These days you don't need to buy a smart TV to access services such as Netflix, Amazon or BBC iPlayer. Here, we round up the best media players and streaming box devices you can buy that let you watch endless TV shows and films.
There has been an enormous price crash in the market for TV streaming box devices in the past couple of years with more expensive models for those wanting 4K. If you can't get one free from your internet service provider, then devices such as the Sky Now TV Box cost less than a DVD – the disc, not the player.
Your buying guide for the best media streaming box 2018
Even if you have a so-called ‘smart TV’, it's bound to offer an inferior experience - not to mention a deficit in content - compared to the media streamers we've reviewed here.
The content available through each streamer is the most important factor for a lot of people. This is why it's crucial to check that the services you want are available. It's rare for one device to offer everything, but Roku has the biggest range going with hundreds of apps to choose from.
Kodi is massively popular at the moment. While you can buy a Kodi box, you can also install this media player on any Android TV, and even on an Amazon Fire TV - because, at its heart, the Fire TV is an Android device.
Do I need a media streaming box or player?
You may have recently bought a new TV so in some cases you won't need a media player. Some TVs run Android TV (such as Sony's modern range) and there's little point in duplicating this by buying a separate media streamer.
Really, these dedicated TV boxes and sticks are for people with older TVs (and TVs that don't have an internet connection) because they allow you to stream films or TV shows from services such as Netflix or the BBC iPlayer without having to plug your laptop into the TV or have a noisy PC whirring away. All of these devices are silent (or very nearly silent) in operation and consume very little power.
Smartphone and tablet owners can beam content from their phones to the television wirelessly with many of these devices, so if you want to show the family the video you shot earlier that day, or play a family game using the Scrabble app, you simply press a button on your phone and beam the picture to the big screen so that everyone can see it instantly.
Some of these media streamers can display content stored on other PCs, laptops and NAS drives connected to your home network, letting you enjoy your music collection in the lounge for family parties or share photo slideshows. Apps for online media services such as Spotify, Flickr and YouTube are also common now: you install those you want, and ignore those you don't.
Gaming is a bonus feature on some media streamers. You can play casual games such as Tetris on Roku and Amazon devices, or opt for the Nvidia Shield TV for something a little more console-esque. You can even buy optional game pads for some if you're serious about wanting a games console experience.
Best media streaming box 2018
- Reviewed on: 20 November 2018
The Streaming Stick+ is another great media streamer from Roku, finally bringing 4K to the UK. The device has a lot going for it including upgraded wireless, smooth performance, a decent remote and more content channels that your mind or free time can handle.
It's £10 more than key rivals but the overall experience is worth it. Even if you don't have a 4K TV yet, you'll be future-proofing.
Read our Roku Streaming Stick+ review.
- Reviewed on: 16 November 2018
Thanks to its powerful internals, great interface and Alexa, the Fire TV Stick is a fantastic gadget for watching Prime Video, Netflix, and UK TV on demand.
Even if you own a smart TV, the Stick is still a good buy - especially if you don't have Alexa through another device. It isn't quite as convenient as using an Amazon Echo, but at this price, it's fantastic value.
- Reviewed on: 27 January 2017
If you have a 4K TV and a Netflix subscription, the Chromecast Ultra is worth the £69 asking price. The fact it is so easy to use and works best with the Google Home app means you can easily throw it in a bag and use it on different TVs wherever you are, as your phone or tablet carries your streaming subscriptions with you.
If you don’t have a 4K TV then go with the £30 Chromecast, but otherwise if you want a no-nonsense media streamer the Chromecast Ultra is one of the best going.
Read our Google Chromecast Ultra review.
4. Roku Express
- Reviewed on: 20 November 2018
If you want to add streaming services to a dumb TV in the cheapest, most user-friendly way possible, Roku Express is a great and affordable option. It lacks some features of the Roku Streaming Stick+ but is a fraction of the price at just £29 (versus £79), and if you don't need 4K or HDR it's a no-brainer.
Read our Roku Express review.
- Reviewed on: 18 October 2018
The Now TV 4K Smart Box provides an all-in-one solution for consumers, offering access to BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4, Demand5, UKTV Play and Netflix alongside Now TV content. It offers advanced features like Voice Search, and the UI is easy to use.
The only issue? Unlike the 4K Apple TV and 4K Fire TV which provide 4K content from iTunes and Amazon respectively, the Now TV content is still capped at 720p, with no 4K upgrade in sight.
Read our Now TV 4K Smart Box review.
- Reviewed on: 19 March 2018
If you are an avid Amazon Prime subscriber then it makes sense to go for the Fire TV for ease of integration and 4K access to Amazon Prime films and TV. It also offers full Netflix support and access to a plethora of apps and channels at less than half the cost of the Apple TV 4K – though that product has an Ethernet port for a potentially more stable streaming experience, unlike the Amazon Fire TV that relies on Wi-Fi.
Just be aware that at the moment, there aren't actually that many 4K HDR films or TV shows out there, on any streaming service. When the Fire TV works to its full potential it's great, but for now it might be overkill for your needs.
It’s only worth it if you’re a Prime subscriber, or intend to become one after purchase.
- Reviewed on: 16 November 2018
If you're looking to access cheap Sky content, Now TV is a highly recommended service. The Now TV Smart Stick is merely a useful tool for then making that content accessible on non-smart TVs. It's easy to set up and use, with a user-friendly software interface. A low price tag doesn't hurt, either.
Read our Now TV Smart Stick review.
- Reviewed on: 4 December 2018
The Chromcast 2018 is still a good streaming device but there's not much new here and in fact it's lost the cool magnet design.
Existing owners will see no big reason to upgrade but if you're looking for your first device or one for a different TV then it's still a decent option at a great price.
Not everyone will like having to control it with another device, and there's still no support for Amazon Prime Video so we think rivals are still better options.
Read our Google Chromecast (2018) review.
- Reviewed on: 13 July 2018
The Nvidia Shield TV is one of the most capable 4K HDR-enabled media streamers we’ve seen, and with the combination of GeForce Now and local game streaming in 4K, it’s the best option on the market for gamers. The operating system is incredibly easy to use, there’s a wide range of apps and games available via Google Play and GeForce Now can bring PC gaming to those on a budget. It lacks support from the likes of All4 and ITV Player, but with the addition of Google Cast it’s easy to connect your iOS or Android device to the Shield and broadcast to it wirelessly.
First-generation Shield TV owners get the key new features via a free software update, so there’s no major reason to upgrade. It’ll even get Google Assistant, although that’ll come after the new model receives it. With that being said, we do recommend grabbing the new controller as it’s a huge improvement over the original.
Read our Nvidia Shield TV 2017 review.
- Reviewed on: 22 March 2016
For some people - mainly those with iOS devices and no 2nd- or 3rd-generation Apple TV - the new box is a great media streamer and games machine. However, there's no escaping the high price and limited selection of apps. And if you're not interested in gaming, you're just as well off buying a 3rd-generation Apple TV or Roku for less than half the price. Competition from other gaming media streamers is stiff, too, with Amazon's £79 Fire TV offering more UK catch-up TV as well as similar gaming performance, expandable storage and support for 4K content. Ultimately, the 4th-gen Apple TV has potential (Apple may even upgrade the software so it supports 4K at some point) but right now that potential is far from realised.
Read our Apple TV 2015 (4th-gen) review.