Buying a capable streaming player for your TV is easier and cheaper in 2020 than it’s ever been. So long as you’re willing to spend at least $50, you can buy something that’ll deliver 4K resolution and HDR color from apps like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. With universal search that spans all of the big services, streaming players make it easy to find something to watch when you finally make it to the couch after a long day.
If you’ve got a fairly new 4K TV at home, you might not see the need for a set-top box or streaming stick; it’s probably already got many of your essential apps preloaded and ready to go. If you’re satisfied with what’s there, no one’s forcing you to buy an extra gadget. But app selection can differ between TV brands, so if you want everything under the sun, a streaming player is a great way to fill in those gaps. Another advantage is speed: if you find the apps on your TV sluggish to use, a speedy Roku or Fire TV might help alleviate that frustration. And sometimes companies will end development of an app for older TVs, but you can bet that updates will continue long into the future for the streaming box equivalent.
The best for most: Roku Streaming Stick Plus / Roku Premiere
Roku is the default choice for people who want a no-nonsense streaming player with a simple interface and far-reaching universal search across many different entertainment services. Roku’s keep-it-simple home screen, though not flashy, is fully customizable and lets you put the streaming apps you use most right at the top for quick access.
Thanks to the bundled long-range wireless receiver, the Streaming Stick Plus has better Wi-Fi performance than the majority of Roku’s lineup, which can prove useful if your TV and router are far apart. It also comes with a voice remote, whereas the Premiere only includes Roku’s basic remote without voice search. (If you want the better remote and the Premiere box, Walmart exclusively sells the Premiere Plus.) If your TV is mounted to the wall, the Streaming Stick Plus’ more discreet design will be the better option.
But otherwise, the Stick Plus and Premiere are basically identical: they both give you 4K HDR picture, are snappy and responsive to use, and have what feels like an endless catalog of apps to pick from. Though it has shied away from a big redesign of its basic app icon grid, Roku also keeps improving upon its software: the ad-supported Roku Channel offers free TV shows and movies, and there’s now a dedicated kids section for surfacing family-friendly content. Roku’s home screen also has a “featured free” section that highlights content from multiple apps that can be watched without any subscription.
The Roku devices lack support for Dolby Vision, but general HDR support means you still get the vivid colors and bright explosions that help movies and shows pop off the screen. And since there are so many existing Roku customers out there, companies often prioritize the platform when launching new streaming services or bringing new features to existing ones. Then there are the small touches, like a universal search that prioritizes saving you money (by ranking free-to-stream results higher) and the ability to privately listen to TV audio using Roku’s smartphone app. These things, combined with the intuitive software experience, help keep the company’s gadgets at the top of our recommended list.
The premium experience: Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K checks off all of the key boxes — 4K, HDR, Dolby Vision, HDR10, and Dolby Atmos audio — and doesn’t have any obvious holes in its selection of third-party apps. Its user experience feels more modern than Roku’s and is no less intuitive. And for those in the Apple ecosystem, it offers benefits like AirPlay and free 4K upgrades for movies you’ve purchased from Apple in the past. Plus, there are no ugly ads on the home screen. It now also features Apple Arcade, letting you pick up where you left off with the same games you’re playing on your iPhone or iPad. Despite being over two years old, the Apple TV 4K remains lightning-quick in day-to-day use.
However, the Apple TV 4K’s price can be hard to swallow. It costs considerably more than the Roku, but purely from an entertainment standpoint, Apple’s streamer doesn’t do much to justify the $100 premium. If you’re a privacy-minded person, it’s worth knowing that Apple is less invasive about tracking your streaming habits compared to some of its competitors. Roku and Amazon, in particular, both extensively track what you’re watching and how you interact with their products.
Another downside of the Apple TV 4K is that it doesn’t support 4K (or HDR) through YouTube; you’re always stuck with a maximum quality of 1080p. Apple’s hardware is obviously more than powerful enough to handle 4K YouTube playback, but the limitation comes down to a stubborn logjam between Google and Apple. The companies have embraced different technologies for streaming 4K, with Google favoring VP9 and Apple supporting HEVC/H.265 on its devices. Roku and Amazon have both added VP9 decoding and have no problems streaming YouTube in 4K HDR. How much of a frustration this is will depend entirely on how big of a YouTube viewer you are.
And then there’s the remote, which remains a source of frustration for some Apple TV owners and is in serious need of a redesign.
Roku’s devices and the Apple TV 4K are the easiest-to-recommend options, but that doesn’t mean they’re for everyone. For instance, the 2019 Amazon Fire TV Cube (now with Dolby Vision) is a convenient hybrid device that’s one part Alexa smart speaker, one part streaming player. It’s capable of hands-free voice commands, letting you jump right into your favorite shows without picking up the remote. It’s also able to control your TV, soundbar, and even some cable boxes with those same voice controls. If you’ve already got an Echo speaker in the living room, the Fire TV Stick 4K is great in its own right. But Amazon’s devices don’t yet offer the Apple TV app, so you can’t watch Apple’s original shows on them. And more pressingly, there’s still no Vudu app — a great source for 4K HDR movie rentals — on Fire TV.
The Nvidia Shield is a powerful option for home theater enthusiasts: it features impressive AI-powered 4K upscaling to make content look sharper. And since it runs Android TV, the Shield can be customized and fine-tuned in ways that a Roku or Apple TV simply cannot. It’s fully ready for your Plex library and game emulators, and its new remote is more comfortable and has only a single preprogrammed app button: Netflix. That’s one just about all of us will actually use.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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