Best 4K Streaming Media Devices
Consumer Reports helps you decide which model from Amazon, Apple, Google, Nvidia, Roku, or TiVo is right for you
It’s getting pretty unusual these days to buy a new television that isn't a smart TV, with the ability to stream TV shows and movies right from the set itself.
Still, plenty of us these days decide to add a streaming device to our smart TV. In my own home, four of our five smart TVs have either an Amazon Fire TV, an Apple TV, or a Roku streaming player connected to them.
These add-on devices might outperform your smart TV’s built-in system, or they might offer features or services you can’t get from that TV. And if some of your smart TVs are a few years old, you might find that the apps for streaming services you use are outdated or missing altogether.
In fact, in a recent online national survey, we found that 60 percent of respondents with a smart TV ended up using an external streaming device instead of the TV’s built-in system.
Of course, a stand-alone streaming player will also add smart TV capability to any television that lacks it, allowing you to access a variety of streaming services.
What You’ll Find
The 4K streaming media device market is dominated by just four software platforms: Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Google Android TV/Chromecast, and Roku. So you need to decide on a platform as well as a specific model.
Generally, streaming devices are either set-top models or small players that plug directly into a TV’s HDMI slot. Prices of the nine models below range from $35 to $200, but they often fluctuate several times during the year, so look for a deal during promotions.
The newest 4K models in our streaming media device ratings support high dynamic range (HDR) technology. When done right, HDR boosts a TV’s brightness, contrast, and color, making the pictures on the screen look more like real life. All models support the HDR10 format, and many now also support HLG, which is likely to be used by some “Next-Gen TV” broadcasters when they start sending these new over-the-air TV signals. Some models also support the Dolby Vision or HDR10+ formats.
This year, you’ll find that for the first time Consumer Reports has added data privacy and security scores in the ratings for all the models we test, in addition to attributes such as picture quality and ease of use. We already incorporate privacy and security testing into our ratings of password managers, wireless routers, TVs, video doorbells, and some other product categories, and we’re adding more every year.
Like all the products that Consumer Reports tests and rates, all the streaming devices were purchased at retail stores. We evaluate the various ways streaming device brands collect, use, and share consumer data; how well they protect it; and how transparent the companies are about their data practices.
We also judge companies by how they handle security procedures, such as encrypting all user communications by default, enabling automatic security updates, and protecting against known security vulnerabilities.
The streaming devices below are listed alphabetically. All work well, so your decision comes down to price and personal preference.
This is an updated version of the 4K-ready Fire TV Cube, essentially a mashup of two of Amazon’s popular Alexa-powered devices, the Fire TV streaming player and the Echo Dot smart speaker. Like its predecessor, it adds an interesting element into the mix: universal remote control capability.
Compared with the first generation, the new model adds a more powerful processor, a faster response time, and both Dolby Vision and HDR10+ HDR. There are buttons on top of the unit to adjust the volume and mute the microphones, but the Cube is really all about voice control. What makes the Fire TV Cube stand out, though, is that it lets you control a host of other compatible audio/video gear, including TVs, sound bars, receivers, and even some cable and satellite boxes.
Best for: Amazon Prime subscribers who like the Alexa voice assistant, and who want to be able to control other components. Amazon tends to prioritize its own content, though, when you’re looking for something to watch.
If you want a 4K HDR player but don’t want a visible set-top box, then this stick-style streamer could do the trick. You may be able to find this model during sales events, such as Amazon Prime Day, for as little as $25.
Like other stick-style players, it pops into your TV’s HDMI port. It has a nice array of content and features, including voice control and support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10+ HDR. As a bonus, you can control it from Alexa-enabled devices such as an Echo smart speaker, and you can use the included remote to control power and volume on many TVs and sound-bar speakers.
Best for: Amazon Prime subscribers who don't need all the capabilities of the Fire TV Cube, at a much lower price.
Apple TV has always made sense for those who already live in Apple’s world, and this new model is no exception, though it remains among the priciest streaming players available.
The much-awaited updated player has a few notable new features, including a redesigned Siri remote with a clickpad rather than the love-it-or-hate-it touchpad. (It is still touch-enabled for directional swipes, though.) We tested the 32GB version, but a 64GB model is also available.
The device also has a new processor for improved graphics and video, including support for high frame rate (60fps) Dolby Vision HDR. There's also a unique color-calibration feature that works with your iPhone; it uses the phone's light sensor to compare the color balance with industry-standard specifications, then auto-adjusts the video output so that you don’t have to tweak the TV’s settings.
Best for: Those who are already invested in the Apple ecosystem and use iTunes for content—and who don’t mind paying a premium for an Apple device. But with the Apple TV app now becoming available on more devices, such as smart TVs and streaming players, owning an Apple TV may become less important than in the past.
The revamped Google Chromecast is now called Chromecast with Google TV. (Google will also be renaming its Android TV platform as Google TV in the near future.) The player is a 4K model that supports the HDR10, HDR10+, and Dolby Vision HDR formats. The new model comes with a voice remote with a dedicated button for Google Assistant, the company’s voice-powered digital assistant; earlier versions lacked a remote control, so you had to use a smartphone or tablet to control the player.
Another change is a home screen that organizes movies and TV shows from all your favorite services in one place, so it’s easier to find what to watch. The player is offered in three colors—Snow (white), Sunrise (pink), and Sky (baby blue).
Best for: While the older Chromecast—which required you to use your smartphone—was really for tech-savvy users, this new model is for anyone who likes the Android TV platform and the ability to control other compatible smart devices.
Though the pricier Nvidia Shield TV Pro model, covered below, seems more like a game console that does streaming, the Shield TV's unusual cylindrical shape gives it a more streaming-focused appearance. It includes the same fast processor and AI upscaling capability, plus support for Dolby Vision HDR, and Dolby Atmos and DTS:X 3D sound. Both systems’ smarts are based on the Android TV platform; there’s built-in support for the voice-powered Google Assistant, and they will work with Amazon Alexa devices. The Shield has a remote-finder button on the unit, a feature available only via the Shield TV app with the Pro model.
Apart from price, the main differences between the models are related to memory and storage. For example, the Shield TV lacks the two USB slots found on the Pro but has a microUSB card slot for adding storage. It comes with 8 gigabytes of storage and 2GB of memory, rather than the 16GB/3GB with the Pro. Both models have Ethernet jacks for using a connection to your home network.
Best for: Gamers who also want a solid streaming player with a decent number of features and support for several digital voice assistants, but at a price lower than the Shield Pro TV model.
Sporting a sharp-looking, angular design, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro is at the upper end of streaming player price range, but it’s a top-notch 4K player that combines access to lots of streaming services, fairly extensive audio/video features, plus console-like game-playing ability.
One unique feature of both Nvidia models is AI upscaling that will upconvert lower-resolution content to the player’s 4K capability. Like the model above, the Pro supports Dolby Vision HDR, as well as Dolby Atmos and DTS-X immersive sound, which can add the element of height to surround-sound tracks. It comes with a wand-style backlit Bluetooth remote control, but you can buy a game controller as an option.
Best for: Those looking for a top-performing Android TV-based player that’s loaded with features, and who don’t mind paying a bit more for it.
The Roku Ultra, the company’s flagship streaming player, was updated late in 2020 with a few new features, including built-in Bluetooth for streaming music from mobile devices, and support for both Dolby Vision and HDR10+ HDR, plus Dolby Atmos 3D sound. It also has an improved WiFi range, so the player can be placed farther away from your router than previous models, and the vast assortment of content that makes Roku a popular choice for many users.
The new Ultra comes with an enhanced Roku voice remote that has programmable personal shortcut buttons, plus a headphone jack for private listening. It also includes a set of Roku earphones, rather than the JBL earphones packaged with the earlier version. It has the remote finder feature found on its predecessor, and like other Roku models, the Ultra supports both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant voice assistants.
Best for: Almost anyone looking for a top-performing player with lots of content and all the bells and whistles a streaming device can come with.
If you’ve wanted a 4K HDR Roku but not another set-top box, this stick-style player may be just the ticket. It’s also half the price of the flagship Roku Ultra player, above.
Just pop the Streaming Stick+ into a TV’s HDMI port and it will essentially disappear behind or alongside your TV. Its AC power cord has a unique inline wireless receiver the company claims can improve its wireless range, and we had no problems during our tests. Like all Rokus, it has a category-leading assortment of channels. Both the Stick+ and Ultra have Roku’s own voice capability, but thanks to an operating system update, they’ll also work with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, as well as Apple AirPlay and HomeKit.
Best for: Those who want a more affordable 4K Roku player that can plug directly into their TV. But if you don't need a stick-style player, the new Roku Express 4K+ did slightly better in our ratings and costs just $30.
Known for its top-notch DVRs, TiVo is now taking aim at the Apple TV and Roku models with the TiVo Stream 4K, its first dedicated streamer.
The $30 device, selling for about $20 less than just a few months ago, is a small, rectangular dongle that plugs into a TV’s HDMI port; it runs on the Google Android platform, with a proprietary TiVo app for searches and content recommendations. The device supports 4K videos with HDR10, Dolby Vision, or HLG HDR formats. The player, which also supports Dolby Atmos sound, comes with a tiny peanut-shaped TiVo remote, or you can use voice commands with the built-in Google Assistant.
Out of the box the TiVo Stream 4K supports a good number of streaming services, including Amazon, Disney+, HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Peacock, Sling TV, Tubi, and YouTube, and others can be added from the Google Play store. A few services, including Apple TV+, are missing. One thing we really like about Stream TV is that it integrates content from many of the streaming services you use into a single program guide.
One note: When we first tested the TiVo Stream 4K for privacy and security, we found an issue that we notified TiVo about. The company then fixed it.
Best for: Budget-minded Android TV fans who like TiVo’s intuitive user interface, plus an integrated program guide for most of the services you watch.