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Article updated on August 2, 2021 at 12:30 PM PDT

Best back-to-school streaming devices and TVs

Whether you're looking for a simple plug-and-play dongle or a brand-new TV, these are the best affordable streaming devices for a dorm room (or anywhere else).

Our Experts

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Written by 
David Katzmaier
Ty Pendlebury
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
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David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- Personal Tech
David reviews TVs and leads the Personal Tech team at CNET, covering mobile, software, computing, streaming and home entertainment. We provide helpful, expert reviews, advice and videos on what gadget or service to buy and how to get the most out of it.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials
  • Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
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Ty Pendlebury Editor
Ty Pendlebury is a journalism graduate of RMIT Melbourne, and has worked at CNET since 2006. He lives in New York City where he writes about streaming and home audio.
Expertise Ty has worked for radio, print, and online publications, and has been writing about home entertainment since 2004. He majored in Cinema Studies when studying at RMIT. He is an avid record collector and streaming music enthusiast. Credentials
  • Ty was nominated for Best New Journalist at the Australian IT Journalism awards, but he has only ever won one thing. As a youth, he was awarded a free session for the photography studio at a local supermarket.
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Our Picks

$30 at Roku
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Best streaming device overall
Roku Express 4K Plus
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$30 at Amazon
005-amazon-fire-stick-tv-and-fire-stick-lite-2020
Best budget streaming device
Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite
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$177 at Walmart
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Best cheap 32-inch TV
TCL 32S331
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$130 at Amazon
41-toshiba-insignia-amazon-fire-tv-edition
Best cheap 32-inch TV runner-up
Insignia Amazon Fire TV Edition
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$510 at Amazon
tcl-55s435-3-of-6
Best budget 4K TV
TCL 4-Series Roku TV
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$25 at Roku
21-roku-express
Best budget streaming device runner-up
Roku Express HD
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$150 at Best Buy
05-nvidia-shield-tv
Best gaming streamer
Nvidia Shield TV
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$130 at Roku
014-roku-streambar-2020
Best soundbar and streamer combo
Roku Streambar
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$1,900 at Walmart
TCL 6-Series 2020 Roku TV 65R635
Best mid-priced smart TV
TCL 6-Series Roku TV
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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. 

Read more: Best back-to-school gear under $100 for 2021

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, Amazon Fire TV streaming sticks and TVs 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.
$30 at Roku

Best streaming device overall

Roku Express 4K Plus

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.

$30 at Amazon

Best budget streaming device

Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite

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.

$177 at Walmart

Best cheap 32-inch TV

TCL 32S331

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.

$130 at Amazon

Best cheap 32-inch TV runner-up

Insignia Amazon Fire TV Edition

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.) 

$510 at Amazon

Best budget 4K TV

TCL 4-Series Roku TV

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.

$25 at Roku

Best budget streaming device runner-up

Roku Express HD

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.

$150 at Best Buy

Best gaming streamer

Nvidia Shield TV

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.

Editors' choice
$130 at Roku

Best soundbar and streamer combo

Roku Streambar

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.

Editors' choice
$1,900 at Walmart

Best mid-priced smart TV

TCL 6-Series Roku TV

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.

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Watch this: Which Roku Is the Go-To? We Break It Down