Smart TVs were supposed to save us from streaming sticks and set-top boxes. But because of slow hardware and unpredictable update schedules, the all-in-one smart TV solution is often more frustrating than it is useful. Here’s why your smart TV, which may have Roku or Amazon Fire TV software built-in, still needs a streaming stick.
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Like smartphones or tablets, smart TVs connect to your home internet and support a range of streaming apps. They provide an all-in-one solution for you to watch traditional TV alongside Netflix, YouTube, Spotify, and other online media sources. Along with video and audio streaming, smart TVs often pack Bluetooth and smart home support, making it easy to connect wireless speakers or integrate your TV with Alexa or Google Assistant.
Most smart TVs run Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Android TV software, which is why they have such broad app compatibility and smart home support. As the names suggest, this is the same software that you find in popular streaming sticks. Companies like TCL, Sony, and Insignia pay to use this software in their TVs, which saves them the trouble of designing or maintaining custom smart TV software.
But some smart TVs, and especially older models, run proprietary software. Samsung TVs run the Tizen OS, LG TVs have webOS, and VIZIO TVs use a system called SmartCast. If you own a Samsung smart TV, for example, then Samsung handles the development and maintenance of your TV’s software. While proprietary smart TV systems are genuinely well-made and often contain exclusive content, they offer less app support and smart home features than smart TVs running the Roku, Fire, or Android TV software.
Smart TVs should make streaming easier and remove the need for a dedicated streaming stick or set-top box. But in practice, smart TVs are often frustrating to use and may lack some of the apps that you care about most.
Under-powered hardware is the big issue that plagues smart TVs. Most smart TVs ship without the horsepower required to run their software properly, which leads to lag while navigating menus or opening apps. Of course, some smart TVs work great out of the box, but quickly slow down as software updates demand more computing power.
Update support also presents a serious problem for smart TVs. While your phone manufacturer only needs to support a handful of devices at a time, TV manufacturers have to keep up with dozens and dozens of smart TVs. You never know if or when you’ll get the latest update, and by extension, the latest features.
Roku and Amazon TVs tend to get software updates a few months after their respective streaming sticks, while Google leaves TV manufacturers to distribute the latest versions of Android TV. Unsurprisingly, proprietary smart TV software like webOS and Tizen have the least predictable update schedules, as it’s up to the manufacturer to develop, optimize, and distribute updates.
And then there’s app compatibility. While smart TVs running Roku, Amazon Fire TV, or Android TV support the vast majority of streaming apps, TVs with proprietary software offer a very limited app selection and rarely support new services. In some cases, TV manufacturers with proprietary systems will fight for exclusive app deals—that’s why Samsung’s Tizen TVs have Spotify while LG and VIZIO TVs don’t. (Roku, Amazon, and Google rarely fight for exclusive apps, although they regularly squabble with streaming services over things like ad revenue).
Whether your smart TV is slow and buggy or just doesn’t have the apps you need, there’s only one solution to your streaming woes—buy a dedicated streaming stick. The cheapest streaming sticks from Roku and Amazon cost less than $40, yet support all of your favorite apps and have enough horsepower to run at top speed. And because streaming stick manufacturers only need to support a few devices at a time, you never need to worry about missing a cool update.
Streaming sticks will, of course, slow down and get buggy with age. But while many smart TVs are slow out of the box, it takes years for a streaming stick to show its age. When that happens, you can buy a replacement for as little as $30 and relocate the old streaming stick to another TV.
But because there are so many great streaming sticks at so many different prices, shopping for one can be a daunting task. That’s why we’re going to take a minute to look at a few of the most popular streaming sticks from brands like Roku, Amazon, and Google. If you’d prefer an in-depth look at all the streaming sticks available today, check out our detailed streaming stick buying guide.
Roku Premiere 4K
Why over-complicate things? The Roku Premiere costs less than $40 and works with all of your favorite services. Plus, it can stream 4K video and is compatible with your Alexa and Google Assistant for voice commands.
Chromecast with Google TV
Running a custom version of the Android TV software, the new Chromecast with Google TV focuses on content curation, allowing you to search all your streaming services and get recommendations without leaving the Google TV homescreen. It’s also 4K-capable and works with Google Assistant for voice commands.
Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K
Amazon's Fire TV Stick 4K emphasizes the Prime Video expirence and integrates seamlessly with the Alexa smart assistant. If you're subscribed to Amazon services or own a bunch of Echo smart speakers, then this is the streaming stick for you.
Apple TV 4K
It’s a bit expensive, but the Apple TV 4K offers that unbeatable Apple experience and integrates beautifully with the iPhone, Mac, and iPad for AirPlay and AirDrop. It can also play Apple Arcade games, which is a serious win.