Roku is our favorite streaming system and the Express is the perfect starter Roku: cheap, simple with just the features any streaming fan needs. Thousands of apps, great search and an intuitive, equal-opportunity menu system help the Express shine.
Pay a bit more for Amazon's Stick -- or not, because it always seems to be on sale -- and you'll get two features the Roku Express is missing: TV volume and power controls on the remote, and access to Alexa by pressing down the voice button. The menus aren't as simple or equal-opportunity (this is an Amazon gadget after all) but this Stick is still super capable.
What's missing from this picture that you saw on the previous two? A remote. Google's cheap streamer instead relies on your phone to control the apps, making video play on the TV. It's a slick system for phone-centric users, but many people will prefer an actual remote control and menu system.
Now we're getting to the good stuff. The Streaming Stick Plus is our favorite streamer overall, with Roku's excellent system and a couple of key features: the ability to stream in 4K HDR and, yes, those headphone and volume buttons and voice option on the remote.
Amazon's answer to that Roku costs the same and (stop us if this is getting familiar) adds the ability to talk to Alexa from the remote. It also handles Dolby Vision HDR, if your gift recipient wants that, but overall we like the Roku better because of its simpler menus.
Roku's best streamer is all about convenience. The remote has a headphone jack with volume control (also available on a $60 Roku Streaming Stick) and an extra unique to any streamer: programmable shortcut keys you can bind to any voice command, from "launch YouTube TV" to "turn on closed captions." They're neat tricks, for sure, but the Streaming Stick Plus is a better value at half the price.
Speaking of the best value, this isn't it. Apple's take on streamers has step-up extras like a touchpad remote (which people either love or hate) Dolby Vision and Atmos support and a streaming experience that's well, kinda luxurious. Add in Apple Arcade
and the best version of the TV app and you have one of the most full-featured boxes around. With a price to match.
Weird? Yes. Unique? Certainly. "Feels like magic?" That's what we said in our review of the original Fire TV Cube, a mashup between a universal remote, the Fire TV 4K and an Echo Dot speaker. It's always listening for the Alexa wake word and you can command it to stream stuff or turn on your TV. The new 2019 version features faster response times for some voice commands.
Speaking of weird, this streamer is shaped like a cylinder and looks like nothing so much as a cigar. The latest Shield is jam-packed with geek-friendly streaming goodness, including fancy upscaling said to improve video quality, all the 4K HDR bells and whistles, access to three different gaming ecosystems and the Google Android TV operating system complete with Google Assistant.
With its more conventional shape the Pro has every feature of the less-expensive standard version and adds even more geeky goodness: more RAM and storage, a pair of USB ports and Plex Media Server capability. If you don't know about that stuff, don't ask.
Although it's a TV, not a streamer, this TCL's built-in Roku TV system is basically just like those Roku streamers from previous slides we like so much. No, it's not a picture quality champ, but it's probably "good enough" for most viewers.