So you’ve decided to buy a streaming player. It’s actually a device that fewer and fewer people need these days, as most 4K TVs come with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and the other essentials preinstalled. But maybe those built-in apps are laggy and frustrating to use, or you don’t have all the ones you’d like.
There are countless gadgets you can plug in and use as a Netflix or Amazon Prime Video machine, but today’s options can do a lot more than that. All of them have universal search for finding exactly the show or movie you’re looking for — no matter which service it’s on. They each offer voice controls to make your evening couch time more convenient. And video quality is better than ever, with plenty of 4K HDR content to get the most out of any new TV you buy.
Each product has its own unique features that the others lack. The Apple TV 4K has AirPlay and, if you’re an iPhone user, is already hooked into your personal media — movies, music, photos — out of the box. Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K brings with it the full powers of Alexa.
But the chief function of these devices is to provide a wide selection of apps, an intuitive user experience, and great-looking video. Thankfully, checking off all three of those boxes costs far less than $100 in 2018. In fact, you’ll only have to spend half.
The best for most: Roku Premiere Plus / Roku Premiere
Roku’s $50 Premiere Plus is a tiny little box that delivers a huge value. It offers the most apps of any TV gadget, does both 4K and HDR, and remains the easiest system to use of the popular options.
Compared against Amazon’s offerings, Roku’s app catalog is stronger; you get a proper YouTube app and also Walmart’s Vudu service, which is a huge source of 4K HDR movies. And Amazon can be heavy-handed with promoting its own original content on the Fire TV. Beyond advertising its free Roku Channel, Roku doesn’t have an agenda to push. When you’re searching for stuff, all third-party apps are on a level playing field. Roku will always favor whatever service will let you watch content for free as part of a subscription you’re always paying for, which is the way it should be.
The Premiere Plus is a fast performer in general use, and you’ll rarely encounter lag or any hiccups when navigating menus or browsing apps. Its Wi-Fi only supports 2.4GHz networks, so if your in-home setup relies on 5Ghz, the $60 Roku Streaming Stick Plus will be a better option. The Premiere Plus is sold exclusively at Walmart and includes a voice remote that you can use without pointing directly at the TV. If you’re not near a Walmart and don’t want to order online, other retailers offer the $40 Roku Premiere, which is the exact same core product, but comes with a non-voice IR remote. The Roku lacks Dolby Vision, but HDR10 content still looks wonderful on the big screen.
The premium experience: Apple TV 4K
At $179, the Apple TV 4K is on a completely different pricing tier than Roku and Amazon. But if you’re willing to spend that much, in return you’ll get the most polished experience of any set-top box on the market.
The Apple TV 4K does everything; it supports 4K, Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10. It’s the box we recommend if you want to take full advantage of all the features in a high-end TV. Apple’s iTunes store has an enormous vault of content that can showcase those features. The menus feel more modern and stylish than those on the Roku, and Siri is a little better at voice search than Roku’s system, too. App selection is equally as strong. The one asterisk is that YouTube won’t stream in 4K on the Apple TV because Apple doesn’t support Google’s preferred video codec.
Apple’s device is very powerful and lighting fast in day-to-day use. If you’ve gone in on the company’s HomeKit smart home ecosystem, the Apple TV acts as a hub and allows you to control those gadgets remotely when away from the house.
But many people will find the Apple TV 4K’s price hard to swallow. It costs $120 more than the Roku, and the two are very similar when it comes to a streamer’s main purpose: getting you to the content you want fast. Both devices deliver terrific video quality.
Personally, there’s another reason I’d consider opting for the Apple TV 4K over its competitors: privacy. Apple is far less invasive about tracking your streaming habits. And it anonymizes the data it does collect. Roku, on the other hand, keeps track of a whole lot and knows what you’re watching. (See section 3.) And it constantly phones home with that information. If that makes you feel uneasy, there’s something to be said for paying the extra $100.
The Roku Premiere and the Apple TV 4K are the best options for a wide range of people. But depending on other factors, you might find Amazon’s Fire TV Cube or Stick 4K more compelling; Alexa is a pretty handy living room assistant. If you’re a serious cord cutter and tinkerer, there’s always the beloved Nvidia Shield. And the tried and true Chromecast is still an okay, super affordable choice if you’ve resisted the move to 4K and still have no near-future plans to do so. (The Chromecast Ultra doesn’t fare so well against Roku and Amazon.) But I think most folks will find themselves very happy with the Roku — especially for the price.
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