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
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
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
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
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.
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. But I think most folks will find themselves very
happy with the Roku — especially for the price.
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