Modern TV sets are true media machines – apart from the standard TV-watching experience they also enable internet browsing, 4K streaming and high-end gaming from the comfort of your sofa. But a capable TV box (aka media streaming box) can bring all these features (and much more) to any TV, usually without setting you back too much.

One might assume the best pick would be the one most people go for… but only on paper. In reality, the decision strongly depends on which services you want to use: Google, Apple, Amazon, HBO – or maybe all of them? Because the systems are usually developed by competing companies, no single device offers all of them (although Roku gets pretty close).

In this post we look at the most interesting TV boxes of 2019 and help you choose the right one for your needs, transforming you “dumb” TV into a smart one.

Google Chromecast Ultra

Price: 80 EUR
Key features: 4K, HDR
Remote: No remote
Compatible with: Netflix, HBO Go and many more
Not compatible with: Amazon Video, Apple iTunes
Gaming: Very limited

Google Chromecast is the all-time fan favourite – and possibly the best-selling streaming device to date (it’s estimated Google has sold over 55 million devices). Chromecast is stupidly simple to set up and, for the most part, very reliable. The “Ultra” in the name means it can stream 4K video content.

Google aims to keep Chromecast as simple as possible and so the device is stripped of some of the features you could expect from other more expensive boxes. Most importantly, there is no central hub or starting screen in Chromecast – and there’s no remote for that matter. Operating the device requires using a mobile phone connected to the same WiFi. This shouldn’t be a problem as everyone has a phone or two lying around the room, but as such the operation doesn’t stand up to the convenience of a dedicated, voice-activated remote.

The simplicity of Google Chromecast was taken to the extreme – once you’re in a compatible app on a smartphone, you just press the “cast” button to mirror the content on the TV. That’s all.

As far as compatibility goes, you can stream from Netflix and many other apps. The users of Amazon Video, however, should look somewhere else – but such is the case for most non-Amazon devices.

Xiaomi Mi Box S 4K

Price: 67 EUR
Key features: 4K, HDR
Remote: Yes, voice activated
Compatible with: Netflix, HBO Go, Google Play Movies & TV, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, All 4, Plex and many more
Not compatible with: Amazon Video, Apple iTunes
Gaming: Yes, limited

The Mi Box may not be available internationally, but it shouldn’t be a problem to get one through sites like GearBest or Aliexpress.

Xiaomi Mi Box S 4K is probably the best TV box deal on the market today. It ships with voice-activated remote control and comes with a classy Red Dot certified design. However, the claims of its 4K capability are slightly exaggerated, and performance is patchy under load, so you’d better stick to the standard Full HD. All things considered, this is still an amazing deal for just under 70 EUR.

Xiaomi makes sure the firmware is always updated to the latest Android TV OS. From the system, you get access to the Google Play Store and can access Google Assistant by speaking to the voice-activated remote control. Still no Amazon Video and Apple iTunes, though.

Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K

Price: 50 EUR
Key features: 4K, HDR
Remote: Yes
Compatible with: Netflix, Amazon Video and many more
Not Compatible with: Google Play & Music, Apple iTunes
Gaming: Yes, a wide selection

Just like Chromecast, Fire TV Stick 4K is a very small, unassuming device which sits completely invisibly behind the TV set. It plugs into the HDMI port. However, unlike Google’s similar stick offering, it comes with voice-activated remote control. Understandably, Fire TV Stick 4K is the go-to device if you’re after using your Prime Video subscription.

As the Fire TV Stick is offered by Amazon, it’s understandable that it ships with Alexa rather than the Google Assistant. The Amazon interface is what you’d expect from a solid device: it’s stupidly simple and fast.

Apple TV 4K

Price: 200 EUR
Key features: 4K, HDR, Dolby Atmos
Remote: Yes
Compatible with: iTunes, Netflix, Amazon Video and many more
Not compatible with: Amazon Prime, Google Movies & Music
Gaming: Lots of available games

While 4K and HDR are pretty much the industry standard today, what sets Apple TV 4K apart from other TV boxes is the compatibility with Dolby Atmos. This, of course, comes with a hefty price tag, but Apple tries to reward it in multiple ways. For example, 4K content is not only available at the same price as HD, but also any HD movies previously purchased on iTunes are automatically upgraded to the higher-resolution format. This is a nice bonus for the pixel junkies.

The interface of Apple TV is reliable and robust – it works fast and is very intuitive to anyone familiar with iPhone-like navigation.

Nvidia Shield TV

Price: 200 EUR
Remote: Yes (a gaming pad)
Compatible with: Google Play, Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Video and many more
Not compatible with: Amazon Video, Apple iTunes
Gaming: Yes (fully supported)

While gaming is only a bonus feature on some TV boxes, Nvidia Shield TV is the only box which takes the feature to the extreme. Nvidia Shield TV’s key selling point is access to GeForce NOW™ – a revolutionary, cloud-based game streaming service, currently in its beta testing stage.

Aside from being a fully-fledged console that ships with a gaming pad, the Nvidia Shield TV is also a very powerful 4K HDR media streaming device. If the 200 EUR price is not too bitter to swallow, Shield TV is the best deal for local game streaming in 4K.

Nvidia Shield TV ships with Google’s Assistant on board and offers a very intuitive Android TV interface. This means that with Google Play, you can extend its functionalities with many additional apps. It lacks support from the likes of All4 and ITV Player, but with the addition of Google Cast, it’s easy to connect your iOS or Android device to the Shield and broadcast to it wirelessly.

The Verdict?

As far as performance goes, (i.e. speed and reliability of the interface) the rule is simple: the more expensive TV boxes universally run faster and more smoothly. But this is where reasonable buying advice ends. It is really hard to recommend any device over another without knowing the actual needs of the user, and it usually boils down to ecosystem tie-ins.

An in-depth article on TechHive presents a breakdown of app availability across systems. For example, those viewers who are deeply entrenched in the Apple ecosystem should look no further than Apple TV.

Amazon Prime video enthusiasts will be happier with Fire TV.

Google lovers will be better off with Chromecast or another compatible Android TV box (e.g. Xiaomi Mi Box 4K or Nvidia Shield).

Roku is a neutral player trying to cater to everyone’s needs, whether you’re into Amazon, Google or otherwise. And while it’s reasonably priced, it lacks voice assistants and smart home controls you can expect from other TV boxes.

Final Words

Choosing the right streaming box for your TV is, above all, a choice between ecosystems, and only to a small extent a choice of performance – most leading TV boxes are updated regularly and offer frictionless experience.

Simply: go with the one that’s most compatible with your favourite video platforms and services, and make sure it fully utilizes the capabilities of your TV: 4K, 60fps, and HDR.