It’s that time of year again. Either you’re scrambling for a gift idea for a loved one, or they’re hyperventilating over what they can possibly get you. Here’s a solid idea — a streaming device. Because nothing says family like staring at the TV while you binge “Stranger Things” for a third time this month.
There’s a slew of streaming sticks, boxes and devices on the market, though. And buying the wrong one can mean the difference between streaming your favorite shows and not. So to help you make sure you or your loved ones get the best box, I’m breaking them down the best of the best to help you understand what you do and don’t get.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus
Out of all of the streaming devices on the market, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus is my hands-down favorite. On sale for $49 from its usual price of $69, the Streaming Stick Plus offers the same functionality of Roku’s (ROKU) more expensive Roku Ultra, which is on sale for $89, but normally retails for $99. The Ultra does include a remote with a built-in headphone jack, though, while the Stick Plus just has a standard remote. Still, that’s not a major issue.
With the Stick Plus you can stream 4K, HDR content, and get access to both Google’s Google Play Movies & TV app and Amazon’s Amazon Prime Video. What’s more, you don’t have to worry about either company pulling their services from Roku, since the device maker doesn’t offer a competing service.
The one issue with the Stick Plus is that you can only stream one kind of HDR content, which is content that uses the HDR-10 standard. See, the entertainment industry uses two forms of HDR, the aforementioned HDR-10 and Dolby Vision. So if you want to watch content that uses Dolby Vision, you’ll still be able to see it — just not in HDR.
Amazon Fire TV
Roku’s Streaming Stick Plus is my favorite streaming device, but if it didn’t exist that title would go to the Amazon Fire TV. For its latest iteration, Amazon (AMZN) has cut down the Fire TV’s body to a diamond-shaped dongle that hangs from your TV’s HDMI port. It’s less intrusive than the older Fire TV box, which means more room on your TV stand for random knickknacks.
The Fire TV also comes with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built in. That means you can ask the Fire TV to do things like lower the lights or check the front door camera, and it will do exactly that without you ever having to leave the comfort of your couch.
Like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, the Fire TV supports 4K, HDR streaming, though only the HDR-10 spec. Amazon is currently offering the Fire TV for $54, down from its usual price of $69. The only issue with the Fire TV is that, since it’s an Amazon product, it doesn’t have access to Google Play Movies & TV service.
Originally, there was a workaround to access movies and shows you downloaded from Play Movies & TV on the Fire TV through the streaming device’s YouTube app. But it looks like that will soon be going away, as Google has said it will pull YouTube from the Fire TV by Jan. 1. Until Amazon and Google stop their little playground scuffle, you’ll have to do without Google’s offerings.
Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K is not for the faint of heart. That’s because at $179 for a 32GB version and $199 for a 64GB edition, the 4K is the most expensive streaming device on our list. But there are benefits to owning Apple’s (AAPL) little black box. The 4K, as its name implies, is capable of streaming 4K and HDR video. What’s more, it can handle both HDR-10 and Dolby Vision HDR specs.
The on-board storage allows you to save movies and TV shows directly to the 4K, so you don’t have to worry about streams buffering. Its built-in Siri functionality is also top-notch — allowing you to say things like “Show me movies with Tom Cruise from the 1990s,” and you’ll see just that. You can also control your HomeKit-enabled smart home devices from the 4K, just like with Amazon’s Fire TV.
The downside is that there is no officially supported Google Play Movies & TV app. Amazon, however, is finally bringing its Prime Video to the streaming box, so there might be hope for Google’s offering in the future.
Google Chromecast Ultra
If you’re looking for a more no-frills streaming experience for your loved one, then Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Chromecast Ultra is the way to go. Available for $54, down from $69, this high-powered version of the standard Chromecast can cast 4K, HDR video from your smartphone, tablet or laptop.
Like the Apple TV 4K, the Chromecast Ultra also supports both versions of HDR. But unlike the Apple TV, or any of the other streaming devices for that matter, the Chromecast doesn’t have a remote. Instead, your smartphone serves as the Ultra’s remote. It’s also the Chromecast’s home screen, and where you can select your favorite movies and TV shows.
But, thanks to the back and forth between Google and Amazon, you can’t cast Amazon Prime Video from your device to your Chromecast, which is a bummer. But if you’re shopping for someone who’s already a huge Google fan, then the Ultra is a safe bet.
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Email Daniel at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.