The Best TV Streaming Services
Whether you’re looking for live news or on-demand shows, the best TV streaming service makes cutting the cord painless. We looked for providers with popular and award-winning content, then, to ensure crystal-clear image quality, we checked out streaming devices like the Apple TV and Amazon Fire for an interruption-free connection.
For live coverage — think sports, news, and new episodes of cable-network shows like The Big Bang Theory — we couldn’t beat DirecTV’s “Live a Little” package ($35/month), which offers the highest number of sought-after channels at one of the lowest prices on the market.
For popular movies and original series, we recommend Netflix Standard ($11/month). Of all the providers we assessed, Netflix had the biggest library of original content — and the biggest budget to produce more.
Whether you choose live or on-demand, you’ll still need hardware to stream your programs to your TV. With its excellent 4K picture quality and intuitive interface, the Fire TV is the easiest way to connect.
The Best TV Streaming Services
The best TV streaming service comes down to what you want out of it. Is the local news important to you? Do you just want to watch your favorite sports team without paying a gargantuan cable bill? Or are you mostly interested in scripted shows that can be watched whenever you want?
Live streaming is most like a traditional cable service — you pay a premium for the ability to stream TV live as it airs, an essential ingredient if you plan on watching live sports, news programming, or awards shows. DirecTV Now’s 'Live a Little' package had by far the best channel selection of any online streaming service that we analyzed. Of the 20 channels that consumers said they wanted the most, the "Live a Little" plan had 18 of them — skipping only PBS (not available anywhere) and HBO (which can be added for $5). The closest competitors were Hulu with Live TV and Playstation Vue Access, which both run $40 per month and only offer 14 of the top 20 channels.
That said, if you want live streaming only to watch sports, we’d suggest runner-up Playstation Vue instead. Playstation Vue’s Core plan includes all four local networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC), along with the largest collection of regional sports networks from any provider. That means you’ll get all the national games and still be able to follow your local teams, too. That’s on top of sports news channels like ESPN, ESPN 2 and FS1.
Live cable isn’t worth the extra money for everyone. If you’re mostly interested in shows and movies, an on-demand subscription gives you the best value. We liked the Netflix Standard plan better than competitors Hulu and Amazon Prime Video. Netflix is serious about investing in their library, spending $6 billion on content in 2017, compared to Amazon’s $4.5 billion and Hulu’s $2.5 billion. The approach has produced huge success through original content like Stranger Things and Narcos.
What does a streaming device do?Streaming devices plug into your TV’s HDMI port and access your Wi-Fi so you can download the app through which your programs run, whether Netflix or DirecTV.
Once you’ve settled on a streaming service, you’ll still need a way to get the content to your TV. That’s where the Amazon Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD comes in. This streaming device aced every test we put it through, producing video quality as crisp as a blu-ray whether we were streaming on demand or live cable. We also loved the interface design; navigating from app to app was as intuitive as it was instantaneous.
We cover all of your options in detail below, but if you already know what you’re interested in, you can skip directly to it:
How We Found the Best Live TV Streaming
We evaluated seven live streaming services on the quality of the channels they offer.
In our search to find the best services for streaming cable, we had two criteria in mind: They had to stream traditional cable channels live, and they wouldn’t lock you into a contract longer than a month. We found seven services that passed those two standards:
Our seven finalists for best live TV streaming services:
- DirecTV Now
- Fubo TV
- Hulu with Live TV
- Playstation Vue
- YouTube TV
Each service offers a channel selection targeted toward different types of tv-watchers. Fubo has an especially robust package of soccer channels, Philo makes a point to offer no sports channels at all, and the rest attempt to provide some version of à la carte selection, allowing you to add on small groups of channels to a core package.
Many of these companies promote the raw number of channels in their lineups, but more isn’t necessarily better. Sling advertises 45 channels for $25 a month, which sounds impressive until you realize you’re paying for a channel assortment as eclectic as the Cheddar channel (financial news “broadcast live from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange”), the Velocity network (automotive programming for an "upscale male" audience) and El Rey Network (geared toward grindhouse fans). Cable subscribers know this dilemma well; it’s easy to wind up paying for 200 channels when you only watch 8. Some “filler” options are inevitable — since Turner owns TNT and TBS, you’ll never be able to get one without the other, for example — but we wanted to give the most weight to the channels that people actually want.
To gauge a channel’s desirability, we used TiVo’s 2017 Q3 Trends Report, which includes a survey of over 3,000 U.S. and Canadian adults on their TV preferences. They asked each respondent, “Which channels would you be interested in including in your TV package?” We used their responses to assign a score to each channel: The higher the percentage of viewers who wanted the channel, the higher its score.
Then we added up the number of points each channel received. DirecTV flattened the competition. Of the top 50 channels from the survey, 41 were included in the “Live a Little” package. This gave it a final score roughly 30% higher than Playstation Vue Access and Hulu, the closest competition. Of the nine channels DirecTV didn’t include, two were HBO and Showtime (available for an additional fee) and two weren't available on any streaming platform (PBS and ABC Family). The others are all available if you move up a tier (Oxygen, Travel Channel, NFL Network, and Weather Channel — the lone exception being ION). By comparison, Sling Orange, the weakest contender, offered only 15 of the top 50.
We assumed that DirecTV’s impressive lineup meant it would also be the most expensive, but we were pleasantly surprised. In addition to offering the best channel selection, DirecTV Now is also as cheap as — and often cheaper than — its closest competition. We found this majorly appealing: The TiVo report found that of the respondents who cut cable TV service in the past year, 85% did so because the price was too high.
Check your zip code against your provider before you buy.
Big networks like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC are essential channels for most live TV viewers, but your provider’s exact offerings may change depending on where you live. The same goes for regional sports networks, which broadcast your local team’s MLB, NBA, and NHL games. To avoid surprises, we’d suggest heading to your provider’s website, entering your zip code, and checking the exact lineup that you’re offered before you buy.
We ran zip codes for Seattle, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles and Boston and found that Hulu with Live TV, DirecTV Now, and Playstation Vue all had the big four networks in these regions, while our other finalists offered patchier coverage. Still, companies are engaged in a streaming arms race right now, each one constantly bidding on the rights to stream local feeds, so coverage is only likely to improve.
Availability of Top 10 Popular Channels from Live Streaming Providers
Our Picks for the Best Live TV Streaming
DirecTV Now has the best channel selection for the best price of any streaming service by far. Other companies tried to lure us in with flashy perks like unlimited cloud storage or five simultaneous streams, but when it came down to the core functions of the best tv streaming service — the quality and number of channels provided — DirecTV Now was miles ahead of its competition.
Of the top 20 channels that TiVo’s 3,000 survey respondents said they wanted the most, DirecTV Now “Live a Little” has 18 of them. The only ones missing are HBO (available for an extra $5 a month) and PBS, which doesn’t stream on any live streaming services. The next closest were Hulu with Live TV ($39.99) and Playstation Vue Access ($39.99) with 14. And if you’re worried that your tastes won’t be covered by “most popular,” it also wins in terms of breadth: Out of the 92 total channels that TiVo’s respondents wanted, the DirecTV Now “Live a Little” package includes 51 of them. Of similarly priced options from its competitors, Playstation Vue Access had 34, Hulu had 31 and YouTube TV had 25.
DirecTV does offer bundles that include even more channels, but the $35-per-month “Live a Little” package was our favorite, despite its judgey name. If you upgrade to the company’s $50 package, the biggest names you’ll add in are the Weather Channel, Travel Channel, IFC, and the MLB Network. For another $10, you can add Oxygen and the Golf Channel, and for $10 more you can get eight Starz channels, bringing the total to $70 a month. We saw similar pricing in runner-up Playstation Vue's packages, too — the returns quickly become marginal as you increase your pricing tier. Unless there’s one specific channel you’re looking for, the best value is generally in the cheapest package.
We also loved DirecTV Now’s pricing for premium channels: HBO was only $5 extra, where every other service we tested charged $15.
DirecTV Now does have a couple of minor drawbacks. For one, they’re the only service that doesn’t offer Cloud DVR storage. (YouTube, by contrast, includes unlimited cloud storage for free.) DirecTV has announced that this service will be available in the first quarter of 2018, but for now, they stand out as the only provider without it. Depending on your viewing habits, this might not be a big deal: Popular shows like This Is Us and The Big Bang Theory are available on demand, and most channels let you restart a live show if you happen to be running late. The lack of a DVR will be most noticeable when watching local networks like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC.
We also weren’t thrilled that DirecTV Now doesn’t work with Playstation or Xbox, which means that you’ll need either a smart TV or a streaming device to access your channels. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to make an extra purchase. DirecTV Now frequently runs promotions for free streaming devices. Right now, if you prepay for four months of service, they’ll throw in a free Apple TV 4K, which retails at $179. If you don’t want to commit to that much money upfront, you can also get a free Roku Streaming Stick if you prepay for one month of service, a $50 value. (Or you can spring for the best streaming device.)
Runner-Up for Best Live TV Streaming
There’s one group of viewers who can find a better option than DirecTV. If you’re part of the 91% of sports fans who only keep their cable subscriptions for live sports, Playstation Vue’s Core package offers a breadth of sports channels as comprehensive as anything we saw from cable companies. In this single area, it edges out DirecTV.
To find the best deal for sports fans, we turned to the Harris Poll’s survey of 2,252 American adults to find out which sports were most beloved. First, we assigned scores to each league — the NFL, MLB, NCAA football, car racing, NBA, NHL, men’s soccer, NCAA basketball, and PGA Golf — based on how many people watched it. The larger the viewership, the higher the score. Then we gave a corresponding amount of points to channels that aired live games for those leagues. Finally, we tallied up the total number of in-demand channels offered by each provider.
For every sport, Playstation Vue met or exceeded the coverage of its rivals. The Core package (plus all of Playstation’s higher pricing tiers) has every channel you’d need to watch live sports from the NFL, MLB, NBA and PGA Golf to NASCAR. And while it didn’t have every possible channel for NCAA basketball and football (the Pac-12 and ACC networks were missing), it was still more than any of the competition’s packages. Bottom line: Playstation Vue covers more live sports than anyone else.
But forget the NFL — you may have regional teams you follow. Again, Playstation Vue has you covered. They carry the most extensive lineup of regional sports networks that we saw, so you can still catch your local MLB, NBA, and NHL teams when they’re not on national TV. You should always run your zip code through the provider’s website to verify before signing up, but Playstation Vue had all the regional sports networks in our test runs.
How We Found the Best On-Demand Streaming Service
If you don’t care much about live TV (or if you just want to supplement it), on-demand streaming provides thousands of hours of shows and movies whenever you want. These services generally start around $10 per month, making them more affordable than both live cable streaming and an old-school cable package.
For on-demand streaming of movies and shows, there are only three major players:
- Amazon Prime Video
While companies like FilmStruck and Acorn provide niche content like art films and British TV, we wanted to focus our search on services with broad appeal. We also didn’t consider standalone network apps like HBO Now and CBS All Access, which can often be purchased as stand-alone subscriptions but only provide content from their own networks.
We analyzed how much each service invests in their content. Netflix came out on top.
One of the appeals of on-demand streaming services is their reputation for high-quality, original content — shows that have turned into such massive successes that they outpace traditional cable network programming. Think hits like Stranger Things and Orange Is the New Black, which both drew more viewers in 2017 than cable network standbys like The Bachelor. To evaluate our three contenders, we first wanted to find out how committed they were to continuing this trend.
Unfortunately, each streaming service is incredibly cagey about their data. They don’t willingly share ratings, exact library volume (and when it changes), or subscriber numbers. But we do have some idea of how they’re investing: In 2017, Netflix spent $6 billion on content, with $1.5 billion devoted to original programming. By comparison, Amazon’s 2017 content budget was $4.5 billion with about one billion going towards original. Hulu came in last, spending $2.5 billion total on content in 2017 — how much of that went to original programming is unclear — a number closer to HBO’s $2 billion than Netflix or Amazon’s budgets.
Spending the most money obviously isn’t a guarantee of the best shows and movies, but if you’re only going to subscribe to one service, it’s a safe bet that Netflix is going to reinvest more of your monthly fee back into content than Amazon and Hulu. As Variety reported in September 2017, “The first season of its supernatural sensation Stranger Things was shot to look like a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie and came with a price tag of $6 million an episode for season one, rising to $8 million in season two. Netflix’s sumptuous period drama “The Crown” cost an estimated $10 million an episode.” That’s considerably more expensive than ta typical high-end drama, which has traditionally run about $5 million per episode.
Netflix seems committed to this impressively expensive approach, too. In 2018, they’ve increased their budget to $8 billion, with the goal of making half their library original by the end of the year. Hulu and Amazon are expected to increase their budgets as well, but they haven’t been forthcoming about how much of an increase, or where they’ll be spending that money.
Critic scores and user ratings are similar across all providers, but Netflix has won more awards.
The popularity of Stranger Things wasn’t the only reason we prioritized companies offering original content. As behemoths like Disney begin to pull their catalogues from streaming services in order to promote their own platforms (essentially going the HBO route), original content will become more and more important for TV streaming providers as a way to attract and keep customers.
But we also wanted to make sure we weren’t recommending junk. For every Stranger Things, there’s a Girlboss or The Get Down, both cancelled after just one season. So we turned to critic ratings, audience ratings, and awards to figure out what kind of quality, on average, each on-demand TV streaming provider offered.
Netflix’s emphasis on quantity did result a slight dip in the quality of their original content. The gulf was widest when it came to Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer, which aggregates reviews from professional critics; Amazon earned an 87.22 average, Hulu 80.95, and Netflix 75.97. Scores were more even when we looked at user reviews. Netflix had a slightly lower average IMDB rating, at 7.01 versus Amazon’s 7.16 and Hulu’s 7.32.
The dip was less than we’d expected, though, given how much more enormous Netflix’s library of original content is: As of January 2018, Netflix has produced 488 pieces of original content, compared to 62 for Amazon and 35 for Hulu. In other words, when you’ve got an enormous library, some duds are inevitable. And when Netflix shines, it shines brightly: In Emmys for original series, Netflix has racked up 92 nominations and 15 wins since 2013, while Amazon has only received 15 nominations and 4 wins, and Hulu just 7 nominations and 5 wins.
Our Picks for the Best On-Demand Streaming
We’re convinced that if you‘re going to subscribe to one on-demand streaming service, Netflix offers the best value for your money. In the fierce competition for your entertainment budget, Netflix consistently spends more on original and licensed TV shows and movies than Amazon and Hulu. Not every show they offer is a winner, but the “throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” approach has paid off in sheer number of original programs, awards nominations and wins, and domination of the cultural zeitgeist.
Since each service keeps their ratings extremely close to the vest, it’s impossible to tell which shows are being watched the most. But it’s safe to say that Netflix has dominated the conversation with their original series. Shows like Stranger Things, Narcos, and House of Cards have all been enormous hits, while Hulu and Amazon have struggled to produce shows that have resonated on the same level. Amazon has tacitly admitted they’re still searching for their first home run, with Amazon Studios chief Roy Price telling Variety, “We’re very interested in getting those top shows — something that is broadly popular and admired. We want to allocate a lot of our attention and resources going forward to that kind of thing.” Netflix hasn’t been shy about muscling out the competition in the comedy realm, either, spending $2 million per episode to lure David Letterman back to TV, another $20 million a piece for specials from Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, and $100 million for two specials from Jerry Seinfeld, along with his series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.
While their library of content was our most important consideration for choosing Netflix, they include some additional perks that we really liked. Unlike Hulu, Netflix and Amazon both make some of their shows and movies available for download so you can view them when you don’t have internet access (especially useful for flying or long drives with kids). They haven’t provided this option for their entire library yet, but it’s a decent cross-genre selection.
The ability to have multiple streams going at once was another big mark in Netflix’s favor. With their Standard HD plan at $10.99, you can stream on two devices from one account at the same time, good if you’re watching one show in the living room and your significant other is watching something else in the bedroom. If you upgrade to the Premium plan at $13.99, the number of simultaneous streams jumps to four. Amazon’s Prime Video is also very generous in this regard — you can stream on three separate devices as long as each device is watching different programs — but Hulu only allows one stream per account, regardless of subscription tier.
The bottom line? By every measure we looked at — content budget, sheer quantity of original programs, number of mega-hits — Netflix is the best on-demand streaming service. If you’re only looking to subscribe to one service, we think you’ll get the most value from Netflix.
Other On-Demand Streaming Services to Consider
If keeping up with your favorite cable shows is your only priority, Hulu On Demand has more content from the major networks than either Netflix or Amazon, and they put them up the day after they’re aired on cable. As its owned in equal parts by Disney/ABC, Fox, and NBC (Disney’s recent purchase of Fox notwithstanding), Hulu is essentially the platform of choice for streaming content from major networks. It’s the only on-demand service where you can find hit shows like Empire, Modern Family, and This Is Us.
That’s currently about the extent of their appeal. So far, Hulu hasn’t chosen to invest as much in original content. The numbers tell a striking story: Hulu has only made 35 original programs, compared to Amazon’s 62, and Netflix’s 488. And while it has produced one high-profile success with The Handmaid’s Tale, the first streaming show to win an Emmy for Outstanding Series, it is still well behind Netflix and Amazon in terms of critically acclaimed shows.
Amazon Prime Video's library falls somewhere between Netflix and Hulu: They’ve produced more original content than Hulu (but much less than Netflix), won more Oscars and Golden Globes than either (but fewer Emmys), and ranked about evenly in terms of reviews from average viewers. Their one selling point is that they’ve seriously outpaced the others in the eyes of professional film critics, scoring an average of 87.22 on the Tomatometer for their original content, compared to 80.95 for Hulu and 75.97 for Netflix. Granted, they’ve produced about ten times fewer pieces of original content than Netflix, but we admire their commitment to quality.
Ultimately, though, most people aren’t subscribing to Amazon Prime for the video service. It’s merely one of many benefits that comes with a Prime subscription, the most notable selling point being two-day shipping on items from Amazon.com. We don’t think it’s streaming service alone is better than Netflix, but with all of the added perks, it may be the best value of the three. At $99 for an annual subscription, it’s also the cheapest option for HD, ad-free streaming. (Plus, you can start getting your paper towels delivered for free.)
How We Found the Best Streaming Device
Regardless of whether you choose live or on-demand streaming, you’ll need a way to actually get all your shows and channels onto your TV. If you don’t have a smart TV or gaming console capable of downloading apps, a streaming device is your best bet. They cost around $50 on average, plug into your TV’s HDMI port, and run through your Wi-Fi (and occasionally Ethernet) to give you access to streaming apps.
We started with a list of 24 products, all marketed as TV streaming devices. While they can serve as great media streamers, we didn’t include gaming consoles or smart TVs because you’re paying primarily for other functions when you make those purchases. We were after devices that could be hooked up to any TV with an HDMI input and a wireless internet connection.
Roku dominated our list, occupying seven of our 24 slots, so we skipped a couple of their less popular models. We also eliminated a few products like the Razer Forge TV and Valve Steam Link, which come up in search results for “best streaming device” but are designed for hardcore gamers rather than TV streamers. We also skipped three TiVo boxes that required a monthly subscription. That left us with fourteen TV streaming devices to bring in for hands-on testing.
If you’ve purchased a smart TV in the past few years, you may not need a streaming device. Smart TVs come with apps built in — usually things like Netflix, Amazon Video, and YouTube — although older TVs don’t always let you download new apps, essentially limiting the number of providers you can go through. In general, the newer your smart TV, the more apps you’ll have access to.
Gaming consoles are much more flexible. The Playstation 4 and Xbox One both have access to most apps, except for their direct competitors (Playstation Vue isn’t offered on Xbox One, for example.) Like smart TVs, older versions of gaming consoles — like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 — also have fewer compatible apps to choose from.
Our 14 finalists for best TV streaming device:
- AirTV Player
- Amazon Fire TV
- Amazon Fire TV with 4K
- Apple TV
- Apple TV 4K
- Google Chromecast
- Google Chromecast Ultra
- Nvidia Shield TV
- Roku Express
- Roku Streaming Stick
- Roku Streaming Stick+
- Roku Ultra
- SkyStream Two Streaming Media Player
- Xiaomi Mi Box
We spent 20 hours of watching TV. The Amazon Fire stood out for best image quality.
All that was left to do was to start watching TV. (And to explain repeatedly to our co-workers that yes, we were actually working.) The first thing we looked for was great picture quality on our TV, a Vizio Smartcast P-Series. We used the latest season of Planet Earth on Netflix as our litmus test for 4K Ultra HD streaming: 4K is the top-of-the-line in terms of picture quality, and if you have a 4K TV or are planning to upgrade, your streaming device should be able to handle it. We wanted to make sure our 4K streamers lived up to that claim.
What Internet speed is recommended for live streaming?The FCC recommends 5-8 Mbps download speeds for HD streaming, and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD. Keep in mind, that number will need to go up if you plan on streaming more than one device at a time. Ookla’s Speedtest.net is a great way to measure your internet speeds if you’re unsure about your service.
Granted, our eyes are as subjective as anyone’s, but there were some clear winners and losers. As soon as we pressed play on the Fire TV with 4K, Komodo dragons and long-haired bats came to life in brilliant and terrifying detail. There was no buffering, no fuzzy warming up — just awe-inspiring video delivered instantaneously. The Google Chromecast Ultra, on the other hand, seemed to barely be streaming in HD, let alone the 4K resolution it promised.
The Roku Ultra and Streaming Stick+ did eventually deliver great image quality, but each one went through a few minutes of scrambled pixels before they settled into true 4K resolution. And we encountered these issues no matter what channel we tried, with the Nvidia Shield going in and out of HD as we surfed Sling and DirecTV.
The Amazon Fire's interface was also the most intuitive and responsive.
Maneuvering back and forth between apps was delightfully immediate with the Amazon Fire; we never experienced any pause or lag if we decided to change apps halfway through loading. To be honest, that wasn’t something we were expecting to affect our experience so much. But after getting used to Amazon’s lightning-fast processors, it was pretty annoying to have to go back to something like the Roku Express, which uses 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi instead of the quicker 802.11 ac of the Fire TV. Everything took an extra beat — when we clicked “Top Rated Movies” in Prime Video on the Roku Express, we had to wait a couple seconds before we could actually see those movies. Admittedly, this is a small bone to pick. But we could see the delay becoming frustrating over time.
We also appreciated the simplicity of the Fire TV’s interface. When you open it up, you’ll see your most recently used apps in the top row, a list that’s updated constantly depending on what you’ve been using. This list also includes Amazon Prime content you’ve been watching, a nice time-saver that we wish applied to other apps, too. (Fire TV is extremely Prime-centric. More on that below, but it was one of the only things we didn’t like about it.) Below that is a set list of your favorite apps and games, which you can rearrange to your liking with a couple easy clicks. The Fire TV adapted its layout to fit our personal preferences, a considerate feature that we missed in other devices. The Nvidia Shield, for example, seemed to be designed with a specific user in mind, with the best real estate at the top of the screen given to a seemingly random mix of sponsored content. (The 2011 comedy The Change Up and a Jason Aldean music video both apparently warranted the space.)
Our Pick for the Best Streaming Device
Amazon's Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD had everything we wanted in a streaming device: excellent 4K picture quality, an intuitive and attractive interface, and compatibility with almost every app we wanted (the glaring exception is YouTube, but Amazon has a workaround that we look at in a second.) And while a lot of devices can credibly claim those features, the Fire TV did better at them than all 13 of our other contenders.
No 4K connection? If your internet connection or TV isn’t equipped to handle extremely high definition video streaming, you can also downgrade to the plain old Amazon Fire TV ($40). But as 4K TVs continue to drop in price, there’s a good chance your next TV will have 4K capability if you buy one in the next few years, so it might be worth opting for the higher-end Fire TV now.
Apart from its pristine picture quality and intuitive interface, the Fire TV solidified our affection with small details: remote design, voice control, and its search function. The remote is pretty bare bones — it doesn’t assign specific buttons to Netflix, Hulu, and Sling like the Roku streaming devices do — but the Fire TV’s navigation was so fast that we didn’t mind taking a couple extra clicks to get to the app we wanted. We also loved the ability to rewind ten seconds by hitting the left side of the wheel (if we wanted to make sure that Lebron James dunk actually happened, for example).
The voice control worked flawlessly, too. When we asked Alexa to “play Jaws,” she immediately opened it up in Netflix and began playing. We didn’t have as much luck with the Nvidia Shield, which started playing Dave Brubeck videos on YouTube because it thought we wanted to hear some jazz. The Fire TV’s manual search function was equally painless: Once it pulls up the show or movie you’re looking for, it defaults to the free option if it’s available through any of your subscriptions. If not, it will show you options for buying or renting it through Amazon.
The only real quibble we had with the Fire TV? Everything runs through Amazon. You have to open up Netflix or Hulu to access their content, but if you scroll past the top two rows of apps on your Fire TV, you’re basically in Prime Video, with categories like “Amazon Original Series” and “Prime Recommended Movies” quickly popping up. Amazon does make some concessions towards streaming-agnosticism — Hulu and HBO shows are included in their “Golden Globe Winners” category, for instance — but there’s no mistaking that this is an Amazon device.
When you rent a movie through Fire TV, you also have only one option. The app blocks competing rental apps like Vudu and iTunes, and Google recently pulled YouTube off Fire TVs in response to Amazon’s refusal to sell products like Chromecast and Google Home on Amazon.com. This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to no YouTube, though. In a slick workaround, Amazon has added “Youtube.com” as an app on its main page, accessible through Mozilla or Silk browsers. And the rental limitation is unlikely to be a big issue — prices are typically the same for movie rentals, regardless of where you purchase them. (And, if you have an on-demand Netflix subscription, there may not be many movies you need to rent.)
If all other considerations were equal, we would have preferred a more neutral device. But all other things ultimately weren’t: The Fire TV outperformed the competition in terms of both picture quality and navigation, in addition to mastering small details like voice control.