The Apple TV is the best streaming box for most

We are in peak shopping season for dedicated streaming devices from Apple, Roku, Google, and Amazon. There are seasonal sales, they make for a relatively affordable gift, and streaming services tend to get many new subscribers, spurning streaming hardware buys.

My advice: if you’re buying a dedicated streaming box, most should buy an Apple TV. Alternatively, if you are happy with your streaming life but have a few quibbles (like a missing service app on your setup), spend the bare minimum necessary to make your streaming experience tolerable. That latter scenario may mean spending nothing, bypassing existing hurdles by watching select content on a different device or casting from a phone (via Airplay or Chromecast) to your TV.

All other streaming options from Amazon, Google, and Roku are generally a substandard compromise. Yes, you’ll save a solid $80 to $100 in the short run. But you’re also shortchanging the longevity of the device, app availability and quality, and a host of other benefits unique primarily to Apple’s streaming box:

Best in class app support

Apple TV apps carry almost every service and app imaginable within the App Store and stay up to date in ways Roku, Fire TV, and Chromecast based variants often don’t. For instance, when Hulu started debuting more 4K, HDR, and Dolby 5.1 content, Apple was one of the first devices to support the feature.

Processor headroom

Apple TV’s relatively high price is driven partially by its A15 Bionic processor, the same high end chip found in relatively recent iPhones and iPads. The competition generally ships with cheaper mobile solutions from manufacturers like MediaTek and ARM.

During general playback, Apple TV’s processor advantage is a moot point even for higher bandwidth streaming. However, for everything surrounding that playback, the A15 makes apps load faster and UI navigation ultra smooth. Given every streaming interaction starts and ends with the UI, it’s a subtle benefit that adds up over time.

Furthermore, Apple TV’s horsepower ensures its longevity. Over the past few years, I’ve seen many streaming services bump their offerings from HD and PCM stereo to 4K, HDR, and Dolby Atmos. All that extra data comes with corresponding demands on the processor. Further innovations will continue to bump up hardware needs, and I’m confident the A15 will continue to hold up in a way the competition can’t.

OS updates

Apple treats Apple TV’s tvOS with care, providing regular updates that add helpful functionality like Picture in Picture streaming video. They also helped clean up several annoying bugs, most notably the original Apple TV’s design, which forced all SDR content into an HDR container.

Competing devices tend to update more rarely or with a limited shelf life before being deprecated. The Google TV with Chromecast is a particular offender; the streaming dongle has been stuck on aging Android 10 until late this year, blocking new video functionality like matching content frame rate.

Neutrality and privacy

Solid cross app search functionality is an important, often underrated feature. Non-Apple streaming hardware tends to favor their own stores and services in search results, even if their preferred choice is more expensive than other options. For instance, you’ll first see Prime Video subscription and rental options on a Fire TV UI. A bit more digging overcomes any weighted search results, but I’ve overpaid on a movie rental at least once because of this favoritism.

Also, while advertising feels ubiquitous in the digital age, I find it comforting, given Apple’s stronger privacy stance, that the actions I take on the Apple TV aren’t getting passed along to advertisers the same way rival devices would. Best of all, Apple’s standards mean no advertisements on its UI, so fewer visual distractions get in the way of the content I care about.

Apple ecosystem

Apple has strong handoff and connection points across its hardware, including the Apple TV. You can use an iPhone or Apple Watch as the TV’s remote and keyboard, control HomeKit devices from a side menu, and review photos stored in iCloud on its dedicated app. AirPods auto pair with the Apple TV when associated with an existing Apple ID.

I purposely left this perk at the end of the list, given it’s of little benefit for Android users, but for those already invested in Apple’s world, this could be a top reason for buying an Apple TV.

Even with these benefits, the price will still be the sticking point for many. The latest iteration of Apple TV is slightly cheaper than previous models but still $80 or more than the competition.

Reframe the price difference in terms of longevity and relative cost to your viewing experience. A new Apple TV can outlive a TV’s shelf life, and $80 is a fraction of the cost of your typical home theater setup or even a single mid to high end TV. Considering the expense around streaming services, $80 is about two or three months of what a household would spend to stay on top of a handful of the most popular services like Netflix, HBO Max, and Disney+.

In that light, it’s a small luxury in exchange for many benefits over the long run. Ultimately streaming hardware delivers the content for your home theater. Investing financially in a TV or sound system only to cut corners on one critical part of the experience doesn’t make sense.