Smart TVs vs streaming devices
These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a TV that isn’t a smart TV. Even the most affordable options usually have some sort of streaming platform and a few built-in apps. However, the experience of using these TVs can leave something to be desired.
For that reason, we think even smart TV owners can benefit from adding a streaming device. The day-to-day experience will be much better, and you don’t have to worry about your TV’s software going obsolete before the TV itself does.
Pros and cons
- Already built into your TV
- No extra expense
- May have some special features thanks to direct integration
- Can't be easily upgraded
- Usually lacks the app support of separate devices
- Generally receives better software support and more new features
- Easily replaced or upgraded
- Can supplement your TV with additional features
- Requires extra cables and power supply
- Extra expense beyond the (already expensive) TV
Is a smart TV better than a streaming device?
A smart TV is a TV set with a built-in operating system and apps, like Netflix and Hulu, that lets you stream content from your favorite services right from the TV. A streaming device, on the other hand, generally refers to any external device you plug into your TV that provides those same capabilities—like an Apple TV or Roku.
Determining which is better is a surprisingly complicated task. If we had to pick one, we’d take a streaming box over a smart TV. However, it’s almost impossible to buy a new TV these days that isn’t a smart TV. That means most people buying a new TV will get a smart TV by default, so the choice isn’t so much between a smart TV and a streaming device as to whether you need a streaming device in addition to your smart TV.
In general, we think most people can benefit from adding a streaming device of some sort to their home theater setup, even if they already have a smart TV. There are a few reasons for this.
Streaming devices are more future-proof
Smart TVs tend to cover the very basics when it comes to streaming needs—you can probably get your Netflix fix without much issue. When you start to consider future-proofing, however, smart TVs start to look less and less attractive. The chances are very good that your TV’s useful lifespan will far exceed its software capabilities—in other words, new streaming services and apps, new features of existing services, and other updates will eventually make your TV’s software obsolete before you’d want to upgrade the TV itself.
A separate streaming device is a cost-effective way to avoid this issue. Streaming devices are generally more likely to receive software updates and support than smart TVs because the companies that make them can continue to earn revenue from them (and thus have an incentive to keep them updated), while TV manufacturers don’t usually make much from TVs after they’re sold. At any rate, they’re usually hundreds or thousands of dollars cheaper to upgrade than a TV.
Streaming devices can unify your user interfaces across different TVs
Streaming devices have other advantages, as well. If you have multiple smart TVs, there’s a good chance that they all have different software and user interfaces, particularly if they’re not all the same brand. Streaming devices can solve this problem—if you put an Apple TV on each one, they’ll all have the same interface.
Streaming devices are more versatile and portable
Streaming devices are also portable, so you can take one from room to room, or even on vacation to an Airbnb or vacation home. Good luck lugging that expensive TV from place to place!
What’s the difference between a smart TV and a streaming device?
Ease of use
There are two sides to the ease-of-use coin here. A smart TV is technically easier to use because you don’t need to worry about hooking up a second device and dealing with the various issues that might crop up with that, such as software updates, app installations, and cable compatibility.
That said, streaming devices, like Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV, tend to have better user interfaces and simpler remotes than most smart TVs. Streaming devices may also have better built-in voice assistants than some TVs. These points can make your actual day-to-day use of the TV much simpler and more pleasant, and might be worth the extra setup headaches.
Again, there are two ways to look at the cost equation. First, a smart TV is always going to be more expensive than a streaming device—often by a significant amount. A new TV is generally going to cost you at least a few hundred dollars, and you can very easily get into the several-thousand-dollar range, depending on the size, quality, and features you want. A streaming device like the Amazon Fire TV Stick can be had for less than $40.
On the other hand, if you already have a smart TV, or you’re planning on buying one anyway, the streaming device is an extra expense on top of it. This can make it a hard sell, especially when there’s likely to be a lot of duplicated functionality. At this point, it’s really personal preference on whether it’s actually worthwhile—we generally think it is, but we can also totally understand why someone might not.
This one’s easy. A television—even a small one—is far less portable than a streaming device. In fact, many streaming devices come in the form very similar to a USB stick, which you can easily grab and take to other rooms, friends’ houses, or anywhere else you might want to watch TV. It doesn’t get much more portable than that.
This one is a little tricky, simply because there are so many different user interfaces on the market. Most smart TV and streaming device platforms have their own interface that’s just slightly different from the others, and one may suit you better than another.
What we can say is, in general, streaming device manufacturers tend to invest more in their software. This means that streaming devices usually have better interfaces and simpler remotes than smart TVs.
Another nice thing about streaming devices is that you can change the user interface by changing to a different device. You can even use one to replace the interface on your smart TV if you want. Buying a new TV just because the interface is bad is out of reach for most people (and tremendously wasteful either way).
There can be a difference between the available apps on a smart TV and those on a streaming device. The exact differences will vary based on the brand of TV or streaming device you have. In general, most TVs tend to have the basics covered, including a handful of news apps, but may lack extras, such as apps for your local network. Streaming devices tend to have a larger selection—particularly if you have an Apple TV. Many even have full app stores, with games and other content readily available.
Any brand smart TV or streaming device should be able to cover the basics, like Netflix and Hulu. However, for more advanced options or greater variety, a streaming device is probably the way to go.
Best smart TVs
The LG C2 offers one of the best pictures of any TV on the market. It’s an incredible television set, with stunning contrast and viewing angles, and is available in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately, the software isn’t great—but hey, that’s exactly where a streaming device comes in.
The Samsung QN90B is one of the best non-OLED smart TVs. It uses mini-LEDs to provide a gorgeous picture that’s brighter than an OLED screen, and has nearly the same contrast. The software and user interface also aren’t half-bad. An excellent pick for a new smart TV.
The TCL 6-Series Roku TV is one of the best all-around values in TVs, especially for the price. This smart TV runs the Roku operating system, so it’s like getting a Roku stick and TV in one, which means it gets around many of the issues we have with smart TVs vs streaming devices.
Best streaming devices
The Roku Streaming Stick 4K+ is one of the best overall streaming devices on the market. It’s affordable, portable, comes with a useful hands-free remote, and has all the apps and features you need for streaming.
The Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K Max is an excellent choice for Amazon Prime users. The remote is good, the picture quality and wireless connectivity are excellent, and the focus on Prime Video is great for fans of the service.
The Apple TV 4K is the way to go for Apple fans. The integration with other Apple devices is top-notch, and the user interface is more polished than other options. Just be aware that you’ll pay a bit more for this one compared to the Roku or Amazon offerings. It’s also not a “stick,” so it’s a bit less portable than the Roku or Amazon options (although still much more so than a television).
Frequently asked questions
Why do I need a streaming device if I have a smart TV?
Technically, you don’t. However, we’ve found that the user interface and app selection on most smart TVs are pretty terrible, and they often don’t receive great software support. A streaming device, like a Roku or Apple TV, can solve these problems for a fairly reasonable price.
Does Roku stream better than a smart TV?
Both a Roku device and a smart TV can stream the same content at the same quality level—in theory, at least. That said, we find the Roku experience much more pleasant than most smart TVs. So, in that sense, yes, a Roku will stream better than a smart TV.
Do I need a streaming device for each TV?
If you want to stream simultaneously on multiple TVs, you’ll need a device for each. However, if you don’t need to use them at the same time, you can simply unplug your streaming device and move it from room to room. The “streaming stick” devices are particularly nice for this.
Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for over 8 years, with a particular focus on TV and internet service providers. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.