Holiday Gift Guide 2018 - 2019: Best Streaming Media Players For Cord-Cutters

TV consumption is changing massively thanks to the advancements in technology which have now led to many more options for those looking for on-demand access to content, as well as access to live TV. While most of these advancements have come at the software level through the introduction of new apps and web-based services, there’s also a ton of hardware devices now available which look to complete the experience. Therefore, even those who now own a newer TV which comes with its own built-in solution for app access can still benefit from picking up an additional set-top box or dongle-like device. As not only can these additional hardware solutions improve the user experience through an easier to use interface and greater levels of support, but in some cases, they add additional features you might not have access to through standard smart TVs or smartphones. Here we have rounded up the best of the best when it comes to streaming devices.

Prices below are subject to change. This post will be updated regularly to ensure the most up-to-date pricing, but during the holidays, there will be flash sales and price drops so keep that in mind.

Best overall - the only streaming media player you need

The NVIDIA SHIELD is the streaming device you should be buying. This option runs on the Android TV platform and is the most powerful set-top box on the market. It also happens to be one of the most expensive items on this list although the value on offer is much greater than the rest so you are not just paying more for no reason. You are genuinely getting more. First off, this is a machine which will appeal to gamers as not only does the SHIELD feature a dedicated (and good) controller, but it also comes with access to a variety of game titles that are not available on any other streaming box. This is partly due to the SHIELD having the necessary internals to power these additional games, while the others don’t. Gaming aside, the SHIELD is one of the best software update-backed products on the market with NVIDIA continually rolling out new updates which add new capabilities to the SHIELD, including Google Assistant support, Plex Media Server support, Alexa support, and more. This really is the best streaming box on the market - and in any way you want to measure ‘best.’

Best value overall - small, cheap and 4K support

To be clear, the NVIDIA SHIELD offers the best value overall. However, if you want a much cheaper product that offers incredible value for the money then the Fire TV Stick 4K is it. This is a dongle-like device which results in a space-saving product that adds smarts to any TV equipped with a HDMI port. What’s more, the new Fire TV Stick supports 4K Ultra HD streaming, making it one of the cheapest options to get 4K out of the box. This is in addition to support for a wide variety of apps and services including Amazon’s own Prime Video offering access to a large selection of movies and shows for free to Prime members. As this is a Fire TV OS product it also comes with Alexa built-in and the included remote is a voice assistant-supported remote allowing users to control the system (as well as compatible smart home products) by issuing voice commands through the remote control. As far as entry-level products go, this is as good as it gets.

Best simple to use set-top box - when ease of use matters as much as the content

A lot of cord cutters often talk in terms of Fire TV, Android TV and Apple TV. However, Roku and its Roku OS is one of the most robust solutions currently available making it an option you should definitely consider. Of the numerous Roku OS hardware products available, the Roku Premiere+ is by far the best option you can buy. At the superficial level this is a 4K playback supported device which comes with access to a variety of the most popular streaming apps and services - including access to both free and paid content. However, where Roku OS really excels is in its simplicity. Resulting in a device that’s very easy to learn, get used to, and use. In addition you can expect a number of advanced features including voice control support and a remote with a 3.5mm jack port so users can connect headphones for a more private viewing experience. Best of all, the Roku Premiere+ is priced competitively making it a great option for those looking to balance features and cost.

Best value Roku OS - simple, portable, and affordable

While the Roku Premiere+ is already a highly competitively priced product, it’s still the most expensive option from the company which further highlights how competitively priced the company's range is in general. Take the Roku Streaming Stick for example. This is also not the cheapest product from the company but it still comes in at almost half the cost of the Premiere+ and yet offers a very similar experience overall, and in a form factor that’s extremely portable - a ‘stick’ device which simply plugs into the HDMI port on the back of the TV. Making this another option that’s great for those who are new to cord cutting, or simply those looking for a device they can take with them when away from home.

Best value Android TV - save more and still get Android TV with 4K support

The Xiaomi Mi Box S runs on the same platform - Android TV - as the NVIDIA SHIELD although it’s a lot more basic in terms of features and capabilities. That said, it’s also significantly cheaper than the SHIELD making the Mi Box S the best entry-level Android TV product on the market. If you are unsure of whether Android TV is right for you, this is the best way to test the platform out at the cheapest price. What’s more, in spite of its low price you are getting a fairly decent product overall due to the Mi Box S supporting 4K streaming out of the box. In addition, the Mi Box S runs on Android Oreo and with that comes Google Assistant built-in so users will be able to control the system, as well as compatible smart home products by utilizing the voice assistant remote control included in the box. Chromecast is also included here, providing users the option to cast content from compatible apps on their smartphone directly to the TV. This is all in addition to wide support for a number of TV optimized apps, including Netflix and Hulu.

Best for voice assistant support - no remote control needed, you are the remote control

If you’re already invested in the Alexa ecosystem then the Fire TV Cube is likely to be the best streaming device for you. This is one of the newest products to come from Amazon and one which places a greater focus on utilizing hands-free and voice control access. As the Fire TV Cube is better equipped at the far-field microphone and beamforming levels which means it can hear users clearer and from a greater variety of directions than most other devices. A combination which ensures that wherever you are in the room, the Fire TV Cube will hear you. Of course, it does also come with a remote control (that’s also voice command-supported) so users don’t have to rely on voice commands if they do not want to. Besides the ability to use voice commands to control almost every aspect of the interface and navigation, as well as controlling compatible smart home products, the Fire TV Cube also comes with the same app and service access offered with all Fire TV-based products, such as access to most of the major streaming apps including the company’s own Prime Video service. One of the additional benefits of the Fire TV Cube is the inclusion of a speaker which means users can get feedback from Alexa on the weather, events, or anything else and even when the TV is off - that’s something you won’t find on most other streaming boxes.

Best HDMI dongle - when size and space matters

Google’s Chromecast has been one of the most popular streaming options ever since the launch of the first-generation version. Mostly because this is a highly affordable product, but also because it’s highly portable allowing users to take a Chromecast with them to hotels, other homes, or anywhere a TV is and instantly turn that TV into a smart TV. Unlike most of the other devices on this list, the Chromecast is solely reliant on a connection from another device although the number of supported devices is fairly grand including both Android and iOS phones, laptops, PCs, and more. Once connected, this device allows the user to stream video, images, and music from any cast-supported app to the TV. Now in its third-generation, the Chromecast has seen a refinement in its design as well as new capabilities including the ability to pair the device with a Google Home device for voice assistant control and added features, such as the ability to view feeds from security devices like Nest cameras and video doorbells on the TV. While not the most powerful or feature-rich device on this list, the Chromecast remains a solid purchase for those looking to mix affordability with capabilities.

Best 4K on the go - the best quality wherever you are

Just like the standard Chromecast, the Chromecast Ultra is all about offering a device small enough that it can be carried with you and used elsewhere while offering the option to turn any TV into a smart TV. However, one of the clear limitations with the standard Chromecast model is the resolution cap that’s in effect. This is where the Chromecast Ultra comes in as in addition to offering all of the same features as the standard model the Chromecast Ultra also allows users to stream content at the 4K resolution level and without having to worry about lagging. Speaking of lag, if for whatever reason the Wi-Fi network you are using is not so great when streaming at this resolution, users can utilize the included Ethernet adapter to take advantage of the smoother and more reliable experience offered through a wired connection.

Best for audio - when streaming is not just about the TV

The Chromecast Audio is not that much different to the standard Chromecast with the same overall design and ‘streaming from another device’ function in mind. However, where it does differ is in the fact it's designed to specifically cater to the audio needs of users. In other words, while the standard Chromecast will turn any TV into a smart TV, the Chromecast Audio will turn any speaker into a smart speaker. The Chromecast Audio is able to do this as it comes equipped with its own 3.5mm jack which lets the user plug the Chromecast Audio directly into a 3.5mm port on any speaker equipped with the port. From there, the Chromecast Audio accepts a signal over Wi-Fi from a device like a smartphone or a PC and permits playback in the same way as if the smartphone or PC was plugged directly into the speaker. In addition to supporting a wide range of Cast-enabled apps, the Chromecast Audio also supports lossless high-resolution audio playback so you can expect a heightened audio quality compared to other similar products. All of which makes the Chromecast Audio the best option for audio enthusiasts.

Best over-the-air - when locals matter as much as Netflix

Not all streaming players are solely concerned with app-based services and solutions with the Stream+ being a prime example. This player comes from Channel Master, a company known for its TV antennas and therefore comes with an emphasis on over-the-air content. As users can simply connect a TV antenna to the Stream+ and instantly make use of the option to play, pause and rewind live over-the-air TV, as well as access to an on-screen program guide. What’s more, if the Stream+ is coupled with an external storage device -- such as a USB hard drive -- the user is then able to use the storage device as the basis for a DVR. In other words, the Stream+ has the potential to record live over-the-air TV for playback at a later time. This is all in addition to the Stream+ also coming running on the Android TV platform which means you also do get access to all the main and popular streaming apps and services. Making it an ideal option for those looking to mix both local live TV and on-demand content.

Best for DVR - watch OTA content wherever you are

Speaking of DVRs, Amazon’s Fire TV Recast is a new device and one certainly worth considering as this is basically a DVR that lets you stream content to any compatible device. Unlike most devices on this list, the Fire TV Recast is not a streaming device in itself, meaning you don’t watch content on the box. Instead, the Fire TV Recast allows the user to set and record over-the-air content and then that content can be viewed at a later time (or live) on any one of a number of supported devices, including smartphones. One of the benefits of this sort of device compared to the Stream+ is that the Fire TV Recast does not need to be connected physically or even in close proximity to the TV. This means users can better position the Fire TV Recast to ensure the signal received from the connected antenna is as strong as possible. Another notable difference is this is a true DVR in the sense that unlike the Stream+ it does not require an additional storage device to be connected with the Fire TV Recast able to record up to 75 hours of programming in a HD quality. In addition, it also comes with two tuners allowing users to record two different programs at the same time. While this is a fairly expensive addition to a home setup, there are no additional fees involved (besides the cost of an antenna) and for what it offers, it will be a great option for those looking for on-the-go access to live sports, local news, and more. If you also happen to have another Amazon hardware device, such as a Fire TV device or the Echo Show you can also expect some additional functionality to be on offer, including Alexa support for voice command control, searches and recording management.

Best for iOS users - best for those looking to link their Apple account

Device owners who are more entrenched in the iOS ecosystem will want to consider the Apple TV 4K as this is the best option for those looking to link their existing Apple accounts with a streaming box. In addition, this is a unit which features both 4K HDR and Dolby Atmos support resulting in an excellent viewing and listening experience. Other features of note is voice assistant support and control through the company’s Siri solution, along with access to a number of the most popular streaming apps and services, including Netflix and Prime video.

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About the Author
2014/05/John.jpg

John Anon

Editor-in-Chief
John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]
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