I bought my first TV three years ago, right after moving out of my college dorm. The Craigslist posting didn’t mince words: “It’s not new, fancy, or big, but it works.” The people selling it were downsizing and happily threw in an HDMI adapter that was made for computers older than my 2013 MacBook. I paid $25 for the TV and $20 for the Uber home. It was perfect.
But even after I had that TV, I found I didn’t use it as much as I expected to. Since I’ve never had a cable subscription (can you be a cord cutter if there was never a cord to cut?), I was used to watching everything on my laptop or phone by default. If I wanted to watch something on the bigger screen, an indisputable upgrade, I would have to crawl behind my TV for an HDMI and plug in my laptop. A first world problem, maybe, but still a problem.
A streaming device offered the perfect solution. The simple device, usually a HDMI stick, plugs into the side of your TV and allows you to access videos from basically every streaming service you have ever heard of and a slew you probably haven’t (Philo? FuboTV?). Support across devices varies slightly, mostly in accordance with the petty beefs of our big-tech overlords (Google's Chromecast didn't support Amazon Prime Video until recently, ditto for Amazon's Firestick and the YouTube app) but the vast majority allow you to stream from all the usual suspects: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, ESPN+, you name it. You plug it into your TV through it’s HDMI port, connect it to your Wi-FI, and link it with every service you think you’ll use. It’s by far the easiest way to watch TV or movies or YouTube videos on an actual TV.
I’ve moved with that TV 3 times. And while I could easily replace it with something that offers 4K resolution, dolby sound, or a built-in smart interface that would supplant a stick, since getting a streaming stick I just haven’t felt the need to. If you’ve got an older TV or projector that doesn’t have a built-in smart interface, we’ve found three (inexpensive!) streaming devices that will make it even easier to binge that show you’ve been meaning to get around to, whether it’s HBO’s Succession, Netflix’s Stranger Things or … wait there’s a Karate Kid reboot on YouTube? Gotta get on that!
The Best All-Around Streaming Stick
Roku Premiere+ 4K Streaming Stick. $50 at Walmart
The Roku Stick is the easiest way to add support for streaming services to an older TV or projector. Once you’ve linked each of your individual streaming services (admittedly a pain, but something you’ll only have to do once), it’s incredibly easy to find anything that you want to watch. You can either scroll through the offerings on a specific app, use the built-in Roku search function, or simply use your voice (using the microphone on the Roku remote or an external Alexa- or Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker). Speaking of the remote, it’s laid out logically, and isn’t crowded with the kinds of inscrutable buttons you might find on something that comes with a cable box. Every streaming platform we used with this app, whether Netflix, HBO, or Hulu, works exactly as it’s supposed to, and quickly. It usually takes just under a minute to go from an off TV to actually watching exactly what I want to watch. And if you’re TV is capable enough, the device supports 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos Audio. The fact that you can get that for $50—that's 1/10th the cost of a decent 55-inch TV—is plainly great.
The Best Budget Streaming Stick
Chromecast. $35 at Amazon
If you need to save a little money or are totally unwilling to go through the slightly painful process of linking streaming accounts to a new device, consider getting a Chromecast. In order to use the Chromecast, you’ll still have to use your laptop or a phone, but it’s easy! As long as your phone or laptop is connected to the same Wi-Fi as your Chromecast, you can basically beam content from dozens of streaming services (including Netflix and Hulu) directly to your TV. If, for whatever reason, the service you want to watch isn’t supported, you can screen share a browser window on Google Chrome to Chromecast. It’s a bit laggy, but a decent enough workaround if want to watch something on one of the few apps that isn’t supported. We think it’s a bit easier to find what we want using the Roku’s remote or voice-assistant support—the short term cost is worth the long term benefit—but the Chromecast still offers a relatively easy way to get your TV onto your TV. If you’re willing to do the work of linking streaming services, you’ll gain the ability to use a Google Assistant enabled device to make watching a little bit easier.
The Best Streaming Stick if You Rent from Amazon
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. $50 at Amazon
The Amazon Fire TV Stick is a solid and totally serviceable streaming device, but not quite as good as the Roku in most use cases. It’s a little bit harder to set up, feels a little bit slower when used with most services, and can only be controlled through it’s own voice-assistant. But if you primarily watch content from Amazon (either you purchased, rented, or from Prime Video) or want another Alexa-enabled device for controlling your smart speaker, it might be worth getting the Fire Stick, especially when it’s on sale.