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Streaming players are some of the most versatile gifts in the tech world. They're small enough to fit in a stocking but powerful enough to offer tons of entertainment for the whole family. And let's be honest: Cuddling up in front of the TV streaming your favorite shows is a perfect way to spend a cold winter day. So if you're thinking about giving yourself or someone you love the cozy gift of streaming, but are unsure of which device will work best, you've come to the right place. 

We've reviewed nearly every streaming device and major smart TV system on the market today, including Roku, Google Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV. These add-on streaming devices often have simpler remotes, more apps, better search and more frequent updates than the smarts built into your TV set, especially older models.

Both Roku and Fire TV just announced brand-new players for the 2021 holiday season -- the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and Fire TV Stick 4K Max -- even though they're very similar to existing products. We have yet to get our hands on these newest streaming devices, but will update our list accordingly when we do. 

We've rounded up a list of our favorite streaming devices for the 2021 holiday season with the new-for-2021 Roku Express 4K Plus leading the pack. Its list price is $40, but it's frequently on sale for closer to $30. That said, Amazon and Google devices have plenty to offer as well.

Read more: Best streaming service of 2021

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Roku is our favorite streaming system, with the most streaming app options, the simplest streaming platform interface and the best search. It also has a content-agnostic platform that doesn't push any one media streaming service provider, like Amazon Prime Video or Apple, over another. The Express 4K Plus is one of the cheapest streaming TV options with 4K HDR. (Even if your current TV doesn't support those formats, your 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. It makes a great gift for those looking to get the most out of streaming without breaking the bank. 

Read our full review of the Roku Express 4K Plus.

 

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Those looking to give the gift of Google should love the The Chromecast with Google TV. It isn't quite as good as the Roku Express 4K Plus, but this TV streaming device comes closer than any other device on the market. It outdoes that device by adding Dolby Vision compatibility -- to get that in Roku players you'll need the $100 Ultra -- but its biggest smart device strength is Google Assistant voice search, which works well for finding stuff to watch. We also like the impressive integration with other Google services such as Google Photos and YouTube TV. The interface is more evolved-looking than Roku, but ultimately we prefer Roku's simpler approach and no-nonsense search results. That said, the new Chromecast is a better smart streaming device choice for those already living in Google's world.

Read our Chromecast with Google TV review.

 

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The perfect foil to the affordable 4K streamers above, the new Apple TV 4K still costs too much, but is a good choice for people who want to check every feature box -- or who just want an Apple device to use Apple Arcade for gaming or take full advantage of their Apple One subscription bundles. Video purists will appreciate its flexible HDR and TV calibration feature, while those with older Apple boxes will love the new and improved remote. 

For most people, however, Apple's venerable remote control streamer just isn't worth the money, especially now that Roku has nearly all the major apps and AirPlay. If you really want Dolby Vision, you can find that on Roku, Google and Amazon devices at less than half the price.

Read our Apple TV 4K review.

 

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Let's get this out of the way first: If you prefer the simplicity of Roku's app-based menus, you might like the Roku Express better. But the Lite trounces the Express in features-for-the-money. This Fire TV remote control device's biggest advantage is a remote with built-in voice search and control (the cheapest Roku with a voice remote is the Express 4K Plus) thanks to Alexa. The Fire Stick's remote also doesn't need line of sight to work. If you're looking for a cheaper gift, the Lite is your best streaming device bet.

Read our Amazon Fire TV Stick Lite review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Roku's most expensive streamer is more than twice the price of our top streaming device pick, but maybe you'll know someone who will appreciate and need its extra features. It offers more conveniences, including a headphone jack and programmable shortcut keys on the remote as well as our favorite feature, a remote finder in case you lose the clicker in the couch cushions. It also delivers Dolby Vision video, faster responses, improved Wi-Fi and a wired Ethernet port -- particularly welcome if your home Wi-Fi is overloaded.

On the other hand you can upgrade any Roku streaming device to get an even more tricked-out remote, and the new Express Plus 4K works with wired Ethernet dongles too. And if you want Dolby Vision, it might be worth waiting for the $50 Streaming Stick Plus 4K. 

Read our Roku Ultra review.

 

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We don't like it as much as the Express Plus 4K or Chromecast above, but Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K media streaming device makes a lot of sense for people knee-deep in Amazon devices already. Like the Lite, it bakes Alexa right into the remote control. You can use voice control to search for video on Amazon or turn on your lights. Or both at the same time. Throw in a massive selection of Amazon content as well as Dolby Vision HDR and the Stick 4K is still an excellent choice for the Amazon lover on your list. 

Read our Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K review.

 

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Sure, it's an expensive media streamer at $150 -- and that's before adding a game controller -- but if you want a Jack-of-all-trades video streaming player, the Shield is it. In addition to a streaming media player with 4K streaming and HDR, it offers a robust library of games, both console-level and Android, Steam Link, built-in Google Assistant complete with smart home control, NAS access, Plex server capabilityHDHomeRun integration and much more.

Read our Nvidia Shield TV review.

 

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