Story by Brendan Hesse, via our partner site, Digital Trends /
So you’ve got the whole setup: a kickin’ sound system, the perfect furniture arrangement, and a new 4K HDR TV to tie it all together. Now it’s time to put it to work.
While 4K UHD Blu-ray provides the most reliable way to watch 4K Ultra HD video, streaming services like Netflix or Vudu are a quicker, easier, and more affordable way to get the latest content onto your television. Your new smart TV probably sports some of the apps you need to watch built right in, but a streaming set-top box offers some distinct advantages. The only question is which is the best?
To take out the guesswork, we’ve put together this guide detailing everything from content availability and performance to gaming and more, putting the Roku Ultra, Amazon’s Fire TV, Nvidia’s Shield, and Google’s Chromecast Ultra in an all-out cage match.
At the level of 4K streaming boxes, video quality between devices becomes a bit of a wash. 4K Ultra HD video is the crispest, clearest, and highest-quality picture currently available so resolution should be even on each system.
Looking a bit closer, however, not all of these devices are totally equal. The Roku Ultra, Nvidia Shield, and Chromecast Ultra all stream up to 4K 60fps, and are HDR compatible. While the Fire TV is technically capable of 4K, it doesn’t support HDR, and its framerate is capped at 30fps. The absence of HDR on the Amazon Fire TV could be an issue if you have an HDR-capable TV and want the very best picture quality. That said, don’t be too put off by the 30fps limitation. Most 4K Ultra HD content delivered at 24fps (for most movies) or 30fps (for TV shows) so the biggest exception will be YouTube videos. In addition, the Chromecast Ultra offers support for the two most prominent HDR standards in HDR10 and Dolby Vision, making it the most versatile, while the Roku and Nvidia streamers only support HDR10. As such, the Chromecast Ultra takes this category by a nose.
Winner: Chromecast Ultra
We’re big fans Roku’s interface. Roku parses out 4K content for viewers better than its competitors by offering a 4K filter for searches, as well as a 4K spotlight channel highlighting 4K and HDR content. Another highly convenient feature is Roku’s “My Feed” column, which allows users to follow movies, TV shows, directors, and actors, and receives constant updates to keep your searches personalized.
The other streamers are a bit more specialized. Amazon Prime members will feel at home with the Fire TV as content is curated best for Prime offerings. Being an Android device, the Shield also tends to prioritize Google offerings, so Google Play fans will be happy with the Shield. As another Google product, the Ultra’s cross-app search is handled via the Google Home app on your mobile device, but most of the time you’ll be navigating from a mobile streaming app instead of a dedicated Chromecast interface, so you’re at the mercy of each app. A point in the Ultra’s favor is that mobile-based apps make it easy to sign in, with little to no extra authentication steps.
Ultimately, the Roku Ultra’s platform-agnostic approach and user-friendly search makes its interface our favorite.
Winner: Roku Ultra
Voice Search and Control
All four devices offer some level of voice interaction, but they are each distinctly different.
The Fire TV is our favorite when it comes to voice searches, thanks in part to Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa, which offers a ton of interaction beyond just controlling and finding content. You’ll need to be direct and specific with your search terms, but that’s a fair ask in return for the number of things Alexa is capable of, including weather reports, sports scores, searching Wikipedia, and a whole lot more.
The Shield features both voice search and control commands via Google Voice, but its voice commands are limited compared to the Fire TV. There’s little else to do beyond opening games and playing content with a phrase, or controlling streaming playback, and the number of supported apps is pretty limited. Similarly, the Chromecast Ultra uses Google voice commands for search, done through the Google Home app. Any other voice commands are dependent on which app(s) you use while casting, however, and search is less accurate than you might expect. The Roku Ultra has basic voice search across multiple apps, but features no voice control commands for playback. As such, the Fire TV takes the win.
Winner: Fire TV
When it comes to a comprehensive remote that will meet your needs and then some, the Roku’s remote is your best option. It’s got a mic for voice search, a headphone jack for personal listening, and dedicated buttons for services like Amazon Prime and Netflix. What’s more, Bluetooth connection means it’s point-anywhere as opposed to line-of-sight. Finally, there’s a speaker on the remote that will sound when you press a button on the Roku Ultra box; no more lost remote.
We’re confident that the Roku’s remote is the best, but let’s go over the others, too.
The Chromecast Ultra doesn’t actually have a remote per se, as the device is controlled via tablet or smartphone. So, in a sense, the Chromecast Ultra has the most feature-rich remote of them all, since your phone can do thousands of things a remote can’t. For our purposes however, we’re going to say that doesn’t quite count — what if you need to use your phone, for instance? Also, lock screens can make pausing and rewinding annoying. The Fire TV’s remote is simple, featuring a mic for voice search, navigation controls, and playback buttons, but that’s it. No headphone jack, app buttons, or remote finder features like the Roku has. The Nvidia Shield includes both a gaming controller and a traditional remote, which is great for those who are put off by gaming controllers. That said, neither do much more than fulfill their core functions.
Winner: Roku Ultra
||Amazon Fire TV
||Nvidia Shield||Chromecast Ultra
|Price||$129||$99 and up||$199 and up||$69|
|Dedicated remote||Yes||Yes||Yes (gamepad included, traditional remote sold separately)||No (relies on mobile device or computer)|
|Controller app||iOS, Android, Windows 10 and 8.1, OSX||iOS, Android, Windows||Android, iOS||Android|
|Available here||Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, Roku||Amazon||Amazon, Best Buy, Nvidia||Google, Best Buy, Walmart|
|Streaming App||Roku Ultra||Amazon Fire TV||Nvidia Shield||Chromecast Ultra|
|Google Play Movies & TV*||X||X||X|
*App offers 4K content
Regardless of which of the four devices you go with, you’ll have access to plenty of streaming apps, including standards like Netflix, and YouTube (which carry tons of 4K content), popular HD apps like Hulu and SlingTV, as well as a host of lesser known options that continues to expand. The point of contention then becomes any major holes in the lineup. As you can see from the chart above, the Nvidia Shield supports an impressive number of some of the most popular apps (though this list is far from exhaustive). In addition, the Nvidia Shield is the only of the four that offers 4K 60fps support for Vimeo and Kodi.
The Fire TV lacks the 4K movie streaming service Vudu, and can’t stream content from Vimeo, Google Play Music, or Google Play Movies & TV. Chromecast Ultra has a huge hole in Amazon Video, which carries a serious collection of 4K HDR content, and remains a huge chink in the streamer’s armor (though there are ways to get around it for savvy users). In addition, the Chromecast is missing some lesser-used options like CNNgo and Vimeo. Roku Ultra’s blind spots include YouTube TV and TwitchTV. While Roku still has an incredibly long list of apps it supports (in the thousands) Nvidia’s support of more core content gives it a slight advantage here.
Winner: Nvidia Shield
The most obvious place to start here is the device with “cast” in its name, the Chromecast Ultra. Casting video from apps on your phone, tablet, or Google Chrome window is how all streaming is done on the Chromecast Ultra, and all Chromecast-compatible iOS and Android apps (of which there are thousands) will do it. However, Chromecast is not the only cast-enabled streamer on the list.
The Fire TV allows for casting as well, but it’s limited to Android devices. There are also ways to cast to the Roku Ultra, though it’s more complicated than it’s probably worth to most users. Chromecast looks poised to take this category, but there remains one last challenger.
Nvidia supplied the Shield with its own built-in casting tech, so any and all Chromecast functionality is available to iOS and Android users on the Shield. This undermines the Chromecast Ultra’s main point of competition, but the coup de grace is the Nvidia Shield’s ability to stream games from your gaming PC at 4K resolution and 60fps, a feat none of its rivals can claim.
Winner: Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia shield is the only device on this list for which games is just as important a function as streaming, with the strongest graphical capabilities by a mile — unsurprising since Nvidia’s primary business is manufacturing PC video cards. The Shield can play modern classics like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel via it’s GeForce Now service, as well as games available through the Android TV app store. Finally, with Game Stream, you can stream games from your gaming PC directly to your TV, upscaled to 4K resolution and 60fps.
Clearly, Nvidia is set to win this category. The other three all have gaming functionality, too, but pale in comparison. Of the three, the Fire TV takes a distant second behind the Shield, since Amazon offers a number of decent games and a controller peripheral is available as an extra purchase. However, if gaming functionality is a primary concern for you, the Nvidia Shield is your best choice.
Winner: Nvidia Shield
The Nvidia Shield comes in two versions: A $199 16GB model, and a $299 500gb model. Both come standard with a micro-SD card slot for storage expansion a gaming controller, and a traditional remote. However, its gaming power makes the Shield quite expensive, meaning it will appeal first and foremost to those looking for a surrogate gaming device.
At $129, the Roku Ultra is a lot more affordable, and it has the best remote available as well as the best user interface. The only place The Roku Ultra really falters is as a gaming machine, something the Nvidia Shield and Fire TV do much better.
At $99, the Amazon Fire TV looks pretty good. It has a respectable gaming pedigree and modest 4K streaming abilities, making for a reasonable entry point for Amazon Prime users, but it’s not as well rounded as the Roku.
Finally, the $69 Chromecast Ultra is the cheapest of the bunch, but it also has the simplest package, doesn’t offer a remote, and doesn’t really have a core interface to speak of. Still, it’s priced far lower than anything else on the list, and gets the job done simply and effectively.
Clearly, there are use cases for each of the devices, but it’s hard to argue with a vastly lower price point than all of its peers. Chromecast Ultra takes this one.
Winner: Chromecast Ultra
Going strictly by the tally, the Nvidia Shiled is the winner. It’s excellent for gaming, and offers a list of options as comprehensive as you’ll find.
That said, that definitely doesn’t mean it will be the best for you. After all, the Shield is the priciest option on the list. If you’re a thrifty shopper, you know the right choice: Chromecast Ultra by a country mile. However, if you’re all Amazon all the time, you’re probably looking at the Amazon Fire TV — Alexa is an awesome feature to add to the package, after all.
On the other hand, Roku’s user experience is the smoothest, its remote is a step above the rest, and it has a mountain of apps at its disposal (even if it didn’t take the category). If we’re making an overall recommendation, Roku Ultra is it. The user experience really is that much better than the others, and its price-to-performance proposition can’t be overlooked.
Now you know all you need to. Go get the best device for you, and up your streaming game!