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Video stores have closed, DVD sales have dropped, and more people than ever have stopped paying for cable (if they ever did at all). If you want easy access to the latest movies and TV shows, or to re-watch the classics, you’re going to need a media streamer.
This little device connects to your TV’s HDMI port, and allows you to access music, movies and TV shows a la carte from services like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify over the internet (If you want our recommendations on the best streaming services, we have you covered here).
Media streamers used to be a gadget used exclusively by the tech savvy, but they’ve become the modern equivalent of the VCR. There are many options available, but we wrote this guide to help you figure out which one will fit best in your life.
What You Need to Know Before Buying a 4K Media Streamer
There are many factors to consider when choosing the right 4k media streamer for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Resolution: Modern media streamers are available in two maximum resolutions: 1080P (HD) and 4K (Ultra HD). All of the ones in this guide can play 4K video at 60fps (frames per second). We focused on 4K media streamers for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, a 4K media streamer will still work perfectly fine with your 1080P HDTV. Secondly, when you get your next TV, you can use any of the media streamers on this list to get the highest image quality possible instead of having to make an additional upgrade.
HDR support: High Dynamic Range (typically shortened to HDR) is a relatively new video technology that allows TVs to display colors and shadows that are much more life-like. We’ve chosen media streamers that can output HDR video, so you get the best possible viewing experience.
Dolby Atmos support: Most people associate a home theater with 5.1 surround sound, but Dolby has recently developed a new audio technology called Atmos, which aims to take this concept to a higher level. Atmos-enabled stereo systems use multiple speakers positioned in different parts of your room to simulate audio coming from above and below you, rather than just around you. Dolby Atmos-enabled stereo systems are still very high-end, and most content doesn’t have audio mixed to take advantage of them, but we considered media streamers with this feature just in case.
Style: Media streamers come in two basic styles: media streaming sticks, and full-sized media streamers. Media streaming sticks are smaller, can be powered by the USB-port on your television, and get plugged directly into your TV via a built-in HDMI plug. Full sized media streamers are larger, hockey puck-sized devices that need to be connected to your TV via an HDMI cable, and that require power from an outlet. Both have their pros and cons, and are valid options depending on your needs.
Smart home capabilities: Some media streamers in this guide are made by tech companies that also control smart home platforms, which allow them to act as controllers for smart home accessories.
Streaming app compatibility: You’re getting a media streamer to watch TV shows and movies, so we made sure every one in this guide allows you to stream content from Netflix, Hulu, Prime Video, and Disney+. These streamers also allow you access content from hundreds of other services (including ones that offer live TV), but they all cover the basics.
1. Fire TV Stick 4K
Amazon’s latest-generation Fire TV Stick 4K is a good all-around choice for people who want a 4K media streamer without a lot of fuss.
It gets connected directly into your TV’s HDMI port, and is powered via a MicroUSB cable. Amazon includes a mini power adapter in the box, but most TVs have a USB port that outputs enough energy to power it.
As its name suggests, this version of the Fire TV Stick has a maximum resolution of 4K, plus support for Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos. It has 8GB of storage, which is enough space to hold streaming apps and some videos, but not very many. If you want a media streamer that lets you easily take downloaded media from place to place, this isn’t it.
The Fire TV Stick 4K comes with a voice-enabled remote, which allows you to ask Alexa, Amazon’s smart assistant, in a few interesting ways.
You can ask Alexa to find TV shows or movies for you rather than typing their names out on a keypad, or for answers to questions like “what’s the weather like right now?” You can even use the Fire TV Stick 4K to control Alexa-compatible smart home accessories.
Pros: Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support, Amazon Alexa support.
Cons: Low amount of internal storage.
2. Roku Ultra
Roku has made a name for itself in a crowded space by making media streamers with a lot of flexibility.
The Roku Ultra is a full-sized media streamer, which means it sits on top of your TV stand, connects to your TV via HDMI, and needs to be plugged into an outlet for power. This larger size means it’s not quite as portable as a media streaming stick like the Fire TV Stick 4K, but it’s not huge.
This media streamer has a maximum resolution of 4K, and supports HDR and Dolby Atmos. One thing to note: The Roku Ultra supports the HDR-10 standard, which isn’t as effective at color reproduction as Dolby Vision HDR.
The Ultra’s larger size allowed Roku to design it with features you won’t find in a media streaming stick. It has an Ethernet port, so you can connect it directly into a cable modem or router. Wired internet connections are much faster and more stable than WiFi connections, which is important when you’re streaming large, 4K media files.
This streamer is also the only one on this list to support external storage upgrades. You can insert a flash drive or MicroSD card into the Roku Ultra to play music and videos without an internet connection. This makes the Roku Ultra a great choice for people who want to take a media streamer on a trip where internet won’t be that great.
Pros: Supports external storage, has an Ethernet port for faster streaming.
Cons: Low internal storage. Only supports HDR10, not Dolby Vision.
3. Google Chromecast Ultra
Google took a different approach when it designed its Chromecast Ultra media streamer. Rather than building a streamer with a bunch of built-in apps, it relies on the power of your smartphone, tablet, or computer to do the heavy lifting.
Here’s how it works: You connect the Chromecast to your TV via a built-in HDMI cable, and power it by plugging a MicroUSB cable into the USB port on your TV, or a power adapter. Once it’s connected, you set it up through Google’s Home app (available on iOS and Android).
Most major streaming apps (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Spotify, Prime Video) have Chromecast support built into them, so you can stream your content in a couple of taps. The Chromecast Ultra can display 4K video, supports Dolby Vision HDR, but does not support Dolby Atmos audio.
What makes the Chromecast Ultra stand out is that you can control the entire video and audio streaming experience on your phone. There’s no additional remote, or fear that Amazon or Spotify is going to stop updating their app on your media streamer of choice.
If you like that type of simplicity, the Chromecast Ultra is a really good choice. I’ve used a Chromecast for several years, and it’s become my streamer of choice. But, it does require a certain level of comfort with smartphones, tablets, or computers, which may make it harder to use if you’re not used to using other gadgets.
Pros: Simple setup, lets you stream from a computer.
Cons: No Dolby Atmos Support, can be slightly daunting for less tech savvy people.
4. Apple TV 4K
Apple got into the media streaming game over a decade ago, and its latest Apple TV 4K can do a lot more than play music and videos.
It can output video at 4K, and supports both Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Atmos. Like the Roku Ultra, the Apple TV 4K is a full-sized media streamer that needs to be connected to a TV over an HDMI cable, and an outlet for power. It also has an Ethernet port, which allows you to connect it to a cable modem or WiFi router for a faster, stronger internet connection.
The Apple TV 4K doesn’t have a MicroSD card slot or USB port, so you can’t expand its storage externally, but it does have 32GB of internal storage. That’s more storage than is available in any other media streamer in this guide, but it’s necessary because the Apple TV 4K is also a mini game console.
Some games developed for iOS have been ported over to the Apple TV, and you can play them via the Apple TV 4K’s remote, or a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One controller. The Apple TV has become a way more prominent game console recently because of Apple Arcade, a gaming subscription service that allows you to play a large library of premium games on your iOS device, Mac, or Apple TV for $5 a month.
Beyond being a game console and media streamer, the Apple TV 4K can also be used as a smart-home hub. Its remote has a microphone built into it, and you can ask Siri to find the media you’re looking for, or control HomeKit-enabled smart-home accessories.
Finally, the Apple TV 4K is the only media streamer that allows you to play content you’ve purchased from the iTunes store, so if you’ve built up a large library of TV shows and movies using that service, this is your best bet.
Pros: Can play movies bought through the iTunes store, is a mini game console.
Cons: Non-upgradable storage.