The world has gone bonkers for binge-watching. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (other platforms are available), those hungry for entertainment can stream blockbuster TV shows, great music documentaries and movies anytime, anyplace.
The sheer proliferation of streaming TV services has changed the way we watch the box forever. If you’re yet to board the streaming train, we’ve tested the best media streamers for all budgets.
All smart TVs (and that’s the majority of tellies you can buy right how) use some form of connected platform, and consequently have streaming apps built-in – be it catch-up TV services like BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, or apps from streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon.
Premium pay TV services also come with media streaming functionality built-in. Whether you subscribe to Sky, VirginMedia or BT, their telly boxes offer on-demand viewing as standard.
Of course, you don’t need a cutting edge flatscreen to access media streaming services. A simple streaming HDMI stick, plugged into the back of even the dumbest of sets, will open the floodgates to smarter viewing. So which option is best for you?
Best media streamers: The Louder Choice
Our top choice media streamer is the Amazon Fire 4K TV. Offering a wealth of streaming services, and top AV quality, for a reasonable price makes it pretty much unbeatable value. Whether you want to gorge on Netflix, browse Amazon Prime or explore some of the weirder streaming channels out there (we’re looking at you Shudder), it’s in a league all its own.
The Fire TV stick has plenty of excellent rivals, but our runner-up trophy goes to Now TV. While Sky Q is the money no object leader when it comes to posh pay-TV, Now TV offers extensive access to the best of Sky, be it Chernobyl from Sky Atlantic or recent movies on Sky Cinemas, and with Now TV’s voucher payment scheme, you can dip in and out as funds allow.
How to buy the best media streamer for you
The best media streamers come in all shapes and sizes, offering multiple ways to watch catch-up TV and non-contract video on demand.
The good news is that feeding your streaming habit doesn’t have to be expensive. For example, Catch-up TV is built into the very fabric of Freeview Play, and it’s (unsurprisingly) free. Not just the default tuner option for many TVs, it can also be had via a standalone media player box.
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Arguably the most advanced media player is Amazon’s Fire TV 4K stick. This HDMI dongle simply plugs into your TV (or the HDMI input of an AV receiver) and connects over Wi-Fi, offering a huge variety of streaming services, from Netflix to UFC Fight Pass. It also has built in Alexa voice control, so you don’t need to lift a finger to be able to watch what you want.
A cheaper alternative to Fire TV is Google’s Chromecast. This uses your smartphone as a conduit for media playback. The player app of your choice is cast directly from your mobile, via the Chromecast device, to the TV. As media playing solutions go, it’s pretty clever.
Key considerations when shortlisting any media player is the choice of streaming services it supports (beyond the big names, what is there?), and its AV quality (does it offer much in 4K and surround sound?). We’ve been streaming like a boss and have come to some big decisions...
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The best media streamers you can buy today
Amazon’s 4K-capable HDMI streaming stick is an unbeatable solution if you want to watch high quality TV without a long term contract. In addition to Amazon Prime, there’s Netflix, catch-up players for all the main UK channels, Disney Life, as well as more esoteric streaming services, such as Curzon Cinema and Crunchyroll.
Connecting over Wi-Fi, it boasts Amazon Alexa voice control via a microphone in the remote control, and is as happy streaming music as it is TV and movies. It parties hard with Amazon Music, Spotify and Tidal.
It’ll even serve as a decent casual games machine, courtesy of a sprightly quad core 1.7GHz processor. Amazon’s retro Sega collection, which includes Sonic The Hedgehog, is well worth a play.
Picture quality is generally great, provided your broadband speed is fast enough, and with two-way Bluetooth, you can pair wireless headphones for private listening.
If you want to watch the best of Sky TV without being tied to a contract, or maybe you simply can’t install a dish, then the Now TV streaming media player is a handy solution. It only needs Wi-Fi or an Ethernet connection work.
Now TV is unlocked with monthly vouchers. You can buy a Sky Cinema Pass (£9.99), Entertainment (£7.99), Kids (£3.99) and Sky Sports( £33.99), as and when you need them. There’s also Netflix, catch-up TV apps and YouTube available. Got a surfeit of popcorn? You can even rent newer movies via the Sky Store.
In addition to these on-demand streams, Now TV offers internet-delivered Sky channels live. Build quality is high, the box is actually built by Roku.
There is a caveat, naturally. While the Now TV box is 4K ready, only Netflix and YouTube stream in UHD. All Sky services are limited to entry-level HD quality (720p), and are only available in stereo. Not the best quality then, but brilliantly simple to use
If you’re a dedicated Apple enthusiast, the Apple TV 4K box is going to be high on your media player shortlist. Even if you’re not an Apple devotee, you might be tempted. It offers an undeniably slick user experience, with a wealth of high quality 4K HDR movie content in the iTunes store.
There are two versions of this media player available, one offering 32GB for app storage, and a step-up 64GB model. Our advice is to stick with the cheaper option, as you’ll probably not need the extra storage space.
In addition to Apple Airplay 2 streaming support, Siri is on hand with viewing recommendations.
Content isn’t limited to just the Apple store. Other apps include BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, My5, Amazon Prime, Netflix and Now TV; some but not all of these are grouped under a TV app umbrella. This box is also home to the new Apple TV+ streaming service.
Picture quality is first rate, and there’s Dolby Atmos sound on a wide range of iTunes movies, too.
Manhattan is a well known manufacturer of timeshifting PVRs, but there’s no hard drive in the Manhattan T3. This 4K-enabled Freeview Play TV box is dedicated to streaming.
It offers all the Freeview Play catch-up TV services, including the BBC iPlayer, ITV hub, All4, UKTV player and Demand 5, plus CBS Catch Up, Horror Bites, the BBC’s news and sport apps and YouTube.
Connect your TV aerial, and you’ll also have access to the Freeview Play TV guide, with roll-back 7 day programme guide, which offers a great way to browse shows you may have missed.
In addition to a terrestrial aerial loop-through, there’s a single HDMI port, digital optical audio, Wi-Fi and Ethernet.
Picture performance is solid. HD looks sharp, while 4K content streamed from YouTube is outstanding. The iPlayer app is also compatible with BBC 4K broadcast trials.
The only thing missing is Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
Now in its third iteration, Google Chromecast is an HDMI puck that works with Chromecast enabled apps on your smartphone. Principal support comes from Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Now TV and All4. It can also be used with streaming music services, including Spotify, Soundcloud, Deezer, TuneIn Radio, and Google Play Music. To cast, simply touch the Chromecast icon in the requisite app.
Set-up, using the Google Home app, is straightforward. As your smartphone is the playback device, there’s no remote control. There’s no user interface either. Chromecast merely provides a means to an end.
Not all apps support Chromecast, but one solution to this is to mirror your phone to the screen, another feature of the device. It’s not exactly a seamless user experience, but it works. It can also be used in conjunction with Google’s Home or Home Mini connected speakers.
An HDMI streaming stick, this Roku media player is simplicity personified. Just plug and play. There’s no Ethernet option, but the Wi-Fi performance is robust, thanks to dual-band MIMO aerials.
Image quality is high. The stick supports 4K HDR when available, but isn’t compatible with Dolby Vision, like its Amazon Fire TV rival. It also has the ability to deliver Dolby Atmos from apps which support it.
The streaming service selection is first rate. All the main catch-up services are here, including BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, plus Now TV. The Roku stick also offers voice control but it’s not as chatty as Amazon Alexa.
Other features include Bluetooth pairing for headphones, useful for viewing late at night. It’s a tough call between this and the Amazon Fire TV 4K stick, but we suspect many will find the simpler user interface easier to live with, not least because you don’t have to scroll through Amazon ads.
When it comes to media streaming telly boxes, life doesn’t get any better than Sky Q. The platform combines the smartest user interface with the widest selection of content, covering movies, sports and music.
Niceties include voice control, which can be used to find programmes or simply shuttle around, and a simple streaming multiroom option. Sky Q Mini boxes use Wi-Fi to relay channels and on-demand content from the main Sky Q box.
Netflix subscribers can combine subscription payments through Sky, and you can access all your Netflix shows directly from the main Sky homepage You can even use Sky Q as a music player, using the Spotify app on-board or via Bluetooth.
If you need more, there’s also a huge selection of box-sets, and movies on demand. In the world of the best media streamers, this is as luxe as it gets.