Server or HTPC
Some hard-core enthusiasts love using a PC as their playback device. They do have some significant advantages: they're extremely configurable, very powerful, and can be made to play back almost anything you can throw at it. They can also do lots of other things, like record off-the-air programming, transcode content, play games, control automation, and much more.
The downsides are that it's expensive (2-3 times more than anything else here), it's a lot of work to configure and maintain, and the user experiences often terrible. Worse, be aware that most of the streaming content providers offer their content only in a browser on a PC, and so they may or may not work with full surround audio support or other features. We see lots of posts from people trying to make this or that work right.
If you love tweaking, configuring, and tinkering, and things like "power" and "robustness" and "expandability" are more important to you than usability, an HTPC or media server may be a good choice for you.
HTPC cost varies greatly depending on features and capabilities. $500-1000 is a good ballpark, but you could spend a little less or a lot more.
Some of the cons mentioned above are just a few of the reasons even many enthusiasts have abandoned HTPCs and switched to dedicated streamers like Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield Pro.
What About Smart TV's?
This is another common question we get: why can't I just use the apps in my smart tv? The short answer is that you can. The longer answer is that while you can, it's generally not a good idea to rely on smart TV functionality.
With smart TV apps, the user experience generally isn't as good, the TV isn't as powerful to support smooth, seamless playback, the apps generally aren't supported as well as they are on streaming devices (or supported as far into the future). Finally, and perhaps most important, if you're using an external surround system, then you'll be forced to use HDMI ARC (audio return channel), which makes your display simultaneously a display and a source, which can be problematic.
A smart TV may be fine for a casual situation like a bedroom or kitchen TV, but in general, it should be avoided for enthusiast applications. Most enthusiasts will want one of the aforementioned streamers even for non-critical casual applications.
The Short Answer
If you’re more of an Apple/iOS guy or all you want to do is stream the best content from online services, get an Apple TV 4K.
If you’re not an Apple person and/or you want to play lossless rips from your Plex server with Atmos, get an Nvidia Shield TV Pro.
If you don't need the absolute best and you want a little less expensive device, get an Amazon Fire Stick or Cube, or a Roku Ultra.
Want to learn more?
Working on designing your basement theater and want to get the absolute most of the space? Feel like there's too much to learn by searching forums and Facebook groups? Check out the HTE books and videos on designing and building your very own home theater.