Best 4K Streaming Devices for 2019


January 3, 2019    Electronics Gifts 

Cut the Cord and Stream!

TV streaming devices (not to mention TV's themselves) have come a long way since the Apple TV was introduced in 2007. Today, a subset of even the smallest "stick" style streamers can support 4K high resolution streaming, allowing you to view stunning 4K HDR video when you have access to a high speed internet connection and the right TV. We've broken down our top picks by portability and features to make your selection process a breeze. Find out more below...

  • OUR TAKE
    PROS
    CONS

  • OUR TAKE
    • A strong option that works with both YouTube and Prime Video. Ultimately, the lack of both standalone voice controls and an Ethernet port put this strong contender in our "portability" runner up position behind the Fire TV Stick 4K.
    PROS
    • Support for 4K HDR content.
    • Works with Prime Video AND Google Play applications as well as YouTube.
    • Google Assistant enabled.
    • Newer TVs can power directly from the USB port (more on this below).
    CONS
    • No Ethernet port or optional Ethernet adapter—avoid if you do not have a 5 gig WiFi router.
    • Requires Google Assistant enabled speaker to use voice control.
    • HDMI attached directly to plastic body.

  • OUR TAKE
    • This great device has an Alexa Voice Remote, support for 4K HDR content, a built in speaker and comes with an Ethernet adapter. Its larger size and the inability to power via your TV's USB in a pinch, made this unit our "performance" runner up.
    PROS
    • Support for 4K HDR content.
    • Alexa Voice Remote and internal speaker allow for far-field voice control of the unit and many popular sound bars, receivers and more.
    • Includes Ethernet adapter.
    • Competitively priced for the features.
    CONS
    • Does not work with Google Play applications or YouTube at the time of our writing.
    • Must power from a wall outlet.
    • The largest unit in our comparison (3.4 in x 3.4 in x 3 in).

  • OUR TAKE
    • A solid unit that comes with headphones allowing you to plug directly into the controller for private listening. It didn't make our top spots because it isn't as portable as the "stick" style units and lacks the extras found in the Fire TV Cube.
    PROS
    • Support for 4K HDR content.
    • Includes an Ethernet port for those without a 5 gig WiFi router.
    • Supports "private" listening with included JBL headphones that plug into the controller.
    CONS
    • Must plug into a wall outlet.
    • Requires a Google Assistant enabled speaker to use voice control function.
    • On the pricier side—more than 2X the price of the least expensive unit in this comparison as of our writing.

How We Chose

Portability and Features

We began today's comparison by focusing on streamers able to display 4K HDR video, a surprisingly limited subset of all streamers but an important consideration for those with newer TVs or who are planning to upgrade in the near future. With this threshold requirement in place, we next focused on portability and features such as voice control, Ethernet ports (important for those without high-end wireless routers) and content ecosystems.

Keeping these considerations in mind, we honed in on the Fire TV Stick 4K as our top pick because it is not only portable and affordable, but also packed with great features. Specifically, this great unit can be powered from the USB ports found in many newer TVs (more on this in the next section), potentially eliminating the need to find an additional wall outlet and enabling the device to be entirely hidden behind the TV itself with no dangling cords. It can also be paired with an optional Ethernet adapter for those without a 5-gigahertz WiFi router and is the only "stick" style 4K streamer we are aware of with an integrated voice remote. What's more, it is priced at under $50 and can even be purchased for under $40 when on sale.

We chose the Roku Streaming Stick + as our "portability" runner up because it can be powered from the USB ports found in many newer TVs and also works with both the Amazon and Google ecosystems. This great streamer ultimately missed out on our top spot because it does not have an Ethernet port and is also not compatible with aftermarket Ethernet adapters, a potential problem for those without high-end routers (streaming 4K video is a data-heavy proposition). It was also hurt in our comparison because it requires a separate Google Assistant enable speaker to use the streamer's voice control function. Still, this is a solid choice for those looking for a portable "stick" style device that can stream 4K HDR video and access content from Prime Video as well as YouTube/Google Play.

We chose the Fire TV Cube as our "performance" runner up because it has many of the same great features as our top pick (and more), but isn't quite as portable. Specifically, the FIRE TV Cube comes included with an Ethernet adapter (this must be purchased separately with our top pick) as well as an internal speaker that facilitates an Alexa Voice Remote. This internal speaker also allows for far-field voice control of both the Fire TV Cube and compatible linked accessories (e.g. many popular sound bars, receivers, etc.).

The Roku Ultra didn't make our top spots because it isn't particularly portable or feature packed. Still, give it a look if you are searching for a stationary streamer similar to the Fire Cube (albeit with fewer features) but with the ability to play content from YouTube and the Google Play Store.

Additional Considerations

Internet Connection and Power Source

To Ethernet or Not to Ethernet? – Among the options in our comparison, only the Fire TV Cube and Roku Ultra come with an Ethernet port (or adapter) included to allow you to plug the device directly into your router. An optional Ethernet adapter can be purchased with the Fire TV Stick 4K, while there is no way to connect the Roku Streaming Stick+ directly to your router. Because displaying 4K video requires considerable bandwidth, you will want to use an Ethernet port if you are running on anything less than a 5-gigahertz wireless router. If this is the case, consider purchasing the Fire TV Stick 4K with the Ethernet adapter, the Fire TV Cube or Roku Ultra and try to avoid the Streaming Stick+.

USB Power – If you want to power your portable streaming device directly from your TV, go with the Fire TV Stick 4K or Roku Streaming Stick+ and use a more modern TV with a powered USB port. Specifically, these streamers can be plugged directly into your TV’s USB ports, virtually eliminating visible cords and the need to bring along the included outlet-based power sources. However, the power output from USB ports found in older TVs may be less than ideal, causing the devices to respond slowly or drop out (we believe this is the reason why Roku and Amazon instruct users to power their "stick" style devices from wall outlets). In short, if you have an older TV or find that your device is slow and/or dropping out, it may be necessary to power your device from a wall outlet.

A Question of Fit

HDMI Positioning – If your TV is in a very tight space with HDMI ports that point towards a wall or some other immovable object, it may be a good idea go with the Fire TV Cube or the Roku Ultra. Specifically, the Fire Cube and Roku Ultra use standard flexible HDMI cords (purchased separately), which can be manipulated into tight spots. The HDMI interfaces for the Roku Streaming Stick+ and Fire TV Stick 4K, on the other hand, are incorporated directly into the hard plastic body of the streamer.

YouTube vs. Prime Video – If you use both YouTube and Prime Video, then Roku devices are likely the options for you as they supports both platforms. If you are big on YouTube, then Fire devices are unfortunately not a great choice as they do not (currently) support YouTube or the Google Play Store.

Other Devices If you already have a Google Assistant enabled home, it may make sense to go with a model by Roku; the same for the Fire devices if you are already using Alexa devices at home. In short, make sure to purchase a device that works with the gear you already have. Duh.

Good Information to Know

As General Matter – Related to the USB power discussion above, many newer TVs already come with built in streaming devices. It may make sense to check—if you are happy with the built-in device and don’t need a portable streamer to travel with you, there is no need to purchase a standalone unit. Along these lines, if you have an older TV that is not capable of displaying 4K resolution, it may make sense to go with a less expensive streamer that displays in 1040p or even 780p.

Streamers Are Not DVRs – Many first time buyers of streaming devices are surprised to learn they cannot download videos directly to a streamer to play when offline. Instead, it is necessary to "cast" the video from another device capable of storing offline video. While all of the devices in our comparison can play video cast from other devices (with varying degrees of complexity), in our opinion Apple's AirPlay function is the most seamless—keep the Apple TV 4K in mind if you plan on frequently using your streamer in offline locations. And remember that casting is typically only at a resolution of 1080p or less.

Make Sure Your TV Supports 4K HDR – Funny as it may sound, viewing video in 4K doesn't provide the mind blowing picture one would think—the difference in resolution compared with 1080p is so minute you'd have to sit comically close to your typical 50 inch TV (2 or so feet away) to notice. What you will notice, however, is 4K video displayed over a TV that supports HDR. This is because HDR enhances the contrast between the lightest and darkest colors on your TV, making the display noticeably more brilliant. All of the devices in today's comparison support 4K HDR content: make sure your TV supports this as well.

Why ReviewDECIDE?

But Seriously . . .

We started ReviewDECIDE on the premise that a great deal of the information required to properly evaluate a given product is already right in front of your (and our) eyes. In fact there is too much information! A crucial skill necessary to picking the best products is instead the ability to cull through the available information, focusing on what should really drive a purchase decision.

To make those crucial determinations as to what matters and what doesn’t, we begin by thinking through what really matters to us when we use a particular product. We then use the that type of product to further refine the features we care about and that we think you will care about too. Next we search the web, looking to manufacturer’s websites, product specifications, consumer reports, expert blogs, research reports and the like to obtain crucial insights and the facts.

Finally, we distill the results of our research and combine it with our own experiences as consumers, professionals, techies, mothers, fathers, hobbyists, designers, software engineers, attorneys (sorry) and more. Ultimately, this process results in the reviews we present to you. We hope you enjoy!

Credits:

  • Photo of couple with remote by JESHOOTS.com.
  • Photo of woman watching TV on road from iStock.
  • Photo of Ethernet cable and router from iStock.
  • Photo of men hanging TV from iStock.
  • Photo of man staring into multiple screens from iStock.
  • Photo of group jumping in office from iStock.

*Images have been cropped and/or resized.