Yes, school should be all about hitting the books. But only the most dedicated student is going to forgo TV time, whether they're distance-learning at home or in a dorm. The good news is that nearly every TV sold now is a smart model with built-in streaming options, so satellite and cable are no longer needed -- you can ditch a disc player, too. And even an old hand-me-down "dumb TV" can be streamified with the addition of a $30-$50 add-on. We've covered all those angles below, with favorites at every price level.
Keep a few things in mind as you check out our picks for the best back-to-school streaming devices and TVs:
- This list is Roku-heavy, because that's our favorite affordable smart TV operating system. But if you're OK with seeing a lot of Prime shows advertised in the menus, and are decent substitutes.
- All of the TVs have at least two HDMI ports, so they can be connected to laptops, game consoles or any other modern video source.
- All of these have been independently chosen after being fully reviewed by CNET editors.
Roku is our favorite streaming system, with the most streaming app options, the simplest interface and the best search. That makes it the top choice for students, and the new Express 4K Plus is one of the cheapest streaming TV options with 4K HDR. (Even if your student's TV doesn't support those formats, the 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. At $10 cheaper than the company's Streaming Stick Plus and other 4K HDR streamers, it's our top pick.
Let's get this out of the way first: If your student prefers the simplicity of Roku's app-based menus, you might want to spend a little more on the Roku Express (below). But the Lite trounces the Express in features-for-the-money. This Fire TV device's biggest advantage is a remote with built-in voice search and control, thanks to Alexa (the cheapest Roku with a voice remote is the Express Plus 4K). The Fire Stick's remote also doesn't need line-of-sight to work. If you just want an inexpensive streamer for a student, this is your best bet.
Speaking of TV remotes, combining the TV and the streaming apps on one screen, with only one remote required, makes it even easier. TCL's entry-level 32S331 includes built-in Roku streaming for a really affordable price. The 32-incher can be found for under $180 at Walmart.
If you're looking for a Roku alternative -- and buying for someone who's an Amazon Prime member -- check out this Fire TV model. They have Amazon's streaming system built in, along with Alexa control, and currently cost even less than Roku's 32-inch TVs. (We haven't reviewed this particular Insignia, but we expect it to perform as well as this Toshiba.)
Does your student want something a bit bigger, perhaps with a 4K screen? If you're just looking for an easy-to-use TV with decent picture quality, this is an excellent place to start. It's ridiculously affordable and offers 4K resolution in a wide range of sizes, starting with the 43-inch model linked here. It's a great budget choice for any 4K-capable video game system.
Although it lacks the voice features and point-anywhere remote of the cheaper Fire TV Stick Lite, The Express covers the basics beautifully with quick response times and Roku's dead-simple interface. Going cheaper means your student loses the 4K HDR quality and better remote of the Express Plus 4K, but it still offers all of the same great content.
If your student likes gaming, especially PC gaming, then the fully featured Shield TV has a lot to offer. It lets you stream from a PC using Steam Link or play from a selection of great Android games. Of course this compact device is also a great video streamer, with access to all your faves like Netflix, Disney Plus, Twitch and YouTube.
Part 4K streaming box, part soundbar, the Roku Streambar is perfect for updating your student's older TVs. It's also quite affordable for what it does, and it offers both ease of use and further expandability (rear speakers, subwoofer) down the road. Considering its compact size, it sounds great with games, movies and music.
Want to treat your student to an even larger, even more special screen? The TCL 6-Series is our favorite TV for the money overall, with excellent image quality that outdoes many TVs that cost hundreds more. It might be tough to fit its smallest size (55 inches) into a dorm room, but if your student has the space and you have the budget, it's a great choice.