The streaming device market is more competitive than ever. Today, there are a plethora of devices to choose from across a number of price points.
If you want the best of the best, however, you’ll probably want to invest in a device that supports 4K video. Many of the most popular streaming services are increasingly moving towards the format.
Realistically, you have four 4K devices to choose from: the Chromecast Ultra, the Apple TV 4K, the Roku Ultra, and the Amazon Fire TV 4K.
But how do they stack up against each other? Which has the best technical specs? Which has the broadest selection of content? And is it possible to name a clear winner? Let’s take a closer look.
The Chromecast Ultra costs twice the amount of a regular Chromecast, but it offers the best value-for-money for those who want a 4K-compatible device.
The Chromecast Ultra is Google’s entry into the 2160p video sector.
It can play 4K content from any device that’s connected to your wireless network and is also compatible with high dynamic range (HDR) content. For those who don’t know, HDR lets videos have a more vivid contrast, a broader color palette, and higher brightness levels.
There is one other significant difference between the Chromecast Ultra and the regular Chromecast: the presence of an Ethernet port. It means you can plug it into a wired network and (theoretically) enjoy a faster and more stable connection.
Under the bonnet, you will find a Marvell Armada 1500 Mini Plus 88DE3009 chip, 256MB of RAM, support for 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi networks, and both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The Chromecast Ultra weighs 1.66 ounces.
From a technical standpoint, the two most prominent drawbacks are the lack of a remote control and the lack of a user interface.
The Chromecast acts as a bridge between your mobile or laptop and the TV. As such, most mainstream apps on both Android and iOS are Chromecast-compatible. Plenty of niche, less well-known streaming apps have also included the functionality.
To give you an example, CBS, Google Play, WatchESPN, YouTube, iHeartRadio, Google Play Music, HBO NOW, Hulu, MLB.tv, Netflix, Pandora, Showtime Anytime, and Spotify all support the technology.
The glaring omission from the list is Amazon Video. Amazon and Google have been at loggerheads for months, and the absence of Amazon Video support shows that consumers are now starting to feel the effects.
The Apple TV 4K is the fifth generation of Apple TV products. Apple announced the device in September 2017, with the first units arriving in customers’ hands a couple of months later.
Boasting a hexa-core Apple A10X Fusion processor, the Apple TV 4K offers the most powerful processor seen in the product line so far.
Users can also look forward to 7.1 channel surround sound, support for 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi networks, and Bluetooth 5.0, HDMI 2.0, and infrared receiver connectivity. You can choose between a 32GB and a 64GB model.
It’s also worth giving a nod to the Apple TV 4K’s form factor. As is always the case with Apple products, the device and its remote look and feel premium. In comparison, the Roku and Amazon Fire devices feel rather cheap and plasticky.
Perhaps disappointingly, the Apple TV 4K only offers 3GB of DRAM memory. It’s significantly less than other devices on this list. Given the device’s premium price tag, users should expect more.
Until the end of 2017, Apple TVs suffered from the same issue as Chromecasts: a lack of support for Amazon Video.
However, the app has since gone live in more than 100 countries, meaning Apple TV now offers apps from all the leading streaming services.
On the downside, the rigid App Store means the availability of “off-piste” streaming apps is diminished. You can’t even download and sideload installation files easily like you can on Android devices.
It is also worth noting that Siri integration is nowhere near universal among third-party apps, making it an impractical way to search for content.
In mid-2017, Roku simplified its product line into five standalone devices. The Roku Ultra is the top-of-the-range premium model. Along with the Roku Streaming Stick+, it is only of two devices in the company’s product range which offers 4K resolution.
Like the Chromecast Ultra, the Roku Ultra offers both wired and wireless connectivity. Wireless connectivity comes in the shape of 802.11ac dual-band MIMO.
On the back of the device, you’ll also find a micro SD card slot so you can expand the Ultra’s storage and a USB port for local playback.
Other noteworthy features include HDR support, a “night listening” mode, a lost remote finder, screen mirroring via Miracast, and voice search via the accompanying remote.
Roku is the most content-agnostic set-top streaming box on the market. Unlike its biggest three competitors—Apple, Google, and Amazon—Roku does not provide video or music streaming services of its own.
As a result, the company relies on ensuring as many apps as possible are available on the platform. Roku has never entered into the tit-for-tat availability wars we’ve seen with other manufacturers.
Interestingly, Roku did recently launch its own ad-supported movie channel. It’s a great way to catch up on Hollywood releases if you hate Netflix and the other big streaming services.
Roku also lets you install private channels. They provide a range of live TV and on-demand videos. We’ve listed some of the best private Roku channels elsewhere on the site.
Amazon released the all-new Amazon Fire TV 4K in late 2017, bringing support for 4K video to the product for the first time.
The Amazon Fire stick can play video in 2160p (4K), 1080p, and 720p resolutions. It is powered by a Quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU and has a Mali-450 GPU. The previous Fire model had a Mediatek 8127D CPU, so the new release marks a significant improvement.
The device supports both wired and wireless (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac; 2×2 MIMO) connectivity. Like the Chromecast Ultra, the Amazon Fire works with both 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless bands.
It also has 8GB of internal storage and 2GB of RAM, works with Bluetooth 4.2 and LE, and can read H.265 (HEVC), H.264, and VP9 video codecs.
The Amazon Fire runs on a heavily modified version of the Android TV operating system. Because it’s so modified, it does not support Google Play Services. Therefore, you cannot run any of Google’s suite of apps like Gmail, Keep, or Calendar.
The Amazon Appstore does, however, offer all the mainstream apps, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, and Google Play Movies.
Because it’s an Amazon product, the Fire stick is also Alexa-compatible. As such, you can use your device to control your entire smart home.
Which Device Should You Buy?
It’s not easy to determine a clear winner.
In terms of content, it’s hard to look past the Roku Ultra, especially as you can be confident the company isn’t suddenly going to block access to an app over a petty corporate dispute.
Meanwhile, the Chromecast Ultra (see our Chromecast Ultra guide) wins in the flexibility stakes, though the fact it acts as a bridge between your mobile and the TV is both a blessing and a curse.
The Apple TV 4K is undeniably the best looking of the bunch, but it’s harder for tinkerers to get their hands dirty.
And while the Amazon Fire TV 4K offers the best compromise between usability and cost, its divergence from stock Android will be a turn off for some users.
All of these 4K streaming devices are solid options. It just depends what you value most and what compromises you’re willing to accept.