How to buy the best streaming device
There are a number of internet TV boxes and streaming devices available from some of the biggest names in tech, including the Google Chromecast, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV Stick.
In this guide we'll explain the differences between the popular devices, how much you need to spend and whether it's worth choosing a 4K streamer.
Video: how to buy the best internet TV box
Our video demonstrates the key features of internet TV boxes to help you understand how they work and decide which is the best model for you.
Types of internet streaming devices
Some of the most popular media streaming devices, including the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Google Chromecast, are very small and look more like a USB stick than a traditional set-top box device, such as the Apple TV.
They connect directly into a HDMI port and their small size means they tuck away hidden behind the TV. They may be tiny, but they don't lack any features larger streamers have. Some need to be plugged into the mains, while others can be powered from one of your TV's USB inputs.
Set-top box style streamers
The Apple TV is the most notable streamer available of this type. It still connects to an HDMI input, but the larger box is designed to sit on your media unit, rather than being hidden out of sight behind the TV.
Streaming sticks are far more common, as they are often smaller and cheaper, but can access the same apps as these larger ones.
Games consoles as streamers
Modern games consoles from the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 through to the Xbox One X and Playstation 4 Pro can all access catch-up and streaming apps in the same way as traditional streamers.
Since they are also games consoles and Blu-ray players in some cases, they are typically very expensive. The PlayStation 4 Pro, for example, costs almost 10 times more than an Amazon Fire TV Stick.
A games console isn't worth considering for streaming, unless you also intend to use its other features too.
Pricey options are available, but you don't need to spend big on a streamer.
Best streaming devices on test
Big name brands: check. Consistently cheap: check. Same basic functions: check. So does it matter which one you buy? Yes, and in the table below you'll find our three favourites.
How much should you spend on an internet TV box?
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.
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.
Best internet TV box features to look out for
- Apps - all the streaming devices we test can access apps, but you need to make sure the device you choose has the apps you use most. The majority of the popular ones, such as BBC iPlayer and Netflix, are ubiquitous, but if you want access to something more unusual then check it's available before you buy.
- 4K - if you have a 4K TV then a 4K streamer is essential, otherwise you won't be able to watch the 4K content available on Netflix, Amazon Video and YouTube.
- Full HD - there are still plenty of HD streamers and they are often the cheapest available. Only choose one of these if you don't have a 4K TV and don't plan on getting one any time soon.
- Voice control - many streamers, including the Fire TV Stick, Now TV and Chromecasts support voice control. Using your voice to search for shows is much easier than grappling with a clunky onscreen keyboard.
- DLNA - some streamers let you cast content from a phone, laptop or tablet, so that you can display media from your device on your TV screen.
Is your internet quick enough for streaming?
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 would 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 would recommend (plus a 4K TV, of course).
Internet TV boxes compared
When it comes to streaming TV shows and films there's more than a few choices. 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 rundown of the most popular devices
Amazon Fire TV Stick with 4K and Alexa
- Alexa voice remote - you can talk to the Fire TV Stick, which is ideal for searching for shows to watch rather than grappling with an onscreen keyboard.
- Features - 4K resolution streaming, access to all the UK's main catch-up apps, control your TV volume with the remote.
Amazon's little streamer is one of the cheapest ways to access 4K content on your TV and it can access almost all the most popular streaming apps. There's no DLNA though, so you won't be able to cast content from your tablet or smartphone.
- Phone remote - the apps you use aren't on the Chromecast itself, you get them on your phone and cast them to Google's streamer. This means your phone is the remote.
- Features - Full HD streaming, access to all the UK's main catch-up apps, cheap, display your phone screen on your TV.
The Chromecast is one of the cheapest streamers on the market and that's partly because it isn't 4K. If you want to watch ultra-high resolution streaming, the Google Chromecast Ultra would be the better option.
Using your phone to control everything may seem unusual at first, but casting the apps from your phone onto the TV screen is easy, and using your phone's keyboard to search for shows is simpler than using a traditional remote and an onscreen keyboard.
Sky Now TV Smart Box with 4K
- Watch Sky TV - various passes, including entertainment, sports, movies and kids, give you access to Sky content you would normally need a satellite dish and Sky Q Box for.
- Features - 4K resolution streaming, access to all the UK's main catch-up apps, voice control.
The 4K Now TV Box is one of the cheapest 4K streamers available, though it's also quite bulky and won't hide away behind your TV like a Chromecast or a Fire TV Stick.
There's also the Sky Now TV Stick, which is much smaller and only £15, but it's only Full HD so no 4K streaming.
The Now TV Box is one of the cheapest 4K streamers, but is it better than the best Amazon, Apple and Google have to offer? Here's our Sky Now TV Box with 4K review.
- Stream iTunes - Apple TV is one of the only streamers that can access your iTunes library of music and films.
- Features - 4K resolution streaming, voice remote, access to UK's main catch-up and streaming apps, casting from iPhones and iPads.
Apple TVs are some of the priciest streamers around, particularly the 4K model which isn't far off £200.
It integrates well with Apple devices, but doesn't play so well with others, since you can only cast to it from an iPhone or iPad.
- Discreet - it's one of the smallest streamers and you can listen to the TV audio through headphones on the smartphone app.
- Features - Full HD streaming, control it with your phone, access to the UK's main catch-up apps.
Roku also makes the Streaming Stick+ for 4K streaming, but the Express is a cheaper model for anyone only interested in Full HD content.