These 8 Streaming Devices Make Perfect Holiday Gifts in 2023
From Roku to Apple TV, we break down our favorite streaming devices for the holiday season.
Eli BlumenthalSenior Editor
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Expertise5G, mobile networks, wireless carriers, phones, tablets, streaming devices, streaming platforms, mobile and console gaming,
Sarah Lord covers TVs and home entertainment. Prior to joining CNET, Sarah served as the tech and electronic reviews fellow at Insider, where she wrote about everything from smart watches and wearables to tablets and e-readers. She began her career by writing laptop reviews as an intern and subsequent freelancer at Tom's Hardware. She is also a professional actor with many credits in theater, film and television.
ExpertiseTVs, Home Entertainment, Streaming, ComputersCredentials
Member of Screen Actors Guild and Actors Equity Association
The leaves are changing color, and sweater weather is upon us, which can mean only one thing: It's the season of getting cozy on the couch to binge-watch your favorite movies and shows. If you're still looking for the perfect holiday gift for your friends and loved ones, we highly suggest taking a look at one of the many cool streaming device on the market. While many smart TVs do come with a number of popular streaming services pre-installed, using a standalone streaming device like the Fire TV Stick or Roku can exponentially improve your viewing experience.
We put nearly every streaming device and smart TV system to the test to figure out the best options -- including Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Apple TV and Google Chromecast. What makes these add-on streaming devices worth your time is the variety of apps available, better search functionality, easy-to-use remotes and more frequent software updates available than what you usually get with a smart TV.
In our round up of the best streaming device gifts for the 2023 holiday season, the Roku Streaming Stick 4K and the Roku Express 4K Plus are pretty much tied in the race for our top overall pick. The Roku Express 4K Plus is usually cheaper than the Streaming Stick 4K, so it's normally our top Roku pick. But sales prices have fluctuated on both models, so we generally recommend the cheaper of the two.
That said, Roku faces stiff competition from Amazon, Apple and Google, which also have plenty of streaming stick and streaming box devices to offer.
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. The Roku Express works with the most popular voice assistants -- Amazon Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. It makes a great gift for those looking to get the most out of streaming without breaking the bank.
DirecTV Stream is a subscription streaming service that lets you watch live TV from major broadcast and popular cable networks. Enjoy local and national live sports, breaking news and must see shows the moment they air. Included: unlimited cloud DVR storage space so you can record as many shows as you want and stream them from wherever you go.
The Streaming Stick 4K offers support for Dolby Vision HDR, while the Express 4K Plus does not. 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.
Those looking to give the gift of Google should love the Chromecast with Google TV 4K. It isn't quite as good as the Roku Express 4K Plus, but this streaming stick comes closer than any other device on the market. It outdoes that Roku 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 choice for those already living in Google's world.
Chromecast with Google TV HD is far and away the best HD-only, entry-level streaming device you can find. If you're looking for a cheap streamer for your HD TV, this is the one to get. It's speedy and offers the same design and remote as the Chromecast with Google 4K, which means that it doesn't need line-of-sight to work and can seamlessly control your TV's power, volume and inputs. It also comes with a built-in button to access Google Assistant.
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 terms of features for the money. This Fire TV Stick'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.
The perfect foil to the affordable 4K streamers above, the newest Apple TV 4K costs a lot, 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.
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.
If you're looking for a speedy device, look no further than the newest Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max. The upgraded 4K Max includes a 2Ghz quad-core processor, support for Wi-Fi 6E connections and 16GB of internal storage. The Max loads 4K content apps almost immediately, and navigating around the system is swift and smooth. 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.
Sure, it's an expensive media streamer with a list price of $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.