Looking to add streaming to an old TV or replace your set’s outdated apps? Get better, smoother streaming with an internet TV stick or box
Smart TVs are on the rise – so you might think that standalone streaming devices such as IPTV boxes are on their way out. But TV interfaces can be awkward and slow, and manufacturers typically stop updating the built-in apps and services after a few years. An IPTV box promises a slick, up-to-date experience, without having to replace your entire TV.
It can give older hardware a new lease of life, too, letting you enjoy Netflix and iPlayer on a “dumb” TV set, not to mention apps like Plex and Kodi. With new features and aggressive pricing, the dedicated box is becoming a more and more tempting option.
The problem is working out which one to buy. Do you want a device designed primarily to work with one streaming service, such as Now TV – or should you choose a more flexible unit that treats all services the same? And what about extras like 4K and HDR video streaming or voice controls? Here’s our buyer’s guide, and our pick of the best IPTV boxes to buy right now.
How to choose the best IPTV box for you
Streaming devices come in two basic forms. There are boxes that sit next to your TV and draw their power from the mains, and then there are smaller “stick” devices that plug directly into an HDMI connector at the back of your TV, and usually draw their power from a USB socket. Both connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, though some boxes have an Ethernet port as well. It’s largely a matter of preference and convenience as to which format will suit you.
Beyond this, the decision should come down to the apps and services you want. For example, Amazon’s Fire devices are now pretty good, streaming Netflix, iPlayer, All 4, Now TV, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video, along with any Google Play movies or TV shows that you might have purchased, through the YouTube app. However, buy the Google Chromecast with Google TV, and you’ll get most of those but not Apple TV+ or Now TV. Being independent, Roku tends to get the widest selection of services, with Now TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Google TV content all on board.
It goes without saying that you should check that your chosen stick will play your favourite services before you buy, unless you’re prepared to watch some of them through your existing Smart TV apps or another device.
What about an Android TV box?
Alongside the big-name manufacturers, you’ll find plenty of cheap Chinese-made Android streaming devices, often sold at bargain-basement prices. The problem with these is that they’re a real mixed bag, and it’s rarely clear what you’re going to get. While a handful run Google’s official Android TV OS, designed for big-screen use, remote controls and streaming services, the majority run software based on standard smartphone Android, sometimes without access to the Google Play Store. What’s worse, they’re sometimes reliant on older or customised versions of key apps – like Netflix or Amazon Prime Video – that don’t deliver reliable high-quality streaming.
This might sound discouraging – but if you want to run Kodi then an Android box might be the perfect platform. Kodi has an iffy reputation, but the app itself is perfectly legal, and is a great way to watch video from legitimate sources or from your own NAS drive.
Just be aware that Kodi can also be used to illegally stream films and TV shows from dodgy sites, and some sellers offer “fully loaded” Kodi boxes that come with all the add-ons required to do so. If you go exploring those capabilities, you might be straying outside the boundaries of the law.
As we said, there are some exceptions. You can still find Xiaomi’s TV Stick 4K, which runs the same Android TV OS that you’ll find on TVs from Sony, TCL, Toshiba and Philips. Meanwhile, Nvidia’s Shield TV devices run a customised version of Android TV. Google has also hit the IPTV market with its Google Chromecast with Google TV device, which goes further than previous Chromecasts by providing a remote control and Google’s most recent Google TV interface. If you’re more interested in a slick viewing experience than running Kodi, these officially supported devices are a better bet.
READ NEXT: Best Android TV boxes
What other features should I look out for?
All the devices listed will output 1080p (Full HD) video, and a growing number will also stream and play 4K UHD material, complete with High Dynamic Range (HDR). Of these, most support the basic HDR10 or generic HDR standard, but there is growing support for HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, particularly as the latter’s now supported by Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ across a good range of content.
The sticks and boxes have also got better when it comes to surround-sound support. All but the cheapest Amazon Fire TV devices will now pass through not just Dolby Digital 5.1 but the superior Dolby Atmos, and the same goes for the Roku Premiere, Roku Streaming Stick+, Roku Streambar and Google Chromecast with Google TV. Of course, you’ll still need a TV or sound system capable of decoding and playing it, plus apps that actively support it.
Many boxes also pack in other features. Some support online music streaming services or will show photos from online photo albums, while many will now play smartphone-level games. On the most advanced you can even stream games from a cloud gaming service or from a PC in another room. That way you can play them on the big screen TV in the lounge, with a Bluetooth games controller to get that authentic console feel.
A final thing to look for is voice control: this certainly beats scrambling for the remote, and can make it a lot easier to choose shows and films from the vast range available. It’s often accessed via a microphone built into the remote control, and some streamers integrate with the Google Assistant or Amazon Echo platforms, so you can issue hands-free commands and use the bundled remote to control other smart devices in the home.
How we test IPTV sticks and boxes
We test IPTV sticks and boxes connected to a 4K OLED TV, along with 1080p and 4K projectors where we have them available. We run the device through its setup process and install a range of apps, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Now TV, BBC iPlayer and the Channel 4 app. We then run through a range of different movies and programmes, both at 4K and 1080p resolutions, in order to assess picture and audio quality.
While we do so, we examine the interface – in particular, how easy it is to navigate, change settings and search for specific content. We keep an eye on performance, looking at whether the interface feels snappy and how long it takes for a programme to start playback and switch to a high-bitrate HD or 4K stream. Finally, we assess the remote and any voice-control features, and any additional entertainment or gaming features, to see if these add extra value.
READ NEXT: Best TVs
The best IPTV boxes you can buy in 2023
1. Roku Express: Best budget streamer
Price when reviewed: £30 | Check price at Amazon
Now that Sky has discontinued its Now TV Smart Stick, the Roku Express is the best budget smart stick option out there, with only Amazon’s Fire Stick Lite offering serious competition. Roku’s smart TV platform is one of the best available, not just because it’s super easy to use, but because it supports all the major UK apps and TV services including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube and Disney+ alongside catch-up TV from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. As long as Roku keeps updating its apps – and its history here is pretty good – you’ll get plenty of choice for years to come.
The unit itself is pretty well designed as well, with a curved module that sits near or on your TV, a USB connection that can be powered from your TV’s USB port and an HDMI output. It’s incredibly easy to set it up, install some apps and get watching, and you can even stream media from a Plex or Twonky server on your local network. Image and audio quality are excellent, and it’s nippier than Roku’s previous-generation budget streamers. The 4K HDR Roku Premiere is well worth the £10 extra if you want a future-proof device, but this is the best cheap way to smarten up your old TV.
Key specs – Type: HDMI streaming device; Power: USB or mains adapter (not included); Core spec: ARM Cortex A53 CPU, 512MB RAM, 802.11n Wi-Fi; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Now TV, Sky Store, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, Channel 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
2. Amazon Fire TV Stick (3rd Generation): Best HD streamer
Price when reviewed: £45 | Check price at Amazon
The standard HD version of the Fire TV Stick has often seemed like a poor cousin to the pricier Fire TV Stick 4K, but the latest revision does much to redress the situation. It’s 50% faster than the old Fire TV Stick, meaning Amazon’s slick interface now runs very smoothly, and it doesn’t take as long to lock down on the optimal bitstream while streaming HD video – you can wave goodbye to blocky video a few seconds earlier. What’s more, the HD version now supports Dolby Atmos audio, HLG and HDR10+, so the only major difference in audio and video format support is that the TV Stick 4K will also play Dolby Vision along with UHD video.
Either way, Amazon’s voice remote works as well as ever, with universal content search across supporting apps including Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. And where Fire TV devices used to display some annoying gaps when it came to app support, you can now access Now TV as well as Google’s video content through the YouTube app. You can also control the Fire TV through an Echo speaker. Spend another tenner and you can have the 4K Max version, while you can also save £15 by opting for the Lite version, with the same basic spec but no onboard support for Dolby Atmos and no TV controls on the remote. As long as you prefer Amazon’s ecosystem to Google’s, all are great streaming sticks to buy.
Key specs – Type: HDMI streaming stick; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: 1.7GHz quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, 8GB storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, AppleTV+, Now TV, YouTube, ITV Hub, Demand 5, Channel 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
3. Roku Streaming Stick 4K: Best do-it-all IPTV streamer
Price when reviewed: £50 | Check price at Amazon
Roku’s Streaming Stick 4K takes over from the old Streaming Stick Plus as the brand’s high-end streaming stick, and it retains all the same strengths. You get a no-nonsense interface that makes it easy to find your favourite streaming apps, plus easy access to the full range of streaming services, including all the biggest names in the UK. To this the Streaming Stick 4K adds WI-Fi 6 connectivity along with Dolby Vision and HDR10+ playback, plus passthrough support for Dolby Atmos and DTS – although, without onboard decoding.
Other plus points include universal search across all apps through text or voice, and superb picture and audio quality, making the most of Dolby Vision content on Disney+ or Amazon Prime Video. There’s more than enough processing power to make the interface feel speedy, with barely any delay for buffering or switching to a higher bitrate stream. The onboard Wi-Fi 6 helps make sure that you get a stable, high-speed connection to a Wi-Fi 6 router, and performance is impeccable. While Amazon and Apple offer even better hardware with the Fire TV Cube and Apple TV 4K, both come at a significantly higher cost. If you’re simply after a great stick for 4K streaming, the Roku is the one to buy.
Key specs – Type: HDMI streaming stick; Power: USB; Core spec: Quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Now TV, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, AppleTV+, ITV Hub, My5, Channel 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: No
4. Amazon Fire TV Cube (3rd generation): Amazon’s best and fastest IPTV streamer
Price when reviewed: £140 | Check price at Amazon
Amazon’s Fire TV Cube improves on its streaming sticks by boosting processing power, adding Wi-Fi 6E support, along with an HDMI 2.1 input and output, plus a wired 100Mbits/sec Ethernet connection. It’s incredibly speedy, switching from screen to screen or menu to menu as quickly as your internet connection can handle it, and it even has sufficient performance to run Android games from the Amazon app store. Picture and sound quality are fantastic, with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support. It even offers built-in – and excellent – upscaling of 720p and 1080p material, which may work better than your TV’s own upscaling.
However, its killer feature is hands-free Alexa support, enabling you to search for content or continue watching your favourite series without even touching a remote control. It isn’t equally successful at finding the right episode across all services and sources, but it generally works, and you can also use voice commands to adjust the volume or switch between Fire TV and a connected source, such as an Xbox console or a Blu-ray player. You need to be okay with Fire TV’s Amazon-focused UI – not to mention the premium price – but this is the best high-end streamer bar the latest Apple TV 4K box.
Key specs – Type: Fire OS streaming box; Power: Bundled mains adaptor; Core spec: Octa-core processor, 2GB RAM, Wi-Fi 6; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Disney+, AppleTV+, Now TV, YouTube, ITV Hub, Demand 5, Channel 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
5. Apple TV 4K (2022): Best IPTV box for iPhone and iPad users
Price when reviewed: £169 | Check price at Amazon
The latest Apple TV 4K doesn’t look much different from its predecessor, but Apple has upgraded the processor to the A15 Bionic, added HDR10+ support and ditched the internal fan. It’s quieter and faster than ever before, while the slightly smaller unit still feels as chunky and solid as ever. What’s more, it comes with a superb all-aluminium remote with touch-sensitive directional pad that can power on your TV and control the volume. The enhanced performance makes for one responsive streamer, with some bonus gaming capabilities through the App Store and Apple Arcade.
This is easily the best IPTV box for iPhone and iPad users, thanks to its integration with Apple Keychain, your existing apps, and some clever features to watch shows and movies with friends over FaceTime or connect up multiple pairs of Apple or Beats headphones over Bluetooth. It’s worth doing just to use Apple’s Spatial Audio and head-tracking tech, which creates a phenomenal personal surround sound experience for when you can’t use your normal speaker setup. Audio and image quality is just as impressive, with HDR10+, HLG and Dolby Vision supported, and you get access to all the major apps and services – with the exception of (no surprises) Google TV.
Key specs – Type: tvOS streaming box; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: Six-core A15 Bionic CPU, 4GB RAM, 64-128GB storage, Wi-Fi 6; Core apps: Apple TV+, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV, Channel 4, Disney+, My5, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
6. NVIDIA Shield TV: Best TV streamer money can buy
Price when reviewed: £150 | Check price at Amazon
NVIDIA has replaced the old Shield TV – arguably the king of IPTV boxes – with two new models, a gaming-focused Shield TV Pro and a cheaper stick-style device. Both run the same software and have the same powerful Tegra X1+ processor, and for TV-viewing purposes we think the cheaper model is the one to buy.
The big plus of the new models is improved performance. Not only is the Tegra X1+ significantly faster than the old Tegra +1, but it throws in a new AI-enhanced 4K upscaling feature, which can improve both the clarity of HD pictures and the vibrancy of colours to give you a convincing pseudo 4K HDR effect. It also plays back 4K HDR material with support for Dolby Vision HDR, Dolby Atmos audio and DTS-X surround sound, so if you want both HD and 4K material to look great, the Shield TV has both covered.
As with Roku’s devices you get support for all the major streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play Movies and TV and iPlayer. The only serious absence is Now TV. What’s more you can stream games to the Shield TV from your PC or directly from NVIDIA’s GeForce Now cloud service (provided the games you want to play still support it). It’s a lot more expensive than all other streaming devices bar the Apple TV 4K, but this one really is a cut above the competition.
Key specs – Core spec: Quad-core Tegra X1+ processor, 3GB RAM, 16GB storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Operating system: Android TV on Android 9.0 Pie; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, Plex, GeForce Now; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
7. Google Chromecast with Google TV: Best device for Android TV
Price when reviewed: £60 | Check price at John Lewis
Buying Android TV devices has often been a minefield, with too many cheap boxes running strange ‘TV-optimised’ builds of Android that were anything but. That changes with the Google Chromecast with Google TV. It’s effectively a Chromecast with a remote control and Google’s new Google TV interface, which means access to the Google Play store, nearly all the major UK TV apps and a slicker, more reliable experience than you’ll get with most other Android-based devices.
The box supports 4K resolutions, HDR10+, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, so audio and visual quality is up there with the best 4K devices from Roku, Amazon and Apple. The remote supports voice search – though you have to watch that your thumb doesn’t obscure the mic – and the UI works really well. The biggest problem is that, while it’s the only streamer to support 4K in Google Play Movies and TV, some other key apps are MIA, with no Now TV or All 4 onboard. Still, if prefer Google’s ecosystem, this is the IPTV box to buy,
Key specs – Type: Android TV dongle; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: Not specified, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Core apps: Google TV, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, Amazon Prime Video; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
8. Roku Streambar: Best IPTV box that’s also a soundbar
Price when reviewed: £130 | Check price at Amazon
Not all of us have massive living rooms, and space around the TV can be limited. What’s more, some budget TVs still run short on handy HDMI sockets. This makes the Roku Streambar a rather ingenious all-in-one package, combining the guts of a Roku streamer with a compact soundbar. It can connect to your TV via a single HDMI ARC connection – though you can also use an optical input if your TV doesn’t support ARC – and it works just like Roku’s other 4K devices. There’s support for HDR10 and Dolby Audio, though not Dolby Vision, HLG or Dolby Atmos, and it has the same simple, app-focused interface as the Streaming Stick+.
The Streambar has three big advantages. First, it’s neat and very easy to find space for even if you’ve only got a small TV. Second, it supports the widest range of apps, including Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Now TV and Google Play Movies and TV. Third, it sounds much better than you might expect; it won’t do full surround sound, but you’ll get a wider, richer and more powerful sound than any TV speakers will muster. And when you factor in that you’re getting both a streaming box and a soundbar, the price is amazing too.
Key specs – Type: Streaming soundbar; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: Quad-core processor, 2GB RAM, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Core apps: Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Now TV, Disney+, Sky Store, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, Channel 4, Google Play Movies & TV, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes