A Guide to 4K Streaming

Guide to 4K Streaming

There have been a number of tectonic-level shifts in home entertainment since the VHS vs Beta war. The most famous is probably the shift from VHS to DVD, when everyone had to buy a new copy of Blazing Saddles along with every other movie in their library. Then HDTV hit, and that Blazing Saddles DVD just wasn’t good enough anymore. After the dust settled in the great Blu-ray vs HD-DVD war, we were finally able to buy the last copy we would ever need of Mel Brooks’ masterpiece in all its 1080p HD glory.

Now, the dawn of 4K is upon us, and the bad news is that it’s painfully obvious that 1080p just isn’t good enough for us to be able to truly appreciate the baked beans campfire scene. The good news, however, is that there has also been a major shift in the way content is delivered to and consumed by movie lovers. 4K Blu-ray is beginning to grow, but many people are moving away from physical media altogether, and instead are streaming all their movies and TV shows over the internet.

Sure, everyone knows how to stream, after all, who do you know that doesn’t subscribe to Netflix, but what about streaming in 4K? Is it really all that different? Do you need a specialized device, and which is best? Bfads.net is here to answer these questions and more, plus we’ll profile a couple of the most popular 4K streaming devices in our guide to 4k streaming.

4K Streaming Basics

To begin, if you are just now getting to the world of 4K and you’ve got questions about what 4K is and what the benefits are, head over to our 4K UHD TV Buying Guide where we have all the basics of UHD TV covered. With that out of the way, let’s quickly go over some 4K Streaming Basics that everyone should know before they start watching.

The Selection is Limited - One of the biggest misconceptions about 4K is that everything will automatically look better because of the higher resolution screen. Yes, most TVs and devices will take a 1080p signal and upscale it to 4K, but this doesn’t deliver any upgrade to the quality of the image itself. For that, the content must be in 4K, and right now there just isn’t a huge selection to choose from. There are a number of streaming services that offer 4K content, most notably Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu, but not all the content there is in 4K, and each service only has a handful of TV shows and movies available for 4K streaming. This will, of course, increase over time, but for now, be aware that it’s likely that most of your favorite shows and movies are not available to stream in 4K.

There Are Additional Fees – Streaming in 4K is more expensive than normal SD or 1080p streaming. Not only do you have to upgrade your Netflix subscription to their UHD tier, but on-demand 4K movie rentals and purchases from providers like Amazon and Vudu will cost more than the HD rentals and purchases, sometimes two or three times the price. This isn’t completely unjustified, since it does cost these providers more in bandwidth and storage, but the newness of 4K also carries a heftier price tag. Until 4K becomes the norm, expect to pay more when streaming 4K content.

You May Need More Speed – This one seems fairly obvious, but for those of us whom are on the lowest speed tier offered by our internet providers, because all we do is surf and watch Netflix, you may need to upgrade to a higher speed if you want to stream in 4K. Netflix recommends 25Mb/sec download speed for UHD streaming and Amazon recommends 20Mb/sec. If you’re enjoying a low cost and lower speed service plan, be aware that you may have a bit higher cable bill if you want to stream 4K.

You Will Use More - If you’re unfortunate enough to live under the tyranny of a data cap with your internet service provider, be aware that the bandwidth use when streaming 4K content will increase dramatically. Thanks to newer streaming codecs, 4x the pixels doesn’t automatically equal 4x the data size, but the size of streaming any given movie or TV show will be much larger, sometimes more than double that of a 1080p streaming. One binge watch session of House of Cards could result in you blowing through your entire data cap in one weekend.

Dedicated 4K Streaming Devices

You’d be hard pressed to find a 4K UHDTV that didn’t have smart features built into the TV. However, not all of these apps are necessarily capable of delivering 4K content. Even when TV’s do provide 4K streaming apps, unfortunately most built-in apps and interfaces are clunky and lackluster, and can sometimes not offer your favorite streaming service. In almost any case, a dedicated streaming device will provide a better user experience and have a wider selection of services.

Currently, there are two big players missing from the 4K streaming landscape, namely Apple and Google. With the Chromecast, there is currently a waiting list in place for the Chromecast Ultra, a $69 device that can stream Netflix and Youtube in 4K. For Apple TV, nothing solid is known yet. Yet, with the sudden discontinuation of the 3rd generation Apple TV, and rumors fueled by an FCC filing by Apple, all signs point to a 4K Apple TV on the horizon.

One thing to remember if you buy a dedicated streaming device to stream 4K: HDCP 2.2 and HDMI 2.0 are required for 4K streaming of movies and TV shows. We covered this a bit more in depth in our 4k UDH TV Buying Guide, but the rules here are the same, if you don’t have an HDMI 2.0, HDCP 2.2 port available on your TV, all your content will be downgraded when you try to stream in UDH.

Amazon Fire TV - $89.99 – 4K Apps: Amazon Instant Video; Netflix; YouTube

The Amazon Fire TV remains one of the most popular options for viewers who want to cut the cord and go streaming only. With a custom Android OS, the Amazon Fire TV is one of the most robust and versatile streaming devices because of both the variety of apps and services available, and the ease of adding custom streaming apps.

On the 4K front, however, the Fire TV is not as impressive as it probably should be. The hardware prowess is there, so much so that the Amazon Fire TV is one of the only streaming boxes that can support full 7.1 surround sound while streaming. Still, because Amazon wants you to consume their paid content in 4k, you won’t find a number of available on-demand streaming services like Vudu on the Fire TV in 4K. If you’re going to buy or rent a 4K movie, Amazon wants to you buy it from them.

Fans of the Amazon Echo’s personal assistant Alexa will have another way to get ahold of her with the new Alexa-enabled voice remote. In addition to everything that makes Alexa handy in the home like voice search, news updates, sports scores, and the like, you can now use Alexa while you’re streaming. You can ask her to rewind, skip forward, and can even perform a search within an app to find a specific title.

Of course with an Android interface and an app store, the Fire TV is capable of a bit more including games and apps like Plex that can stream media stored on your home media server.

Roku Ultra - $129.99 – 4K Apps: Netflix; Amazon Instant Video; Youtube; Vudu; MGo

One of the biggest strengths that Roku streaming devices have always had going for them is that Roku is not a content provider. For that reason, Roku devices have always seemed to just give you every available streaming service out there and gotten out of your way while doing it. They aren’t pushing an Amazon Prime membership, they don’t care if you prefer Hulu to Netflix, and it makes no difference to them if you’d rather rent from Vudu than Amazon Instant Video.

Because of this, the Roku Ultra by far has the best and widest selection of 4K streaming services available of any streaming device. Roku Ultra gives you access to Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, Youtube, MGo, and of course Toon Goggles, for kids that demand the ultimate in UDH streaming cartoons.

The real beauty in Roku’s 4K content is their specialized 4K Spotlight feature. Here, you can browse all 4K content across all available apps without hopping back and forth between apps. Simply pull up the 4K Spotlight, and you’ll see previews and listings from any and all 4K providers currently on Roku Ultra, and performing a search here will also search across all 4K providers. This is far and away the best 4K browsing experience.

The other aspect that sets Roku Ultra apart is all the nifty remote features. Not only does the Roku Ultra remote have voice search, it also has a headphone jack that allows for private listening of the content on the screen. If you lose the remote, there is actually button on the Roku Ultra device itself that will activate an audible sound from your remote. So unless your dog has buried it in the yard, lost remotes are a thing of the past with the Roku Ultra.

Xbox One S and Playstation 4 Pro – 4K Apps: Netflix

While gaming consoles are probably not on anyone’s radar as a viable purchase to be used solely for 4K streaming, it should be noted that the latest generation of the Xbox One and Playstation 4 consoles are 4K streaming capable.

Because of the sheer horsepower of these devices, they are probably the most future-proof of any of the current 4K streamers. At the moment, however, they offer the worst selection of 4K streaming options, currently only supporting Netflix and Youtube, but it would be hard to believe that more content providers won’t eventually update their console apps to provide 4K streaming. For the moment, however, those wanting to fire up their console and enjoy UHD streaming from Amazon or Vudu are out of luck.

Judging solely on 4K content, of the two devices, the best option is probably the Xbox One S, since it also includes a 4K Blu-ray player for $100 less than the Playstation 4 Pro. Of course, there is much more to consider if you are thinking of buying a game console that can also provide 4K streaming. If you want more info on these new 4K capable consoles, head over to our Xbox One S and Playstation 4 Pro guides to find out all the details.

Final Thoughts

The great thing about 4K Streaming devices, aside from saving us from re-buying our old content, is the fact that they go on sale each and every Black Friday, as detailed in our guide to Dark Horse Deals 2016. With Black Friday only weeks away, the ad leaks will start pouring in any day, and we’ll have the latest in doorbusters, buying guides, and more here at Bfads.net

In the meantime, if you’ve got other ideas about the best 4K streaming device that you’d like to share, or if this article only leaves you with more questions, head down to our comments section and let us know.

November 4, 2016
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