These days, streaming video services like Vudu, Disney+, Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, and Netflix are taking over our home cinema viewing at an ever-increasing pace, and chances are good you have a least a handful of ways to access such apps. TVs and even some projectors now come packed with all manner of streaming video options. Video game consoles seem to get used as much for Hulu and YouTube as they do for Fortnite and PUBG. Even cable and satellite receivers, for those of you still tethered to those devices, generally have access to the essentials. So why do you need a dedicated media streamer?
Well, maybe you don’t. If you’re happy with the aforementioned options, the only things a dedicated media streamer will give you are faster load times, a better user experience, access to a wider variety of apps, and oftentimes better decoding of 4K/HDR streaming video. But even ignoring those advantages, some of us just hate smart TVs, partly due to their rapid obsolescence; and video game consoles rarely play well with universal remotes or advanced control and automation systems, not to mention the fact that the can be a little noisy, which is never a good thing in a home media environment.
But even if you’re sold on getting a dedicated media streamer to keep access to streaming apps that your smart TV stopped supporting last year, or for the increased performance and snappier navigation, it can be tough to decide which of the numerous options to buy.
That’s where this guide comes in. While we will continue to provide in-depth reviews of all the top media streamers going forward, if you’re currently staring at the store shelves in Best Buy or hovering over the Buy it Now button on Amazon, you might not have time to dig through every review and figure out which streamer best suits your needs.
A few caveats before we get to our favorite media streamers, though. We are a site for home theater enthusiasts. And yes, many of us are gamers, or podcast listeners, or folks who like to share photo slideshows with captive audiences. But our first, second, and third concern here is the experience of using one of these devices in a dedicated home theater or media room to enjoy movies, TV shows, live streams, and the like. So, while I particularly love the GameStream functionality of the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, and the Apple Arcade app on Apple TV 4K, those bonus goodies don’t really factor into our recommendations. Chances are, if you’re sold on those features, you already know which media streamer you need.
With that said, let’s dig in, starting with our go-to recommendation for the best all-around media streamer for most home theater enthusiasts.
We’ve been calling Roku Ultra the best value in the home theater source device world for a few years now, and even after testing out all the top alternatives, we stick by that assertion. Retailing for $99, and selling for somewhere in the neighborhood of $75 to $79 most days, Roku Ultra is all the media streamer that most home theater enthusiasts need, assuming you’re not a hardcore DIY media server enthusiast. Its decoding of HEVC is top-notch, which means you’ll be able to watch 4K HDR streams without a ton of artifacts, assuming your internet connection is stable enough. It has most of the apps you’ll ever need (except for a Twitch app. Grr!). Its interface is easy to navigate and customizable.
And for those of you with advanced control systems, its support for thirty-party IP control is unparalleled. Seriously, it has the single best Control4 driver of any source component we’ve ever tested, in that it maintains constant two-way communication with the player and provides direct access to apps straight from your touchscreen or hard-button remote.
If you’re looking to save a few bucks, you might also consider the Roku Streaming Stick+ at $59.99 (often much less), but we think the Ultra is worth the extra expense, mostly due to its USB ports, Ethernet port, and microSD slot (the latter of which is especially handy if you plan on installing oodles of apps). Both devices feature the same processor, though, and should deliver roughly the same video performance (assuming you’ve got great WiFi to feed the Stick).
Roku is also one of the few dedicated media streamers to support VP9 Profile 2, which means you can play 4K/HDR videos from YouTube. Whether or not that’s an issue for you depends, of course, one which YouTube channels you subscribe to, but some of our favorites are available in 4K, so it’s worth mentioning.
We also really like the fact that Roku doesn’t prioritize content the way Apple and Amazon do. You do have to deal with some ads, which may be annoying for some users. But Roku puts Netflix and Amazon Prime and Vudu and all the rest on pretty much equal footing, and lets you decide which apps and services are most important to you.
On the downside…
Roku Ultra, like all standalone Roku players, lacks support for Dolby Vision, and doesn’t support Atmos for Netflix (at least not yet). It also lacks some of the fancier features of our upgrade pick.
Nvidia Shield TV Pro
If you’re a hardcore DIY media server enthusiast, on the other hand, or someone who wants to benefit from the bleeding edge of video upscaling technology, we think the Nvidia Shield TV Pro earns its beefy $199 price tag. The Shield TV Pro (reviewed here) is one of the few dedicated media streamers that can be set up to function as a PLEX Media Server (meaning you won’t need to leave a computer on all the time to handle server duties). Its HEVC decoding for 4K/HDR streams via Netflix, Vudu, Disney+, etc., is also at least as good as that of Roku Ultra, which is to say practically perfect.
Perhaps the Shield TV Pro’s biggest selling point, though, is its A.I. Upscaling, which uses neural network machine learning to transform 720p and 1080p video to 4K by a process that’s infinitely more sophisticated than the video processing built into most source devices, receivers, and 4K displays. In fact, the only other place we’re really seeing this sort of A.I. upscaling implemented is on very expensive 8K TVs, where it’s likely to become the norm. For more on this technology, you can read our full review of the Nvidia Shield TV Pro here.
As with Roku, there are more affordable alternatives in the Nvidia lineup, namely the standard Nvidia Shield TV for $149, which lacks the Pro’s USB ports, features 1GB less RAM, less internal storage, and won’t function as a PLEX Media Server. Nor does it benefit from the Pro’s support for the optional SmartThings Link. We think the Pro is worth the extra $50, but that’s really for you to decide. Importantly, even the standard Shield TV supports A.I. Upscaling, which is arguably a much bigger deal for most users.
On the downside…
The Shield TV Pro doesn’t support VP9 Profile 2, so no 4K/HDR from YouTube. It also doesn’t allow for third-party IP control, so unless your universal remote supports Bluetooth, you’ll likely be stuck using Nvidia’s gorgeous and comfortable, but unintuitively laid-out remote.
We also ran into a few glitches with the Shield TV Pro that we haven’t seen with other dedicated media streamers. For example, sometimes it simply won’t exit Netflix without power-cycling the unit.
Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K (reviewed here) costs as much as the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, but it’s not nearly as good a value, in our opinion, mostly due to the fact that its decoding of HEVC isn’t as good as that of the Shield TV Pro or Roku Ultra. You likely won’t see the resulting artifacts if you’re watching on a 65-inch TV from seven or eight feet away, but for those of you with larger displays, we recommend going with either the Roku Ultra or Nvidia Shield TV Pro.
The Apple TV 4K’s video settings are also completely nonsensical, meaning that if you put it in 4K Dolby Vision mode, it converts everything to 4K Dolby Vision, which is less than ideal. You need to set it to 4K SDR and enable Match Dynamic Range to get video to display in its proper resolution and bit-depth, which ends up reducing the dynamic range of the player’s screensavers (oddly one of its most compelling features).
On the upside…
Apple TV 4K’s integration with iOS devices, especially as of tvOS 13.3, is truly spectacular. For example, if you have an iPhone nearby and enter a screen that requires text input, a keyboard will pop up on your iPhone. Siri voice search is also the best of the bunch. While Roku Ultra and Nvidia Shield TV both have voice-search functionality, you’ll notice we didn’t harp about it above. They’re fine, really, but Apple practically owns this territory, or at the very least shares the throne with Amazon.
Apple TV 4K also has one of the loveliest UIs we’ve seen to date in the streaming media marketplace, and unlike older models (third generation and prior) it allows for an appreciable level of customization. And unlike Roku, it supports Dolby Vision, as well as Dolby Atmos for Netflix.
Amazon Fire TV in all its forms
Unless the only streaming service you subscribe to is Amazon Prime, and you’re just completely enamored with Alexa voice control over every aspect of your life, you’re probably better off avoiding all of Amazon’s streamers (read our review of the Fire TV Stick 4K here). In addition to the needlessly convoluted UI, which shoves Amazon content down your throat pretty much to the exclusion of everything else, the device is also hobbled to some degree by Amazon’s insistence upon getting into pissing matches with its competitors on a regular basis. So, while you can enjoy YouTube and Apple TV+ and Disney+ on Amazon Fire TV for now, who can really say for sure if that will be true next week? Vudu also isn’t supported, one assumes because Amazon considers the service to be one of its biggest competitors. The app can be side-loaded if you’re that dogged about it, but why bother when there are so much less-restrictive streaming ecosystems available?
On the upside…
I mentioned above that you may consider a Fire TV Stick or Cube or some other player in the lineup going forward if you’re a big fan of Alexa, and there’s good reason for that. The Fire TV family is second only to Apple TV in terms of its voice search capabilities, and the ability to use Echo devices as add-on surround sound speakers is a big bonus. Plus, the Fire TV Recast may be a solid option for those of you who want to record OTA broadcasts and seamlessly bring those recordings into your streaming media ecosystem.
Xiaomi Mi Box
Nope. Just nope.
The Chromecast Ultra is a bit of an odd duck amongst the current crop of mass-market media streamers, since it’s not really a media streamer at all. It’s more of a media bridge (for now, although The Verge reports that an updated model with Android TV, which powers the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, is in the works). What this means is that, for the time being, you’ll need a phone or tablet or laptop to stream video to the Chromecast Ultra and through to your entertainment system. I recently spent some time using Chromecast after Roku lost its third-party Twitch app and I had yet to install Apple TV as a backup. And while it worked in a pinch to get Critical Role onto the big screen every Thursday night, I found the overall experience to be frustrating. Pause the content for too long and it would disconnect, often losing its place and forcing me to fast-forward back to where I left off. Plus, having to use my mobile device to control the viewing experience proved a distraction for me, and distraction is one of the worst things you can experience in your home theater or media room.
Chromecast is also built into so many devices these days (including the Shield TV Pro and a ton of smart TVs) that it’s harder still to justify buying the Ultra for home theater use, at least for now. So, before you consider dropping $69 on this dongle, check to see if your entertainment system already supports it one way or another.
Wrapping it up…
There are, of course, a number of other streaming devices we’ve overlooked, but that’s mostly intentional. This guide is intended to cover the big players in the streaming market, the ones you’re mostly likely considering buying if you’ve never owned a media streamer. The goal is to help you make a quick buying decision, not provide an exhaustive list of every device that supports Netflix and Vudu and all the rest.
That said, if we’ve overlooked your favorite dedicated media streamer (and again, video game consoles, smart TVs, satellite and cable boxes, etc., don’t count), let us know in the comments section below, and let us know why you think it’s the right pick for the average home theater enthusiast.
If, on the other hand, you just want to rant about why streaming sucks, please leave your comments on this article instead.
• Reflections From a Recent Cord Cutter at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• Home Cinema’s Streaming Future Is Now at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• One Thing We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Cord-Cutting at HomeTheaterReview.com.