We live in an age of on-demand viewing and the best streaming stick will help you access the near-endless supply of great film and TV content available online.
You might already have a smart TV, but the chances are it won’t have absolutely every app necessary to watch all of your favourites shows and movies. That’s where the best media streamers come in and streaming sticks are the most compact of the lot.
There are plenty of great streaming sticks out there, with offerings from the likes of Amazon, Roku, Google and Now all competing for your hard-earned cash. But which is the best streaming stick overall and which one is right for you?
We’ve tested every media streamer worth knowing about and are here to help you make the right choice, whether you’re after a basic budget dongle or a 4K HDR powerhouse. Below, you’ll find an in-depth buying guide arming you with all the information you need to make a smart buying decision along with our pick of the best streaming sticks on the market today.
So, if you’re ready to take a step towards binge-watching heaven, read on.
Best streaming stick: At a glance
Don’t have time to read the full guide? Here’s a list of our top picks.
Best streaming stick: How to choose the right streaming stick for you
What’s the big deal with streaming sticks, then? This brief buying guide should clear up some of the questions you may have concerning streaming sticks and what they’re used for. If you already know your Roku Streaming Stick+ from your Fire TV Stick then fast forward straight to our product recommendations further down the page.
What is a streaming stick and how do you use one?
It’s a small internet-connected stick that plugs directly into the HDMI input of your TV and allows you to stream TV programmes and movies from a variety of services. With a few exceptions, you can usually download apps onto the stick for paid streaming services (Netflix, Disney Plus, Now etc.) and also for free-to-watch apps such as YouTube and BBC iPlayer. The majority of streaming sticks also come bundled with remote controls, but they can also often be controlled via an app on a smartphone or tablet.
READ NEXT: The best 4K HDR smart TVs you can buy
Do you need a subscription to watch content with a streaming stick?
Streaming sticks always have a range of free applications that do not require a paid subscription. YouTube, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 are commonly found on streaming stick devices and won’t require a monthly subscription – although bear in mind that you will need a TV license if you’re intending to watch live TV. Paid-for streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus will cost extra, and, outside of free trials, you won’t be able to access any of these apps’ content until you’re a paying customer.
Should you buy a streaming stick if you already have a smart TV?
Depending on the brand of smart TV that you own, it may not have an app for every streaming service. For instance, some televisions running Android TV OS don’t currently support Sky’s Now, so you’d need to buy a streaming stick that does. Apple TV Plus currently has limited television support too, so a dedicated media streamer may be your only option. And even if your TV does cover all your desired apps, you may simply prefer the cleaner user interface and nifty voice search functions that some streaming sticks offer.
If you don’t have a smart TV and want to watch the latest on-demand video content without having to buy a new television, then a streaming stick is a must-have. There are still alternatives, obviously: you could connect an external device such as a laptop or tablet to your TV via an HDMI cable and launch content from there. But who wants to go through all that hassle every movie night?
How much should you spend?
You can spend as little as £30 on a streaming stick, but that figure could be higher depending on your budget and requirements. If you want the very best in HDR 4K playback and surround sound support then you can expect to spend nearer £50, sometimes more. Meanwhile, those after a decent budget stick with Full HD playback can get away with spending £30 or less.
Don’t forget to take streaming service subscriptions into account; Disney plus starts at £8/mth, while a 4K premium Netflix account will run you £14/mth, and the separate subscription costs for Now’s Cinema, Entertainment, Kids and Sports channels can add up to a hefty fee. Of course, subscribing to these is optional, and there’s always plenty of free-to-watch content from Freeview Play apps, YouTube and so on.
READ NEXT: The best smart TV platforms
How are streaming sticks different to media streaming boxes?
Being cheap and just as effective, streaming sticks have eaten away at the market for streaming set-top-boxes, with only a few hold-outs like the Amazon Fire TV Cube, Apple TV and NVIDIA Shield TV Pro still doing any serious business.
The big advantage of streaming sticks is that they’re cheaper and more discreet; you just plug one into the back of your TV and it’ll hide out of sight and just work. Some will even work with no source of power other than a spare USB port on your TV, although the more powerful 4K sticks tend to need their own dedicated power supply.
That’s always the case with media streaming boxes, which are designed to sit near your screen or in your AV stack. But while they’re less convenient and more expensive, they’re also more powerful, giving you the chance to install apps, play games and more. They’re also more likely to have a wired Ethernet port as well. That said, the more advanced 4K sticks are growing more adept at this stuff, so you don’t really lose out much, if at all, by opting for a stick.
READ NEXT: The best Android TV boxes
1. Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max: Amazon’s best streaming stick
Price: £55 | Buy now from Amazon
Yet another streaming stick has joined the Amazon stable, and as the name would suggest, this is designed to be the ultimate version. The big-ticket feature that sets the Fire TV Stick 4K Max apart from its more affordable siblings is support for Wi-Fi 6, which promises to allow for smoother UHD streaming on compatible networks, making this a more future-proof purchase than some other options.
The Fire TV Stick 4K Max also brings a couple of smart home features to the table that make it worth buying over the Fire TV Stick 4K, which is £5 cheaper. First, you can view your home security camera in a live picture-in-picture mode, allowing you to check who’s at the door without interrupting your TV time. There’s also a feature that lets you connect your Alexa speakers to the Fire TV Stick 4K Max, creating an immersive surround sound experience.
Outside of those key upgrades, the Fire TV Stick 4K Max is pretty much business as usual for an Amazon streaming stick. Design-wise, if you’ve seen one Fire TV Stick, you’ve seen them all, with the only noteworthy element being the new remote. This latest upgrade replaces the black microphone button with a bright blue Alexa key and adds shortcut buttons for Prime Video, Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Music.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Now, Apple TV Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 3,840 x 2,160p (4K) at 60fps; HDR formats: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+, HLG; Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac/ax (Wi-Fi 6); Audio support: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital Plus; Smart assistants: Amazon Alexa; Storage: 8GB; Operating system: Fire OS
2. Roku Streaming Stick 4K: The most comprehensive 4K streamer
Price: £50 | Buy now from Amazon
Roku has followed up the superb Streaming Stick+ with an even better media streamer, adding support for HDR10+ and Dolby Vision to the existing 4K HDR and HLG support. What’s more, Roku has improved the older unit’s processor and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, giving you a slick steaming experience with minimal pausing or low-quality streaming, plus excellent connectivity almost anywhere you put it.
Pair it with a decent screen and Dolby Vision content looks spectacularly good, and you won’t be disappointed by the colours or the detail in standard 4K HDR material or even upscaled 1080p programmes. Meanwhile, Roku’s no-nonsense interface makes it quick and easy to get to your favourite streaming services or search for programmes or movies across most of them (though not all). And while Amazon has caught up on support for the full suite of major streaming services, Roku still gains extra credit for its superb smartphone app and integration with both Alexa and the Google Assistant. If you’re not embedded in Amazon’s ecosystems, this is the king of streaming sticks.
Read our full Roku Streaming Stick 4K review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Now, Apple TV Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 3,840 x 2,160p (4K); HDR formats: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+, HLG; Wi-Fi: Dual-band 802.11ac; Audio support: DTS, Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Plus 7.1; Smart assistants: Roku voice remote, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa; Storage: 4GB; Operating system: Roku OS
3. Chromecast with Google TV (2020): The best Google streaming stick
Price: £60 | Buy now from Argos
The Chromecast with Google TV replaces Google’s old 4K HDR streamer, the Chromecast Ultra, and it comes with two major additions: a remote control and a brand-new UI called Google TV. Google TV brings the Chromecast experience up to speed with rivals like Fire TV and Roku OS, making it easier to find the content you’re after, and the remote’s voice search function works wonderfully well too.
The Chromecast with Google TV plays content at resolutions up to 4K and supports HDR10, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, making it one of the most formidable streaming sticks in terms of HDR streaming. As on previous Chromecasts, app coverage is extensive, but the user interface misses out on Now and Apple TV+ (although you can still cast the former to the Chromecast from a phone or tablet). Dolby Atmos audio is also on offer for those with the right soundbar or surround sound setups.
Read our full Chromecast with Google TV (2020) review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 3,840 x 2,160p (4K); HDR formats: Dolby Vision, HDR10, HDR10+; Wi-Fi: Dual-band 802.11ac; Audio support: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital Plus 7.1; Smart assistants: Google Assistant; Storage: N/A; Operating system: Google TV
4. Roku Express 4K: The best streaming stick for affordable 4K HDR
Price: £40 | Buy now from Amazon
The Roku Express 4K is an upgrade to Roku’s budget Express streamer, which costs £30 and can only stream in FHD resolution. As the name suggests, the Express 4K is able to stream content in 4K and is also compatible with most of the major HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+ and HLG. This means you can enjoy vivid, impactful High Dynamic Range playback across a wide range of streaming services. As long as your TV supports HDR content, that is.
Dolby Vision is the only major HDR format missing here, but the brand is well represented on the audio front, with support for Dolby Audio and Dolby Atmos, as well as DTS Digital Surround. The other drawback of the Express 4K is that the remote lacks voice control. This is easily forgiven, however, as the function is present on the excellent Roku app, which also allows you to search for content and execute remote control functions.
Read our full Roku Express 4K review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Now, Apple TV Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 3,840 x 2,160p (4K); HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+, HLG; Wi-Fi: Dual-band 802.11ac; Audio support: DTS Digital Surround, Dolby Audio, Dolby Atmos; Smart assistants: Roku voice remote, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa; Storage: N/A; Operating system: Roku OS
5. Amazon Fire TV Stick (2021): The best Alexa streaming stick for FHD content
Price: £40 | Buy now from Amazon
Amazon’s third-gen Fire TV Stick has 50% more power than its predecessor and, for the first time on an HD Fire TV Stick, it adds HDR playback and Dolby Atmos support too. And the best news? It doesn’t even cost any more than the second-gen Fire TV Stick. Thanks to its new 1.7GHz quad-core processor, the Fire TV Stick is much more responsive than the last model, letting you leap around the Fire TV UI and launch apps faster than ever before.
The Fire TV Stick supports video playback up to 1080p and carries every major streaming platform, including Netflix, Now and YouTube. This model adds in support for HDR10, HDR10+ and HLG, a real boon for anyone with a modern FHD HDR TV. There’s also audio support for Dolby Digital and Dolby Atmos surround sound. Capping it off is the fantastic voice remote with Alexa functionality, which can control the Fire TV Stick, your TV and any other Alexa smart devices you may have at home.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick (2020) review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Now, Apple TV Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 1080p; HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+, HLG; Wi-Fi: Dual-band 802.11ac; Audio support: Dolby Atmos, Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus; Smart assistants: Amazon Alexa; Storage: 8GB; Operating system: Fire OS
6. Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite: Amazon’s cheapest streaming stick
Price: £30 | Buy now from Amazon
Price aside, there’s not a huge difference between the Fire TV Stick Lite and the standard Fire TV Stick. The biggest concession in this model is that Dolby Atmos support is achieved only through HDMI passthrough, meaning that it can’t transcode multi-channel audio. So if your TV can’t decode the audio stream from whichever streaming service you choose, it may just come through in stereo. The remote also lacks the ability to control your TV’s power and volume, something the regular Fire TV Stick’s remote can do.
Unlike some of its budget FHD competitors, the Fire TV Stick Lite offers three HDR formats – HDR10, HDR10+ and HLG. There aren’t many FHD HDR TVs out there but it’s an impressive feature nonetheless. And then there’s the inclusion of the wonderful Amazon Alexa smart assistant. The remote features a voice search button that utilises Alexa to help you find content and execute commands, saving you time hassle and getting you into the HDR action that much faster.
Read our full Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite review for more details
Key specs – Streaming services: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Now, Apple TV Plus, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My 5, YouTube; Resolution: Up to 1080p; HDR formats: HDR10, HDR10+, HLG; Wi-Fi: Dual-band 802.11ac; Audio support: Dolby Atmos (HDMI passthrough only); Smart assistants: Amazon Alexa; Storage: N/A; Operating system: Fire OS