Updated with Amazon Fire TV 3rd generation, Apple TV 4K, and Roku Streaming Stick + (which has replaced Roku Ultra) as well as changes to pricing and accessories for Nvidia Shield, and overall app support for all devices.
So you’ve got the whole setup: A kickin’ sound system, the perfect furniture arrangement, and a new 4K HDR TV to tie it all together. Now it’s time to put it to work.
While 4K UHD Blu-ray provides the highest quality 4K Ultra HD picture and sound, streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Vudu are a quicker, easier, and more affordable way to get the latest content onto your television. Your new smart TV probably sports some of the apps you need to watch built right in, but a 4K-enabled streaming set-top box offers some distinct advantages, such as a large number of supported apps, voice and AI assistant integration, gaming, and even external storage. What’s more, many of these picks are portable, meaning you can take them on vacation or business trips so you never have to give up on your favorite shows while away from home. So, which is the best 4K streamer?
To help you decide, we’ve put together this guide detailing everything from content availability, to performance, to gaming and more, pitting the Roku Streaming Stick +, Amazon Fire TV, Nvidia Shield, Google Chromecast Ultra, and the Apple TV 4K against each other in an all-out cage match.
|Roku Streaming Stick +||
Apple TV 4K
|Price||$70||$70||$180 (16GB, remote)
$199 (16GB, remote + controller)
$300 (500GB, remote + controller)
|$69|| $180 (32GB)
|HDR||Dolby Vision, HDR10||HDR10||HDR10||Dolby Vision, HDR10||HDR10|
|Dedicated remote||Yes||Yes||Yes||No (relies on mobile device or computer)||Yes|
|Controller app||iOS, Android||iOS, Android, Windows||Android, iOS||Android|
|Available here||Amazon, Best Buy||Amazon||Amazon, Best Buy, Nvidia||Google, Best Buy, Walmart||Apple|
4K Ultra HD video is the crispest, clearest, and highest-quality picture currently available, so resolution will be comparable on each system, app per app, but another, newer benefit to picture quality is High Dynamic Range, or HDR. You can get our full explanation of the technology here, but the SparkNotes version is that HDR enhances the contrast of your TV, thereby increasing detail and enriching color. The result is a vibrant, rich picture.
All five devices stream up to 4K at 60 frames per second, and are HDR compatible, though not all are equal in terms of specs. Specifically, streaming 4K HDR content requires the type of bandwidth best served by an Ethernet connection or strong, stable Wi-Fi. Of the five devices, the Roku Streaming Stick + and Amazon Fire TV lack Ethernet ports, which means you’ll only be able to stream over Wi-Fi with these devices. Since Wi-Fi stability and speeds vary due to numerous installation factors, this could make 4K streaming difficult (or flat out impossible) for some users, but we’ve noted that both the Streaming Stick Plus and Amazon Fire TV have excellent antenna and work well with modern routers.
All five stream up to 4K at 60 FPS and support HDR, though not all are equal in terms of specs.
The other difference comes with supported HDR formats. There are two popular HDR formats available via streaming services now: HDR10 and Dolby Vision. Each accomplishes essentially the same thing, but some (ourselves included) feel Dolby Vision is a little better. See our above linked HDR guide for more information.
The Chromecast Ultra and the Apple TV 4K offer support for both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, making them the most versatile, while the Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Nvidia streamers only support HDR10.
It’s worth noting that Apple TV 4K allows for varied quality of playback, including 4K and 1080p resolutions, with and without HDR. Unfortunately, for now, the Apple TV 4K delivers standard dynamic range content as if it were HDR, and in our tests, this practice resulted in a dim and under-detailed picture for SDR content. The good news, however, is that the next version of tvOS is expected to fix this problem.
No such settings-fiddling is needed with any of the others, thankfully. So which wins? It comes down to which one of these devices offers both Dolby Vision and an Ethernet port, which means it’s between the Chromecast Ultra and Apple TV 4K. Until the Apple TV 4K fixes its forced HDR mode issue for SDR content, we’ll call this one for the Chromecast Ultra.
Winner: Chromecast Ultra
We’re big fans of Roku’s interface. Roku parses out 4K content for viewers better than its competitors by offering a 4K filter for searches, as well as a 4K spotlight channel highlighting 4K and HDR content. Another highly convenient feature is Roku’s “My Feed” column, which allows users to follow movies, TV shows, directors, and actors, and receives constant updates to keep searches personalized.
The other streamers are a bit more specialized.
Amazon Prime members will feel at home with the Fire TV as content is curated best for Prime offerings. With the Fire TV, you live in Amazon’s cloud first, and visit other streaming services second.
As Android devices, the Shield and Chromecast Ultra tend to prioritize Google offerings, so Google Play fans will be happy with these.
That said, the Chromecast Ultra’s cross-app search is handled via the Google Home app on your mobile device, but most of the time you’ll be navigating from a mobile streaming app instead of a dedicated Chromecast interface, so you’re at the mercy of each app. A point in the Chromecast Ultra’s favor is that mobile-based apps make it easy to sign in, with little to no extra authentication steps.
Speaking of making things easy, the Apple TV 4K makes setup very simple. Users can use iOS devices to expedite the procedure, and once setup is complete, using the Apple TV is intuitive, smooth, and fast. iOS users familiar with Siri will be pleased to find that the experience carries over to Apple TV 4K, while iTunes and App Store customers will likely enjoy the preferential treatment given to content on those platforms.
All things considered, Roku’s platform-agnostic approach and user-friendly search makes its interface our favorite.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick +
Voice Search and Control
All five devices offer some level of voice interaction, but they are each distinctly different.
As mentioned previously, the Apple TV 4K includes Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, which can be used to control your entire watching experience, but the real impressive voice feature is the voice control. Even stilted, vague search queries like “HDR content” or “Tom Hanks” will pull heaps of content across tons of apps. The more specific you are, the more refined you results will be, but this isn’t a requirement like it is with other devices.
Similarly, Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, is present on the Fire TV. Alexa offers a ton of interaction beyond just controlling and finding content, including weather reports, sports scores, searching Wikipedia, and a whole lot more. It’s also worth pointing out the Fire TV can be controlled by any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Dot, and Echo Plus speakers. However, you’ll need to be direct and specific with your search terms, but that’s a fair ask in return for the number of things Alexa is capable of. Finally, if you’ve invested in any number of smart home devices, Alexa can also address those via voice commands, potentially adjusting your thermostat, or showing you who’s at your front door using a security camera.
The more specific you are, the more refined you results will be, but this isn’t a requirement like it is with other devices.
The Shield features both voice search and control commands via Google Assistant, but its voice commands are limited compared to the Fire TV and Apple TV. There’s little else to do beyond opening games and playing content with a phrase, or controlling streaming playback, and the number of supported apps is pretty limited. Similarly, the Chromecast Ultra uses Google voice commands for search, done through the Google Home app. Any other voice commands are dependent on which app(s) you use while casting, however, and search is less accurate than you might expect.
Roku has basic voice search across multiple apps, but features no voice control commands for playback.
So the final match up comes to Fire TV’s Alexa vs Apple TV 4K’s Siri. While we must stress just how powerful Alexa’s feature suite is, much of that functionality requires secondary devices. When it comes specifically to voice search, Apple TV’s flexibility and ease of use takes the win.
Winner: Apple TV
When it comes to a comprehensive remote that will meet your needs and then some, the Roku’s remote is your best option. It can power on your TV and control the volume automatically, meaning keeping the TV remote out in the bedroom will be a thing of the past. It’s got a mic for voice search and dedicated buttons for services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. What’s more, Bluetooth connection means it’s point-anywhere as opposed to line-of-sight.
Roku’s remote is the best, hands down, but let’s go over the others, too.
The Chromecast Ultra doesn’t actually have a remote per se, as the device is controlled via tablet or smartphone. So, in a sense, the Chromecast Ultra has the most feature-rich remote of them all, since your phone can do thousands of things a remote can’t. For our purposes however, we’re going to say that doesn’t quite count — what if you need to use your phone for phone things, for instance? Also, lock screens can make pausing and rewinding annoying.
The Fire TV’s remote is simple, featuring a mic for voice search, navigation controls, and playback buttons, but that’s it. No app buttons, TV controls, or remote finder features like the Roku has.
The Nvidia Shield includes both a gaming controller and a traditional remote, which is great for those who are put off by gaming controllers, but neither do much more than fulfill their core functions.
Finally, the Apple TV’s remote puts up the best competition against the Roku. It features simple and elegant control layout that, when combined with Siri and the intuitive interface, makes navigating, organizing, and searching a breeze. That said, it lacks many of the extra features you find on the Roku.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick +
Regardless of which of the five devices you go with, you’ll have access to plenty of streaming apps, including standards like Netflix, and YouTube (which carry tons of 4K content), popular HD apps like Hulu and SlingTV, as well as a host of lesser known options that continues to expand. The point of contention then becomes any major holes in the lineup. As you can see from the chart above, the Nvidia Shield supports an impressive number of some of the most popular apps (though this list is far from exhaustive). In addition, the Nvidia Shield is the only of the five that offers 4K 60 fps support for Vimeo and Kodi.
On the other hand, Apple TV is the only device with which you can natively access iTunes content. On the other hand, you won’t find Google Play Store content here, nor the streaming app Kodi.
|Streaming App||Roku Streaming Stick +||Amazon Fire TV||Nvidia Shield||Chromecast Ultra||Apple TV 4K|
|Google Play Movies & TV*||X||X||X|
|YouTube TV||X||X||X (via AirPlay)|
*App offers 4K content
The Fire TV lacks the 4K movie streaming service Vudu, and can’t stream content from iTunes, Google Play Music, or Google Play Movies & TV. Chromecast Ultra finally supports Amazon Video, but only through Android devices, PC, and Mac, leaving iOS users out in the cold. In addition, the Chromecast is missing some lesser-used options like CNNgo and Vimeo.
Roku’s only major blind spot is YouTube TV, and some smaller apps like TwitchTV.
We were momentarily inclined to give this one o the Shield since it covers Roku’s blind spots, but since YouTube TV isn’t widely deployed yet, and TwitchTV is slightly niche, we’re going to call this one for Roku due to its sheer preponderance of apps.
Winner: Roku Streaming Stick +
The most obvious place to start here is the device with “cast” in its name, the Chromecast Ultra. Casting video from apps on your phone, tablet, or Google Chrome window is how all streaming is done on the Chromecast Ultra, and all Chromecast-compatible iOS and Android apps (of which there are thousands) will do it. However, Chromecast is not the only cast-enabled streamer on the list.
The Fire TV allows for casting as well, but it’s limited to Android devices. There are also ways to cast to the Roku Streaming Stick +, though it’s more complicated than it’s probably worth to most users.
For Apple TV, you’ll be casting content via Air Play, which means you’ll need to have an iOS device in order to do so. Some apps are only accessibly via AirPlay, such as YouTube TV, while others do not Support AirPlay at all. You’ll want to double check what apps/content can be streamed via AirPlay.
Chromecast looks poised to take this category, but there remains one last challenger.
Nvidia supplied the Shield with its own built-in casting tech, so any and all Chromecast functionality is available to iOS and Android users. This undermines the Chromecast Ultra’s main point of competition, but the coup de grace is the Nvidia Shield’s ability to stream games from your gaming PC at 4K resolution and 60 fps, or from the cloud via Nvidia’s subscription Nvidia Now service, a feat none of its rivals can claim.
Winner: Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia shield is the only device on this list for which games are just as important a function as streaming, with the strongest graphical capabilities by a mile — unsurprising since Nvidia’s primary business is manufacturing PC video cards. The Shield can play modern classics like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel via it’s GeForce Now service, as well as games available through the Android TV app store. Finally, with Game Stream, you can stream games from your gaming PC directly to your TV, upscaled to 4K resolution and 60 fps.
Clearly, Nvidia is set to win this category. The other devices all have gaming functionality, too, but pale in comparison. Of the four, the Fire TV and Apple TV tie for a distant second behind the Shield, since both offer a number of decent games, including a small number exclusive to their platforms. Amazon also offers a controller peripheral as an extra purchase. However, if gaming functionality is a primary concern for you, the Nvidia Shield is your best choice.
Winner: Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia Shield comes in two versions: A $199 16GB model, and a $299 500GB model. Both come standard with a MicroSD card slot for storage expansion a gaming controller, and a traditional remote. Its gaming power, however, makes the Shield quite expensive, meaning it will appeal first and foremost to those looking for a surrogate gaming device.
Apple TV is also an expensive device, offering a $180 32GB version, and a $200 64GB version. The package includes the device itself and the remote.
At $70, the Roku Ultra is a lot more affordable, and it has the best remote available as well as the best user interface. The only place the Roku Ultra really falters is as a gaming machine, something the Nvidia Shield and Fire TV do much better.
Also At $70, the Amazon Fire TV looks pretty good, making for a reasonable entry point for Amazon Prime users, but it’s not as well rounded as the Roku. Bonuses include an included HDMI connector.
Finally, the $69 Chromecast Ultra is the cheapest of the bunch (by a mere dollar), but it also has the simplest package, doesn’t offer a remote, and doesn’t really have a core interface to speak of.
Clearly, there are use cases for each of the devices, but it’s hard to argue with the Fire TV’s value at $70.
Winner: Amazon Fire TV
By a nose, the Roku Streaming Stick + wins. The Nvidia shield puts up a mighty fight, and it is the must-have streamer for any gaming enthusiast, but for the broader consumer, the Roku dominates with the best user experience, broadest selection of apps, and best features. Of course, there are some short comings — specifically the lack of an Ethernet port. Should that prove to be a deal breaker, we recommend opting for the slightly more expensive Roku Ultra, which is virtually the same tech in a larger box, and it even has a handy remote finder function that’s absent from the Streaming Stick Plus.
There’s also some specific use cases for which we would recommend one of the other devices instead.
If you’re a gamer, and especially a PC gamer, the Nvidia Shield is a must-have. Amazon Prime users will likely want to opt for the Fire Stick, while Apple-heads will feel right at home with the Apple TV. Finally, the Chromecast Ultra’s unique casting focus and Google-centric ecosystem should appeal to Android die-hards.
However, in the end, Roku is is still our No. 1 pick.
Now you know all you need to. Go get the best device for you, and up your streaming game!