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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. BEST OVERALL: 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. 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. Speaking of, you can insert a flash drive into the Roku Ultra to play high resolution music and videos without an internet connection.
What makes the Roku Ultra stand out is its clean interface and easy-to-use remote. These features aren’t exclusive to Roku’s high-end media streamer, but it makes the Ultra really simple to use. Tech can be difficult to understand if you’re not used to it, but Roku has made a powerful media streamer that’s powerful enough for pros, but simple enough for a novice.
2. BEST 4K STREAMING STICK: 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.
3. MOST VERSATILE: Nvidia Shield Pro
Nvidia is best known for its high-end graphics cards, but you shouldn’t discount its line of media streamers.
The Nvidia Shield Pro is a 4K media streamer that runs Android TV, a version of Google’s dominant mobile operating system designed to run on your television. The Shield Pro’s interface looks clean, and it’s pretty easy to navigate if you take a few minutes to poke around. Its triangle-shaped remote isn’t the most comfortable one I’ve used, but its curved edges make it easy to hold.
You can navigate around the interface by pushing buttons, or speaking into the Shield Pro’s voice remote, which is pretty responsive. Nvidia’s media streamer supports Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision, and runs on a custom-made Tegra X1+ processor. The Shield Pro has an Ethernet port an two USB 3.0 ports, so Nvidia is encouraging you to use its streamer in place of a traditional home theater PC.
The Nvidia Shield Pro’s greatest strength is that Android OS is a very open platform. You can use this device to play games from your Steam library, or backups of your older console games via emulation. These features make the Nvidia Shield Pro far more powerful than a traditional media streamer.
If you want a device that brings you to Netflix in the push of a button, but is capable of a lot more PC-like functionality, the Nvidia Shield Pro is the right choice.
4. BEST FOR FAMILIES: 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.
This full-sized media streamer supports both Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Atmos, and gives you the option to connect to the internet over Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable. Apple has recently announced that you can pair the Apple TV 4K with a pair of HomePod speakers for simulated 5.1, 7.1, and Dolby Atmos surround sound audio.
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.
The Apple TV 4K can be configured with multiple user accounts, which lets different members of your family access their own content from their streaming services of choice. The option to switch between different accounts instead of sharing one and messing up your recommendations makes the Apple TV 4K a great choice for families.
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.