If you plan to buy a new streaming player in 2019, chances are it’s going to support 4K HDR. The new format, which allows for sharper pictures and more vibrant colors, now appears in the majority of Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K. It’s also available in the Apple TV 4K, Google’s Chromecast Ultra, and Nvidia’s Shield TV. Research firm expects 97 percent of TVs with 55-inch or larger screens to support 4K resolution this year, so it’s no surprise that we’re seeing more streaming players to match. Still, not all 4K HDR is created equal, and your picture quality will ultimately depend on the TV you’re using, the streaming player you choose, and the streaming services you’re watching.
4K HDR explained
No matter which streaming device you buy, your picture quality will always be limited by your TV, so it’s important to understand what your TV supports before worrying about external streaming boxes or sticks. The term “4K HDR” refers to a pair of separate—but often intertwined—improvements over 1080p HD video. 4K provides a sharper picture by quadrupling the number of pixels on the screen, from 1920×1080 resolution to 3840×2160. HDR, which is short for “high dynamic range,” takes advantage of increasingly brighter screens to convey more color detail, particularly in shadows and highlights. Between these two improvements—sometimes described together as “UltraHD”—4K is more straightforward. The concept of packing more pixels into a given area is easy to understand, and works the same way regardless of who made your TV or how much you paid for it.
HDR is more complicated, but the effects are more noticeable when it’s done right. In general, brighter or higher-contrast displays with larger color gamuts will be better for HDR, so aim for a TV with at least 10-bit color and, for LED TVs, get as close to 1,000 nits as your budget allows. (You may have to consult some reviews for the latter spec, since TV vendors seldom publicize it.) Beware of cheap “HDR-compatible” sets in the sub-500 nit range, which are too dim to take full advantage of the format.
The other HDR factor to watch for is standard support. The baseline standard is HDR10, but a subset of UltraHD televisions also support Dolby Vision, a proprietary version of HDR that supports 12-bit color depth and can optimize color and brightness on a per-scene basis. Samsung and Panasonic have also started releasing televisions that support HDR10+, a royalty-free standard that offers similar optimizations as Dolby Vision, but without the higher color-depth support.
If we’re being honest, all these little distinctions don’t matter too much on their own. Unless you’ve got a strong eye for differences in video quality, it can be hard to tell if you’re watching a video in HDR10 or Dolby Vision. But oftentimes, support for more advanced 4K features can indicate other virtues. Dolby, for instance, tends not to slap its name on bargain-basement TVs with substandard HDR, so Dolby Vision support ends up being a de facto measure of quality. Same goes with HDR10+, which Samsung is only featuring on its premium televisions this year.
4K HDR players
If you recently picked up a 4K HDR television, chances are it can already stream the format through its own smart TV features. But while smart TVs are generally better than they used to be, you may want a separate player if your television doesn’t have all the apps you want, or you’re otherwise dissatisfied with its performance. Just like your TV itself, streaming players’ ability to handle 4K HDR varies from one device to the next.
As of this writing, Amazon’s new Fire TV Stick 4K is the only streaming player that supports 4K, HDR10, Dolby Vision, and HDR10+. The Apple TV 4K supports both HDR10 and Dolby Vision, and Microsoft is bringing Dolby Vision support to the Xbox One S and Xbox One X, which already support HDR10. All other current-generation devices are HDR10-only. The Apple TV 4K also has the distinction of being the only streaming box that renders its entire interface in HDR, right down to the main menu. That means you won’t get any flicker from switching between display modes, and Apple will even attempt to convert standard-dynamic range content into HDR.
Fire TV Stick 4K
All of that makes it worth much more the Fire TV Stick 4K commands over its sibling. But what’s perhaps more surprising is what a star performer it is for a video streamer. The big upgrade is support for 4K video, of course, but it’s far from the only improvement: HDR has also been added, not just in standard HDR10 form, but also HLG, HDR10+ and Dolby Vision, making this the most format-friendly high dynamic range video streamer currently available. Alexa has been added, too, and proves more compelling than you might imagine.
Such is its chunkiness; the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K might be more accurately referred to as a branch. Compared to a more traditionally shaped streamer such as the Apple TV, this is a far more compact design, but at 10cm long the Fire TV Stick 4K will protrude from the edge of many TVs when plugged into a sideways-facing socket. Plugging it in next to other cables can be a real squeeze too. There is, at least, an HDMI extender in the box that can help with the latter issue as well as improving the wi-fi performance – although we had no issues either way. You can also hardwire the Stick to your router by adding the optional ethernet adapter.
As well as being physically bigger than most sticks, the Fire TV Stick 4K also draws more power, to the extent that you should use the USB wall plug that comes in the box rather than running the cable into one of your TV’s own sockets – though we tried it both ways during testing and spotted no difference in performance. But wall-mounters who’ve chosen a stick device for neatness will be disappointed if they discover plugging the Amazon into the wall is essential.
First-time set-up is pleasantly slick. The Stick automatically installs any available software updates, quickly and easily connects to your wi-fi and, predictably, links to your Amazon account. The video that introduces you to your new device is useful, but sets off any Alexa device already in the room. Once the initial set-up is complete there are still a few more advanced options worth exploring. The option to play all content in its native frame rate is turned off by default and we’d strongly recommend turning it on. The Fire TV Stick 4K is also by default set to always output HDR, effectively upconverting standard dynamic range content to rather inauthentic effect – we’d recommend you also change that while in the setting menus.
The Apple TV 4K
The Apple TV 4K feels like a confident step forward for Apple’s little streaming box, even if it took a while to get here – and that’s especially true if you’ve recently invested in a slightly-too-fancy-but-go-on-it’s-a-treat 4K HDR TV. The Apple TV 4K is one of the best options you’ve got to place under that TV, with a few caveats. The Apple TV 4K can handle all 4K content, with HDR10 and Dolby Vision supported, so the main new standards are covered – and (depending on the TV you’ve connected it to) the pictures look fantastic. From the flyover screensavers to the menu interface, everything packs in more pixels and looks sharper for it.
Apple TV 4K will also soon support the Dolby Atmos audio format, making the Apple TV 4K the only video streaming device to support both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision formats. The announcement came during Apple’s WWDC 2018 keynote and came alongside the news that iTunes will now stock Dolby Atmos-enabled films and TV shows. Since tvOS (the operating system that both the Apple TV 4K and standard Apple TV use) first appeared. it’s really improved. Universal search is getting better all the time, and if you subscribe to Apple Music it makes the Apple TV a competent jukebox as well as a top-tier movie streamer.
The Chromecast Ultra 4K
The Chromecast Ultra is Google’s drive for the 4K HDR crowd: a wafer-sized streaming device that can receive 4K HDR signal from any mobile device currently on your network. It’s similar to Google’s previous streaming dongles in being a small device with big potential, so what makes this Chromecast so special? The Chromecast Ultra earns that extra label not only because it adds 4K playback and HDR video – it also boasts an Ethernet port and improved internal components, so videos load faster and are less susceptible to lag.
Those features help Google’s latest Chromecast streamer feel more premium than its predecessor, without offering a major departure in terms of form factor or available content.
The key feature that continues to makes the Chromecast Ultra (and other Chromecast-equipped devices) so popular is simply their ability to ‘cast’ content – to take a link sent from your phone, tablet, laptop, or smart speaker and load it up on your TV. You can simply cast YouTube videos or Spotify playlists, or you can go further with security cam feeds and games, and connect the Chromecast Ultra up to Google Home and Google Assistant (so you can get photos, weather and so on displayed). From sight alone though, you’d be hard pressed to pick out the differences between the 2nd-gen Chromecast and the Chromecast Ultra.
Nvidia’s Shield TV 4K
The Nvidia’s Shield TV 4K-capable, HDR-ready video streaming device has been developed by a primarily graphics card-focused company. It’s one of the most powerful streaming video players on the planet – one that can double as a gaming system, and triple as the center of your smart home. It has the power to stream your favorite shows like Amazon Fire TV or any one of the Roku players, but with the added perk of being able to play Android TV and some PC-quality games via GeForce Now.
Finally, while other streaming devices might make you tack on a Bluetooth controller in order to really enjoy games (cough, Apple TV), Nvidia Shield comes with a completely re-designed gamepad that works much better than it did previously. It has its shortcomings, but overall Nvidia’s Shield TV has enough on offer to persuade even the most ardent of skeptics to give this little streamer a shot. It’s an excellent addition, and something that makes it much easier to use the console as just a streaming box if you don’t want to bother with the gaming side of things for a session.
Roku Streaming Stick Plus 4K
Roku Streaming Stick Plus 4K streamers that offer 4K HDR video and Dolby Atmos audio support: the new Roku Streaming Stick Plus sits alongside the familiar Chromecast Ultra and the new Amazon Fire TV, The ‘Plus’ differentiates it from the older, non-4K, non-HDR iteration of Roku Streaming Stick. Roku has long been the leader in the streaming box market, mostly because it’s been relatively cheap and aggressively neutral: it supports virtually every streaming service you can think of, save Apple’s iTunes. Roku’s search interface shows you movie listings across all those services with prices clearly displayed so you can cross-shop, and it’s rare for any new service to launch without Roku support, given the ubiquity of the devices.
The new Streaming Stick Plus seems like the culmination of everything Roku’s been building toward: a tiny device that can plug into any TV setup, completely replace the interface and controls with a single remote, and provide access to a huge catalog of content across a range of services. This is the new default Roku — and by extension, the new default choice for people buying a media streamer for now-common 4K TVs. In most situations, it’ll be fine, but if you’re thinking of upgrading just to watch 4K HDR movies, or you’re trying to get the most out of your home theater, you’ll quickly run into some pretty serious limitations.