First came the 4K TVs, now come the 4K streaming boxes.
Roku and Amazon both launched 4K media streamers last year, letting users watch higher-resolution video without having to rely on the often-clunky interface of a smart TV. But aside from their ability to play Ultra HD content, the Roku 4 and second-gen Amazon Fire TV have little in common. Their prices are different ($100 for the new Fire TV, $130 for the Roku 4), they come in different shapes and sizes, they have varying levels of 4K app support, and their interfaces couldn’t be philosophically further apart.
Fortunately, those differences should help make the buying decision a bit easier. Read on for our guide to choosing the right 4K media streamer.
(A quick note about the Nvidia Shield Android TV: While it also supports 4K, it doesn’t support Amazon Video, and its powerful graphics engine—Nvidia is targeting gamers as much as TV viewers—drives its price tag up to $200.
What’s the deal with 4K?
The 4K standard for televisions, also known as Ultra HD, refers to a picture with 3840-by-2160 resolution (2160p for short). Compared to a 1080p HD set, 4K packs in four times as many pixels, allowing for sharper details. While most cable and satellite providers are still hashing out their 4K plans, a handful of online services such as Netflix and Amazon have already started streaming some videos in the higher-res format.
But 4K streaming on the Fire TV and Roku 4 brings some new requirements. You’ll need a 4K TV, of course, and it must have at least one HDMI input that supports the HDCP 2.2 copy-protection standard. This rules out a few of the earliest 4K sets, and some newer TVs may only have one or two HDMI/HDCP 2.2 ports. And if you intend to stream Ultra HD over the Internet, you'll need a faster Internet connection of around 15- to 25 Mbps, where full HD needs only 5- to 10Mbps.
Assuming you’re 4K-ready, does the higher resolution make much of a difference? Not exactly. For this review, I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth between 2160p and 1080p videos on my 70-inch Vizio 2015 M-Series television, using Netflix, Amazon, Vudu, and Plex as sources. At best, the advantages of 4K video border on the subconscious. It seems the closer you pay attention, the harder it is to notice any improvement.
That doesn’t mean the Roku 4 and second-gen Fire TV are completely meaningless upgrades. Both are faster than the 1080p boxes that preceded them, and both support the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, which enables speedier connections over a longer range on the less-crowded 5GHz band. The Roku 4 also adds optical audio output, and has a nifty remote-finding feature that sounds a tone on the remote when you press a button on the box.
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