How to buy the best internet TV box
By Martin Pratt
Internet TV boxes connect to the internet and allow you to stream live TV shows, browse popular websites and access catch-up TV services, such as BBC iPlayer. Effectively, they turn your standard TV into a smart TV.
There are a number of internet TV boxes available, from the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, Sky and Roku, but the technology is relatively new. At the moment, most internet TV boxes perform just the one function, meaning that you will still need a separate means of accessing digital TV, such as a pay-TV or free-TV personal video recorder.
4K options are now available to if you have a 4K TV and want to watch the highest resolution content available.
To help with your buying decision we've created a custom tool to make your choices as clear as possible. Click on the tool below to learn more.
If you'd rather jump straight to the products then follow the link to all our internet TV box reviews.
How do you stream shows without a smart TV?
Internet TV boxes connect to your TV, but also require access to the internet to work. Most use wi-fi, but some can also support an ethernet cable if you'd prefer a wired connection.
You’ll need a decent broadband connection to make sure streamed programmes are smooth - most manufacturers recommend speeds of around 3Mbps for standard definition content. For streaming in high-definition, you'll need broadband speeds closer to 5Mbps, as well as an HD-ready TV. If you're a real technophile and are looking to stream in 4K then you'll need a very good internet connection - between 15 and 25Mbps is what we'd recommend (plus a 4K TV, of course).
How much does a great internet TV box cost?
Internet TV boxes are outstanding value. For less than the price of a large delivered pizza you can take home a top-notch streamer that will bring your home into the 21st Century - and future-proof it, too.
£15The price of our cheapest Best Buy
Even if you fancy spending a little more and treating yourself, you won't need to spend more than £50.
It is important to consider subscription costs, though. To get the most of some boxes you'll need to sign up to premium content services. They're totally optional, and just how much money you spend is up to you - but it's definitely something worth factoring in when calculating costs.
What will you be able to watch?
Different internet TV boxes give you access to different online content. Compare a variety of models to make sure that the apps and channels you want are accessible.
Most offer access to BBC iPlayer, but they won't all give you access to other catch-up services, such as ITV Hub, All 4 and My5. Some will let you stream films from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video (if you have a subscription), or watch videos on sites like YouTube; others let you access the Picasa and Flickr photo sharing websites.
Some internet TV boxes also let you 'cast' or 'mirror' what is on your mobile device to your TV screen, so you can navigate menus and control what you are watching with a phone or tablet.
Do you need a 4K streamer?
There's more 4K and HDR content available on Amazon Video and Netflix than ever, with both offering more than 2,000 hours combined. Not all streamers are capable of displaying 4K content on your 4K TV. If you want to watch the highest resolution content available and take full advantage of your TV then you need to buy the right streamer.
All the leading brands, Amazon, Apple, Google and Sky, have a 4K option to choose from.
Now that you know what's what, take a look at all of our internet TV box Best Buys.
What are my options?
When it comes to streaming TV there's more than a few choices out there. You've almost certainly heard a whole host of names and buzzwords, but what exactly are they? And what's the difference between the big players? Read on for a brief run down.
What is NOW TV?
NOW TV is a TV box that allows you to buy passes to watch premium content, such as Sky Cinema, Sports, Entertainment and Kids TV. It's the simplest and cheapest way to access Sky TV without paying a subscription.
These passes are pretty cheap, but only offer you access to the content included for a set time - such as a month or a weekend. There's a range of NOW TV boxes available for you to use the service on, but don't be fooled - you can access the NOW TV app on a number of other devices, too.
Click the link to find out more in our NOW TV Entertainment Pass review.
What is Chromecast?
Chromecast is Google's media streaming device, which plugs into your TV's HDMI port and grants you access to a variety of on-demand and catch-up TV apps. Its streaming platform, Google Cast, allows you to play music and video from your phone, laptop or tablet to the Chromecast itself.
One important thing to bear in mind if you're considering a Chromecast is the restrictions on Google Cast. Apple devices are unable to connect to it natively, meaning you'll only be able to to cast from your iPhone to your TV, or play videos from your MacBook via certain apps. Android and Windows devices will work with Chromecast across the board, though.
Curious? Click to see our Chromecast Utra review.
What is Apple TV?
Apple TV is the set-top box range from Apple, and connects to your TV to allow you to watch a range of internet video and digital content. Apple is set to launch an Apple TV app later this year, which will house all its live streaming options in one place.
Apple TV is especially important in the world of casting as it's the only internet TV box compatible with AirPlay. iPhone, iPad and Mac users may already be familiar with the term through their use of those products. AirPlay is the only way to cast content from your personal Apple device to your TV.
Similarly, an Apple TV box cannot be cast to from a non-Apple device. If you use, for example, an Android smartphone, this is something to definitely beware of before buying.
If this sounds like the box for you, have read of our Apple TV 4K review.
What is Fire TV?
Fire TV is the name used for Amazon's popular range of streaming devices. The Fire TV itself takes the form of a box or square dongle, while the Fire TV Stick looks like a USB memory stick. All of these devices run Fire OS, just as you may have seen on its Fire range of tablets. It may sound intimidating, the prospect of having to learn a whole new OS just to watch a boxset on your TV, but it's actually based around Google Android and is very similar - and easy to use.
Fire TV isn't a service, so you don't get any special channels or content with it, nor does it require any sort of subscription. It is, however, intrinsically linked to Prime Video - Amazon's video-on-demand service. The app will come pre-installed on any Fire TV device you buy, and is one of the most popular and comprehensive subscription streaming services around (alongside Netflix).
Click the link to see what we think of the Amazon's latest effort in our Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote review.