Just because you don't have a smart TV, it doesn't mean you need a smart TV. In this age of streaming video content, cable TV cord cutting, Netflix, Amazon Prime video, and YouTube, there's plenty of ways to stream that video onto your TV. But the cheapest is a dedicated media streamer from a company like Roku or Amazon Fire TV. Streaming media devices make great gifts too, because they're easy to use and open up access to a whole world of entertainment content, both from free apps and subscription-based apps (don't call them channels, that's outdated). Some have a remote, some don't have a remote, but all will get you to stream great TV.
If you're planning on buying that someone a media streaming player thisseason, the main thing they'll need is a at home, ideally one near the TV. That, and enough money for all those content subscriptions. Here are our picks for the best streaming device.
For less than the price of a decent dinner, the tiny Express covers the basics beautifully, has quick response times and Roku's dead-simple interface. And Roku's app access is second to none, with all the big content names they expect, from the Netflix to the Apple TV apps, and thousands of smaller content providers, too. And if they have an older TV without an HDMI port, the Express Plus is a great choice.
Roku has a better, simpler menu system but the entry-level Fire TV Stick has the edge in features -- its remote controls TV volume and power, and it lets you talk right into the remote control to search for video to stream, ask the weather or turn off the lights.
If your gift recipient would rather control the videos with his or her phone and no remote, get a Chromecast. It utilizes the Cast function on iPhones, Android phones and other devices to control video from most major content apps, including Netflix, YouTube, Hulu and thousands more apps. The big downside? No remote control or on-screen menu system, so you need your Android or iPhone to use it.
The Plus has all the Roku goodness of the Express and adds 4K HDR video output. If your gift recipient has a 4K HDR TV, or could get one in the near future (note: pretty much every new TV is 4K these days), this is a better choice than the Express because it takes advantage of the best video quality from content services like Netflix and Amazon Prime video. And the Plus also has a point-anywhere remote control with the ability to control TV volume, mute and power. It's our favorite all-around streamer.
Once again, we prefer the competing Roku Streaming Stick Plus for its superior menus, but this smart Fire TV stick has its advantages. In addition to superior voice search, voice commands and voice control (Alexa), it offers Dolby Vision HDR compatibility, something missing from Roku players. That's hardly a must-have, but if your gift recipient has a Dolby Vision TV and wants to make sure to stream in that format, Amazon's stick could be the better bet.
All of the streamers above will do the job well for half as much as the Ultra, but maybe you feel like laying a little luxury on that special media streaming someone. Roku's Ultra builds most of the extra features into its smart remote: an onboard headphone jack (so you can watch TV without disturbing anyone else), a remote finder (for when the clicker gets lost in the couch cushions) and a pair of voice programmable shortcut buttons on the Ultra remote (it's always fun to control a remote with your voice). Along with the Apple TV 4K, the Ultra is the only device on this list with an Ethernet port, so you have the option of going wired instead of Wi-Fi.
Want to give the very best? The Apple TV 4K has it all: 4K HDR compatibility with Dolby Vision, a slick, touch-sensitive remote and full integration with Apple's other gadgets and services, including Apple Arcade (complete with Xbox and PlayStation controller support) for smart gaming. With the arrival of the TV content apps and iTunes on Roku and Amazon, it might have lost some appeal for Apple fans on a budget, but it's still a top choice if you're feeling generous.