Our Top Picks: TD Ameritrade (5 stars), TradeStation (4.5 stars), Fidelity (4.5 stars), Charles Schwab (4.5 stars), E*TRADE (4 stars)

To trade online successfully, some investors rely purely on their trade platform. Today’s trading platforms are not only web-based but also desktop-based, and are increasingly becoming mobile-based as well. Advanced charting, options tools, screeners, hot keys, virtual trading, watch lists, ladders, Level II quotes and back-testing are just a sampling of the functionality brokers make available to their clients.

Over the years, we’ve learned that it is not just the tools that separate the brokers, but the design, depth, speed, and overall execution of delivering the ultimate trading experience. This is where brokers such as TD Ameritrade’s thinkorswim and TradeStation really differentiate themselves. After spending hundreds of hours on both desktop platforms, we give thinkorswim the edge, thanks to its redesign and reliability improvements in 2015; however, both platforms execute so well that it truly comes down to personal preference. Die-hard fans exist for both and either one is a great choice for seasoned active traders.

TD Ameritrade thinkorswim

Behind thinkorswim and TradeStation, Fidelity’s Active Trader Pro and Schwab’s StreetSmart Edge are two other desktop platforms worth a close look. Active Trader Pro and StreetSmart Edge have one distinct advantage over thinkorswim and TradeStation, and that is ease of use. While these platforms do not offer the same depth of tools, historical data, chart studies, etc., both platforms are very well designed and are easy to adapt to. In some respects, their balance of power and design make them a better fit for certain traders.

Fidelity Active Trader Pro platform

Unfortunately, not all active trader platforms are free to use or available to all clients. For example, to gain complete access to Fidelity’s Active Trader Pro offering, 120 trades or more must be placed in a rolling 12-month period. Similarly, ETRADE Pro requires at least 30 trades per quarter or $250,000 in assets (the platform can also be used for $99 per month). Scottrade limits its active trader ScottradeELITE platform to clients who have at least $25,000 in assets. Lastly, both TradeStation and Lightspeed charge $99 per month for access to their flagship platforms. This charge can be waived if certain criteria are met. Platform fees and minimums are set in place to keep costs under control, and while these serve simply as examples, investors should be aware of them if they are considering an online broker based solely on its platform.

For investors who prefer a web-focused experience, there are many great browser-based platforms to consider. Our top pick again this year, OptionsHouse, combines the best of both worlds: ease of use with fantastic tools. The platform is just “ok” for equities trading, however is terrific for options trading (see section “Options Trading” below), alongside our No. 1 recommendation for new investors looking to trade virtually and hone their skills.

OptionsHouse option analysis

Ultimately, TD Ameritrade takes the overall No. 1 spot for Platforms and Tools because it offers investors fantastic experiences not only on desktop, but also browsers. Trade Architect (browser) appeals to newer and intermediate investors while thinkorswim (desktop) is built solely for seasoned active traders. The icing on the cake? Both platforms require no minimums or fees for access and use. All clients have access. If there is one request we have for TD Ameritrade, it is to add virtual trading to Trade Architect; thinkorswim is best kept to the pros.

TD Ameritrade Trade Architect

When selecting a broker based on its platforms and tools, try it out first before committing. If you are really serious about your trading platform, then take the time to read our full-length broker reviews, narrow your search to two or three brokers, try out each of them, then compare both brokers and make a decision. Start with questions like: Do I prefer a more user-friendly browser-based platform or a more advanced trader-focused desktop platform? Will I reach the minimums to maintain fee-less, consistent access throughout the year? What specific tools must I have to trade successfully?