Best IPTV box 2020: The top sticks and boxes for TV and movies from £30
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
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 can stream Netflix, iPlayer, All 4 and Amazon Prime Video, but not Now TV or Google Play Movies & TV. Sky’s Now TV devices, conversely, will stream Now TV, Netflix, All 4, iPlayer and a handful of other services, but not Amazon Prime Video or Google Play Movies & TV. Only Roku’s streaming devices support the broadest range of services, with Now TV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Google Play Movies & TV all onboard.
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. Xiaomi’s Mi Box S and Mi TV Stick 2K products both run the same Android TV OS you’ll find on TVs from Sony, TCL, Toshiba and Philips, while Nvidia’s Shield TV devices run a customised version. Meanwhile, Google has finally 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 new 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.
READ NEXT: Our pick of the best TVs you can buy
The best IPTV boxes you can buy
1. Roku Express: The best budget streamer
Price: £30 | Buy now from Amazon
The Now TV Smart Stick used to be our pick of the budget devices, but it’s now priced at the same level as the more capable Roku Express. The Smart Stick sells on its own or with a free Cinema or Entertainment Pass for one to two months, but for our money the Express is the wiser long-term investment. Why? Because where the Smart Stick limits you to Now TV, Netflix and the major UK catch-up services, the Roku Express supports just about every major streaming service going, including Amazon Prime Video and Google Play Movies and TV. As long as Roku keeps updating its apps – and its history here is pretty good – you’ll get a better 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, All 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
2. Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote (2020): The best HD streamer
Price: £40 | Buy now from 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. You can also control the Fire TV through an Echo speaker, and the only real negatives are the annoying, if understandable, lack of Google and Now TV apps. Spend another tenner and you can have the 4K version, while you can also save £10 by opting for the Lite version, with the same basic spec but no 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 Plus, ITV Hub, Demand 5, All 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
3. Roku Streaming Stick+: The best do-it-all internet TV device
Price: £48 | Buy now from Amazon
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is a little pricey by stick standards, but it’s your gateway to an unbeatable selection of media services. It’s as happy playing Now TV as Netflix, and Amazon Prime and Google Play Movies are supported too, along with all the big UK catch-up services and plenty of smaller (and often weirder) streaming channels.
It’s easy to use too, with a nice clear interface, and while the remote control doesn’t have a microphone, you can download an app that enables voice control via your smartphone. Throw in excellent playback quality in both Full HD and 4K and you have a fantastic internet TV device with very few compromises.
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, Sky Store, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, All 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: No
4. Manhattan T3: The best IPTV box with Freeview Play
Price: £80 | Buy now from Amazon
Viewed purely as an IPTV box, the Manhattan T3 has its flaws, the biggest being the lack of support for the two biggest UK streaming services – Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, not to mention Disney+. That’s a shame, as it’s a proper 4K streamer, complete with support for HDR10 and HLG. Its real selling point, however, is that it also works as a Freeview Play box, giving you Freeview HD broadcasts and catch-up telly from a single box. Missed your favourite programme? No problem. Just scroll backwards from the EPG, track it down and get watching in a moment, without any faffing with different catch-up TV apps.
Audio and video performance is great, and the bundled remote isn’t bad at all. If Manhattan and Freeview could just fix app support, then this box would be an all-in-one winner. As it is, it’s still a brilliant Freeview Play set-top box.
Key specs – Type: Streaming box with built-in Freeview Play; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: Quad-core processor, 802.11n Wi-Fi; Core apps: BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Demand 5, All 4, UKTV Player, YouTube; Voice-enabled remote: No
5. Apple TV 4K: A formidable 4K media streamer with excellent software
Price: £200 | Buy now from Amazon
You don’t need to be an iPhone/iPad enthusiast to love Apple’s streaming box (although it helps). It’s a brilliant device in its own right, mostly thanks to Apple’s tvOS software, which manages to be slicker and more versatile than Google or Amazon’s while still being easy to use. The Apple TV 4K runs on the same A10X Fusion chip as the iPhone 9 Plus, giving it the power to stream 4K TV and movies complete with HDR10 and Dolby Vision HDR, and awesome Dolby Atmos sound. This puts you in a great position to enjoy the 4K content coming through on iTunes, not to mention Amazon and Netflix’s 4K films and programmes.
You also get voice commands and search through Siri, which works extremely well, not to mention a sizable library of iOS games and apps for listening to music, viewing photos and a whole lot more – including Apple’s HomeKit smart home controls. At £200 this is an expensive IPTV box, but one with the capabilities to make the premium worthwhile. What’s more, it’s only getting better with Apple’s plans for the next version of tvOS, including a revamped TV app that pulls content from across the different streaming services into one place, while supporting Apple’s new Apple TV+ service.
Key specs – Type: tvOS streaming box; Power: Bundled mains adapter; Core spec: Six-core A10X Fusion CPU, 3GB RAM, 32-64GB storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Core apps: Apple TV, Netflix, BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime Video, Now TV, All 4, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes
6. NVIDIA Shield TV: The best TV streamer money can buy
Price: £149 | Buy now from 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: The best device for Android TV
Price: £60 | Buy now from 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
Buy now from John Lewis
8. Roku Streambar: The best IPTV box that’s also a soundbar
Price: £130 | Buy now from 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, All 4, Google Play Movies & TV, Plex; Voice-enabled remote: Yes