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7 top streaming devices to give for the holidays

A streaming device makes the perfect gift for the TV lover on your list. We round up our top choices for this holiday season.

This story is part of Gift Guide, our year-round collection of the best gift ideas.

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 entertainment for the whole family. And let's be honest: Cuddling up with your media streaming device in front of the TV to watch 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.

We've rounded up a list of the best streaming devices for the 2021 holiday season and the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and the Roku Express 4K Plus are neck-and-neck in our race for top overall pick. The Roku Express 4K Plus is normally cheaper than the Streaming Stick 4K, so it's usually our top Roku pick. But sales prices have fluctuated on both of these models this holiday season, so we generally recommend the cheaper of the two. 

That said, Roku faces stiff competition from Amazon, Apple, and Google, who also have plenty of streaming stick and streaming box devices to offer.

Read more: Best streaming service of 2021

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 4K 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. Roku Express works with popular voice assistants - Amazon Alexa, Sri or Hey Google.

Read our Roku Express 4K Plus review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Streaming Stick 4K offers support for Dolby Vision HDR, while the Express 4K Plus does not. It also lacks the wired Ethernet connection found on the Express 4K Plus. The other main difference between the two is the Streaming Stick 4K's narrow rectangular design, which plugs directly into an HDMI slot in the back of the TV. Both streamers offer a voice remote, 4K HDR streaming and Roku's excellent interface, which we like better than Fire TV or Google TV. We're typically not sold on the Dolby Vision upgrade, mostly because we don't think it provides a major image quality upgrade over standard HDR. But we do think it's worth picking up the Streaming Stick 4K when the price is the same or cheaper than the Express 4K Plus. Start streaming your favorite channels like Disney Plus, Prime Video, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus, Netflix, and Sling. 

Read our Roku Streaming Stick 4K review.

 

David Katzmaier/CNET

Those looking to give the gift of Google should love the Chromecast with Google TV 4K streaming. 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, 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 media streaming device is a better smart streaming device choice for those already living in Google's world.

Read our Chromecast with Google TV review.

 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET

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 media streamer 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.

 

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

If you're looking for a speedy device, look no further than the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max. The Max loads 4K content apps almost immediately, and navigating around the system is swift and smooth. Even better, the Max supports Wi-Fi 6 and nearly all the latest playback standards, including Dolby Vision. The downside to the Max is its Fire TV platform and the fact that ads are featured prominently throughout. We just don't appreciate the TV becoming a giant rotating billboard for content or ads when in screensaver mode. But this is a good choice for the Amazon lover on your list. The Fire TV Stick 4K Max is the best Fire Stick on the market today, and it's worth the extra money over the standard Fire TV Stick 4K.

Read our Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 capability, HDHomeRun integration and much more.

Read our Nvidia Shield TV review.

 

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