If you bought a 4K TV recently (and it’s a good time to start looking at one), you’re going to need a way to get your 4K-compatible shows onto that screen. Today, we’re breaking down three of the best set-top boxes that can offer 4K (or UHD) streaming.
For this edition of the showdown, we’re going to narrow our focus to set-top boxes designed to play and stream 4K video. We’re also only looking at boxes with their own remotes, local storage, and operating systems. You can check out our previous posts on more affordable streaming sticks here or streaming boxes in general here. Here are the ones we looked at:
Roku 4 ($115): Roku has consistently impressed us in our previous streaming stick/box showdowns. Its platform agnostic approach means you can get content from nearly any service all in one place. It supports streaming video in 4K, but unfortunately does not support HDR video.
NVIDIA SHIELD TV ($199): By far the most expensive option, the NVIDIA SHIELD TV runs Android TV, comes with a game controller, and was named by someone with a broken caps lock key. It can stream video in 4K and it’s the only option on our list that also supports HDR. In addition to streaming video, it can play a host of Android games, and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now service lets you stream AAA games remotely with a subscription. None of these games play in 4K, though, so we’re not paying too much attention to those.
Amazon Fire TV ($99): The cheapest option on our list, the Fire TV focuses heavily on the Amazon ecosystem. It includes Alexa, which means it can do nearly anything the Amazon Echo can. You’ll want to have an Amazon Prime account if you hope to get the most out of it, though. Like the Roku 4, it can stream in 4K, but it can’t handle HDR content.
We’ve left off the Apple TV this time around since it doesn’t support 4K at all. If you’re a heavy Apple user and have a lot of content wrapped up in the iTunes library, you’re better off waiting until Apple gets around to upgrading their set-top box. For everyone else, here’s what we found during our comparison.
If you have a long Wi-Fi password, the Roku’s setup process isn’t going to do you any favors. You have to use the remote control to type in your Wi-Fi credentials manually with an on-screen keyboard. Fortunately, this is the most tedious aspect of setup and it gets considerably easier from there.
After you’re connected to the internet, you can use Roku Link to log into your favorite services from your laptop or phone. Thankfully, this takes a lot of the burden away from tediously typing in usernames and passwords on a D-pad remote. Once you log into Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming accounts, those credentials will be synced to the Roku so you can start watching.
The SHIELD TV (thanks to the Android TV software) has such an impressively easy setup, it’s a wonder other set-top boxes haven’t copied it yet. When you first boot up your SHIELD, you are prompted to set up your box using the Google app on your phone. Simply search for “set up my device.” This will automatically detect the SHIELD in your living room and pair your phone with it directly. Tap the Wi-Fi network that your phone is connected to and those Wi-Fi credentials will be passed to the SHIELD. Now your set-top box is connected to the internet and you didn’t have to enter a single password!
Thanks to Google’s Smart Lock, logging into streaming services is easier as well. For example, if you save your Netflix password with Google, then the SHIELD will automatically log into the app as soon as you open it. Unfortunately, many apps don’t yet support Smart Lock. However most of the ones that don’t support it at least offer some form of web login instead so you don’t have to type in passwords with the tiny remote.
Like the Roku, the Amazon Fire TV requires you to enter a long password with an on-screen keyboard to be able to connect to the internet. On top of this, you need to log into your Amazon account when you first set up your device. If you use two-factor authentication (which you should), Amazon’s login process gets even more cumbersome. First you have to enter your username and your password with the remote, then you need to enter your six-digit 2FA code with an on-screen keyboard while racing the 30-second clock. It would be nice to see Amazon streamline this process a bit, perhaps letting users login from their laptop.
Once you’re in, you have access to Amazon’s video library. If you want anything else, though, you have to download the apps before you use them. We had this same complaint with the Fire TV Stick. Amazon’s setup process is already annoying. It could save customers a little frustration by at least installing a common apps like Netflix or Hulu by default.
As we talked about in our last showdown, the Roku interface doesn’t have as much polish as other devices, but it’s surprisingly capable. The voice search is more limited compared to Google and Amazon (both companies that excel in voice commands in other areas). If you know the name of the show you want to watch, though, it’s handy to have instead of typing using an on-screen keyboard.
The Roku has four dedicated buttons to launch Netflix, Amazon, Sling, and the now-defunct Rdio. It has a headphone jack so you can listen to your TV shows privately. There’s even a remote-finder button on the Roku itself. Just tap it and your remote will emit a sound to help you find it.
The Roku menu itself is a little inefficient and it sometimes takes a few too many steps to get to what you want. You can set certain apps to be your favorites, which helps, but we’d like to see an updated interface that doesn’t require quite as much scrolling through menus to find what you’re looking for. Fortunately, the dedicated app buttons can relieve some of that stress.
Since the SHIELD TV is designed with gaming in mind, NVIDIA packed it with the company’s powerful X1 processor. As a result, this thing flies. Of all the set-top boxes I’ve examined, none are as smooth as the SHIELD. The menus are snappy, voice commands are processed instantly, and videos run perfectly smooth (so long as your Wi-Fi can handle it).
Much of the credit for the interface goes to Android TV. Google’s second smart TV platform may not be its most popular product, but its in a much better place than when it was new. Google’s voice search is one of the most powerful (as you might expect). Search for the name of a show, actor, director, or more and Google will suggest movies and shows for you. It will then show you where to find them. It can even search within apps like Plex that hold your own personal library.
The SHIELD TV would get full marks for its ease of use, except for one problem: the included remote control is a game controller. That’s great for gamers, for but everyone else that just wants to watch TV, it’s cumbersome. If you want a remote control that doesn’t feel like it was made for an Xbox, NVIDIA will sell you one for a whopping $50. Since the SHIELD is already the most expensive box on our list, it’s disappointing that something so basic is such an expensive upgrade. Personally, I would’ve rather seen the basic remote come included and the controller be the $50 add-on accessory.
The Fire TV box is a lot snappier than the Fire TV Stick we looked at before, but the menu still suffers from being disorganized. The home screen has a list of categories you can scroll through like TV Shows, Movies, and Games. However, Amazon heavily pushes its own content in each one. Scrolling through the Movies section, for example, will mostly show you movies on Amazon Prime, with a few interspersed for other services (and it’s not always clear which one). If you don’t use Amazon Prime, this can make finding content a mess.
Amazon’s voice search works a little better than it did on the Fire TV Stick, but it still gives you mixed results. Searching for American Horror Story, for example, took me to a show landing page where I could find all the places to watch every season. Searching for South Park, on the other hand, showed me a couple movies, some random episode collections, and South Park en Espanol before getting to the show’s listing itself. You might be better off using each app’s individual search to find your shows, but Amazon buries the Apps section on the home screen a bit too. If you like Amazon Prime, the Fire TV should be fine, but if you want something that searches every service you use, there are better options.
Finding 4K Content to Watch
The Roku does a decent job of surfacing 4K content if you don’t already have something in mind. There are two 4K-centric channels on the Roku. First, the 4K Spotlight channel showcases specific shows and movies from various streaming services. Meanwhile, the 4K Ultra HD section of the Streaming Channels menu helps you find out which services offer 4K content at all. These include things like Netflix, but you can also find services that specialize in selling 4K movies. For 4K TV owners, this is one of the most direct ways to find movies and shows that will make use of your new TV.
While the SHIELD TV is capable of playing 4K video, there’s virtually nothing on the device to help you find any 4K content to watch. Searching for a show or movie won’t show you which options stream in 4K, and there are no dedicated channels where you can find movies and shows optimized for your TV.
This is a bummer since the SHIELD is the best device on our list for playing 4K content (which we’ll come back to in a bit). It supports 4K and HDR playback, but won’t tell you when a show you’re watching supports either. It’s very frustrating. In the company’s defense, NVIDIA pitches the SHIELD TV as a gaming device, so it’s not surprising that they don’t put its 4K capabilities front and center, but it’s disappointing that it’s not touched on in the interface at all.
When you’re browsing the Fire TV’s video suggestions or searching for shows, the device helpfully designates any 4K content with a small banner across the top left corner of show thumbnails that reads “UHD.” While this is a small feature, it’s the most helpful little touch we found on any of the boxes we looked at.
Surprisingly, this banner is even applied to non-Amazon content. For example, if you search for Jessica Jones—which is only available on Netflix—Amazon’s search will put that UHD label over the thumbnail. Usually the Fire TV suffers from putting all of its effort onto Amazon’s library and neglecting other services, but this was a welcome inclusive approach.
Unfortunately, there are no 4K-specific channels on the Fire TV to browse, but that little UHD banner makes up for it. It’s also worth pointing out that Amazon’s dumb grudge match with Google means that there’s no native YouTube app, which means you’re missing out on a lot of great 4K content.
The Roku 4 is one of the more powerful devices in our comparison. However, while using it I noticed that it would take a few seconds to catch up when playing 4K videos. This may vary depending on your setup (I used a Wi-Fi connection in the same room with my router, but it’s possible an ethernet connection would perform better), but 4K video is also a pretty hefty strain on the processor. Even with a solid internet connection, you might see a little lag.
As we mentioned before, the Roku 4 doesn’t fully support HDR, either. While the device has the HDMI 2.0a port necessary for HDR, and it can even output on a 10-bit color depth (which is one part of HDR, but is not enough to count as full support), it doesn’t actually offer the feature. This can be a little confusing for customers who aren’t well-versed in the nuance of what HDR means. It may be possible that the company could add HDR support with a software update, but you’re probably better off waiting until Roku announces their next round of set-top boxes.
If you can find a 4K video to play on the SHIELD TV, it’s totally worth it. As we said before, NVIDIA packed this device with a beastly processor, and it’s the only one we tested that handled 4K playback without any noticeable lag over regular video streaming. It was faster than both the other boxes over the same Wi-Fi connection.
It also handled HDR content beautifully. There was virtually no extra loading time while streaming HDR-enabled shows. I tested it out while watching Jessica Jones (whose intro, by the way, is a perfect way to test your HDR screen). It worked flawlessly, even when I jumped around in the episode. While the SHIELD may be more expensive than the other boxes we looked at, it delivers the best picture quality, making it worth the money. At least until the other boxes catch up.
While playing back Amazon Prime videos on the Fire TV, there’s a small indicator in the player that shows you what resolution you’re currently streaming at. This works a lot like YouTube’s player. If the video supports 4K, but your connection is slow, it will tell you that you’re only streaming at 1080p, or whatever quality your connection can push through. Like the UHD label while browsing videos, this is a small feature that is extremely helpful for gauging whether or not what I’m looking at is really 4K. In contrast, while playing videos in Netflix, the best you can do is say “Yeah, I guess that looks good” when your stream finally catches up.
This is disappointing because despite nice interface features like this, the Fire TV is the worst box on our list for actually playing 4K content. It doesn’t support HDR and, because it uses an HDMI 1.4 port, it never will. HDR requires at least HDMI 2.0a in order to work, so unless you bought a 4K TV without HDR, your Fire TV box will need to be upgraded in the future.
It also showed the most lag while streaming of any box I tested. When you first play a 4K video, you’ll see a brief screen that says “Optimizing for UHD playback.” Once the videos I watched started, it usually began playing pixelated while the stream caught up. This is where that little label that tells you what resolution you’re currently playing at comes in handy, but ideally you wouldn’t need it. If you want the cheapest 4K streaming box you can right now, and you’re really invested in Amazon’s ecosystem, the Fire TV is fine, but you’re better off waiting.
Bottom Line: The SHIELD TV Is Expensive, But It’s the Only Box Ready For the Future
Picking a recommendation here is hard because there’s no really good winner here. The SHIELD TV is perfect for anyone who wants lag-free 4K and HDR video. Everything about it feels like a premium experience. The interface is slick, search is great, and 4K playback is smooth. The only problem is the premium price. At $200, it’s way more expensive than most devices of its kind. Worse yet, since NVIDIA pitches it as a gaming device, you have to pay extra money if you want a regular controller. If you don’t mind shelling out the money, it’s definitely the best experience, but it would be nice to see a cheaper version. Or at least one that comes with the basic remote instead of a game controller.
If you want something a little more well-rounded (and cheaper) the Roku 4 is great for streaming 4K video from nearly any service you can think of. Roku doesn’t have any beef with any of the big streaming companies, so you can watch movies Amazon Prime, Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, and anywhere else on one box. The lack of HDR is a serious blow for future-proofing your home theater, though. If you haven’t bought a 4K TV yet, or if you got one with HDR, you should probably skip it for now.
The Fire TV suffers the same HDR problem, but without the hope of a software update to fix it. If HDR matters to you, don’t buy the Fire TV. However, if you’re heavily invested in Amazon’s video library (and don’t care about HDR), the Fire TV is great for finding movies and shows to stream. The inclusion of Alexa also makes the Fire TV an attractive option even if you’re not watching TV, so that may be a point in its favor for some users.