treaming TV is slowly but surely taking over the world. From Netflix to Amazon Prime Video and local services like NOW TV and BritBox, streaming is here to stay. But if you want a good streaming experience, there’s one device you need to buy – a streamer.
Whether your Smart TV isn’t good enough, or you’re looking to replace your expensive Sky/BT/Virgin Media etc’ subscription and become a ‘cord cutter’ – a good streaming device is almost essential these days.
There are plenty of streaming sticks and boxes out there. But in this roundup, I’ll take a closer look at three of the best in the UK market for 2020: Google’s Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick, and the Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
They’re all excellent devices – but the Roku Streaming Stick+ gets our No. 1 spot. I go into great detail in this article – but here’s a quick look:
Best Streaming Devices UK 2020
Table of Contents
Do I Need A Streaming Device?
A dedicated streaming device has a lot of advantages – but if you already have some sort of streaming solution, do you really need another one?
If you bought a new TV in recent years, chances are it’s a “Smart” TV, with streaming apps.
However, even if you have a Smart TV that comes with its own set of streaming apps, it’s still often a good idea (at least for some) to buy a dedicated streaming device.
Most TV manufacturers have their own “Smart” streaming interface – and those are usually slow and confusing. Furthermore, some get abandoned pretty quickly – which means you might lose access to some of your favourite streaming services (or not get apps for newly launched services).
The best streaming devices like the ones covered here, on the other hand, are quite the opposite – they’re fast (due to improved technical specs), very easy to use (as they’ve been around for years, perfecting their user interface), and they get constant updates and new apps (because so many people use them, so the streaming companies have an incentive to keep supporting them).
Another streaming device you might already have at home is a FreeviewPlay box – while it’s true that those come with a few UK streaming apps (mostly the big UK broadcasters like BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, etc’ – and sometimes YouTube and Netflix), they’re no match for a ‘full’ streaming device that supports countless streaming services and apps.
So while it’s OK to start with a Smart TV, if you’re serious about streaming TV, it’s probably a good idea to upgrade to a dedicated streamer at some point.
The Three Best Streaming Devices In The UK
There are a lot of streaming devices out there – but for this round-up, I’ve narrowed the list down to three devices, that represent the best combination of excellent performance, easy to use interfaces, and a budget-friendly price.
Yes, there are cheaper streaming devices out there – and there are more expensive ones. Take Apple TV, for example – it’s a great device for Apple fans – but it’s just too expensive in my opinion, while not giving any major extra value.
The Nvidia Shield TV is another similar example – a lot of people swear by it, and it’s also a very capable gaming console. But it’s too expensive if you just want to use it for streaming.
And on the cheap side, there are lots of Chinese streaming sticks out there – they’re cheap, and they might work well, but they’re often a gamble – and their interface and user experience will never be as good as on the major streaming devices. Plus, they’re usually lacking in support for some of the major streaming services.
Roku Stick, Firestick 4K And Chromecast – The Similarities
Before I rank and compare the three devices, let’s quickly go over the things they have in common.
All three are HDMI-based streaming devices – so if you have an older TV with a SCART connection, for example, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (There are HDMI-to-SCART converters out there – but you’ll be downgrading the picture quality, and some services just won’t work).
All three devices connect to the internet via WiFi (The Roku stick also has a built-in WiFi booster that increases the range), and all three also have optional Ethernet adaptors, if your WiFi reception is problematic.
As for power, all three are powered with a mini-USB plug. You can either connect it directly to your TV’s USB socket (if it has one), or to the wall, with the supplied USB mains adapter.
Roku Stick, Firestick And Chromecast – The Differences
Now, let’s go over some of the important factors that differentiate the three devices – and see which one comes out on top.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K have a similar shape (the clue is in the name) of… a stick (similar to a USB stick).
The Fire TV (108mmX30mmX14 mm), however, is bigger than the Roku stick (93.98mmX20.32mmX11.9mm). Because of its size, some might find it hard to find the space behind their TV to plug the Fire TV stick – and you might need to use an HDMI extension cable.
Fortunately, Amazon provides an HDMI extender in the box. Roku, on the other hand, does not. You can get one from them, for free – but you have to register and order it online.
Roku’s tiny form factor, however, comes at a price – the stick overheats sometimes, especially when playing UltraHD videos – so you have to make sure there’s enough ventilation behind your TV (and that’s where the HDMI extender comes in handy as well).
The Google Chromecast, however, isn’t a stick at all – it’s a rounded disc, that has a short HDMI cable attached – so it’s easier to connect it to your TV, while still remaining small and portable.
For that reason, in this category…
Form Factor Winner: Google Chromecast
Selection Of UK Streaming Apps
A streaming device is only as good as the actual streaming you can do on it – and for that, you need apps and support from the streaming services.
And in particular, you need UK-based support. Streamers that only support big US streaming services won’t be of help here – as we need things like BBC iPlayer, NOW TV, Britbox, etc’ – and not just the big US ones like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
The Chromecast, Firestick and Roku all support most of the major UK streaming services, so you’re going to do well with each of them.
However, there ARE a few minor differences – and if the particular streaming service you’re fond of is missing, that might be a dealbreaker.
For example, the Firestick doesn’t have a NOW TV app, while the Chromecast doesn’t support Apple TV+. And Roku? No BritBox there.
I’ve compiled a list of the major streaming services available in the UK – and the devices that support them (remember, though, that this list might change in the future) –
|Streaming Service||Roku||Fire TV||Chromecast|
|Amazon Prime Video||YES||YES||YES|
While the race is VERY close here, there’s still one winner – at least on points.
Selection Of UK Apps Winner: Google Chromecast
Interface / Ease Of Use
One of the reasons people dislike Smart TVs, is the user interface. It’s usually slow, unintuitive, and even confusing to some.
In fact, most Smart TVs probably won’t pass the Grandparents Test (as in – your grandparents come for a visit – can they operate your Smart TV by themselves?)
Things are very different with Roku and the Fire TV, however. Both devices offer friendly, easy to use interfaces that have been refined for several years, and yes – even your grandparents will probably understand what to do.
That being said, I feel the Roku takes the lead – at least in terms of how clean and easy to understand the interface is. Your apps (they’re called ‘Channels’ on Roku) take centre-stage, with big icons that stay in place (but you can re-order them anyway you want).
Amazon’s Fire TV interface, on the other hand, while also slick and friendly, is a bit of a mess sometimes, with categories and apps moving around all by themselves. In addition, Amazon puts its own Prime Video content front and centre – which is fine if you’re a big Amazon fan, but otherwise can get annoying.
And the Chromecast? Well, there’s no interface to speak of. Chromecast is a different streaming beast, in that you control everything via your smartphone (or a tablet, or a connected desktop PC). And there’s no ‘Homescreen’ that puts everything together – you connect each separate app (Netflix, NOW TV, etc’) to the Chromecast – and control THAT app via your phone.
While this means the Chromecast gives you more flexibility, it does mean it’s a bit harder to use – and those grandparents might not even know where to start…
Still, I love the fact that you can stream ANYTHING from the screen of your Desktop PC (via the Chrome browser) – so that does give the Chromecast a few extra points.
Interface / Easy Of Use Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
Although picture quality depends first and foremost on your TV, the streaming devices takes an important part as well.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick both support Ultra HD (4K) and HDR.
HDR stands for “High Dynamic Range” – it’s a technology that helps improve contrast rates, making the picture more accurate. It also provides a larger colour palette and more colour shades – and with a proper TV, it can make quite a difference in picture quality (but your streaming service needs to support HDR as well!).
To make things even more complicated, there are several competing HDR formats, and the Roku Stick+ only supports one of them – HDR10, while the Firestick also supports HDR10+ and Dolby Vision.
Keep in mind, HDR10 is the popular format, and is supported by most of the major streaming services. But if you want the widest support – go for the Amazon Fire TV stick.
And Google’s Chromecast? The model presented here only supports Full HD (1080p) – so no 4K or HDR at all.
Google DOES also sell the Google Chromecast Ultra, which does support 4K and HDR. But it’s considerably more expensive than the other two, which takes points off.
Picture Quality Winner: Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick
Performance is sometimes hard to measure on a streaming device – after all, every app and streaming service works differently, and it isn’t always the stick’s fault when something goes wrong.
And yes, compare any modern streaming device to an older Smart TV – and you’ll see the difference in speed right away.
So when I talk about Performance, I take into account the speed of the interface, how responsive the apps are, as well as how good the internet connection is (via WiFi).
This is another case where all three devices are pretty similar. They all have modern processors (Quad-Core on the Firestick and Roku, and Google is quiet about theirs), and the interface (or just the apps, in the Chromecast’s case) are fast to load and very responsive.
The Roku still feels snappier, though – it might not even be due to better hardware, but due to a simpler – and more optimised – interface. But the bottom line is that the Roku is faster – at least in perception.
As for WiFi, again, all three devices are similar, supporting 802.11ac WiFi connection. The Roku Stick, however, also has a WiFi amplifier built into its power cable – which gives you “4x the range and a stronger signal.”
Performance Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
Selection Of Apps
While streaming services and apps are the ‘main event’ for a streaming device – they’re not the only thing you can do with it.
From watching music videos and lectures, to practising yoga and even playing games – modern streaming devices are tiny computers connected to your TV.
And while they’ll never replace a full-featured gaming console or a PC, the extra apps are still a factor when you consider which streaming device to get.
The Amazon Fire TV has its own appstore, where it’s easy to find and download apps directly (here are some of the best apps for the Firestick). The Roku also has a ‘Channels Marketplace’, where you go to search for ‘Channels’. (And here are our recommended Roku channels).
The Chromecast is a bit different, in that it doesn’t have a dedicated app store – instead, you have to search, download and hope that the app you downloaded on your smartphone – will support Chromecast. (But we can help with our list of best Chromecast apps in the UK)
The Amazon Fire TV, however, takes the lead by supporting two types of apps that aren’t supported on any Roku devices for now – VPN, and a browser.
A VPN is useful if you want to protect your privacy when you’re using a streamer, or to unblock Geo-Restrictions on Netflix and similar services. The Fire TV has quite a few supported VPN apps, which is a big plus.
And, the Fire TV also has two major internet browsers – Amazon’s own ‘Silk’ browser, and a Fire TV version of Firefox. While browsing the open web on your TV is never a very good experience, it does give you some extra flexibility.
Roku’s channel store, however, actually BANS browser apps – so you’re not going to see them anytime soon.
As for the Chromecast – while there’s no independent browser app per se, you can ‘cast’ your Chrome browser from your phone, or from your PC, to the TV.
Selection of Apps Winner: Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick
Although we’re getting used to doing everything with our smartphones – when operating a TV, a remote control is still the easiest way to control things. (Although Google Chromecast fans might disagree).
The Amazon Fire TV remote and the Roku Stick+ remote are actually pretty similar. They both have ‘movement’ buttons on the top (it’s wheel-shaped on the Firestick), as well as Play/Pause buttons and Fast-Forward and rewind.
Both remotes (in these specific models) also have Volume Control buttons (they’re on the side of the remote on the Roku remote – which is brilliant), and a button to turn your TV on/off.
The Firestick remote also has a Mute button, which the Roku doesn’t have, unfortunately (though it’s been added to some Roku models in the US – but not in the UK yet).
And, both remotes are also ‘Voice remotes’ – so once you push the Voice button, you can speak to the remote itself and control the device with your voice (more on that later).
The Roku remote loses a few points for the four ‘Shortcut’ buttons. These buttons can’t be mapped to any other apps (Roku gets money for putting these specific shortcuts), and while Netflix is probably useful to everyone, the other three UK shortcuts (Google Play, Rakuten and Spotify) will only be useful to some.
Google’s Chromecast, again, is the odd streamer out – as it doesn’t have a remote at all. You control everything via your smartphone – which is great for some, but a downside in my book.
All in all, choosing between the Firestick and Roku remotes is a matter of taste above all – but I prefer the button placement on the Roku.
Remote Controls Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
With voice assistants like Amazon’s Alexa becoming more and more common, both on our phones and in our living rooms, it makes sense that TV streaming devices will also add voice commands.
Amazon’s Fire TV, as expected, has Alexa built into its Voice Remote. It’s not as ‘powerful’ as the Alexa that lives inside Amazon’s Echo devices – but it comes close. Plus, you can’t just start talking – you need to first press the ‘Voice’ button on the remote, and then the Firestick’s Alexa starts listening.
You can give it video-related commands like “Stop”, “Rewind 30 seconds”, etc’. You can tell it to “Run Netflix”, or you can search by saying things like “Show me movies with Tom Cruise“, or “Play The Expanse on Prime Video”.
As an Alexa device, you can also ask for the weather (which will then be spoken, as well as shown on your TV screen), or ask a bunch of trivia questions like “How Old Is Boris Johnson?”.
And, if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can pair that as well with your Firestick, and then you don’t even need the remote – you can just say “Alexa”, and give your Echo commands that control your Firestick.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ also has a Voice-control button on its remote, but it’s a bit more limited, because it doesn’t have the power of Alexa behind it.
So you can give the basic video-playing commands, AND you can search things like “Show me comedies with Steve Martin” – but you don’t get the general questions and information gathering that Alexa has.
And finally, the Chromecast – without a remote – doesn’t have a direct voice-command feature either. You CAN pair the Chromecast with a Google Home device, though, if you have one in the same room – and control the Chromecast with that. It’s useful, but it still means having to get another separate device.
Voice Control Winner: Amazon Fire TV 4K Stick
Although these streaming devices are meant to operate on your telly – all of them have accompanying smartphone apps.
The Roku smartphone app wins this category without a doubt. Amazon’s Fire TV app is mostly used as a remote control (in case you lose the physical one, for example), and as a handy keyboard when you need to type something on the screen.
The Roku app can also be used as a remote control, but it has several additional nifty features – it has a full-featured content search engine (like the one on the Roku streamer), and you can use the Voice Search on it as well.
The best Roku app feature, however, is the ‘Private Listening’ mode. Once the app is paired with your Roku stick, you can plug headphones into your PHONE, tap Private Listening, and anything you’re watching on your TV, will have its sound streamed to your headphones, instead of to the TV’s regular speakers. This is very useful when you’re watching TV late at night, for example.
And the Chromecast? Weirdly, despite this being a device that is controlled solely via your smartphone, it doesn’t have its own app. You set up the device with the Google Home app, which is used with all of Google’s Home devices – but it’s mainly used for the initial setup, and for giving your Chromecast a name, and that’s about it.
Smartphone App Winner: Roku Streaming Stick+
Best Overall Streaming Device: The Roku Streaming Stick+
Yes, the Roku stick takes the crown, and is our 2020 winner as the best streamer in the UK.
The Roku Streaming Stick+ provides the best combination of features, performance, and price. It’s a joy to use, both for beginners (yes, your grandparents too) and for veteran streamers, and it has a very wide selection of streaming services and apps.
My one concern regarding the Roku Stick? While it’s VERY popular in the US, it’s not as popular in the UK, which might mean some UK app developers prefer to go with something more popular like the Amazon Firestick – but as you can see from the list of streaming services above, that’s not really an issue at this point.
The Amazon Firestick is a close second in this tight race. It’s another excellent device, and it’s particularly useful to those who live in the Amazon echo-system (especially if you have an Amazon Prime subscription). It loses on points, mostly due to its interface being a bit messy.
In third place, it’s Google’s Chromecast, which is lagging behind a bit – it’s a capable, and cheap, device – and I love the fact that you can stream practically anything directly from your PC’s Chrome browser. But the Chromecast has a different audience, mainly due to not having a remote control. Plus, it’s not a 4K device (unless you buy the costly Chromecast Ultra).