Is it better to get a smart TV or a streaming device?

We look at the pros and cons of getting an inexpensive streaming device over a new smart TV

Samsung 65 QN90B
(Image credit: Samsung)

With almost every TV on the market touting its smart capabilities, it can be somewhat confusing when shopping for the best option. The rise of streaming has made the choice much harder than it used to be, and those yet to make the jump to a smart TV face a deluge of options and conflicting advice.

Along with smart TVs, the best streaming devices can upgrade existing ones without the cost of getting something big, new, and shiny for the living room. While it's tempting to go for the best 85 inch TV you can get your hands on, a second TV in the bedroom or one you only purchased a couple of years ago may not need replacing just yet.

Below we outline some of the big questions you should ask yourself when considering whether to go for a smart TV or a streaming device.

Do you need to replace your current TV?

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether it's time for another TV, and the budget you're willing to dedicate to the new purchase. Many people with older sets want to upgrade their TV simply for the smart features that come with modern examples, but streaming devices can bridge that gap for a fraction of the cost.

If the reason you're considering a big investment is to get the latest tech into your living room, then it's true it might be time to upgrade. If you have a very old set that doesn't yet support 4K resolution, you want an OLED or QLED panel, or up to 8K resolution, then a new television is your best bet.

But if you just want to stream Netflix and Disney+ on the big screen rather than relying on your laptop, then a streaming device is a much more affordable way of doing this. The same is true for those who simply do not like the current user experience of their TV. Just pop in a streaming dongle, and you can completely change the way you navigate your entertainment. 

Chromecast with Google TV dongle shown from behind TV

(Image credit: Google)

How reliable is your internet connection?

If you're used to watching live or cable TV, switching to streaming can come with many potential problems. Modern shows and movies tend to offer outstanding sound and visuals - going up to 4K with Dolby Atmos and Vision, among other things - and this all eats up bandwidth. 

As an example, in the UK, media giant Sky has recently added the Sky Stream, which fully relies on the home WiFi rather than the traditional satellite dish. This wouldn't have been possible a decade ago, and even now, those with patchy internet connections can have trouble watching their favorite shows and movies without constant buffering.

So before you make the switch, it's very important to ensure your internet connection is good enough. Netflix recommends speeds of 3Mbps for HD, 5Mbps for Full HD, and 15Mbps for 4K. You can check your speeds at speedtest.net (opens in new tab).

Sky Stream device sitting on TV unit under wall-mounted TV set showing user interface

(Image credit: Sky)

How often do you stream, and from which apps?

Similar to other points in this guide, choosing between a smart TV and a streaming device should be weighed depending on how often you watch via streaming apps versus live television or home media like DVDs. A streaming device won't allow you to record and often doesn't have a way to access live channels, but it is great for supplementing your set-up with easy access to services you subscribe to, like Prime Video and HBO Max.

However, if you are more interested in upgrading your TV's picture quality and sound, then you should definitely opt for a smart TV.

In both cases, you should always do your research and ensure that all of the streaming apps you regularly use (or plan to use in the future) are supported by your chosen device. Though companies have made a lot of effort to be as widely available as possible, there can be missing services on both streaming devices and smart TV platforms. If there's something specific you want, check before you buy.

Samsung the Frame

(Image credit: Samsung)

Smart TV vs streaming device: Our verdict

Making the choice between a smart TV and a streaming device isn't always simple, but a few key elements are useful to consider when making that decision.

Get a streaming device if... you stream a most of your entertainment. Streaming dongles, sticks and boxes are designed to upgrade existing tech and bring older TVs into the modern streaming era. They can also be incredibly cheap, especially during sales events like Black Friday.

Get a smart TV if... you still rely on live TV, cable and/or physical media. To avoid endless switching between HDMI inputs, and a strain on less than ideal broadband speeds, smart TVs are a tidier way of bringing streaming into the home without sacrificing everything else you want to do with your TV.