Gone are the dark days of low-res entertainment. Banished to the bin of bad telly be the buffering disappointment of 720p. Next-gen streaming sticks and bandwidth-busting TV boxes are here – and they signal the arrival of a hi-res revolution.
Whilst a world of from-the-web telly awaits, choosing the right box for your TV takes a bit of thought. Fancy 4K? After an Apple? Want to stream some games? One device most certainly does not offer all these features.
Thankfully, we here at Stuff know a thing or two about what makes a streaming box brill – and we’ve put the cream of the connected content crop up against each other. Read on to find out which is our favourite.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV box (£80/$89.99)
What’s the story?
Amazon’s second Fire TV is faster, more powerful and has a heap of new bits on board. Like what? Like 4K streaming, that’s what.
Externally, little has changed: it’s a little black box that’s minimalist enough to look cool, subdued enough to ignore. There are worse designs to plonk under the telly. Inside, there’s been a mammoth makeover: a juicier processor and more memory means a 75 per cent performance boost over the original – not bad, given that the first-gen Fire TV zipped about like a puppy on espresso.
The good news for those with twitchy thumbs? Amazon is using that extra oomph to offer ‘proper’ gaming, including a paired-down version of Lego Star Wars, playable via a sold-separately gamepad (£40). Best of all, it’s still the only streaming box in the UK to offer both Amazon Instant Video and Netflix – though, sadly, the vastly-improved voice search function is limited to Amazon-only content.
No more nodding-off as the cursor catches up: menus and apps load quickly enough to give your eyeballs whiplash. A clever processing trick called ‘ASAP’ even pre-buffers based on your habits. When it comes to finding favourite flicks, the interface is a bit iffy. This is Amazon’s party, so own-brand content takes precedence – which means wading through Prime stuff before anything else.
As for picture quality, most films and TV shows are available in 720p and 1080p and, at Full HD, clarity isn’t far off Blu-ray – but the real party-starter is 4K. It'll deliver 4K from both Amazon and Netflix, so if your TV's lacking one of those, this will fill the gap. The level of detail is stunning: from clothing textures to facial features, it’s captivatingly clean and crisp.
The catch? You’ll need a 4K TV compatible with HDCP 2.2, a type of copyright protection not found on older models. Oh, and you’ll be stuffed without a suitably speedy internet connection.
Storage: 8GB (expandable) ● Connectivity: HDMI; ethernet; USB 3.0; microSD ● Video output: 720p and 1080p up to 60fps; 2160p up to 30fps ● RAM: 2GB ● Dimensions: 115x115x17.8mm
Roku 2 (£70/$69.99)
What’s the story?
Roku is an old pro at this game, and this new middle-range offering is its most compelling yet. The Roku 2 is essentially identical to the snappy top-end Roku 3, but without that model’s fancier remote, which has a headphone socket (for top-secret streaming) and gyroscopic motion control (for gaming like it’s 2006). It’s not a big deal – you’re not missing out on much, and you save a tenner.
As well as the many streaming services on-board you can add your own content on USB sticks, and expand the Roku’s app storage by plugging in a microSD card.
The latest update focuses on content discovery: a customisable feed that lets you know when theatrical releases hit the streaming world. There’s also a cross-platform search function. It’s currently limited to Netflix, which is a little pointless, but it will be super-handy when more services are made compatible (which is very much the plan).
The core Roku service hasn’t changed much in years, which is a good thing. What it offers is by far the biggest collection of apps around – ‘channels’ in Roku parlance – all arranged in a simple, neat, fluid interface.
You get most of the best sources, such as Netflix, Now TV, Google Play, YouTube, and all of the UK’s free catch-up services, and in 1080p where possible.
Having an app collection this big is a double-edged sword. On one hand, most of your streaming needs are catered for. Then again, you’ll find a lot of useless and/or weird stuff, such as The Ringtone Channel. You can simply not install that stuff, though, and you can rearrange the interface to prioritise the stuff you use most.
And unlike the others here the Roku has no service of its own to constantly push on to you. It’s just unbiased, slick and simple - and we love it.
Storage: 256mb (expandable) ● Connectivity: HDMI; ethernet; USB ● Video output: 720p and 1080 up to 60fps ● RAM: 256mb ● Dimensions: 88.9x88.9x25.4mm
Google Chromecast (2015) (£30/$35)
What’s the story?
The old Chromecast was a thing designed by engineers and, as a result, looked like a chunky USB stick. The new model is a much more exciting neon biscuit.
As with the previous Chromecast, plugging in and setting up takes about a minute. It still needs USB power, but it'll run on the 5V from a regular USB socket, which your TV almost certainly has.
The original Chromecast was set up through a browser; this time you use the app – and it’s in there that you can see the way Google wants you to use its Chrome-y contraption. Different services are gathered into the same app, making it a hub for all the possible things you can play. This hasn't been implemented in the UK yet, but, when it has, you'll be able to simply type 'Paul Rudd' into the app and take your pick from Paul's array of reliably funny films on Netflix or iPlayer, or watch clips of Paul's masterful chat show appearances on YouTube.
The new Chromecast is faster. Loading isn't instantaneous, but it still starts streaming a Netflix episode faster than most websites load on a phone.
We'd say waiting time has halved – but it's halved from about eight seconds, so you'd have to be incredibly impatient for this to matter. Adding to the new ‘Cast’s charms is the fact you can use your phone as a games controller - albeit a big-buttoned, semi-proper one, rather than a mirrored display.
More importantly, Wi-Fi reception has been improved. If you've tried ‘Casting in an upstairs bedroom and found the router out of reach, this model could well be your saviour.
Thought that was everything? You thought wrong. Google’s new dinky disc also packs Photos integration. If you're fed up with looking at the default photography your old Chromecast was displaying as a screensaver, you can now set it to show your Billericay '14 Lads On Tour snaps whenever it's idle.
Storage: 256mb ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 512mb ● Dimensions: 124x124x43mm
Apple TV (2015) (£139)
What’s the story?
Like its predecessor, the new Apple TV is a small black puck, albeit one that’s thicker and heavier than before. It retains HDMI and Ethernet ports, but loses optical audio – gaining, instead, a USB-C port for ‘service and support’.
Closer than ever to a headless iPhone, the device’s innards have received a power push to make it suitably nippy – though it’s still limited to 1080p: no 4K here. Users of the last-gen fruity streamer will find Apple’s updated zapper a reason to rejoice. The Siri Remote is a six-button bluetooth beast with a built-in mic for talking to your TV, complete with glass touchpad and Lightning charging port.
Addition of an App Store, finally offering third-party software, should also get Apple-fans all aquiver – though discoverability is dreadful. You either choose from Apple’s recommendations or perform searches, with no categories to explore and no way to browse elsewhere, even in iTunes.
When watching, Siri shines. Ask “What did she say?” and it’ll rewind and turn on subtitles. It doesn’t talk over everything, either, so you can watch in blissful, Siri-free silence.
Set-up is simple, too. If you have an iPhone, simply turn on Bluetooth and plonk it next to the Apple TV, then wait for the two to get pally. On the apps front, Apple’s box fares badly next to the competition.
Whilst the launch line-up is quite impressive, there are a few crucial holes: there’s no Amazon Instant Video, and the retail behemoth's continuing ban on Apple TV sales suggests that’s unlikely to change. Even though such an app has been rumoured.
As gaming goes, the Siri Remote can be a literal pain. Its cramp-inducing form works for quick, occasional interaction, not extended controlling – though some developers have deftly dealt with its limitations: Geometry Wars 3 has become a super single-stick avoid ’em up. Still, if you’re really into games, you’ll want to pick up a £40 SteelSeries Nimbus controller.
Storage: 32/64GB ● Connectivity: HDMI; ethernet; USB-C ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 2GB ● Dimensions: 98x98x35mm
Amazon Fire TV stick (2017) (£40/$39.99)
What's the story?
Amazon’s newest Fire TV Stick might look familiar, but it’s got a lot more going on on the inside than its predecessor. Which we all know is where it counts.
For a start, it now features a quad-core processor, which works with its 1GB of RAM and 8GB of built-in storage for a claimed speed boost of 30%. Plus, the faster, more stable connections offered by its upgraded 802.11ac Wi-Fi means it’ll take buffering in its stride.
The UI has had a big facelift too, which is now easier to use and much more helpful in the way it surfaces the content you’re looking for.
Of course, the big news here is that Amazon’s own Alexa voice control is now built in and at your beck and call. Just hold down the microphone button on the streamer’s now-included remote while you ask for a show, actor, genre or even the weather. Then sit back and watch Alexa work her magic.
A streamer is only as good as the stuff you can watch on it, and thankfully the Fire TV Stick is chockablock with high definition content for you to enjoy. No, it doesn't support 4K resolutions but then if you've got one of those tellies you shouldn't be bothering with this product anyway; the full-fat Fire TV Box will be a better bet.
The speed boost in this new incarnation really shows, which is saying something as its predecessor was no slouch. Moving around the menus is smooth and stutter free, while the improved UI looks great. It might lack the finesse of Netflix’s recommendations, but it’s simpler than ever to find something you actually fancy watching, and there’s a lighter emphasis on Amazon’s content to boot.
As for Alexa, she’s a real movie buff, and we found ourselves turning to her more than we thought. Being able to use voice search to accurately pull up stuff you want to watch is a much nicer experience than wrestling with an on-screen keyboard. That addition here helps to give the Amazon Fire TV Stick a real edge over many of its rivals.
Storage: 8GB ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB (power only), Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps ● RAM: 1GB ● Dimensions: 85.9mm x 30.0mm x 13.6mm
Roku Streaming Stick (£40/$47.99)
What’s the Story?
Like the majority of its dongle-shaped rivals, the Roku Streaming Stick isn’t much to look, but its striking purple hue at least makes it stand out from your TV’s back panel.
It doesn’t boast any fancy tricks like Amazon's Alexa, but does come with a dedicated remote control and an absolute wealth of content to treat your peepers to.
Roku claims it’s got over 2,000 channels, but all you need to know is that every major service you’d want is bundled in here. That includes the likes of Netflix, Now TV and Amazon Prime Video, plus the full suite of catch-up services too.
Its app has also been spruced up recently so it’s a doddle to find what you’re looking for.
While the States has seen a faster, updated Roku Streaming Stick at the end of last year, we’re still rocking with the one from 2014. It’s good, but its spec sheet starting to show its age.
It shows in its performance too. Moving around the interface is just a little slower than you’ll spot on the now much speedier Amazon Fire TV Stick. Load times are longer and scrolling through the interface just isn’t as slick.
There’s certainly no knocking its offering though, and its handy dongle design and cheaper price could appeal to some more than the Roku 2.
It's nice to have the remote included at this price too, which comes with buttons allowing you to skip directly to Netflix, YouTube and the Google Play store.
An unfussy streaming stick that supports all major streaming platforms, but its specs are now struggling to keep up
Storage: 256MB ● Connectivity: HDMI; microUSB (power only); Wi-Fi 802.11 (a/b/g/n) ● Video output: 1080p ● RAM: 512MB ● Dimensions: 79 x 27 x11mm
Nvidia Shield (£150/$199.99)
What's the story?
As with the Apple TV, the Nvidia Shield is a mighty premium streamer compared to the likes of the Roku and Chromecast, and also like the Apple TV, the Shield aims to justify its higher price with apps. Here, those apps are of the Google variety: this is one of the first standalone boxes to run Android TV.
Alongside the usual Android TV app offering there’s a Shield-specific area of the Google Play Store where you can download games that have been tailored for Nvidia’s hardware. There are even ports of all of the Half Life games available.
And there’s another, Nvidia-specific ace up the Shield’s sleeve, too: cloud-based game streaming via the company’s own GeForce Now service. Through this you can play premium PC games such as The Witcher 3.
What makes this gaming potential all the more impressive is the dinky size of the machine: it’s about as wide and deep as an average 7in tablet. In the box you get both a perfectly serviceable zapper and a gaming pad that, while chunky compared to a DualShock 4, is pretty close to current console standards.
But the Shield isn’t a serious console alternative. The problem is the selection of games: a GeForce Now subscription (free for three months, £7.49 thereafter) gives you access to 61 games (at the last count), but the standard isn’t amazing.
Even the great games included (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Fear 3, for example) are either indie or old. You can pay extra for games to “Buy & Play Instantly”, but with the exception of The Witcher 3 (which is £50!), nothing in the current catalogue really excites.
And even on a broadband connection that smashes the high recommended requirements there are times that the image quality drops really low. It’s also worth mentioning that Android TV doesn’t have access to every app that an Android phone does: Amazon Video is a particularly serious omission. The inclusion of 4K for the likes of Netflix is some consolation, although most 4K TVs now have Netflix in 4K built-in.
Storage: 16/500GB ● Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet; HDMI 2.0; 2x USB 3.0; Micro-USB 2.0; MicroSD slot ● Video output: 1080p up to 60fps; 4K playback at up to 60fps ● RAM: 3GB ● Dimensions: 210 x 130 x 250 mm
GEM Box (from €99)
What’s the Story?
EMTEC traditionally makes portable storage devices but the GEMBox is its attempt to compete with the big boys of gaming, i.e. Sony and Microsoft. Piece of cake, eh?
This relatively inexpensive device is essentially a tiny computer running Android Kitkat and is designed to do a lot of things at once: run Android apps, connect to the cloud-based videogame service GameFly and stream PC games from your computer. All of which means that it's yet another device that wants to form the nexus of your living room, streaming Netflix, letting you play Candy Crush and generally ruling the roost.
It's primarily aimed at gamers, and so ships with a proprietary gamepad, but it can also be purchased with a remote control featuring a qwerty keyboard for a smoother typing or television-style experience.
The GEMBox's list of functions is long, but in practice it performs none of them to a high standard.
GameFly streaming suffers exactly the same problems as most similar services: latency, jitteriness, and graphical oddities. Even when using fibre-optic broadband it’s simply nowhere near as responsive as a traditional console gaming, and the price for the service - £7.49 for a monthly subscription - just isn't worth it for the small selection of titles on offer.
The same can be said of the PC-to-TV game streaming experience. We tested it using an Ethernet connection but the results were far too slow to be considered ‘real-time’. We also suffered constant mapping issues with the controller both when trying to play PC games and when kicking back with downloaded Android titles, making some utterly unusable. It’s all a bit too fiddly and unreliable for our liking, though the developers are hoping to iron out these OS issues upon release.
As a TV streamer it's better, offering a cheap-ish way to add YouTube or other smart TV functionality to an old setup, but given that a Chromecast costs £30 there's really no reason why you'd buy it just for the TV side.
The GEM Box is an average TV streamer and a poor gaming device in one lucklustre package
Storage: 16GB ● Connectivity: HDMI; Ethernet; USB 2.0; microSD; Bluetooth; Wi-Fi ● Video output: 1080p ● RAM: 1GB ● Dimensions: 83x83x24mm