In the arena of 4K streamers, which one deserves your money?
While TV channels still mostly live at 1080p, online streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have moved forward into the sharp world of 4K video. At four times the resolution of 1080p video, 4K requires not only a new, compatible TV but a decent internet connection to be able to stream it.
You also need something to get that 4K media onto your TV once you’ve piped it in from the internet. There are three great options from three big hitters in the world of streaming boxes, and we’re looking at each of them right now.
Or maybe you’re interested in the Apple TV 4K. Let’s break down the facts.
There’s no other way of saying it, so I’ll come right out: The NVIDIA Shield TV is the most powerful of these four streaming units. The Tegra X1 chip inside it is an absolute beast, despite being over a year old now. The extra raw performance you get from the Shield TV allows it to do some other pretty amazing things which we’ll cover further on.
By contrast, the Roku Ultra and Amazon Fire TV both pack quad-core processors, which in their own right are very good. There’s more than enough power on tap for streaming video, music — even playing games.
The Apple TV 4K has Apple’s first-party A10X processor, which is powerful, low energy, and versatile. The fact Apple controls hardware and software once again means that optimization is on point and the performance will be solid. You don’t get many connectors, with a HDMI and Ethernet port all she wrote on the box itself. The glass-faced Siri remote is also inside the box.
All the other three boxes now come with a remote in the package, too, which didn’t use to be the case with the Shield. When it comes to features, the different remotes are equal when it comes to packaging voice search, though it’s only the Roku that doesn’t have an AI assistant on board. The Fire TV now has Amazon’s ever more widely used Alexa assistant while the Shield TV has Google Assistant and, of course, Apple TV 4K has Siri.
The Roku and Shield TV remotes do have something the Amazon and Apple ones do not, however: a headphone jack. This is perfect for those times you want to watch TV without disturbing someone else in the room.
The Fire TV, Shield and Roku are loaded with ports, with USB and microSD on the Fire TV and Roku, though the Shield TV has now done away with the microSD slot on the latest version. You can still plug in USB storage like a hard drive or thumb drive and expand the internal storage that way.
But what about video? These are streaming boxes, after all. The Roku Ultra and the Shield TV used to have one big advantage over the Fire TV: HDR video. That has now changed with the announcement of the latest Fire TV, which despite being much smaller, is compatible with HDR as well as 4K video up to 60 FPS. Likewise with the new Apple TV 4K, which supports HDR10 and Dolby Vision for selected content.
You’re not left out on audio support, either, with Dolby Audio supported on the Roku, and Dolby Atmos on the Shield TV and the newest version of the Fire TV. The Apple TV 4K doesn’t support Dolby Atmos, which is a letdown given its price, instead offering only Dolby Digital 7.1.
Ultimately though, when it comes to hardware, the Shield TV is still out front on its own as the most powerful all around.
While Amazon and NVIDIA both base their boxes on Android, Roku has its own operating system and associated app store. Apple has its own first-party offering, tvOS, for the Apple TV.
The Fire TV runs Fire OS which is based on Android, but it has the same limitations as Amazon’s other Fire devices, namely no Google Play Store or Google services. Even the Roku has Google Play Movies and TV.
Apple’s tvOS is another fork of its mobile operating system and since the previous generation has had access to apps from the App Store. Like Android TV, if you already own a compatible app on your iPhone or iPad it’ll be available for the Apple TV as well, in most cases for free. And while it’s not quite the games machine the Shield TV is, it’s pretty handy, with MFi controller support to play on the big screen.
Android TV is still pretty bare bones, but it’s got some great apps.
The NVIDIA Shield runs Android TV with some additional benefits on top. Firstly, NVIDIA has a dedicated game store for both optimized Android games as well as its GeForce Now service. It also has Plex Media Server pre-installed, allowing you to set up your own home media system using the Shield TV as a base. Both of these show off the added horsepower you get from choosing a Shield TV.
With the Shield TV you also get easy access to live television through either the Live Channels app from Google or something like Plex or the HDHomeRun beta app. You need additional hardware to make it happen, but if you’re cutting the cable cord you’ll get the best TV experience on the Shield.
The Fire TV, Roku and Apple TV 4K can also make use of live TV through services like Plex, but the Shield is the only one to have the software natively built in.
You can’t forget Kodi. It’s the reason many people buy these boxes.
Importantly, all three of these boxes have apps for the biggest streaming services out there: Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. But there are advantages to the Fire TV and Shield running on Android.
You get a lot more flexibility with apps and arguably better support from developers. And one of the big elephants in the room is Kodi. As this media center application continues to grow in popularity it’s perfectly reasonable you might want it on your box. You just can’t get it on a Roku, that’s the way things are right now. Officially, you can’t install it on the Apple TV, either.
With the Fire TV and the Shield, you just have to load up the Android app and you’re away.
All boast custom interfaces for the TV, but Amazon’s is a little clunky, even after a fairly vigorous redesign. The other two boxes are nicer to interact with, and the Roku, in particular, has shortcut buttons on its remote to get you to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix. One of the Apple TV’s strongest points is its user interface, which is colorful, clear and easy to navigate.
When it comes to price there is a clear winner and a clear loser.
The loser is the most expensive, and that’s the NVIDIA Shield TV. The 16GB version costs $179 without the controller and $199 with it, while the 500GB Pro model costs $300. You do get the remote with both versions at least.
It isn’t alone, though, since the Apple TV 4K also costs $179 or $199 for 32GB or 64GB of storage respectively. Storage is more of a concern buying an Apple TV 4K, because you can’t expand it as you can with the Shield TV.
The Roku Ultra sits in the middle, normally costing $110 (though it’s on sale for $80 right now) with the remote control included. However, it’s not available everywhere. For example, you can’t get the Roku Ultra in Europe.
The Amazon Fire TV is a veritable bargain costing only $70 and now includes the latest Alexa Voice Remote as well as being not much bigger than a Chromecast.
Which should you buy?
All three of these boxes have a lot going for them, and honestly, they’re all good purchases if you’re looking to get into 4K video streaming. If you just want the absolute best though, go for the NVIDIA Shield TV. It’s more powerful, has great app support and frequently gets updated with new features and fixes. It’s arguably the more future proof of the three, and ticks pretty much every box you can throw at it. It’s even a very handy little games console.
If you just want to get 4K video at the lowest possible price, the Amazon Fire TV is the one to go for. You now get HDR and you can get a game controller to expand the experience a little. Ultimately it’s a great box at a great price.
The Roku Ultra was recommended by Mobile Nation’s own Modern Dad as “the best streaming box for most normal people.” In many ways, that’s absolutely correct. But it’s only correct if you’re in one of the locations you can get one. In Europe, all you can get is the streaming stick or the Roku 3, neither of which handle 4K video. So it’s a solid option, but harder to recommend when the other two are more widely available.
And then there’s the Apple TV 4K. It’s not a bad set top box, it’s actually very good. But unless you’re immersed in the Apple ecosystem of apps and content, it’s not the best you can do. That honor belongs to the Shield TV.
If you’re OK with the price tag, the NVIDIA Shield is the best streaming box, 4K or otherwise. Buy it, love it.
Updated October 13, 2017: We’ve updated the details on the Amazon Fire TV to reflect the latest refresh which is available soon as well as adding the Apple TV 4K into the mix.