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 2020
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 2020
1. Nvidia Shield TV (2019)
The Nvidia Shield TV offers the most complete media streamer experience on the market right now, although it’s not the cheapest gadget in our chart by a long shot. It features [email protected] playback, like its predecessor, but the new Shield TV takes things a step further with AI-based 4K upscaling that makes even 360p content look sharp and crisp. It’s not as good as native 4K content, but it’s certainly the next best thing.
Couple that with Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision support across Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, Google Assistant support, access to AAA gaming via GeForce Now and a new triangular remote with backlit media keys and you’ve got a truly premium media streaming experience.
Read our full Nvidia Shield TV (2019) review
2. Roku Streaming Stick+
The Streaming Stick+ is another great media streamer from Roku, bringing a 4K option 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.
Now it's only £49, making it even better. Even if you don't have a 4K TV yet, you'll be future-proofing.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick+ review
3. Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
A great-value media streamer if your 4K TV doesn't have all the apps you need. Amazon could do with toning down the self-promotion but the inclusion of Alexa and useful new buttons on the remote mean it's a good deal overall.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review
4. Roku Express (2019)
Without a doubt the best budget media streamer on the market, Roku Express undercuts the Amazon Fire TV Stick on price and ramps up user-friendliness over Chromecast with the fully featured and easy-to-navigate Roku OS. All the main free and paid catch-up and on-demand streaming services are catered for, and Roku Search makes it simple to find content at the best price, no matter the platform.
A free mobile app adds voice- and remote control, but the diminutive Roku Express will sit unobtrusively below a TV where it will happily operate with the bundled infra-red remote control. Small and light, it's difficult to believe such a tiny box can make such a huge difference to your entertainment experience.
Read our full Roku Express (2019) review
5. Roku Premiere
Just £10 more expensive than the 1080p Roku Express, and £10 cheaper than the 4K HDR10 Roku Streaming Stick+ which comes with an enhanced Bluetooth remote, this £39.99 Roku Premiere sits in the awkward middle ground where it is an excellent device in its own right but difficult to recommend over either of its siblings.
Compared to non-Roku media streamers it is a recommendable device, priced to match the non-4K Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa remote, adding 4K and HDR10 streaming, and voice control through a free mobile app; and more user-friendly than Chromecast, with the Roku OS offering easy search and navigation across a plethora of free and paid streaming services.
Roku brings more than 4,000 apps to any TV: all that's required is HDMI, USB for power and a stable Wi-Fi connection.
Read our full Roku Premiere review
6. Amazon Fire TV Stick (2019)
The Fire TV Stick for 2019 might not be hugely different but it remains at the same price and has an upgraded remote that lets you control your TV or other devices.
Overall, the Fire TV Stick is a solid choice for most people with good performance, an easy to use interface, Alexa-integration and plenty of services on offer. There's little to dislike here.
It makes particular sense for anyone who is an Amazon Prime customer or those with Amazon Echo speakers.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick (2019) review
7. Google Chromecast Ultra
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 full Google Chromecast Ultra review
8. Now TV 4K Smart Box
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 full Now TV 4K Smart Box review
9. Now TV Smart Stick
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 full Now TV Smart Stick review
10. Google Chromecast (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 full Google Chromecast (2018) review
11. Apple TV HD (4th gen, 2015)
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 full Apple TV HD (4th gen, 2015) review