In the arena of 4K streamers, which one deserves your money?
While TV channels still mostly live in the world of 1080p, online streaming services like Amazon Prime Video and Netflix have moved forwards into the world of 4K video. At four times the resolution of 1080p video, 4K requires not only a new, compatible TV but a decent internet connection to be able to stream it.
You also need something to get that 4K media onto your TV once you've piped it in from the internet. There are three great options from three big hitters in the world of streaming boxes, and we're looking at each of them right now.
There's no other way of saying it, so I'll come right out: The NVIDIA Shield TV is by far the most powerful of these three boxes. The Tegra X1 chip inside it is an absolute beast, despite being over a year old now. The extra raw performance you get from the Shield TV allows it to do some other pretty amazing things which we'll cover further on.
By contrast, the Roku Ultra and Amazon Fire TV both pack quad-core processors, which in their own right are very good. There's more than enough power on tap for streaming video, music — even playing games.
All three of these boxes now come with a remote in the package, which didn't use to be the case with the Shield. When it comes to features, the three different remotes are equal when it comes to packaging voice search, though for two it doesn't stop there. The Fire TV now has Amazon's ever more widely used Alexa assistant while the Shield TV will soon have Google Assistant.
The Roku remote and the Shield TV remote do have something the Amazon one does not, however: a headphone jack. This is perfect for those times you want to watch TV without disturbing someone else in the room.
All three boxes are loaded with ports, with USB and microSD on the Fire TV and Roku, though the Shield TV has now done away with the microSD slot on the latest version. You can still plug in USB storage like a hard drive or thumb drive and expand the internal storage that way.
But what about video? These are streaming boxes, after all. The Roku Ultra and the Shield TV have one big advantage over the Fire TV: HDR video. All three can play back super-crisp 4K UHD video, but the Fire TV cannot do HDR, which is disappointing because most of Amazon's original content, such as The Grand Tour and The Man in the High Castle have HDR support. You can get this benefit from Prime on other boxes, but not Amazon's own.
You're not left out on audio support, either, with Dolby Audio supported on the Fire TV and Roku, and Dolby Atmos on the Shield TV.
Ultimately when it comes to hardware, the Shield TV is out front on its own as the most powerful, while the Fire TV and Roku Ultra are fairly even bringing up the rear.
While Amazon and NVIDIA both base their boxes on Android, Roku has its own operating system and associated app store.
The Fire TV runs Fire OS which is based on Android, but it has the same limitations as Amazon's other Fire devices, namely no Google Play Store or Google services. Even the Roku has Google Play Movies and TV.
Android TV is still pretty bare bones, but it's got some great apps.
The NVIDIA Shield runs Android TV 7.0 with some additional benefits on top. Firstly, NVIDIA has a dedicated game store for both optimized Android games as well as its GeForce Now service. It also has Plex Media Server pre-installed, allowing you to set up your own home media system using the Shield TV as a base. Both of these show off the added horsepower you get from choosing a Shield TV.
With the Shield TV you also get easy access to live television through either the Live Channels app from Google or something like Plex or the HDHomeRun beta app. You need additional hardware to make it happen, but if you're cutting the cable cord you'll get the best TV experience on the Shield.
You can't forget Kodi. It's the reason many people buy these boxes.
Importantly, all three of these boxes have apps for the biggest streaming services out there: Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Hulu. But there are advantages to the Fire TV and Shield running on Android.
You get a lot more flexibility with apps and arguably better support from developers. And one of the big elephants in the room is Kodi. As this media center application continues to grow in popularity it's perfectly reasonable you might want it on your box. You just can't get it on a Roku, that's the way things are right now. With the Fire TV and the Shield, you just have to load up the Android app and you're away.
All three boast custom interfaces for the TV, but Amazon's is a little clunky. Still. The other two boxes are nicer to interact with, and the Roku in particular has shortcut buttons on its remote to get you to some of the most popular apps, including Netflix.
When it comes to price there is a clear winner and a clear loser.
The loser is the most expensive, and that's the NVIDIA Shield TV. The 16GB version costs $200, while the 500GB Pro model costs $300. You do get the remote and the new controller in the box with both.
The Roku Ultra sits in the middle, normally costing $110 (though it's on sale for $89 right now) with the remote control included. However, it's not available everywhere. For example, you can't get the Roku Ultra in Europe.
The Amazon Fire TV is a veritable bargain costing only $90 and now includes the latest Alexa Voice Remote.
Which should you buy?
All three of these boxes have a lot going for them, and honestly, they're all good purchases if you're looking to get into 4K video streaming. If you just want the absolute best though, go for the NVIDIA Shield TV. It's vastly more powerful, has great app support and frequently gets updated with new features and fixes. It's arguably the more future proof of the three, and ticks pretty much every box you can throw at it. It's even a very handy little games console.
If you just want to get 4K video at the lowest possible price, the Amazon Fire TV is the one to go for. You won't get HDR (though you'd expect Amazon to push out a new box soon) but you can get a game controller to expand the experience a little. Ultimately it's a great box at a great price, albeit one that's probably due to be updated.
The Roku Ultra was recommended by Mobile Nation's own Modern Dad as "the best streaming box for most normal people." In many ways, that's absolutely correct. But it's only correct if you're in one of the locations you can get one. In Europe, all you can get is the streaming stick or the Roku 3, neither of which handle 4K video. So it's a solid option, but harder to recommend when the other two are more widely available.
If you're OK with the $200 price tag though, the NVIDIA Shield is the best streaming box, 4K or otherwise. Buy it, love it.