4K TV Box Showdown: Roku 4 Vs. SHIELD TV Vs. Fire TV

If you’ve recently bought a 4K TV (and now is a good time to start watching ), you’ll need a way to bring your 4K-compatible shows to this screen. Today we break down the three best set-top boxes that can offer 4K (or UHD) streaming.

Applicants

In this showdown edition, we’re going to narrow the focus to consoles designed to play and stream 4K video. We’re also only looking at boxes with their own remote controls, local storage, and operating systems. You can check out our previous posts on more affordable streaming sticks here, or streaming boxes in general here . Here are the ones we looked at:

  • Roku 4 ( $ 115 ): Roku has consistently impressed us in our previous streaming stick and box battles. Its platform-agnostic approach means you can get content from virtually any service in one place. It supports 4K video streaming, but unfortunately does not support HDR video .
  • NVIDIA SHIELD TV ( $ 199 ) : By far the most expensive option, NVIDIA SHIELD TV runs Android TV, comes with a game controller, and has been named by someone with a broken Caps Lock key. It can stream videos in 4K, and it’s the only option on our list that also supports HDR. Besides video streaming, it can play many Android games, and the NVIDIA GeForce Now service allows you to remotely stream AAA games by subscription. None of these games run in 4K, however, so we don’t pay too much attention to them.
  • Amazon Fire TV ( $ 99 ): The cheapest option on our list, Fire TV is heavily geared towards the Amazon ecosystem. It includes Alexa, which means it can do pretty much everything the Amazon Echo can do. However, you’ll want to have an Amazon Prime account if you want to get the most out of it. Like the Roku 4, it can stream in 4K but cannot handle HDR content.

We ditched the Apple TV this time around as it doesn’t support 4K at all. If you are an intense Apple user and have a lot of content packed into your iTunes library, you better wait for Apple to update its set-top box. For everyone else, here’s what we found during our comparison.

Setting them up

Roku 4

If you have a long Wi-Fi password, the Roku setup process won’t do you any good. You must use the remote to enter your Wi-Fi credentials manually from the onscreen keyboard. Fortunately, this is the most tedious aspect of customization, and it becomes much easier from now on.

Once connected to the internet, you can use Roku Link to access your favorite services from your laptop or phone. Fortunately, this saves you the hassle of typing usernames and passwords on the D-Pad. Once signed in to Netflix, Hulu, or other streaming accounts, these credentials will sync to Roku so you can start watching.

SHIELD TV

SHIELD TV (thanks to Android TV software) is so impressively easy to set up it’s surprising that other set-top boxes haven’t copied it yet. When you first load SHIELD, you will be prompted to set up your box using the Google app on your phone. Just search for “customize my device”. This will automatically detect SHIELD in your living room and connect your phone directly to it. Tap the Wi-Fi network your phone is connected to and these Wi-Fi credentials will be transferred to SHIELD. Now your set-top box is connected to the Internet and you didn’t have to enter any password!

Signing in to streaming services is also easier with Google Smart Lock . For example, if you save your Netflix password to Google, SHIELD will automatically enter the app as soon as you open it. Unfortunately, many apps do not yet support Smart Lock. However, most of them that don’t support it at least offer some form of web login instead, so you don’t have to enter passwords with a tiny remote.

Fire tv

Like Roku, Amazon Fire TV requires you to enter a long password from the on-screen keyboard in order to be able to connect to the Internet. Also, you need to sign in to your Amazon account the first time you set up your device. If you are using two-factor authentication ( and you should be ), the Amazon login process becomes even more cumbersome. First you need to enter your username and password using the remote, then you need to enter your 6-digit 2FA code from the on-screen keyboard while racing the 30-second clock. It would be nice if Amazon made this process a little easier, perhaps by allowing users to log in from their laptop.

Once you log in, you will have access to the Amazon video library. However, if you need anything else, you need to download the apps before using them. We had the same complaint about the Fire TV Stick . The Amazon setup process is already boring. It could save customers a bit of frustration by installing at least standard apps like Netflix or Hulu by default.

Using the interface

Roku 4

As we said in our last showdown, Roku’s interface isn’t as polished as other devices, but surprisingly capable. Voice search is more limited compared to Google and Amazon (both companies excel at voice commands in other areas). However, if you know the name of the show you want to watch, this is convenient instead of having to enter text using the on-screen keyboard.

Roku has four dedicated buttons to launch Netflix, Amazon, Sling, and the now defunct Rdio . It has a headphone jack, so you can listen to your TV shows in private. There is even a remote search button on Roku itself. Just touch it and your remote will beep to help you find it.

The Roku menu itself is a bit inefficient and it sometimes takes a few steps to get to what you want. You can make certain apps your favorites, which helps, but we’d love to see a revamped interface that doesn’t require scrolling as much to find what you’re looking for. Luckily, dedicated app buttons can take some of that stress off.

SHIELD TV

Because SHIELD TV is designed with gaming in mind, NVIDIA has equipped it with a powerful X1 processor . As a result, this thing flies . Of all the TV boxes I’ve researched, none is as sleek as SHIELD. Menus are quick, voice commands are processed instantly, and video plays perfectly (if your Wi-Fi can handle it).

Much of the credit for creating the interface belongs to Android TV. Google Smart TV’s second platform may not be the most popular product, but it is in a much better place than when it was new. Google voice search is one of the most powerful (as you would expect). Enter the name of the show, actor, director, or other name, and Google will suggest movies and shows for you. He will then show you where to find them. It can even search in apps like Plex that contain your personal library.

SHIELD TV will receive top marks for ease of use, except for one problem: the included remote is a game controller . It’s great for gamers, but for everyone else who just wants to watch TV, it’s cumbersome. If you want a remote that doesn’t feel like it was made for the Xbox, NVIDIA will sell it to you for a whopping $ 50 . Since SHIELD is already the most expensive box on our list, it’s disappointing that something so simple is such an expensive upgrade. Personally, I would have preferred a basic remote control included with the controller as an optional $ 50 accessory.

Fire tv

The Fire TV box is a lot faster than the Fire TV Stick we’ve looked at before, but the menu still suffers from disorganization. The home screen has a list of categories that you can scroll through, such as TV shows, movies, and games. However, Amazon is heavily promoting its own content in each of them. For example, when you scroll through the Movies section, you’ll mostly be showing movies on Amazon Prime, with some interspersed with other services (and it’s not always clear which one). If you are not using Amazon Prime, this can make it difficult to find content.

Amazon’s voice search performs slightly better than the Fire TV Stick, but still gives mixed results. For example, a search for American Horror Story took me to the show’s landing page, where I could find all the places to watch each season. Searching for South Park , on the other hand, showed me a couple of movies, a few random compilations of episodes, and South Park in Spanish before getting listed on the show itself. You might be better off using each app’s individual search to find your shows, but Amazon also hides the apps section a bit on the home screen. If you like Amazon Prime Fire TV should be fine, but if you want something that every service you use looks for, there are better options.

Search 4K content to watch

Roku 4

Roku does a pretty good job of displaying 4K content if you don’t mean anything else. There are two 4K-focused channels on Roku. First, the 4K Spotlight channel showcases certain shows and movies from a variety of streaming services. Meanwhile, the 4K Ultra HD section in the streaming channels menu will help you find out which services generally offer 4K content. These include things like Netflix, but you can also find services that specialize in selling 4K movies. For 4K TV owners, this is one of the easiest ways to find movies and shows to use on your new TV.

SHIELD TV

While SHIELD TV is capable of playing 4K videos, there is practically nothing on the device to help you find any 4K content to watch. Searching for a show or movie won’t tell you what options are streaming in 4K, and there are no dedicated channels where you can find movies and shows optimized for your TV.

This is a bummer, as SHIELD is the best device on our list for playing 4K content (which we’ll come back to in a moment). It supports 4K and HDR playback, but doesn’t tell you if the show you’re watching supports. This is very unpleasant. In defense of NVIDIA, SHIELD TV is positioning itself as a gaming device, so it’s no surprise they don’t put their 4K capabilities in the spotlight, but disappointingly, it’s not touched at all in the interface.

Fire tv

When you browse Fire TV video offerings or search for a show, the device helps you label any 4K content with a small banner in the upper left corner of the show thumbnails that says “UHD”. While this is a small feature, it is the most useful little thing we found on any of the boxes we looked at.

Surprisingly, this banner even applies to non-Amazon content. For example, if you’re looking for Jessica Jones, which is only available on Netflix, Amazon search will put that UHD shortcut on top of the thumbnail. Fire TV usually suffers from putting all its effort into the Amazon library and neglecting other services, but this was a welcome inclusive approach.

Sadly, there are no channels on the Fire TV designed to be viewed in 4K, but a small UHD banner makes up for that. It’s also worth noting that Amazon and Google’s dumb disaffection means there is no native YouTube app, which means you are missing out on a lot of great 4K content.

4K video playback

Roku 4

The Roku 4 is one of the most powerful devices in our comparison. However, using it, I noticed that when playing 4K videos, it would take a few seconds to catch up. This may vary depending on your settings (I used a Wi-Fi connection in the same room as my router, but maybe an Ethernet connection would work better), but 4K video is also quite CPU-intensive. Even with a stable internet connection, you might see a little latency.

As we mentioned earlier, the Roku 4 doesn’t fully support HDR either. While the device has an HDMI 2.0a port required for HDR, and it can even output at 10-bit color depth ( which is part of HDR , but not enough to be considered full support), it doesn’t really offer the feature. This can be a little confusing for customers who don’t understand the nuances of what HDR means. The company may be adding HDR support with a software update, but you’re probably better off waiting for Roku to announce its next round of consoles .

SHIELD TV

If you can find 4K videos to play on SHIELD TV, well worth it. As we said earlier, NVIDIA has packed this device with a monstrous processor, and it’s the only device we’ve tested that supports 4K playback without any noticeable lag when compared to regular video streaming. It was faster than both other boxes on the same Wi-Fi connection.

It handled HDR content beautifully as well. There was virtually no extra load time when streaming HDR-enabled shows. I tested this by watching Jessica Jones (whose introduction, by the way, is the perfect way to test your HDR screen). It worked flawlessly even when I was jumping in the episode. While SHIELD may be more expensive than other boxes we’ve looked at, it delivers the best picture quality, so it’s worth the money. At least until other boxes catch up.

Update: As one reader noted, Netflix’s list of announced HDR-enabled shows does not indicate when Jessica Jones will receive the HDR update, and Netflix’s listing pages are unclear. For posterity, we rerun the above test with Marco Polo , a Netflix show that clearly supports HDR. The results were the same: video quality was exceptionally clear, with no noticeable lag or load time increase for the stream, even while jumping through the episode.

Fire tv

When playing Amazon Prime videos on Fire TV, the player has a small indicator that shows you what resolution you are currently streaming in. It is very similar to the YouTube player. If the video supports 4K but your connection is slow, it will tell you that you are only streaming in 1080p, or whatever quality your connection can handle. Like the UHD shortcut when watching a video, this is a small feature that is extremely useful in determining if what I’m watching is indeed 4K. On the contrary, when playing Netflix videos, the best thing you can do is say, “Yes, I think it looks good,” when your stream finally catches up with you.

This is disappointing because despite such nice interface features, Fire TV is the worst box on our list for real 4K content playback. It does not support HDR and since it uses an HDMI 1.4 port, it never will. HDR requires at least HDMI 2.0a to work, so unless you bought a 4K TV without HDR, your Fire TV Box will need to be updated in the future.

It also showed the largest streaming lag of any box I tested. When you play a 4K video for the first time, you will see a brief screen that says Optimized for UHD Playback. As soon as the video I was watching started, it usually started playing pixelated while the stream was catching up. This is where that little shortcut comes in handy that tells you what resolution you are currently playing in, but ideally you won’t need it. If you want the cheapest 4K streaming box you can right now, and you’ve really invested in the Amazon ecosystem, Fire TV is fine, but you’d better wait.

Bottom line: SHIELD TV is expensive, but it’s the only future-ready box

It’s hard to pick a recommendation here because there isn’t a really good winner here. SHIELD TV is perfect for anyone who wants lag-free 4K and HDR video. Everything about it feels like a first-class experience. The interface is nice, the search is excellent, the 4K playback is smooth. The only problem is the high price. At $ 200, it’s a lot more expensive than most similar devices. To make matters worse, since NVIDIA is positioning it as a gaming device, you’ll have to pay extra if you want a regular controller. If you don’t mind shelling out the money, this is definitely the best experience, but it would be nice to see a cheaper version. Or at least the one that comes with a basic remote instead of a game controller.

If you want something smarter (and cheaper), the Roku 4 is great for streaming 4K video from just about any service you can think of. Roku has no complaints about any of the big streaming companies, so you can watch Amazon Prime, Netflix, YouTube, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu and anywhere else on the same box. However, the lack of HDR is a major blow to your home theater future. If you haven’t bought a 4K TV yet, or have an HDR TV, you should probably skip it for now.

Fire TV suffers from the same HDR issue, but with no hope of a software update to fix it. If HDR is important to you, don’t buy Fire TV. However, if you invest a lot in Amazon’s video library (and don’t care about HDR), Fire TV is great for finding movies and shows to stream. The inclusion of Alexa also makes Fire TV an attractive option even if you’re not watching TV, so it might be an advantage for some users.

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