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Best streaming sticks and devices of 2021




CNN
—  

While current TVs come preloaded with a smart interface, many are clunky, don’t offer the latest streaming services, and can lag months behind on updates to the services they do offer. The solution? Streaming sticks and boxes. These plug-and-play devices can enhance even the smartest TV and provide up-to-date access to the services you’re looking for. To help you find the best ones, we’ve spent countless hours with the top streaming boxes and sticks on the market, from Roku, Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV and Google Chromecast.

Best overall streaming device

The Roku Ultra is fast, responsive, delivers the widest variety of streaming services through up-to-date apps and lets you find everything easily with universal search, for a reasonable price.

The upgrade pick

You pay more for Apple TV 4K, but Apple users will enjoy the ease of control and added ability to game and access the full App Store for that extra money. It’s the complete package with the best remote we’ve ever used.

Best budget buy

With a full operating system, a remote (yes, that’s worth a callout) and support for multiple video standards, the Chromecast with Google TV delivers a tremendous amount of value at $49.99.

Jason Cipriani/CNN

We previously named the 2019 version of the Roku Ultra CNN Underscored’s best overall streaming device. With the 2020 version of the Ultra, Roku took another winning approach and made it even more attractive. From the moment you switch it on, the Roku Ultra presents one of the most seamless experiences of any streaming device we tested.

It was easier and quicker to locate preferred apps and services and to move those used most to a higher spot for even quicker access compared to other devices we tested. We were able to open Netflix, select “Parks and Recreation” and be in the world of Pawnee, Indiana, in about 10 seconds flat.

That swiftness is thanks to its quad-core processor and improved Wi-Fi, which makes the Ultra noticeably faster than other streaming devices we tested. Comparatively, the Roku Premiere takes a handful of seconds to open up an app and a few more seconds to start a stream.

Roku Ultra automatically upscales content to the highest resolution your TV can handle, up to 4K, and calibrates it to make sure it’s optimized for your screen. So if you’re streaming 720p content on a 1080p TV, it will upscale to that resolution, or if you have a 4K TV, it will deliver it at a full 4K resolution.

Content looks great, and with the addition of Dolby Vision HDR, the 2020 Ultra makes it look even better. In action titles, such as “Fast & Furious” and “Star Wars,” we didn’t experience any skips in fast scenes, and colors were vibrant but not overexposed. We previously knocked the Ultra a few points due to the lack of Dolby Vision, but with Dolby Vision joining Dolby Atmos on the Ultra, we have no more complaints.

Roku has access to some of the most popular streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Sling TV, AT&T TV, Philo, Disney+, Apple TV+, Peacock, HBO Max and Amazon Prime Video are all supported

The cherry on top is the included remote, which provides a simple layout with navigation buttons, voice functionality and volume controls. There’s a headphone jack built right in for personal listening (earbuds are even included in the box), and it has a speaker built in so you can ping the remote if it gets misplaced or lost in the couch cushions.

If you’re looking for a streaming box that’s fast, responsive and future-proofed with features, the latest Roku Ultra delivers at a reasonable price point of $99.99.

Apple TV 4K

Jacob Krol/CNN

Apple TV 4K

The Apple TV 4K kicks things up a notch compared to the Roku Ultra, adding gaming and countless additional apps to the menu. It’s ideal for anyone in the Apple ecosystem and who subscribes to their many services.

The upgraded 2021 model of the Apple TV 4K looks identical to its predecessor. It’s the same small block with a white LED indicator on the front and power, HDMI, optical and ethernet connectors on the back. The big change is a fast chip, inside is the Apple-made A12 Bionic in place of the A12; it proved faster during most everyday tasks in our testing, providing a fluid experience with near-instantaneous responsiveness — tvOS and the respective apps fly.

It can handle having multiple streaming services open all at once (much like how you can multitask between different apps on the iPad). You can quickly switch between Netflix and opt to open Disney+ without experiencing any slowdowns. At times, other devices we tested experienced delays when going back to the home screen, but happens instantly on the Apple TV 4K.

The big and welcomed change is the all-new Siri Remote. It’s a solid aluminum remote with a click wheel reminiscent of the iPod; you can click and hold or just touch it to control the interface. It’s much easier to navigate around the user interface. In supported apps you can even use the wheel to scroll back and forth through content. Quite handy. You also get dedicated buttons for back, play or pause, mute, the TV app, and volume. Apple’s also finally included a power button that can turn on or off your entire TV setup.

The Apple TV 4K works flawlessly for anyone within the Apple ecosystem, via an interface that will be familiar to anyone with an iPad or iPhone.. For instance, when you need to fill in a text field (like a password or search box), you’ll get a notification on your iPhone that allows you to use that keyboard to type on your TV screen. It’s leagues better than locating and selecting one letter at a time with a TV remote. It can also autofill an email field for you, and you can access your iCloud Keychain to auto-complete logins to services. It worked like a charm when we tried it on Netflix.

The Apple TV 4K supports all of the major streaming services. Via the App Store, you can find: Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Sling TV, HBO Max, Peacock, YouTube, AT&T TV, Philo and tons of others. Countless gaming titles available through Apple Arcade, while Fitness+ subscribers will be right at home with an app that displays workout metrics from the connected Apple Watch right on the big screen. You’ll also find other core apps, including Facebook’s Apple TV app, which focuses on Facebook Watch.

You can also cast content with AirPlay or AirPlay 2 from your iOS, iPadOS, macOS and watchOS devices — everything from viewing photos or videos from your iPhone to a YouTube video and even mirroring your display.

Like the Roku Ultra, Apple TV 4K will auto-scale content up to 4K Ultra High Definition, and it also supports HDR, HDR 10, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. If you currently have a 1080p HD TV, the TV 4K will present content at that resolution and calibrate it for your TV panel. There are minute differences between the calibrations Apple takes versus Roku, but in the end you’re getting an accurate, clear and vibrant experience with Apple TV 4K. It goes a step further but future-proofing with support for high-frame-rate content. It makes a difference currently in the Red Bull app, but you’ll need a TV capable. Don’t upgrade just for this.

You pay more for Apple TV 4K, but Apple users will enjoy the ease of control and added ability to game and access the full App Store for that extra money. At $179.95, it’s not the cheapest streaming device option, but it is the complete package with the best remote we’ve ever used.

Jacob Krol/CNN

With a full operating system, a remote (yes, that’s worth a callout) and support for multiple video standards, the Chromecast with Google TV delivers a tremendous amount of value at $49.99. And on top of all that, you also have the ability to cast content straight from your phone.

Unlike the Fire TV Stick 4K (our previous budget pick), you don’t have a clunky software experience that pushes the content you want lower. With Google TV, the software running on Chromecast, it’s pretty clean and puts your preferred content upfront.

The interface features six main categories: For You, Live, Movies, Shows, Apps and Library. Many of these are self-explanatory, but the real kicker here is that Google serves up recommendations from a plethora of services all in one spot. That means under For You, you’ll see suggested content that’s live on YouTube TV, a classic from Netflix and even new titles on HBO Max or Peacock. So no clicking around to find content you want within different apps.

Under the Apps section is where you can find your streaming services and download the respective apps. All the big players and even smaller ones are here — like Netflix, Hulu, Plex, and countless others. The latest streaming services on the block, HBO Max and Peacock, both work out of the box on the Chromecast. That bests Amazon’s Fire TV platform and even Roku, which both only have one or the other. For some, that’s reason enough to opt for the Chromecast. The only big one missing here would be AppleTV+. YouTube is of course front and center, along with YouTube TV. The latter is Google’s cord-cutting solution and if you use the platform, this is the streamer for you. It’s integrated directly into all the categories and has a dedicated guide found under the Live section. It will even place your favorite shows, as they’re airing, in the respective content recommendation tabs. On a Roku or the Apple TV, it’s just another app and doesn’t offer deep integration throughout.

Choosing content is as simple as selecting the tile and the Chromecast starting the stream. It all happens very swiftly and the performance of this smaller dongle is on-par with that of the Roku Ultra.

And rounding out the Chromecast with Google TV is the Google Assistant. You can ask for any query or question your brain can think of — and that extends to TV content. You can ask for a specific show or movie, and it pulls up a page about the title, including multiple ways to stream it.

After countless hours of binging content –— ahem, we mean testing — we can safely declare the Chromecast with Google TV to be the best budget play at just $49.99. You’d be hard pressed to get more value from the Fire TV Stick 4K (which is the same price), and this performs better than cheaper options from Amazon or Roku.

While some of these are sticks and others are boxes, the core use case is to stream content to your TV. And we crafted categories that best reflect that core premise.

Under the Ease of Setup category, we focused on what came in the box and the process for getting the device working. In some cases, it was as simple as plugging it in and connecting to Wi-Fi; for others, we held a device nearby for fast pairing.

Performance tackled more areas, notably the ecosystem, quality across watching the content and available apps and services.

On the quality perspective, we calibrated each streaming device for the TV and then checked out the upscaling. Most importantly, we ensured that it reached 4K UHD or 4K Ultra High Definition as well as checked out the supported standards.

In terms of the build, we looked at the outside and the overall quality of the design. Did the materials live up to the price point? Was space wasted? And what did the controls and ergonomics of the remote mean for the user experience?

We tested all of these streamers with a range of TVs: a 55-inch TCL 6-Series, a 55-inch LG CX55, a 65-inch Sony A8H, a 65-inch TCL 8-Series, a 55-inch Vizio V-Series, a 65-inch Vizio M-Series and a 75-inch Vizio P-Series. Additionally, for the network, we tested hardwired and wirelessly with a FiOS Gigabit connection. We also tried 4G LTE and 5G hot spots from AT&T and T-Mobile for Wi-Fi streamers.

Apple TV ($144; amazon.com)

The standard Apple TV tested nearly as well as the upgraded Apple TV 4K. It has a slightly slower processor but still runs tvOS, offers deep integration to the Apple ecosystem and uses the Siri TV remote. But we think it makes more sense to opt for the Apple TV 4K, as it future-proofs you.

Fire TV Stick ($39.99; amazon.com)

The non-4K Fire TV Stick is nearly identical to the 4K Fire TV Stick. What’s the big difference? It only supports up to 1080p HD streaming and lacks Dolby Atmos audio. It has the same processor, and in our testing it performed nearly the same. But for $10 more, you’re better off opting for the 4K variant to truly future-proof your TV.

Google Chromecast ($29.99; target.com)

The Chromecast has come a long way, and the current one is quite nice. It still just plugs into the back of your TV and allows you to cast via the “Google Cast” standard to your TV. It doesn’t provide an interface, so you need to use an Android device, iPhone, iPad or laptop to control the experience. To some degree, it’s nice, since you don’t need to re-sign in and can open the Netflix app, hit the Cast icon and send it to the big screen. At $29.99, it’s cheap, and if you’re sold on Google Cast, it’s a good option, but it’s only 1080p HD.

Google Chromecast Ultra ($69; bhphotovideo.com)

As we said, the Achilles’ heel to a degree of a Chromecast was 1080p HD and that it doesn’t have an interface. For $69, the Chromecast Ultra solves part of that. The Ultra supports up to 4K UHD and more than 2,000 services. But for that price, you can score the Roku Ultra, which is a full-fledged streaming box that doesn’t simply rely on your connected phone.

Fire TV Cube ($119.99; amazon.com)

We really enjoyed our time with the Fire TV Cube, but to a degree, it feels like it’s trying to be too much. The premise? It combines an Alexa smart speaker with a Fire TV streaming device. It’s a square box that’s taller than most streaming devices and has the classic blue light strip on the front. You can ask Alexa to turn on the TV, but it doesn’t offer full voice control. Performance-wise, it’s fast and it meets the quality standards with 4K UHD and HDR support.

Roku Express ($24.99, originally $29.99; amazon.com)

This is Roku’s entry-level device, which is affordable at $30, but for $10 more, you can get the Streaming Stick+, which is faster, has a voice remote and features 4K UHD streaming. It’s just better by every stretch of the imagination. Although the Express comes with an HDMI cord, we think you’re better off with the Streaming Stick+.

Roku Premiere ($39.99; roku.com)

The Roku Premiere is kind of like an enhanced Roku Express that adds 4K support and keeps the non-voice remote. You also get an HDMI cable, but it’s not as fast as the Streaming Stick+.

Roku Streaming Stick+ ($39, originally $49.99; amazon.com)

Yes, Roku’s Streaming Stick+ is faster than our budget pick and gets a more feature-filled remote. We really like the built-in volume controls but found that voice control wasn’t critical to the core streaming experience. Especially when price was a key focus. If you don’t mind the unique design and a more basic remote, the Roku Premiere still delivers 4K support at an even cheaper price.

Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing:



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Gadgets

The warning signs that stalkerware is installed on your device


Your smartphone, your PC, your laptop – most of the devices we use are to some degree vulnerable to so-called stalkerware, software installed without your knowledge and aimed at obtaining sensitive data, like personal photos or login details.

In a nutshell, stalkerware “can result in the theft of data, monitoring of emails, SMS and MMS messages sent and received and even intercept your phone calls for the purposes of eavesdropping”, the Coalition against Stalkerware says.

The platform, a joint initiatve by aid organisations and IT security companies, aims to combat stalking, harassment and domestic violence by addressing the issue of stalkerware.

“Stalkerware services imply that their customers personally know victims, because these commercial spyware apps are manually installed. Users have to download the app, install it and enter credentials that are received after purchasing,” the Coalition explains further.

Anyone who loses their smartphone for a short period of time or has lent it to someone else for a longer time should therefore check it for changed or unknown settings, the initiative recommends.

On Android devices, for example, the setting “Unknown Sources” in the security menu is deactivated by default. If it’s suddenly activated, however, it could have been manipulated.

An unexpected discharge of the battery can also be a sign of stalkerware. Other indications are unknown apps or processes and webcam permissions that have not been granted by the device owner.

Even active sessions for which you have not logged in can indicate installed stalkerware.

Stalkerware is used for hidden digital surveillance, among other things. Removing it is not easy, but not impossible either. The Coalition against Stalkerware offers advise on how to do so on its website.

However, if you delete it, the respective offender is also warned. Victims of cyberstalking should therefore prepare a security plan and get expert help, for example from organisations that support victims of domestic violence. – dpa





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Hardware

ICT hardware: Dixon Tech to set up factory in south for ICT hardware


Dixon Technologies, India’s second-largest contract manufacturer for consumer electronics, is foraying into information & communications technology (ICT) hardware, including laptops, desktops, tablets and servers, and is set to open a factory in south India for it, a top executive said.

The home-grown electronics manufacturing services (EMS) player, which already produces smart TVs, LED lighting, washing machines and mobile phones, has zeroed in on a factory down south as part of the expansion plan.

“We are keenly awaiting the guidelines of the recently announced PLI (production-linked incentive) scheme for ICT hardware, which will decide our investment and output plans,” Sunil Vachani, chairman of Dixon, told ET. He said Dixon is in talks with leading global and domestic laptop, desktop and tablet brands to shift their production to India once the PLI scheme kicks off. “Now that India has achieved scale and self-dependence for assembly of mobile phone handsets, the next target is ICT hardware.”

Dixon has 11 manufacturing units —five in Noida (Uttar Pradesh), four in Dehradun (Uttarakhand) and two in Tirupati (Andhra Pradesh). Its wholly-owned subsidiary Padget Electronics has been cleared to receive rewards under handset PLI scheme and is investing 75 crore in its latest Noida plant for phones.

Local manufacturing of ICT products is scarce, as 87% of laptops and 63% of tablets are imported — mostly from China – to meet domestic demand.

India’s 2nd-largest contract manufacturer for consumer electronics is awaiting PLI norms for ICT hardware.





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Gadgets

iPhone 12 Pro Max review: Apple’s longer lasting superphone | Technology


The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the biggest, heaviest and most expensive version of Apple’s smartphone for 2020, a beast in every dimension.

The top-of-the-range iPhone costs from £1,099 and sits above the 12 Pro (£999), the 12 (£799) and 12 mini (£699).

The 12 Pro Max has the same fresh design as the rest of the iPhone 12 range: squared-off sides, all-screen front with slimmer bezels and a frosted glass back. It has the same drop-resistant “Ceramic Shield” technology covering the screen and the new MagSafe magnetic attachment system on the back for wireless chargers and accessories, but that’s where the physical similarities end.



The stainless steel sides of the 12 Pro Max polished to a mirror-like shine, shown here in the gold colour. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The huge OLED display measures 6.7in on the diagonal, which dwarfs all other iPhones and rivals the Android superphones, such as the 6.78in OnePlus 8 or the 6.9in Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra.

The screen is stunning. Bright, crisp and almost tablet-like at that giant size. Watching HDR video is fantastic, and there is a good set of stereo speakers too.

Holding it usually requires two hands, much like its superphone competition. It is very wide and weighs 226g – 18g heavier than the Note 20 Ultra, 39g heavier than the smaller 12 Pro or a full 64g heavier than the regular iPhone 12.

Thanks to the hard edges I found gripping the 12 Pro Max significantly easier than its rounded and equally heavy predecessor the iPhone 11 Pro Max. I could use it one handed with a bit of finger gymnastics and suffered none of the hand pain I got from trying to grip the bar-of-soap-like 11 Pro Max.

iphone 12 pro max review



The blue iPhone 12 Pro next to the gold iPhone 12 Pro Max. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Specifications

  • Screen: 6.7in Super Retina XDR (OLED) (458ppi)

  • Processor: Apple A14 Bionic

  • RAM: 6GB

  • Storage: 128, 256 or 512GB

  • Operating system: iOS 14

  • Camera: triple 12MP rear cameras with lidar, 12MP front-facing camera

  • Connectivity: 5G, wifi 6, NFC, Bluetooth 5, Lightning, ultra wideband and GPS

  • Water resistance: IP68 (6 metres for 30 mins)

  • Dimensions: 160.9 x 78.1 x 7.4mm

  • Weight: 226g

Top performance, 5G and two-day battery

iphone 12 pro max review



No power adaptor is included in the box, just a USB-C to Lightning cable – the phone didn’t charge any faster with a 45W power adaptor than a 20W one. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the same A14 Bionic processor as the regular 12, 12 Pro and iPad Air, and has 6GB of RAM with a starting storage of 128GB – double the iPhone 12’s 64GB. Performance is equally excellent all round: snappy, slick and fast to process photos, videos or when playing games. Speeds on 5G were similar, with slightly better reception than the iPhone 12 Pro and negligible impact on battery life.

Battery life is class leading at more than 48 hours between charges (eight hours longer than the iPhone 12) with the screen on for more than seven hours. The phone will last from 7am on day one until 7am on day three using 5G for about five hours, with the remainder spent on wifi.

It takes 30 minutes to charge the battery to 50%, 73 minutes to reach 90% but two hours 13 minutes for a full charge using a cable and a £19 Apple 20W USB-C power adaptor, or more than three hours with the MagSafe wireless charger.

Sustainability

Apple does not provide an expected lifespan for the iPhone 12 Pro Max’s battery – typically smartphone batteries last at least 500 cycles while maintaining at least 80% capacity – but it can be replaced for £69. An out-of-warranty service costs £566.44, which includes the screen. The iPhone 12 Pro Max was awarded six out of 10 for repairability by the specialist iFixit.

The 12 Pro Max uses 100% recycled tin in the solder of its main board, 99% recycled tungsten, 98% recycled rare earth elements and at least 35% recycled plastic in multiple other components. Apple is also using renewable energy for final assembly of the machine, and breaks down the phone’s environmental impact in its report.

It also offers trade-in and free recycling schemes, including for non-Apple products. The 12 Pro Max does not ship with headphones or a power adaptor, reducing its carbon footprint.

iOS 14

iphone 12 pro max review



Face ID is still the best smartphone biometric unlocking system in the business but cannot recognise people wearing masks. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The 12 Pro comes with the same iOS 14.2 version as the 12, 12 mini, 12 Pro and all other iPhones from 2015 or newer. This includes the home screen visual overhaul with widgets and the App Library folders, enhanced privacy tools and the new Translate app. For more see the iOS 14 overview and iPhone 12 review.

You can expect upwards of five years of software support including security fixes and iOS version updates, which is longer than any other manufacturer of smartphones.

Camera

iphone 12 pro max review



The camera app is simple and automatic in most situations, which makes for effective pointing-and-shooting but it lacks full manual control. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The iPhone 12 Pro Max has the same selfie camera and ultrawide camera as the 12 and 12 Pro, which perform just as well, but different main and telephoto cameras on the back.

The telephoto camera has a longer 2.5x optical zoom, up from 2x. Any increase in reach is welcome, but it pales in comparison to the 4x/5x optical zooms of competitors. The lens is slightly slower than that on the 12 Pro, making it worse in poor light. But both smartphones switch to the more light-sensitive main camera in low-light anyway.

The main camera has the same 12-megapixel resolution but a 47% physically larger sensor, which collects up to 87% more light than its predecessor.

iphone 12 pro max review



The main camera sensor (bottom of the cluster) is directly stabilised against hand-shake rather than the lens being so, which is common in digital cameras but a first in a smartphone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

In good light it shoots photos that are indistinguishable from the 12 Pro: highly detailed with good colour accuracy and control of high-contrast scenes.

When the light level starts to drop around dusk the larger sensor captures far brighter, more detailed and less noisy images that are a marked improvement over other iPhones. The same holds true for indoor shots on dull winter days. The dedicated Night Mode is needed less frequently, too, and when it does engage it captures photos quicker than the regular 12 Pro.

For point-and-shoot photographers you get a clearer image. For enthusiasts, the larger sensor offers much more potential for detail when shooting in RAW formats, including Apple’s new ProRAW format that is due soon with a software update.

The 12 Pro Max also has the same lidar (light detection and ranging) scanner on the back for Night Mode portraits and faster autofocus. The 12 Pro Max can shoot 4K video at 60 frames a second, and in Dolby Vision HDR too.

Overall, the 12 Pro Max has the best camera on any iPhone and has improved low-light performance over other iPhone 12 models. It also brings Apple up to par with top competitors, although the 2.5x optical zoom is still some way behind the best in the business.

Price

The iPhone 12 Pro Max costs £1,099 for 128GB, £1,199 for 256GB or £1,399 for 512GB of storage.

For comparison, the 12 Pro costs from £999, the 12 costs £799, the 12 Mini costs £699 and the iPhone SE costs £399. The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra costs £1,179 and the OnePlus 8 Pro costs £799.

Verdict

The iPhone 12 Pro Max is the most feature-rich Apple smartphone this year, but comes at a significant price – both monetary and physically.

It sits firmly in the superphone bracket alongside the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra and the OnePlus 8 Pro, so big that you may struggle to fit it in small pockets and will almost exclusively need two hands to use it.

You get a huge 6.7in screen, 48-hour-plus battery life, a significantly better camera and improved design and ergonomics over its predecessors. It is certainly not perfect and costs a lot, even if it is only £100 more than the smaller iPhone 12 Pro, but you are getting a lot of phone for the money.

If you can manage its sheer gargantuan size and cost, the iPhone 12 Pro Max is one hell of a superphone.

Pros: very long battery, top performance, improved low-light camera, longer optical zoom, portraits with night mode, water resistant, wireless charging, MagSafe, Face ID, fantastic screen, 5G, long software support.

Cons: no USB-C, need your own charger, enormous, super heavy, very expensive.

iphone 12 pro max review



The iPhone 12 Pro Max is a very big phone that will be hard to fit in pockets and use on-handed. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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