Best set-top box: the top 5 streaming media players reviewed

Techradar's top-ranking set-top box reviews

If you're only here because you want to cut the cord and stop the rich, monopolistic cable overlords from siphoning your hard-earned dollars every month, I only have one thing to say to you: You've come to the right place.

Look, we believe that paying for great TV shows and movies shouldn't cost more than your groceries, and that there's no better way to save some green every month than ripping that money-sucking cord out of the wall and delivering that long-winded "you're fired" speech to the cable company.

We're here to help you make that next buying decision the best one possible by ranking the five best set-top boxes from best-to-worst and, in very clear writing, tell you which one will feel right at home in your home entertainment center.

So how did we narrow down the field? We looked at the amount of content available on the system - not only the number of apps available, but the quality, too - as well as its feature-set, usability and potential to grow in the coming year.

From the insanely powerful 4K-ready Roku 4 to the recently released app-heavy Apple TV, all the players have come out for the final showdown, but only one can leave with the crown.

Best video streaming box

1. Roku 4 (2015)

The 4K-ready Roku 4 leads the new pack of streaming boxes

Quad-core processor for 60fps 4K
Most egalitarian OS
Still pushes M-Go
Audible noise and heat

When it comes to channels, more is always better. Sure, I may never watch a spaghetti western on the Six Gun Cinema channel, but it's great that Roku gives me that option. And if the niche movies aren't your scene, you'll find every major player here as well - Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Instant, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Sky News, ESPN, MLB.TV, Spotify, Pandora...the list goes on and on. But, best of all, you're not limited to one ecosphere: Roku is the agnostic Switzerland of streaming sets. It doesn't care whether you download a video from Amazon, Google Play Movies & TV, or spend your money somewhere else, all it wants to do is get you the content you want to watch.

Read the full review: Roku 4

Best streaming video player

2. Chromecast (Second generation, 2015)

The new Chromecast is a more colorful, reliable streaming dongle

Nifty, versatile new design
Same low price as the original
No remote control
No native Amazon Instant Video

Too often, there's a discrepancy between a product's price (what it costs) and its value (how much it's really worth). Thankfully, Chromecast isn't one of those products: it's worth every penny. Coming in $35 (£30, AU$49), the petite, USB-powered Chromecast offers all of the functionality of boxes three times its size at a quarter of the price. It completely outshines its closest - the Roku Streaming Stick and the Amazon Fire TV Stick - and is ultimately the best bang for your buck. Plus, if you're an Android user, you'll even be able to mirror your screen via the built-in cast functionality.

Read the full review: Chromecast

Best streaming video box

3. Nvidia Shield Android TV (2015)

Two parts gaming machine, one part set-top box

Powerful components
Great game selection
More expensive than competitors
Android TV prioritizes Google Play

If you want to your streaming video player to dabble in gaming, there is no better option than the Nvidia Shield that sports Android TV. What we liked about it is that it turns out powerful video game-ready internals also make for a pretty smooth streaming experience, especially considering that the Shield is one of only a few players on the market that can process 4K video. What really seals the deal, though, is that instead of a remote, the Shield comes with a controller that syncs up effortlessly and can play any number of Android TV or PC-quality streaming titles from GeForce Now, Nvidia's game-streaming service.

Read the full review: Nvidia Shield Android TV

Best set top box

4. Amazon Fire TV (Second generation, 2015)

It's quick, it's new, it's 4K

4K UHD playback
Responsive
Amazon Prime is effectively a must
No universal search

The Fire TV is snappy, fun and probably the best bet if all you want from your system is content from Amazon Instant Video. It has more games and apps than you can shake a Fire TV Stick at, and it scores full points for having some of the best internal components this side of a game console (which, we'd be remiss if we didn't tell you that both the PS4 and Xbox One make for fantastic streamers, too), and plays very nicely with everything sporting the name Amazon in the title.

Read the full review: Amazon Fire TV

Best streaming video box

5. Apple TV (Fourth Generation, 2015)

The new Apple TV is understated and subtly smart

tvOS is a huge improvement
Allows third-party apps
Not enough content yet
Touchpad remote is finicky

Coming in at the end of the list is the beautiful, but ultimately barren, Apple TV. The latest iteration of Steve Jobs' passion project has made plenty of steps in the right direction by opening the Apple TV App Store to all developers instead of a select few, and have quite improved the old remote with a slick, new, Siri-enabled masterpiece. There's now universal search that allows you to search multiple sources like Netflix, YouTube and more with a single inquiry and an intelligent search algorithm that can parse even the most language-dense requests. Want to see which action films star Chris Pine or great '90s films for kids? All you need to do is ask.

Read the full review: Apple TV

What's your favorite set-top box? Should Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV be the king of the castle or was Roku the way to go? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Pino is the senior home entertainment editor at TechRadar and covers TVs, headphones, speakers, video games, VR and streaming devices. He also occasionally writes about Pokemon when no one is watching.