Streaming Box Thunderdome

Let’s call these media streaming boxes the Big Four: Apple TV 4K, Fire TV 4K, Nvidia Shield TV, and Roku Ultra. Why not the Fabulous Five, you ask? What about Google Chromecast Ultra? The Chromecast Ultra forces you to use your smartphone as the remote, like some kind of animal. Disqualified!

 

Any one of the Big Four does a bang-up job of serving up a bingeworthy evening of Netflix. Yet each streamer has at least one absolute dealbreaker that’ll make you scratch your head and wail, “what were they thinking?”

 

Well, we ain’t going without our Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, so we chose one streamer, warts and all. For busy executive types who like to cut to the chase, the streaming device we chose was…the Apple TV 4K.

 

All four boxes are powerful 4K streaming devices that will deliver an excellent (for streaming) Ultra High Definition image from the major paid streaming services. Each device has a minimum of Dolby Digital 7.1 sound. (Feature comparison at page bottom.)

 

What puts Apple TV 4K over the top is something that Steve Jobs and I have always agreed on: the user experience. Setup is a dream (especially if you have an iPhone or iPad). As a gateway to your streaming services, your photos, and your music, the user interface (UI) is elegant, smooth, and surefooted. The UI is a joy to look at, offering equally alluring light/dark modes. In a rare nod to interoperability, you can program virtually any IR remote in seconds to control the Apple TV 4K.

 

While Apple TV 4K trails in sonic capability (no Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, or DTS), it leads the pack in potential image quality. Why “potential?” Because most users will likely never get the best picture out of this thing.

 

The good news is that Apple TV 4K is the only current streaming device that could possibly give you the proper 4K picture in the proper mode of HDR at the proper frame rate. However, out-of-the-box, it delivers everything in 4K (cool, because it has a great scaler); a frame rate of 60Hz (not cool for movie-loving users, as theatrical movies are delivered in 24Hz); and in HDR (horrible, because 99% of video is not HDR, which means 99% of your video will be wrong, and menus will blast your retinas). Defeating this default is hilariously unintuitive. First, you drill into the settings and set your TV up as SDR — Standard Dynamic Range (even if it’s HDR-capable…what?). Then, elsewhere in the settings, set the box to auto-switch to the native frame rate (60Hz, 30Hz, 24Hz, etc.) and native HDR.

 

The big dealbreaker for Apple TV 4K is that it’s missing the largest repository of 4K video on the planet — YouTube. As Apple TV is tied with Nvidia Shield TV as the most expensive streaming device, the least they could do is include support for YouTube’s VP9 codec.

 

Apple TV may be our choice, but you may think differently. Here are some quick pros and cons of each streaming box, with a feature comparison chart at the bottom of the page:

 

Apple TV

Pros:

  • Easily the best 4K picture, if you know the secrets
  • Best-in-class user experience and user interface
  • Simple programming for virtually any IR remote
  • Fastest streaming service loading times
  • Best streaming service FF/REW and scrub search
  • Best version of Amazon Prime Video outside of Amazon Fire TV
  • Best-operating remote, although deeply flawed industrial design
  • Lowest-priced 4K HDR movies for rent/purchase
  • Siri for both search and dictation
  • Ethernet jack

 

Cons:

  • Default picture mode is garish, color-drenched HDR-everything
  • Default movie mode is 60Hz, not the correct 24Hz
  • Missing: 4K HDR movie rental/purchase juggernaut Vudu
  • For surround sound, just the minimum: Dolby Digital
  • Microscopic remote is form over function, made for seven-year-old hands — plus, difficult to tell up or down, backward or forward
  • Both streaming box and remote badly need an owner’s manual
  • No external storage means no personal videos or music outside of iOS — unless you’re a tech nerd
  • Siri is still dumb as a box of rocks

Dealbreaker:

  • No YouTube 4K

 

Fire TV

Pros:

  • Lovely interface for its native app — Amazon Prime Video
  • Dolby Atmos support
  • Alexa voice integration
  • Excellent remote with good transport features
  • Very good Amazon Photos app for the big-screen photo experience
  • Good control of the Amazon Prime Music app via Alexa

 

Cons:

  • Ads on the home screen — fail!
  • No Dolby Vision support
  • Locks video frame rate at 60Hz; cannot watch movies at native 24Hz
  • No Vudu 4K HDR app
  • Non-Amazon streaming apps get third-rate to status in the UI
  • Removed support for USB storage and microSD storage from previous model
  • Removed Ethernet jack from previous model
  • Removed smartphone mirroring from previous model
  • Box-style form factor hangs heavily from HDMI port like a dongle
  • Cannot program any IR-based remote to control the unit
  • App sign-in nightmare via onscreen keyboard only

 

Dealbreakers:

  • No YouTube app at all — or anything else from Google
  • The home screen ads aren’t bad, but they’re still ads

 

Nvidia Shield TV

Pros:

  • Powerful video processor opens shows and movies quickly
  • Bristling with storage options — USB, microSD, NAS, etc.
  • By far the smartest AI voice search — Google Assistant
  • Integrated smart home hub
  • Live TV using USB tuner + local storage DVR
  • Google Play Store included (limited to big-screen-capable apps)
  • The only truly legitimate gaming box in the group
  • Ethernet jack

 

Cons:

  • No Dolby Vision
  • No Dolby Atmos
  • Bug-filled, inconsistent Android TV never inspires confidence
  • Severe limitations on what Android apps will run (ex: no NBC Sports/Golf Channel)
  • Woeful support; can see tumbleweeds blowing through the user forums
  • Both streaming box and remote badly need an owner’s manual
  • Locks video frame rate at 60Hz; cannot watch movies at native 24Hz
  • Amazon Prime Video app useless (can’t save favorites to Watchlist)
  • YouTube in 4K but not HDR
  • Terrible handling of photos and music
  • You have to open up yet another orifice to Google

 

Dealbreakers:

  • No-FF/REW-button remote control is an epic nightmare that deserves its own zero-star review
  • Cannot program any IR-based remote to control the unit

 

Roku Ultra

Pros:

  • Dolby Atmos support
  • Vudu 4K movie rentals/purchases in HDR (but not Dolby Vision)
  • DTS surround sound support (pass-through only; no DTS-HD)
  • YouTube 4K HDR support
  • By far the most third-party apps available (thousands)
  • Remote has the best “hand feel” by far
  • Headphone jack on remote
  • Can program IR-based universal remote to control the unit
  • USB and microSD storage
  • Companion app enables software keyboard entry
  • Switchable interface themes (but all are dated)

 

Cons:

  • Ads on the Home Page — fail!
  • No Dolby Vision
  • Locks video frame rate at 60Hz; cannot watch movies at native 24Hz
  • Jaded interface, especially on submenus
  • App interfaces are even more dated — many appear as if they’re from 2005
  • Inconsistent speed on user interface
  • App transport (FF-REW) interfaces both crude and inconsistent
  • Amazon Prime Video app is comically primitive and slow to load
  • Underdeveloped voice control limited to hit-and-miss search
  • Useless app-labeled buttons on remote control
  • Terrible handling of photos and music
  • 6800 apps, and 6770 of them are lame

 

Dealbreakers:

  • The home screen ads aren’t bad, but they’re still ads
  • The Roku is the most complete streaming device and has the best chance of the Big Four to satisfy plug-and-play users. But scratch a Roku, and you quickly reveal the stale and musty. It lacks fun.

 

We recommend Apple TV 4K. You need to dig into the settings for the best picture, but it’s worth it. The Apple TV 4K has the gentlest dealbreakers for day-to-day enjoyment and delivers the prettiest, snappiest, and most satisfying streaming experience.