With the rise of services such as Netflix, the YouTube boom or the arrival of 4K content, many of us are looking for our television to quickly access the internet to consume movies, series and videos of all kinds. The latest generation televisions are already Smart TV and have their own system, but if this is not your case or you are looking for a product to have internet on the TV, here we leave you our comparative guide of the best set-top-box.
We have tried the devices that connect to the most recommended TV and we offer our experience. From sticks like Amazon or Google to small boxes that we place next to the TV and allow us to access the most popular multimedia applications.
If you have a 4K TV you can take full advantage of these devices, but if your TV is old you can also enjoy these media players since we only need HDMI connection. We leave you with our purchase and comparison guide that as always we hope will be of help.
Our recommended: NVIDIA Shield TV
The Nvidia Shield TV (2017) is the best multimedia player you can buy today. A super-complete 4K set-top-box that stands out in almost every section . Image quality, fluency, games, design and connectivity. Without a doubt a pleasant surprise on the part of a manufacturer who does not have many gadgets behind his back and has ended up offering us a product of very high level.
If you are looking for a device to connect to the TV and be able to watch YouTube or Netflix in high resolution, the Nvidia Shield TV works like a charm. We have a system based on Android TV with many applications but also thanks to its powerful processor Tegra X1 is very fluid and conveys a feeling of stability at all times.
It is compatible with Dolby Atmos, has two USB 3.0 ports, Ethernet connection and has a very modern design. The remote control is pleasant to use and the voice control system is very complete, even more so with the arrival of Google Assistant.
Nvidia also offers us an excellent device to play. From some exclusives to the full power of the GeForce Now payment platform. A small video game console that is also one of the best multimedia centers that we can connect to TV. An all-terrain set-top-box, powerful and compact, the best experience with Android TV that can be achieved today.
Alternative: Apple TV 4K
Apple usually creates outstanding products and the Apple TV 4K is no exception. We are facing a set-top-box with which we get a very different experience than any television, even the latest generation, can offer us. A multimedia player with which we will achieve the maximum image quality thanks to that combination of 4K HDR plus compatibility with Dolby Vision.
The design of the Apple TV 4K is very elegant, a small black box with Ethernet connectivity that fits perfectly in any piece of furniture. It also has a very compact control and despite having a shape that confuses side is very pleasant to use.
To get the most out of Apple TV 4K we will have to use its ecosystem, but if we are already Apple users we will all be familiar. Siri, iTunes, menus, adapted applications … all the details are very careful and if we are enthusiastic consumers with the Apple TV 4K we have a focused system for TV that we will hardly get elsewhere.
The iTunes catalog grows at a good pace and offers good prices. Everything revolves around the content in 4K HDR and even 1080p videos are adapted. If you are looking for a set-top-box to take full advantage of your new TV, the Apple TV 4K is the most advanced player.
Best quality-price: Xiaomi Mi TV Box
If what we are looking for is an economic set-top-box to give a boost to our television, below a hundred dollars we also have several options. Among them our recommended is the Xiaomi Mi TV Box 4K. We are facing a multimedia player with a complete operating system such as Android TV, remote control with voice control and a minimalist and reduced design.
Another option is the Fire Stick, but we do not have full compatibility with YouTube and it is limited to FullHD. The possibilities of the Mi Box TV 4K are enormous and the fluidity is much better than other Android-based players. A set-top-box that, without reaching the quality level of our recommended ones, stands out for its quality-price.
How to choose a good set-top-box
Apparatus that is connected to the TV there are many types. Although in this guide we have focused on the most complete the truth is that the number of alternatives is huge and very varied . On the one hand we have very cheap HDMI sticks and another more complete set top boxes, with access to more applications and capable of offering images and content with better quality.
What should we take into account when buying a media player? Here we leave you a series of key aspects that you must set to get right with your decision. Several features will appear named in the box and product description, but there are other points that are not as clear as for example the accepted formats, the applications compatible with the player or the quality of the materials.
- 4K Resolution, HDR and accepted formats: This is the main difference between them. On the one hand are the players that support up to 1080p resolution, while others will take advantage of the quality of a 4K TV. Beyond the resolution, you have to check if they support HDR content and the Dolby Vision certification. Finally, only those set-top-boxes with the VP9 codec will be able to play 4K HDR content on YouTube. A key point to ensure that the content reproduced is of the highest quality that our TV supports.
- Design, space that it occupies and quality of materials: We will differentiate two types of multimedia players. We have stick types, which are plugged in and hidden behind the TV, and the most complete set-top-boxes that we will normally place next to the TV. It is important to assess the size they occupy and if they have a minimalist design that fits well in the furniture.
- Connectivity, connection quality and ethernet input: The biggest problem we will have with a low quality multimedia player is the WiFi connection. It will fall, it will take to load the videos and in the end we will end up getting tired of it. For this reason, we recommend checking that it is compatible with a 2.4GHz and 5GHz dual band and that it has an Ethernet connection.
- Storage: Today most content is consumed through streaming services such as YouTube or Netflix, so it is normal to not need much storage. In case you also want to save movies, most players come with 8GB but in some cases we have more space. Our recommendation more than the internal space is to look for a set-top-box with USB slot.
- Remote control and voice control: The control of the television itself will sometimes be used to control the player, but usually these set-top-boxes come with their own. A nice hand control is appreciated, with an easy-to-press crosshead and a good microphone for voice control.
- Operating system, compatible applications and ease of use: Each multimedia player comes with its own operating system. Some incorporate Android TV, others have proprietary systems of the brand as in the case of Amazon or Apple and in other cases we have Android to dry with a custom launcher for the occasion. Here it is important to see if the main applications are available and above all how is the fluidity of the system, if it is easy to use and if it does not give problems.
What our tests are based on?
The recommendations of our purchasing guides are based on previous experience, the fruit of several years of testing and analyzing all types of technological devices. For media players we have opted for five set-top-boxes that we have been testing for almost a month.
All the devices chosen are of great brands because we want to focus on the experience that is achieved and if they allow us to enjoy the TV better. The Amazon Fire Stick, the Chromecast Ultra, the new Mi Box TV and our two recommended ones: the Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield TV (2017). To verify its operation we have connected to a Sony Bravia XE90 4K 55 inches and a Samsung TV Full HD 24 inches. The first of them in the living room to view the highest quality content and the second in the room to have another point of reference.
The first step was to examine its design, what connections each had and if they were easy to connect to the TV. Here there was a small mess of cables but in the end we managed to have most of them connected at the same time. There are never enough HDMI connectors. Once connected, we looked at the initial configuration and see if we could synchronize it with the mobile phone quickly.
To see all its possibilities we have made a series of actions that any user could want to do. The first and most obvious is to put a Youtube video, then we have synchronized with our streaming accounts like Netflix or Amazon Video. We have also searched for widely used multimedia applications such as RTVE or Atresmedia and if they have compatibility with Movistar, or another equivalent service, to watch football. Last but not least, we have tested the catalog of films of each brand and have observed what is available.
We have also taken advantage of these powerful set-top-boxes to play, view photos, search for applications such as Plex or Kodi and watch the news. A mixed use to see what were the strengths and disadvantages of each. The comfort of the control, the ease of use of the menus and the reliability of the voice control have also been points where we have stopped to compare with each other. Here we leave our conclusions in the different sections.
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The big TV, but the best small set top boxes
The furniture in my living room is quite small and if I already had problems, now with the big TV the space is even tighter. If we are going to buy a set-top-box we are interested in it being small enough to be able to be placed where we are most interested and with a design that we like.
Each brand has its own identity. While for example Nvidia bet to give priority to a green LED strip, in Apple or Xiaomi opt for more minimalist forms. All models analyzed have the logo on the front, some like Google add a simple ‘G’. Others like Nvidia or Xiaomi have it quite camouflaged. And then there’s the Apple TV 4K with the big apple or the Fire Stick and the Amazon logo that takes up most of the space. It is not something that should worry us especially but we have noticed that for example on the Apple TV the relief is easily scratched.
Although all have similar internal characteristics, their appearance is different. The Chromecast Ultra stands out for its circular shape, the Amazon Fire Stick is flat and reminds us of a giant USB. If we go to the table set-top-boxes, the lightest is the Mi Box TV. It is the most compact and simple and although we have not noticed that it is hot or makes noise, it does not have a ventilation system.
The Nvidia Shield TV has that form of small portable console that we consider aesthetically very successful. It also reminds us of a hard drive. It is the one that occupies most of width and length but it remains in a sufficient manageable size and can be placed standing up. And what about the Apple TV 4K, a black box, with rounded edges and very elegant. Future versions could lose weight but its design is also excellent. In other simpler media players may not happen, but all our candidates get very good note in the design section.
The advantage of the set-top-boxes with respect to the HDMI sticks like the Chromecast Ultra or the Amazon Fire Stick is that in the first ones we have more connections. Mainly two very useful, USB ports to expand the internal storage and Ethernet connection, essential in all 4K models.
Here we have some points. The Amazon player is the simplest, it does not have 4K or Ethernet but it does not need it either. Your strategy is to keep it as simple as possible. In the case of the Xiaomi Mi Box we do have compatibility with 4K HDR but it does not have Ethernet input, which in the end is a problem to play 4K content. On the contrary, a device as small as the Chromecast Ultra does include Ethernet. And the best is the way by how he does it. It’s not on the device itself, the Chromecast Ultra adds Ethernet from the connector to the mains. The most complete models such as the Apple TV 4K or the Nvidia Shield do incorporate it.
Separate topic is the USB connection. Here we only find it in table models but not all have it. Apple has never been very friendly with external storage but it is the one that offers the most base. The Nvidia Shield TV of 2017 comes with 16GB and we can extend it from one of the two USB 3.0 that it incorporates. In previous years models also offered microSD slot, but being smaller has been lost along the way. The Mi Box only offers a USB port and unlike the Nvidia Shield 2.0.
And if we talk about design, I do not want to end this section by dealing with a topic that is the most headache on a daily basis but then we always forget about it. I mean the cables. The HDMI cable is essential, but neither Nvidia nor Apple incorporate it. Xiaomi does, but it is very short and sometimes I chose to use my own.
The Chromecast Ultra and the Amazon Fire Stick have an integrated HDMI and connect directly to the TV. The first is flexible and appreciated, but the Amazon device is rigid and the power cord is plugged into a very uncomfortable position. Here Amazon what it offers us as a solution is an adapter that comes in the box itself. An HDMI extension of a couple of centimeters, enough to hang and have the necessary space to connect other devices. It works, but it is somewhat cumbersome.
A good command encourages you to use the player more
Goodbye to the numbers on the remote control. The commands of these set-top-boxes are quite similar and they all have almost the same keys. Menu button, OK button, volume, roulette to move through the menus, pause, forward and backward and if the device is compatible, also button for the voice. The only one that goes out of the norm is the Chromecast Ultra, where everything is managed from the Google Home application on the mobile. It is the simplest, but also the most limited.
The control of Apple TV is flat, with an excellent touch and a touch panel on top that is unrivaled in terms of reliability and accuracy. The only thing that stands out from its design is the menu button, with a white border so that we have a reference. Even so, one thing happens, it’s too symmetrical and we do not have an easy way to know if we take it the right way. The rest of the controls work with AAA batteries, in the case of the Apple TV a lighting cable is added to charge it although in all these weeks we have not had to do it.
The one on Mi Box TV is simple, with rounded sides, a central roulette with a correct touch and an on / off button in the upper left corner. The Nvidia Shield TV offers us a more elegant, flatter control, with a button for the biggest voice and instead of keys for the volume we have a tactile route in the lower part.
With the Nvidia Shield TV we also have a gamepad that we have tried on previous occasions but we did not have it to compare. The truth is that this gamepad seems to us essential because many of the games and options offered by Nvidia Shield TV ask us to have it.
For its part, Amazon also has a small remote control. Despite its price, we have a command with almost the same functions as the rest. We lose control by voice and we have no tactile response. The route of the keys is also rough and you can quickly see that it is a command belonging to a cheaper device.
Comparison of formats and available content
These media players are used to watch TV content that we could not otherwise see. The vast majority of users buy one of these devices to watch YouTube or Netflix on the TV. All the products analyzed in this comparative guide allow you to see these streaming services, but there are important differences.
If you are looking for something simple and your TV is not 4K, the easiest thing is to bet on products like the Amazon Fire Stick or even the second generation Chromecast. In the case of the Amazon product, the reproducible content is limited to FullHD quality. It should not be an impediment for many, but what does happen is that YouTube is caped due to the eternal war between Amazon and Google. The solution is to enter YouTube from the browser and the truth is that it works just as well, just add a couple of extra clicks.
What if we want to watch videos in 4K? Let’s start with Youtube, one of the largest sources of high resolution content we can find. The two devices with Android TV and Chromecast Ultra have no problem playing videos in 4K from YouTube, not Apple TV 4K that does not have the VP9 codec is without support . Users who bet on the Apple ecosystem can watch YouTube videos in FullHD, but for the content in 4K should bet on other services such as Netflix, which works perfectly, or iTunes itself.
If it is compatible with 4K resolution it is also compatible with HDR, but only Apple TV 4K and Chromecast Ultra also offer support for Dolby Vision, one of the most successful HDR certificates in the industry. Here a war of formats comes into play but the truth is that Netflix starts to have more compatible content.
An interesting exercise is to compare the content that we have at our disposal in each of the analyzed devices. Here is a list of the most popular applications:
- YouTube: Chromecast Ultra, Nvidia Shield and My Box without problems. In the Amazon Fire stick it is blocked but still accessible. In the Apple TV 4K works very well although with a simpler application and without videos in 4K.
- Netflix or HBO: The Apple TV 4K will be the device with which we will get the most out of the Netflix account. An application that works great and compatible with all its content. Our second option would be the Chromecast Ultra to forget the menus. It is the most agile. The other options are compatible but do not offer any highlight that makes us choose them.
- Amazon Video: Amazon’s content service is fully integrated into the operating system of the Fire Stick but the truth is that being only FullHD is something short. The different players have their own Amazon Video application but for example it is not compatible with the Chromecast Ultra. To make it work with the Google device will have to cast from Chrome on the computer. A solution not as comfortable as in the rest.
- Plex or Kodi: These two powerful applications for saving and watching videos are compatible with Chromecast, but they are much more enjoyable with the full Android TV application. We are in particular with the Nvidia Shield, which thanks to its powerful processor allows the whole experience to be much more fluid. Plex is also available on the Amazon Fire Stick. For the case of the Apple TV 4K we have an excellent alternative with Infuse.
- RTVE, Atresmedia or Movistar: The catalog of video applications is huge for all platforms. RTVE, ESPN, Atresmedia, regional television … the level is very even though the versions for tvOS are usually more complete, especially in English-speaking applications. Movistar + is available for Sony’s Android TV, but it gives problems on both the Nvidia Shield TV and the Mi Box.
- VLC and video playback: On the Apple TV everything is rescaled to 4K but we are very limited to the iTunes ecosystem. In Android TV we have compatible players with almost all formats such as VLC or MXPlayer, while in the Fire Stick we are limited to 30fps and almost all the content will also be streaming.
At the level of games there are big differences. If you have a Chromecast Ultra better forget it since there is almost none compatible. The Amazon Fire Stick is very weak and we found a lot of lag. The Xiaomi Mi Box is like any Android, acceptable. But the two real winners are the Apple TV 4K and the Nvidia Shield TV. Without reaching the level of the mobile, the App Store catalog for tvOS is excellent with games such as Afterpulse, Alto’s Adventure, Minecraft, Oceanhorn or Real Racing 3.
Meanwhile the Nvidia Shield TV has access to Android TV games, there are not many options, but also to its own app store. The truth is that there are very good exclusives for Nvidia like Half-Life 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, Borderlands or Morphite. All without counting the GeForce Now payment service, which expands the possibilities much more but which is beyond us from this comparison.
What about the movies and series available to buy on the platforms of each set-top-box? Here we mainly differentiate three platforms. The one of Google with Play Movies that use the Chromecast Ultra, the Nvidia Shield TV and the Mi Box TV. The Amazon platform that focuses primarily on Amazon Video and iTunes, exclusive for Apple TV 4K and apple products.
Here is a very important difference between Google Play Movies and iTunes. While in the first we only have movies in FullHD, in iTunes we are already offered the possibility of buying Dolby Vision 4K HDR movies at prices similar to what we had before in 1080p.
Software and operation
The use of these media players differs a lot. Let’s explain what the sensations and strengths of each one have been. We start with the initial configuration and tuning. In all of them we have a guide that tells us the steps. If you have an Android configure the Nvidia or the Xiaomi is tremendously easy and the same happens if you have an iPhone with the Apple TV 4K. Something more cumbersome is the Chromecast, since we have to install an application on the mobile. Although it compensates because later it is the simplest thing. The Amazon Fire Stick is the least practical, has few steps but is not as automated.
The design of each system is very different, even the appearance of Android TV differs slightly between one and the other. In the Xiaomi Mi Box TV we have almost nothing in the beginning and we will have to fill it little by little. The Android TV of the Nvidia Shield is more careful, with constant updates, exclusive applications and access to Google Assistant.
The Google Home application allows us to cast or mirror screen, what happens is that the other devices also allow similar functions. Of course, the Chromecast Ultra is the only one that offers guarantees to send 4K videos from your mobile to your TV.
The Amazon Fire Stick system is also based on Android although we do not have any Google service. Fire OS is reduced to a start page, categories to search for new applications and the configuration menu. The applications however are very similar to those of Android TV. In fact, being based on Android we can manually install .apk files.
tvOS is a system that works very smoothly and you can quickly see Apple’s DNA. It is very organized, colorful, we do not find any type of lag and it has details that are very much appreciated as a 4K screensaver with spectacular images. To this we also have to add the power of Siri, smarter and much more comfortable to use to search for content everywhere except on YouTube, a real weakness of the Apple TV 4K.
The fluidity of the Nvidia Tegra X1 processor is clear from the start. It is by far the fastest Android TV of all. Stable, fast and much more pleasant to use than not the one found in the Xiaomi Mi Box or integrated into the new TVs.
How to connect your mobile, tablet or computer on TV
Send information from mobile or computer to TV. This is basically what most users look for and fortunately these set-top-boxes allow us to do it in different ways. The most basic ones have technologies such as DLNA or Miracast, which basically duplicate the screen; What appears on the mobile screen is what appears on TV. Perfect for duplicating webs or strange applications but quite cumbersome since it forces us to have the phone turned on.
The second option is to use the phone as a remote control of the TV. If your smartphone has infrared we can pass it through a command of the usual, otherwise there are applications such as Android TV Remote control that will be of great help in set-top-boxes like those of Nvidia or Xiaomi.
Finally we have the option of Google Chromecast or Apple Airplay. It will be necessary to look for the button of cast that appears in hundreds of compatible applications. Once we press it, the content of the mobile will be sent to the TV and, most interestingly, the mobile phone will not even need to be turned on. It will be the media player itself that connects to the content that you have indicated from the mobile. A method that we consider very effective and in some cases even superior to navigating the menus of the set-top-box itself.
Best set-top-box: The candidates
To choose the best set-top-box candidates, we have mainly opted for 4K models that are ready for all types of teles, both old and new. The only device without this resolution has been the Amazon Fire Stick, the most economical media player on the list and a real best seller thanks to all the power of the ecommerce giant.
I could not miss the Chromecast Ultra, renewal with Ethernet connection and 4K compatible. It is the latest generation, although with several years behind them, the Google player. The first we must have popularized this type of device and it is still an option to take into account despite moving away from the set-top-boxes with control command.
The NVIDIA Shield TV and the Xiaomi Mi Box are two 4K decoders with Android TV. Very complete, powerful and with an interface fully adapted to the television. They are also among the few devices officially compatible with VP9 and Netflix HDR in 4K, which made them clear candidates to be included in this comparative guide.
Our selection ends with the Apple TV 4K, the latest set-top-box of the largest technology manufacturer. No doubt a product that complements any type of television and an alternative to take into account for all users of the Apple ecosystem.