We’ve rounded up the best smart home tech gifts and told you the best streaming gifts for the couch potatoes in your life, but wanted to do a deeper dive into the best TV streaming devices available, because there are significant differences between Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, and Roku. With any of these devices you can access thousands of apps to stream your favorite content, often casting it directly from your laptop or phone even. But there are significant differences between streaming media devices, too. Check out the pros, cons, and key features at a glance below:
To find out even more about each device, we suggest checking out in-depth reviews from top tech sites like TechRadar and CNET, but we also wanted to include the perspective of our in-house streaming testing team, who spends all day, every day testing out all the most popular streaming platforms, on every device you can imagine, to check for bugs and ensure optimal streaming performance for ExpressVPN users. We’ve incorporated their pros and cons into the graphic above, but also wanted to share their top pick for best TV streaming device (which might surprise you!). Read on, but first, we’ve answered some common questions about streaming devices.
What’s the difference between a streaming media stick and a streaming media box?
Streaming media boxes (such as Apple TV, NVidia Shield, or the Fire TV Cube) are bigger and obviously require more real estate near your TV, but they also have more memory to store content (including shows, movies, and games) and will come with a dedicated remote. They’re also likely to offer more connectivity options and ports. On the downside, they generally require a dedicated power source that plugs into the wall.
Streaming media sticks, on the other hand, are obviously ultra-portable and compact, and plug right into your TVs via HDMI port, without the need for additional power or cables. They will generally require Wi-Fi (rather than a hard internet connection). On the downside, their physical interfaces are generally more limited, and they’re unlikely to have additional ports where you could connect an external hard drive or your laptop. They’re every bit as powerful, though.
How useful are 4K, HDR10+, and Wi-Fi 6 with streaming media devices?
Of course your mileage may vary, but these features are the most advanced technologies at the moment (you’ll note that Fire Stick and Roku offer cheaper HD alternatives), and we can only expect them to become more common. While 4K is already fairly standard for TVs, HDR10+ (and Dolby Vision) are the best formats for improved contrast and brightness and are increasing in popularity. Currently, Apple TV 4K and Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max both support Wi-Fi 6, which is noticeably faster than Wi-Fi 5. That said, it’s not widely available yet.
How does a VPN work with streaming media devices?
There are many benefits to using a VPN with your smart TV or streaming media device. As always, a VPN gives you secure access to shows and movies without ISP throttling. With a VPN you not only keep your location private and secure, but you can even change your location to any of 105 countries around the world to securely enjoy a world of streaming content.
Smart TVs and streaming media devices running Android TV software (including Fire TV Stick) are able to directly download the ExpressVPN app to ensure you have instant VPN protection. Some other smart TVs, as well as devices like Apple TV, Roku, and gaming consoles, cannot run VPN software directly, but you can still stream content with ExpressVPN’s MediaStreamer, or a simple router connection.
How does a router work with a streaming device?
No matter what device you’re streaming on, by connecting to a VPN-enabled router you can ensure your device is secure and can stream throttle-free, with the ability to change locations at the tap of a button. As an added bonus, you can connect unlimited devices (rather than the usual five-device limit) when you connect to a router.
Brand new in 2022, ExpressVPN Aircove is the very first (and only!) Wi-Fi router with built-in VPN protection (priced separately). It’s super simple to set up (takes less than five minutes, we’ve timed it!), and is fabulous for streamers. Not only can you stream in 4K HD on multiple screens, but you can even connect to five different VPN locations at once (which means no more fighting when one person wants to stream their K-Drama but someone else wants to catch the big game!).
Beyond streaming, Aircove offers whole-home protection for every device in your house (including appliances). When has giving the gift of security ever been a bad idea?
Our streaming testers’ top pick for the best TV streaming device 2022
Our streaming testers recommend…drumroll please!…
Apple TV 4K
This may surprise you since it’s the priciest option on the market and it’s not directly compatible with the ExpressVPN app, but of course that’s easy to overcome with a router connection. Here are their reasons:
- 4K display: With Apple TV you can always enjoy a 4K display, even when using a regular TV.
- Portability: With its slender square design, Apple TV is small enough to travel with you, but also fits nicely on any TV stand.
- Audio quality: Apple TV supports top-of-the-line Dolby Atmos (not all streaming devices do)
- User-friendly: All apps display on the clear home screen, meaning adults and kids alike can easily navigate and locate all their installed apps.
- Connectivity: Unlike some streaming sticks, Apple TV can connect via LAN cable so you can maximize your bandwidth and enjoy uninterrupted streaming.
And there you have it. These people know their stuff!