The world of media devices for 4K TVs is pretty nebulous and diverse, as you’ll soon see in the sections below. It can mean a wide range of different platforms, physical designs, device capabilities and associated technologies. To slightly complicate things even more, a lot of what these platforms do imitates similar or even identical services and abilities inside your 4K TV itself. It’s no wonder that the whole thing can get confusing, and even more so if you factor in all sorts of external issues for ideal media device usability. These include Internet connectivity, cable considerations and TV/device compatibility issues.
Luckily, the following guide covers all of the above in a sequential order that tries to clear things up as much as possible, starting with our best picks of todays media devices themselves, covering the different types of platforms that exist and then moving on to all of the connectivity and technical issues you need to keep in mind in our FAQ section. Some of the following information is going to be really basic to many readers of 4K.com but please bear with us since we’re trying to offer solid info for both expert home theater buffs and complete beginners to the world of 4K home entertainment options. Also, as always, please feel free to leave your questions, doubts, and constructive critical observations in the comments section below. We try to answer as many of these as we can where necessary.
Our Top Picks for Streaming and Gaming Devices
Now, before we get down to our guide, let’s start with the device listings themselves. Here are our top picks and brief descriptions of each. We really suggest you read the rest of the guide following this ranking for a much better idea of which product is right for you.
Streaming Set-top Boxes & Sticks
1. Roku Streaming Stick Plus
The Roku Streaming Stick+ is probably the single best value proposition out there right now in terms of price, quality, sheer quantity of streaming media options and user-friendliness. It can be installed on pretty much any smart TV (4K or HD) in literally seconds and offers you instant access to the gigantic Roku TV smart OS, with thousands of apps, hundreds of thousands of content selections and a really, really user-friendly smart interface. We can’t recommend it enough. Check out its current price and availability below.
Apple’s new and finally updated Apple TV 4K set-top box is an absolute killer in terms of high technology, great content access and superb support for multiple HDR formats. It’s the only set-top box on the market at the time of this writing with Dolby Vision HDR support and it’s the only device there is which offers access to iTunes growing and very nicely priced library of 4K HDR movies and content. It’s only downside? It’s definitely on the expensive side at just under $200.
Roku’s Ultra 4K set-top box is not only just as loaded with all the same smart functionality and app options as the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, it also offers a much more robust connectivity array built into its body, making it an ideal device for getting access to Roku’s superb smart TV platform and its huger list of ultra HD HDR content options in a home with multiple TVs. Unlike Roku’s streaming stick 4K option, the Ultra delivers multiple connectivity ports for content from external devices and also lets you share content across multiple TVs at the same time. It’s very nearly as robust as Apple TV 4K but at a much more reasonable price.
Amazon has finally unveiled its newest and best streaming ultra HD content platform, the Amazon Fire TV 4K. Unlike its 2015 predecessor, the new model offers full 4K UHD resolution at 60Hz and comes with HDR compatibility along with Dolby Atmos sound support (if you’ve got the audio system to cover it). Best of all, it’s extremely unobtrusive and very affordable as well. Content options in the Amazon Fire TV platform aren’t quite as robust as those of Roku TV but they’re still huge and the Alexa voice command system is extremely responsive. This is a great streaming option for owners of 4K TVs whose smart platforms don’t leave them too happy.
Google’s Chromecast Ultra uses Android TV for its interface and offers most of the same essential content options as Amazon Fire TV. However, while Amazon lets you easily access Google Play Movies from its streamer, Google doesn’t quite reciprocate with access to Amazon Prime Instant Video (a major source of 4K content that every smart platform should have access to in our view). This is why we’ve ranked this little streamer lowest. In all other regards, Chromecast Ultra is fantastic, with HDR support and full 4K@60Hz content playback.
1. Microsoft Xbox One X
The mother of all gaming consoles. Many gamers might prefer PlayStation’s selection of game titles but no console comes close to the Xbox One X in sheer power and true 4K HDR gaming support. The Xbox One X may be on the expensive side but it offers the best support we’ve seen for one truly stunning gameplay experience on almost any TV and especially on 4K HDR models. It also of course offers superb 4K HDR Blu-ray playback, key streaming media apps and for U.S customers, access to 4K UHD movies in Microsoft’s own online store.
Sony’s PS4 Pro is a fantastic 4K-capable console for both high-speed HDR gaming in upscaled 4K, native HD and to a much lesser extent, native 4K resolution. It also lacks a 4K Blu-ray player (unlike both new Xbox consoles). However, it does offer streaming media options in native ultra HD with high dynamic range and its potential selection of games is excellent. Other coold features include great storeage options and a convenient platform for playback of external device content in ultra HD or 1080p resolution. The PS4 Pro is also a lot cheaper than the Xbox One X.
Xbox One S came out last year and is no true 4K gaming console, but it does support superb 4K ultra HD content options and comes with a ultra HD Blue-ray player with HDR support and Dolby Atmos audio as well. As a gaming platform it’s also great for upscaled UHD gaming and gaming in high dynamic range of all existing and upcoming Xbox games. We also love this console due to its great price and large internal storage capacity (up to 2TB).
Nvidia’s Shield uses the very robust Android TV smart platform, offering access to a huge selection of streaming media apps that make this gaming device have a lot more in common with streaming media players than a game console. However, it also is a superb streaming games platform with access to a some excellent options from Nvidia’s GeForce NOW cloud service.
4K UHD Blu-ray players
1. Xbox One X ans Xbox One S
We’ve already covered both above but the Xbox One X and One S console’s deserve first place ranking here due to their high quality, Dolby Atmos support, full native 4K and HDR Blu-ray playback options and all of the other things that make them so robust. Overall, we consider both and the Xbox One S in particular to be some of the best 4K Blu-ray options on sale today because of all they offer.
2. Samsung UBD K8500
Samsung’s UBD K8500 4K Blu-ray player is not only nicely priced at less than $200, It can play back 4K Blu-ray discs with solid HDR support. The player also offers quick loading times and has plenty of streaming apps available at launch.
The Sony UBP-X800 4K Blu-ray player comes perfect for your mid-range Sony 4K HDR TVs. It offers up some superb design connectivity, a solid a “premium” vibe and offers fantastic 4K HDR video quality. It’s also amazingly quick at loading its smart interface and apps menu for streaming content options. There’s even a Bluetooth feature. Price-wise, it’s wonderfully cheap at less than $150.
The Oppo-203 is absolutely a pro home entertainment buff’s 4K Blu-ray player. It’s insane price made us rank it low on this list but this model offers the best overall performance of the bunch with its support for fantastic multi-format HDR (including Dolby Vision) and support for nearly any fancy audio format you can throw at your home sound system. If you want the best for a truly premium 4K home theater system, the Oppo-203 is your expensive but excellent choice.
What are Streaming Media & Gaming Devices?
As we said above, the world of streaming media devices is really quite nebulous. Many different models, design types and device types exist and some of them have different extra functions which take them beyond simple access to streaming internet content of both the 4K and HD variety. We’re going to cover all of the different variations in detail right below but for a quick breakdown of what’s available, you can essentially divide today’s media devices into pure streaming platforms, gaming devices with streaming capability, 4K UHD Blu-ray players, DVRs and finally, smart TVs themselves in a way.
Our focus here is on 4K-capable streaming media devices for 4K HDR TVs, but all of the following can just as easily be used with non-4K TVs that have at least one HDMI connection port. There are also HD-only options for some of the following and we’ll mention them where necessary.
Why Buy a Streaming Device?
Many readers might ask the single most obvious and basic question here: Why buy a streaming/gaming device in the first place? Well, not everyone needs these gadgets and the answer can vary a bit but there are some excellent reasons for getting your hands on one of them.
For starters, not all TV smart platforms are created equal. Some of them aren’t so user friendly and others simply lack certain crucial streaming media apps that you might be interested in. The simplest and cheapest way to get around this problem is by plugging in an external device and overlaying what your TV has with a whole new smart platform and apps. For example, some 4K TV owners might be major fans of Sony televisions and their generally awesome picture quality, but they don’t really like the Android TV smart platform inside all of these televisions. Instead, they’ve heard really good things about Roku TV and decide to get a Roku Streaming Stick+ (more on these below). Suddenly, problem solved. You get the awesome display specs of your Sony TV combined with the much more user-friendly and content-loaded features of the Roku TV smart system.
A second major and rather obvious reason applies to gaming devices with smart functionality. Today’s Xbox One X, Xbox One S, Sony PS4 Pro, Nvidia Shield and other gaming platforms offer streaming media apps alongside their main features, which are console gaming capacity for your 4K TV. Thus, regardless of what kind of 4K HDR or regular TV you own, you might want to give an Xbox One X a spin and once its already running on your television, you can also just access some of your favorite content apps from right inside the console’s interface instead of going back to your 4K TV smart interface. It’s a way of keeping things simple for content while getting all the game access that one of these devices offers.
Streaming Media Apps
All of the streaming device son these pages have their own different smart interfaces and in some cases their own additional capabilities (the Xbox One X is in most ways very different from say, the Amazon Fire TV 4K dongle). However, as far as their streaming options go, almost all will include a certain number of core apps that are included across the board. Some of the most common options are Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Hulu, Vudu, HBO GO, YouTube and depending on streaming device, many other more esoteric apps. We cover all of these in detail and weigh their 4K content benefits in our “4K & HDR Movies” page, so we really recommend you give it a look for heavier details.
However, at a basic level, the apps mentioned above and many others offer a large and growing selection of 4K ultra HD movies, documentaries, TV shows and original series and other types of ultra HD programming which all get streamed via each device to your 4K TV through your home internet connection (more on this as well further down). The devices on this page also offer audio streaming media apps and streamed games in some cases. Some of the more versatile devices listed here such as the game consoles and 4K Blu-ray players also come with their own particular highly specialized gaming and hard disc media support options that further enhance their entertainment value.
Pure Streaming Devices
Simplest, cheapest and easiest to get started on are the pure streaming media devices on this page. These gadgets aren’t game platforms, they don’t come with 4K Blu-ray playback and they don’t include any special DVR features (though they do connect to your TV’s cable and antenna content sources in some cases). Streaming media players come in two basic formats, either as set-top boxes or as much more compact sticks and dongles. Both usually offer similar digital media and smart TV functionality but there are some differences between their hardware specs.
Stick streamers are the cheapest and simplest devices for setting up an external streaming media platform on your 4K TV. Today, more of them than ever offer full 4K UHD content support with HDR combined and let you access all of the same apps, smart platform features and media options as their larger set-top box cousins. They’re also dirt simple to install. Basically, you can just plug them right into your TV via HDMI, hook them up to a power source and you’re good to go on everything their apps have to offer. Furthermore, these little devices, such as the 2017 Amazon Fire TV 4K dongle, the Google Chromecast Ultra or the Roku Streaming Stick Plus, all cost much less than most 4K set-top boxes. None of the latest stick-type streamers is retailing for more than $70 right now and many non-4K models sell for as little as $30 to $50. Even the 4K models can be found on discounts for below $70 under certain deal conditions.
On the other hand, these streaming devices lack additional HDMI and USB connectivity options and they don’t offer any tuners for also transferring content to additional displays inside the same home. If you have just one TV to use anyhow, this shouldn’t be a problem though.
Set-Top Box Streamers
First among the pure streaming devices are the set-top boxes. These come with all kinds of smart TV platforms (depending on specific brand) and include the same and often many more apps than most name brand smart TV platforms. The cool thing about set-top boxes is that while offering the same apps and interfaces as the stick devices covered above, they also come with much more robust connectivity specs for connecting external devices. These include multiple HDMI ports, USB ports for content viewing via other external devices and eve multiple tuners for delivering their content to other TVs in a home without the need for a direct cable connection. On the other hand, set-top boxes tend to be more expensive, with some cheaper 4K-capable models selling for less than $100 but with others going for nearly $200, such as the Apple TV 4K. Set-top streaming media boxes also often have internal storage capacity (aside from the fact that you can connect external storage space to them) and can be used to download movies from certain apps that are built into them. Apple TV 4K lets you download iTunes titles for example and other set-top boxes let you download movie purchases from apps like Amazon Prime, letting you watch these titles even if your internet connection goes down.
The next broad category of streaming media devices are the multipurpose platforms. These include DVRs, gaming platforms like Xbox or PlayStation and even Blu-ray players with both streaming and some other type of content delivery system. These tend to be pricier than pure streaming devices but they also offer completely different extra options. Here’s a breakdown.
After streaming media boxes and sticks, probably the most versatile and entertainment-friendly of all the devices are the gaming platforms. These offer pretty large selections of apps and always include some of the major streaming content apps like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu etc while also offering some serious gaming chops. They’re also usually the priciest smart devices for your TV that you can buy. Full gaming platforms like the cutting-edge Xbox One X sell for over $400 and slightly older full gaming devices like the Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 Pro also sell for prices ranging from a little over $200 to nearly $400.
One major benefit of game consoles with streaming capability is that they offer you what’s basically the best of both worlds. On the one hand they come with powerful processors for handling all kinds of video graphics and let you go nuts with gaming in HD at the least and in some cases in 4K HDR as well. Then on the other hand they offer a robust and rounded out streaming entertainment platform with access at least to the major content apps you’ll find in streaming set-top boxes. Some consoles like the Xbox One S and Xbox One X also double as 4K HDR Blu-ray players, which makes them into a kickass three-in-one combo.
4K Blu-ray Players
Aside from the 4K blu-ray players inside the gaming consoles above, there are also plenty of pure 4K Blu-ray players on the market right now, from brands like Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, LG and other more expensive and specialized brands. They all offer full 4K HDR Blu-ray playback, HDR support at least for HDR10 and in some cases even offer Dolby Vision support as well. Pricier than regular HD Blu-ray players, these devices usually cost between $150 and $400 (the latter price for the more pro models with multiple HDR format and multi-format audio support). It goes almost without saying that these new 4K Blu-ray players also support playback of older Blu-ray formats, as well as DVDs and CDs as well. They also usually come with a basic smart interface with integrated Netflix, Amazon Prime and a few other major streaming content apps. However, don’t expect something on the level of Roku TV in terms of apps access. The main reason for buying a 4K Blu-ray player is to play 4K Blu-rays, not so much for its smart apps features.
We should also note a fairly obvious point here: If you already own an Xbox One X or Xbox One S console, there’s really no point in buying a separate 4K Blu-ray device since both consoles support the format already (albeit without support for the in any case fairly uncommon Dolby Vision HDR format).
Finally, we come down to DVRs. These are slightly more complicated devices and they’re definitely not just plug-and-play in the way that normal set-top boxes, streaming sticks and gaming consoles are. Whereas with a streaming set-top box or stick, or a game console, you can simply go out, buy a unit, hook it up and get started with accessing and subscribing to your favorite apps however you like, Getting a DVR usually requires buying a subscription with some provider like TiVo, Dish and Comcast with its Xfinity X1 box. These plans often come as long terms cable subscription contracts in which the DVR itself needs to be installed by a certified technician. DVRs with cable packages attached do however also usually support numerous online media apps as well as part of their package. More interestingly still, the content of these apps will in many cases be searchably listed right alongside the DVR’s own cable and satellite entertainment options.
One major downside to the DVR option is all of the associated cost if you’re not interested in the DVR’s cable aspects. In that case you might as well just go for a simple streaming media device. On the other hand, DVRs from cable providers who offer 4K UHD entertainment often include highly exclusive satellite or VOD delivery of exclusive 4K sportscasts, pro fights and other unique offerings, making them worth their price and monthly cost.
Things to Consider (FAQ, Sort of)
Now that we’ve covered all the major different external streaming media and content device options you have in today’s market, let’s take a quick look at some other key things you need to consider when you buy a streaming media box, DVR, game console or Blu-ray player. These apply particularly if you’re going for a 4K UHD option because you specifically want to enjoy streamed ultra HD content.
What About 4K TV Smart Platforms?
A good question to ask, since if we’re buying any of the above, we probably also have 4K TVs themselves. Well, as we mentioned above, all of today’s newer 4K UHD TVs offer up a hefty selection of assorted HD, 4K, HDR and audio content apps of all kinds. Many TVs even offer the same smart platforms as some streaming media boxes. Examples of this include 4K UHD televisions from different brands with Roku TV built into them or Sony 4K TVs with the same Android TV platform that you’d find in the Nvidia Shield gaming set-top box.
Since all of the above devices require you to own a 4K TV if you want to enjoy them for their ultra HD content options, you presumably own a 4K TV if you’re reading this. Thus, the basic point we want to impart here is this: don’t buy a streaming device if your TV already offers the same smart platform as the device. Instead, go for something different which offers new content options that the television doesn’t.
What About Internet Speed and Connectivity?
Streaming 4K ultra HD video and games means using some pretty heavy bandwidth horsepower. At a minimum, most providers of this content (the apps in the above devices and others) recommend 20Mbps of both Ethernet and WiFi speed. We’d suggest going for at LEAST 25Mbps of minimal baseline connectivity (the lowest download speed to which your modem dips), and if you’re using a router, go for a wireless-N router model or better. This will guarantee smooth, buffer-free ultra HD HDR video that doesn’t drop into a lower resolution or lose its HDR. Basically, the faster above 25Mbps your broadband connection is, the better and anything lower than 20Mbps simply won’t be reliable enough.
Additionally, HDMI connectivity is an issue to keep in mind. 4K video at a smooth 60FPS, or 60Hz, which will match the native refresh rate of any modern 4K TV and HDR both require HDMI 2.0 or newer connectivity ports in both your 4K TV and the streaming device you use. Other features all of these devices will need include HDCP 2.2 (for access to copy-protected 4K video and HEVC and VP9 (For YouTube 4K content in particular) 4K video compression decoding codecs. Luckily, every single major streaming media, gaming console, 4K Blu-ray player and other device we mention above has all of these core features and HDMI 2.0 or better ports. Most new 4K TVs from 2014 onwards and all 4K TVs from 2015 onwards do as well.
However, if you’re using external devices or passing connections from your media devices through other intermediate devices for audio or whatnot, you’ll need to make sure that they too come with the same HDMI, HDCP and HEVC specs, or the native 4K signal will be broken up and unplayable.
What About My Location?
This is another major point to keep in mind. Quite simply, not all content is available everywhere even if the apps for it are in your media device. So if you’ve bought yourself an incredible new Roku TV Streaming Stick+ with 4K capability and 4K content apps but live in a country where, say, Amazon Prime Instant Video doesn’t quite yet offer 4K movies, well, you’re out of luck. At least until this gets fixed by Amazon/local foreign content access regulations/hungry studio lawyers, no Amazon 4K movies for you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy any particular 4K media device since content availability tends to change and usually expand, but it does mean taking a bit to decide if the actual content access your region offers makes buying a certain media device worth the money, especially if your TV itself already offers everything that’s available where you live.
This isn’t nearly as important a point as connectivity and content availability issues we mentioned above but it’s worth mentioning. Generally, today’s streaming media, game console and other devices are optimized to work on just about any 4K TV with the essentials of modern connectivity. However, some little quirks should be kept in mind. One example is HDR support. If you’re getting a set-top box with Dolby Vision support, you should make sure you also own a 4K TV with Dolby Vision HDR display support. Apple TV 4K is an example of such a set-top box and it’s pretty expensive, with the Dolby Vision being one of its major price factors. Thus if your TV only supports HDR10, you might want to save some money and just go for a cheaper set-top streamer or stick that supports almost all of the same content options.
Besides the above, don’t go for a device that has the exact same smart TV platform as your brand of 4K TV. It’s a waste of money. You’ll get the same content experience and access either way. Instead, choose a device from another brand. Additionally, if you’re big on Dolby Atmos sound and have the TV and sound system built to handle it, we’d suggest a device that also supports Dolby Atmos. The Xbox One X does. So does Amazon Fire TV, check if the device you’d like does as well. Finally, for devices like 4K Blu-ray players, made by the same brands that make 4K HDR TVs, the most compatible models will probably come from the same brand as your 4K TV. Thus, if you have a Sony X900E or LG C7 OLED 4K HDR TV, A Sony Blu-ray player or LG model for each respective model will probably be your best option.
Do I Also Need a Cable Subscription?
One particularly awesome value of streaming media apps in the devices listed here is the simple fact that they let you “cord cut” by eliminating your monthly cable package if you like and still getting some pretty damn decent entertainment in the form of the latest movies, live sportscasts, music, original series shows and other types of content. Netflix alone offers streaming packages that at a maximum cost about $13.99 per month while offering unlimited viewing of literally hundreds of different shows, documentaries and movies on up to four different screens at the same time from the same account.
Thus, this is a major personal choice question with some practical issues to it as well. For starters, if you go for a DVR for your streaming media, it’s very often guaranteed to come as part of an obligatory cable/satellite broadcast subscription package, so asking if you need one is a moot point if you’ve already paid. If however you’re buying yourself a streaming media stick or set-top box, well, no, you don’t need any sort of TV broadcast subscription at all. Today’s streamers and set-top boxes come so loaded with so many different web content apps and selections that they literally provide thousands of hours of entertainment.
Thus unless there’s some specific show, sports channel, sportscast or other type of entertainment you can only get via cable and satellite broadcasts, you’ll almost certainly be able to keep your whole family entertained with nothing more than a Roku Streaming Stick Plus or Google Chromecast or Apple TV 4K without nailing yourself to any multi-year cable or satellite service. Again though, this is a decision you need to make based on your budget and content preferences.
More is of course maybe better for entertainment options but streaming media does offer plenty all by itself, even if your TV is dead to anything but this kind of content.
Story by 4k.com