Cord cutting isn’t a trend anymore. It’s just how things are, and have been for a number of years. According to a PwC survey, only 67 percent of households still subscribe to pay-TV services, a 10 point drop from two years earlier. Consumers across nearly every demographic are exceedingly choosing streaming content services over the traditional cable box. Netflix is the main culprit for this transition as 2018 was the first year Netflix users outnumbered pay-TV subscribers.
But the latest crop of streaming devices are far more than simple “Netflix machines.” Many of them fit right in as part of the modern smart home while keeping up with the constantly evolving standards of TV picture quality. With options that cater to televisions and budgets of all ilk, there is an alternative for everyone ready to snip.
Google’s line of simplified streaming devices differ from all others in that they don’t utilize a separate user interface. Instead, they require the use of a mobile device to stream content from a bevy of compatible apps. This, along with its simple installation, makes the Chromecast’s barrier to entry extremely low. The Chromecast Ultra brings 4K compatibility to the party, complete with an ethernet port for a more stable connection. But that is its only distinguishable difference between it and its less-powered and significantly cheaper counterpart. With other 4K devices offering more robust options at comparable prices, the Ultra loses some luster. Maybe it’ll get some more love when Google Stadia launches later this year.
Much like the Ultra, the original Chromecast’s main selling point is its simplicity. Unlike the Ultra, the Chromecast’s price point makes it a solid option for users without a 4K television. The device is capable of 1080p streaming and, like the Ultra, is compatible with Google Assistant-enabled speakers for hands-free operation. But the lack of a remote with the same capability built in makes this process feel less streamlined than other devices. The Chromecast is really only viable for those looking for the absolute cheapest option.
Amazon’s original streaming stick remains the best option for those that put price over fidelity. The Fire TV stick makes up for its lack in 4K compatibility with HDR10 picture quality and an improved Alexa-enabled remote. The remote makes voice searching easy and can be programed to control televisions and soundbars in addition to the stick itself. This is the perfect budget option for those that readily use Amazon services. For those that aren’t Prime subscribers, the interface’s tendency to funnel users to Amazon products can be pretty annoying. But its 6GB of memory lets users keep a robust library of apps at the ready once downloaded.
This one is for all the Apple heads out there. The Apple TV 4K takes advantage of the full Apple ecosystem while delivering perhaps the fastest processing speed of any device on the market thanks to its A10X fusion processor. The device allows users to access their iTunes library and the iTunes Store alongside other major streaming apps. That’s for good reason as the Apple TV 4K offers less apps overall than its competitors. But the convenience of built in tools that easily import passwords and streamline updating from a third or fourth generation Apple TV make this more appealing to Apple loyalists. The price is also very Apple-esque. The standard 32GB model already runs fairly spendy, but a 64GB model is available for $20 more.
We finally come to the first Roku device on the list, the Premiere+. This stick delivers the most affordable 4K HDR10 picture quality along with a voice remote, a welcome upgrade from the frustrating infrared remote of the cheaper Roku Premiere. Roku’s main selling point is its large app, or Channel, library. All the major players are featured alongside a slew of niche services, meaning there’s something for everyone. The Premiere+ does lack some extras present on other devices. The voice remote isn’t compatible with other voice-activated device, reserving its voice capabilities for searching the platform. Another bummer: the Premiere+ is a Walmart exclusive item.
Nvidia isn’t the first name you think of when it comes to streaming, but the Shield is one hell of an introduction to the market. The Shield utilizes the Android TV interface to provide the standard content services, but there is so much more going on within this jagged beast. The Shield’s 4K HDR10 offerings expand beyond film and television to include videogames. The device comes with free beta access to GeForce Now, Nvidia’s cloud gaming platform. There is even a package that includes a company-made controller, though most bluetooth enabled controllers work with the device. Its compatibility with both Google Assistant and Alexa allows the Shield to operate as an effective hands-free smart home hub. There is a certain power in telling your coffee maker to brew with the same device that runs PUBG. It would be higher on the list if not for its high price point.
The Roku Ultra is an entertainment hub masquerading as a set-top streaming device. Roku’s high-end device includes its extensive content library, but its extras set itself apart. The voice remote makes searching easier, but it also packs a headphone jack. Users can plug in the included JBL headphones and enjoy a viewing experience that won’t disturb everyone around them. The device itself includes an ethernet port for improved internet connectivity and a USB port for easily connecting external devices for TV viewing. The MicroSD card slot allows users to extend their storage capability. The Ultra can’t be the mainframe for your smart home devices, but its price and flexibility make it appealing compared to other high-end streaming devices.
Take away the Fire TV Stick’s internal storage and add 4K HDR10 and Dolby Vision capability and you have the Fire TV Stick 4K. An extra $10 gets users state of the art picture quality, thought the Amazon funnel is still an issue within its user interface. That isn’t a bad deal for a top tier 4K streaming stick, though.
Amazon’s answer to other high-end devices is the best package among its competitors when comparing features to price. The Cube comes with an Alexa device built-in, making it hands-free without the need to speak into your remote. All elements of your entertainment system can be controlled via voice as well. But the Cube’s best improvement lies in its interface. The Amazon funnel is tossed out in favor of a more agnostic layout similar to Roku OS, making it easier to search for non-Amazon apps. The price point make stave off some, but the Cube is the way to go if you can afford it.
Roku’s Streaming Stick+ balances affordability with superb technical performance that places it above other sticks. The ease of Roku’s interface and voice search get a hefty speed boost thanks to its advanced wireless receiver. This add-on boosts the Streaming Stick+’s wireless speeds to levels higher than the Ultra’s. This one won’t operate your smart thermostat, but it is the best at providing a solid streaming experience for those looking for some premium 4K veg time.
Brian Bell is a queer freelance writer covering tech, pro wrestling, esports, games, comics and TV. Co-host of the Mr. Videogames Super Show podcast. Find and follow him on Twitter @WonderboyOTM.