A Look at 4K Streaming Media Devices

A Look at 4K Streaming Media Devices

When BFAds last took a look at 4K streaming media devices way back in 2016, 4K was still in its infancy, and the options were paltry to say the least. There were a handful of devices that could stream 4K, but the app support was poor and only a handful of 4K content actually existed at the time.

A lot can change in two years, and not only has 4K UHD content grown tremendously since our last write-up, but every major streaming device manufacturer now has their own 4K-capable device with every major streaming content provider offering 4K content to match. More options, of course, means many questions. Which devices support the best in 4K streaming, and which devices support your favorite streaming service? BFAds is here to answer this and more in our Look at 4K Streaming Media Devices.

Amazon 4K Ultra Fire TV - $39.99

Amazon has gotten into the habit of yearly hardware refreshes to their line of Fire TV streaming devices, and this year brought some big changes to their top-tier Fire TV. Amazon has forgone traditional "puck" design that sits on a surface near your TV in favor of the "pendant" design made famous by the Google Chromecast but retains Alexa support via the included remote.

Hardware: The third-generation Fire TV has some impressive capabilities, including full 4K UHD streaming support with HDR10 and Dolby Atmos. That kind of heavy-duty streaming is going to require some bandwidth to go with it. So, while the 2018 Fire TV does sport 802.11ac dual band MIMO Wi-Fi, this newer, smaller design comes with the sacrifice of the Ethernet port that was present on every Fire TV up until the 2018 model. If you've got slow or congested Wi-Fi where you plan to use the Fire TV, you may have to spring for the optional Amazon Ethernet Adapter made especially to accommodate those who want or need hard-wired internet. Be advised, however, that the adapter only supports 10/100 Ethernet speeds, which can be slower than 5GHz Wi-Fi.

Software: The big advantage that Fire TV has over most of the competition is that this device is actually a tiny Android device with the capability of installing a number of apps from Amazon's app store, including games, web browsers, and apps for a bevy of streaming services, including Netflix, Hulu, DirecTV Now, and, of course, Amazon Prime Video.

Being behind Amazon services comes at what may be a deal breaker for many, however. Since Amazon and Google are currently in a bit of a spat, Google has removed the YouTube app from the Amazon app store, making it a hassle to try and watch your favorite YouTube channels on Fire TV since the only option is to navigate to youtube.com with a web browser.

Apple TV 4K - $179.00 32GB; $199.00 64GB

With Apple's September event having come and gone without mention of a 2018 Apple TV, the current offering is 2017's fifth-generation model with no replacement in sight or even rumored. If you're shopping for an Apple TV for the 2018 holiday season, you can safely assume there will be no instances of buyer's remorse from having bought one right before a new product announcement.

Hardware: Looking at what the 5th-gen Apple TV can do, it becomes a bit more obvious why Apple didn't push out at 2018 model. The Apple TV already supports just about everything one can ask for when it comes to streaming, including 4K UHD support, along with HDR10 (or Dolby Vision) and Dolby Atmos. To deliver that 4K content, Apple TV 4K supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi with MIMO and has a gigabit ethernet port built right in. The included remote has a built-in mic for voice control with everyone's favorite digital assistant Siri and has a gyro and accelerometer for light gaming.

Software: As with all Apple products, their devices really shine and demonstrate their value if you live happily within the walled garden of iTunes. For anyone that has an iPhone or iPad and has a library of media, including movies and TV shows, on their existing iTunes account, the choice is a no-brainer. Apple TV remains the only streaming device that natively supports iTunes content, and along with the Apple 4K TV comes a free upgrade of any previously owned HD iTunes content to 4K HDR versions when they become available. Along with iTunes, Apple TV 4K brings with it the usual suspects of 2018 streaming, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Hulu, DirecTV Now, and Sling, just to name a few.

Google Chromecast Ultra - $69.00

The Google Chromecast traditionally has been the budget option for streaming and for those who love the ability to cast nearly anything from their Android phone onto their TV. The reliance on a smart device should give Apple iPhone or iPad owners pause since Chromecast support on Apple devices is lacking when compared to other streaming options.

Hardware: Talking about hardware is where things get tricky with the Chromecast Ultra. The device does offer 4K UHD streaming with HDR10 and Dolby Atmos support, but the availability of these features depends entirely on having a compatible smart device present to feed the content to the Chromecast. This also means that there is no hardware remote as everything is controlled on the screen of the casting. The Chromecast Ultra does support 802.11ac Wi-Fi MISO and also includes an Ethernet port which is built into the power supply, so casters have their choice of whichever bandwidth solution best fits their needs.

Software: The software scene on Chromecast is about as tricky as the hardware side since the device relies on a smart phone or tablet for content streaming. If you've got a capable device, there are quite a number of apps that support Chromecast, including Netflix, Hulu, and Google Play. Notably missing from this list, however, is Amazon Prime Video, which is another casualty of the Amazon vs. Google rivalry. If you have Amazon Prime as an inexpensive way to get your 4K Prime Video content onto your TV, there are definitely better options on store shelves.

Roku Streaming Stick+ $68.99 and Roku Ultra - $99.99

As with Apple, Roku's strong 2017 hardware offerings have very easily carried it through 2018 without giving up an inch of capability to the competition. Roku has two devices that are 4K capable: the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the "puck" style Roku Ultra.

Hardware: Before breaking down the differences between the Roku Streaming Stick+ and the Roku Ultra, let's get it out of the way that both devices support 4K UHD with HDR10 and Dolby Atmos support, so no matter which you choose, you'll have support for the best 2018 streaming has to offer. The differences really just speak to the premium nature of the Roku Ultra as it does everything the Stick+ does, only better. They both have 802.11ac dual-band MIMO Wi-Fi, but the Ultra also has built-in Ethernet. They both come with a dedicated remote that features voice search and hardware buttons for the most popular streaming services, but the Ultra also has a remote finder, dedicated gaming buttons, and a headphone jack for private listening. Rounding out the premium features of the Roku Ultra that are not found on the Stick+ are rear USB and microSD ports and 802.11g wireless support.

Software: Streaming app support is where the Roku really shines. Since Roku is not in the content production or delivery business, they are agnostic to all the bickering and rivalry that happens with other devices and simply offer apps for every media outlet that chooses to allow their content on Roku, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play Music and Movies, Vudu, DirecTV Now, Sling, Spectrum, and more. The only missing service is, of course, iTunes, since only Apple devices are supported natively. If you simply want the device that offers you the most streaming options and don't have an existing iTunes library that you can't live without, Roku is your answer.

Final Thoughts

The great thing about streaming devices that we haven't discussed is the fact that they are regularly some of the most heavily discounted items on Black Friday! With the exception of the Apple TV, year in and year out, there are doorbuster deals on most streaming devices, with many of them dipping sub-$50 and lower. With the huge popularity in 4K streaming we've seen in 2018, it would stand to reason that stores across the country will want to entice shoppers with deals on these UHD devices.

Keep an eye on BFAds.net for our ad leaks and our Top Deals Under $50 buying guide to find the best price on your 4K streaming device of choice.

September 24, 2018
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