If you want to stream 4K resolution shows and movies to your TV, the following set-top boxes and mini devices are your best options. We compare the Roku Premiere+, Amazon Fire TV 4K, Google Chromecast Ultra, Nvidia Shield TV and Apple TV 4K, to see which offers the best features, price and streaming experience.
By plugging a streaming box such as those offered by Roku, Apple, Google and Amazon into your telly, you can get access to thousands of new apps and services. The likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and other video streaming services can be accessed via your internet connection, for streaming movies and TV shows. And you can even play games on some streaming boxes.
First there were TV streaming boxes, followed by dinky streaming sticks that plug directly into your telly. So it’s only right that these smart streaming devices have made another big jump forwards, offering 4K video streaming. Now you can enjoy 4K video with a selection of different smart boxes, for eye-watering visuals on your Ultra HD ready TV. Plus, some of these devices are HDR-ready, for next-gen visuals.
So should you go Amazon Fire TV 4K (2017 model), Roku Premiere+, Apple TV 4K, Google’s Chromecast Ultra or Nvidia Shield TV? Here’s everything you need to know about the current generation of 4K-ready TV streaming boxes, so you can choose which is best for you.
Read next: Is your home ready for 4K streaming?
These 4K TV streamers are all pleasingly dinky
Design-wise, you should be happy with any of these devices. They’re all tiny enough to slip behind your TV if so desired, taking up next to no space on your entertainment centre. If you want funky design work however, the Shield TV is your best bet; this thing looks like some crazy miniature alien spacecraft.
Which 4K TV streamers support HDR?
At the time of publishing only Google’s Chromecast Ultra and the new Apple TV 4K offer HDR visuals in the Dolby Vision format. The Roku Premiere+ does deliver HDR but in the form of HDR10, as does the Shield TV and Amazon’s 2017 update of its Fire TV 4K streamer.
What is HDR? Simply put, High Dynamic Range is a way of transmitting better quality images. There are more colours and the range between light and dark is greater to ultimately portray a more lifelike reproduction of video. Check out our in-depth HDR feature for more info.
Dolby Vision is the best version of this with 12-bit colour meaning 64 billion colours and a peak brightness of 10,000 nits. HDR10 tops out at 10-bit colour for just over one billion colours and a max brightness of 4,000 nits. Of course that’s more than most TVs can handle as they are around 1,000 nits at best right now – also that many colours is a big jump from the usual 16 million.
Since Dolby Vision content is limited and requires a compatible TV (LG for example), the Chromecast and Apple advantage isn’t massive right now. You’ll want to pick up an HDR-ready streamer to stay future-proof however, as the likes of Netflix and Prime Video ramp up their HDR output.
Which offers the best picture quality and frame rate?
All of these streamers of course offer Ultra HD visuals, although you’ll want a box that supports 60 frames-per-second (60fps) 4K video for a smooth and satisfying output.
Luckily the Apple TV 4K, Roku, Shield TV and Fire TV 4K can all manage that frame rate at the maximum Ultra HD resolution.
Voice control as standard
All five of the 4K streaming boxes are capable of being controlled with voice search commands. But some are better than others.
For the Fire TV 4K you can use Amazon’s Alexa smart voice assistant, as found on the Amazon Echo speaker. That means you can talk to compatible devices like the Amazon Echo to do a search and get something playing up on the screen. It also means voice controls via the remote or app.
Google Chromecast Ultra is similarly smart, backed by its voice control system. As such you can connect the Chromecast to Google Home, for voice controls from more locations beyond the app alone.
Apple is also onboard with voice controls using smart artificial intelligence, in this case Siri. This works using the dual microphones built into the Apple TV 4K’s controller and should make finding shows and movies a doddle. You can even search for genres for example by saying “find movies in 4K”.
Nvidia has announced its team-up that places the Google Assistant on the Nvidia Shield TV. That means you can not only control the device itself but can also use it to voice control smart home devices like lighting, heating, music and more.
The Roku Premiere+ does also offer voice search, but it’s a little more limited. Since this is closed to Roku you’ll be the app alone for voice search here. Although that may change with future updates to help it work with Amazon’s Echo or Google Home too.
Read next: Best Chromecast apps right now
Roku Premiere+ has more apps than Chromecast Ultra, Fire TV 4K, Apple TV 4K or Nvidia Shield TV
Roku has been around for a long time so it has amassed a huge number of apps, or ‘Channels’ as they’re known on this platform. That means there are not only plenty to pick from, but they are also regularly updated to add improved functionality. Check out our guide to the best Roku Channels right now.
Roku even offers Private Channels which are effectively those made by third-parties. These have not been checked out by Roku or added to the official selection, so they could be less stable or deemed unsuitable. But this is great for developer freedom and means watching online streaming platforms can be done right on your TV.
Read next: Roku tips and tricks
Google uses the cast functionality, meaning lots of apps that are already established can be updated with a line of code to work with Chromecast. As such there are a growing number of apps appearing here, with most of the big names covered. It’s still lacking though and has room to grow further.
Amazon has plenty of apps for its platforms and Fire TV isn’t lacking either, with thousands to pick from. Just watch out for ads and a lot of below-par novelty apps.
Of course Apple TV 4K has a lot to offer and supports most TV apps you could hope for, including Netflix, BBC iPlayer and beyond. But a lot are US focused to allow for American TV viewing, and as such this does feel a bit like the UK is an afterthought, with a lot less tailored love. That said, there is Now TV support so you can access Sky channels. Plus beyond that there’s plenty to buy in the iTunes movies store.
The Nvidia Shield TV is also laden with apps. Since this uses the Google Play Store you have all those years of app building in one place ready for you to enjoy on your TV. If you need an app for TV, movies, music or gaming, it’s more than likely this is the place you’ll find it. In addition, the Shield boasts some exclusive games including console-quality titles.
All five platforms, when it comes to 4K, are currently – still – limited. There just aren’t that many 4K services right now. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and a few others currently offer UHD 4K, with HDR in some cases and Dolby Vision HDR in even rarer instances. But that’s only going to grow and expect all these streamers to get more as they appear.
Nvidia Shield TV and Roku Premiere+ offer expandable storage
The Roku Premiere+ offers microSD expansion, meaning it can take cards up to 128GB. In addition, the Nvidia Shield TV comes with 16GB of storage space but has the ability to expand with USB flash drives up to 128GB. That’s a lot of app and media storage space.
Google’s chromecast Ultra differs since the apps it runs actually reside on your phone or tablet and simply cast to the streamer. Apple doesn’t offer expansion on its Apple TV 4K, which comes in either 32GB or 64GB options. As such, you’re limited to how many apps you can fit on your device. The same is the case for the Amazon Fire TV 4K, which comes with a fixed 8GB of storage.
Ethernet and Wi-Fi connectivity as standard
Four of these streamers not only have dual-band Wi-Fi support for better in-home connectivity, but Ethernet cable connection options too. So if your Wi-Fi isn’t up to scratch in a certain area of the home, you can potentially plug the streamer directly into your router. The new Amazon Fire TV 4K is the only option here that comes with Wi-Fi only as standard – although there is an optional Ethernet adapter that you can pay more for if you want a wired connection.
Since streaming at full 4K resolution with HDR visuals can chew through a lot of data, you may find that an Ethernet connection is the best way to enjoy seamless, load-free viewing.
Apple TV 4K, Nvidia Shield TV, Roku Premiere+ and Amazon Fire TV 4K come with remote controls
Google doesn’t include a dedicated remote control for the Chromecast Ultra. This is both a good and a bad thing. For those that want a bundled remote it can be annoying, but when you bear in mind Chromecast works via the apps and a simple cast button, your phone can prove an easier way to navigate the interface anyway.
The Apple TV 4K, Nvidia Shield TV, Roku Premiere+ and Amazon Fire TV 4K all come with dedicated remote controls, and each feature microphones for voice search functionality. In the case of Roku that remote also has a headphone port so you can plug in and listen in private while watching on the big screen. The negative here is you’ve got yet another device that needs its batteries replaced – and regularly too, if you use the headphones plugged in a lot.
The Amazon Fire TV and Shield TV also function with an optional game controller, so you can get even more use out of the streamer as a gaming machine. Pay an extra tenner and you’ll get the Shield TV’s controller bundled in the box.
Amazon Fire TV 4K and Nvidia Shield TV offer best Dolby Atmos support
While Apple TV 4K, Roku Premiere+ and Chromecast Ultra do offer Dolby audio, it’s still quite limited. Apple TV 4K explicitly supports Dolby Digital Plus 7.1 surround while the Roku also offers Dolby Digital Plus and the Chromecast Ultra delivers Dolby Digital Plus pass-through.
The Amazon Fire TV 4K and Nvidia Shield TV actually support the latest Dolby Atmos audio, meaning super multi-channel surround sound. Of course you’ll need the sound system to make this a reality, but it’s good know these base units are future-proofed for audio.
Gamers should choose the Shield TV
This one’s a total no-brainer. Although the Fire TV supports a games controller and a reasonable selection of titles, the Shield TV boasts its own exclusive console-quality games. You can also stream games from a PC over your home WiFi, or play online games via the GeForce Now service.
Check out our pick of the best Shield TV games.