Streaming players are some of the most versatile gifts in the tech world. They're small enough to fit in a stocking but powerful enough to offer tons of entertainment for the whole family. And let's be honest: Cuddling up in front of the TV streaming your favorite shows is a perfect way to spend a cold winter day. So if you're thinking about giving yourself or someone you love the cozy gift of streaming but are unsure of which device will work best, you've come to the right place.
We've reviewed nearly every streaming device and major smart TV system on the market today, including Roku, Google Chromecast and Apple TV. These add-on streaming devices often have simpler remotes, more apps, better search and more frequent updates than the smarts built into your TV set, especially older models.
Best streamer overall - Roku Express 4K Plus
CNET TAKE: Roku is our favorite streaming system, with the most streaming app options, the simplest streaming platform interface and the best search. It also has a content-agnostic platform that doesn't push any one media streaming service provider, like Amazon Prime Video or Apple, over another. The Express 4K Plus is one of the cheapest streaming TV options with 4K HDR. (Even if your current TV doesn't support those formats, your next one probably will.) Thanks to the AirPlay update, this Roku device is one of the least expensive ways to connect your iPhone or other Apple device to your TV. It makes a great gift for those looking to get the most out of streaming without breaking the bank.
Second-best streamer overall - Chromecast with Google TV
CNET TAKE: Those looking to give the gift of Google should love the The Chromecast with Google TV. It isn't quite as good as the Roku Express 4K Plus, but this TV streaming device comes closer than any other device on the market. It outdoes that device by adding Dolby Vision compatibility, but its biggest smart device strength is Google Assistant voice search, which works well for finding stuff to watch. We also like the impressive integration with other Google services such as Google Photos and YouTube TV. The interface is more evolved-looking than Roku, but ultimately we prefer Roku's simpler approach and no-nonsense search results. That said, the new Chromecast is a better smart streaming device choice for those already living in Google's world.
Best for Apple fans - Apple TV 4K
CNET TAKE: The perfect foil to the affordable 4K streamers above, the new Apple TV 4K still costs too much, but is a good choice for people who want to check every feature box — or who just want an Apple device to use Apple Arcade for gaming or take full advantage of their Apple One subscription bundles. Video purists will appreciate its flexible HDR and TV calibration feature, while those with older Apple boxes will love the new and improved remote.
For most people, however, Apple's venerable remote control streamer just isn't worth the money, especially now that Roku has nearly all the major apps and AirPlay. If you really want Dolby Vision, you can find that on Roku, Google and Amazon devices at less than half the price.
The following CNET staff contributed to this story: Senior Editor Eli Blumenthal, Associate Writer Sarah Lord and Copy Editor Jim Hoffman. For more reviews of personal technology products, please visit www.cnet.com.
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