The ultimate streaming hardware comparison guide

Apple TV
Apple TV

There is a lot of hardware out there when it comes to streaming live video. So much so, that it's understandable if you're a prospective cord-cutter and you're feeling a little overwhelmed. That's where we come in.

You really can boil the hardware situation down to four major platforms. There's Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, and Android TV. For the purposes of these comparisons, we're leaving out Chromecast, which is excellent, and the various smart TVs like what you'll get from LG and Samsung. Or then you have the TVs that run full operating systems, like Toshiba's sets running Amazon Fire TV, or TCL's Roku TVs, or Sony's set that have Android TV on board. (Told you there's a lot going on.)

No, here we're going to look at the major external platforms. We're focusing on the high-end set-top boxes and dongles. And while the low-end devices can be had for as little as $30, and the high-end boxes go for as much as $200, generally speaking what you see is what you'll get — it's the performance that improves as you spend more money.

So let's take a look and how the major players fare against one another. We'll keep this post updated as new hardware is released.

Apple TV 4K vs. the competition

Amazon Fire TV Cube vs. the competition

Roku Ultra vs. the competition

Android TV and NVIDIA Shield vs. the competition

Apple TV

Apple TV 4K ($179 at Amazon.)

Apple TV vs. the rest

Apple TV is an excellent option for cord-cutters — particularly those of the iOS persuasion. And the best Apple TV box you can buy today indeed is the Apple TV 4K. It's fast. It's powerful. It, uh, it does 4K resolution. And on top of that it supports both major HDR protocols — the open-source HDR 10, and the proprietary Dolby Vision. And it'll soon do Dolby Atmos audio.

In fact, Apple TV 4K is our pick for the best streaming box you can buy.

The only question, then, is just how much better it is than everything else.

Apple TV 4K

Apple TV is currently our pick for the best streaming box you can buy — regardless of whether you're an iPhone person or an Android person. It's got the best mix of performance and storage options (you can get it with either 32 or 64 gigabytes of space for apps and movies and music and stuff), and it has nearly every service you could think of at its disposal. (Google Play Movies & TV is the notable exception, though it's not like you can't get that content elsewhere.)

The one low mark is for the Siri remote — it's just not fun to use, and it's small and easy to lose.

Regardless, if you want something that just works, and works really well, this is what you want to look at.

Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon Fire TV Cube ($119 at Amazon.)

Amazon Fire TV Cube vs. the rest

Amazon Fire TV is everywhere, be it 2017's excellent Fire TV 4K dongle, or the newer Fire TV Cube, which is what we're focusing on. (But let's not forget the low-end Fire TV Stick, which is still a fine budget entry, if you don't mind need 4K resolution or speed.)

Fire TV is really good, but it does have its hangups. Here's how it fares against the likes of Apple TV, Roku and Android TV.

Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon Fire TV Cube

Amazon Fire TV Cube is a mashup of an Amazon Fire TV 4K and an Amazon Echo. It's a full smart TV system, with the ability to do all sorts of things hands-free thanks to Amazon Alexa being built into the box itself.

That's not to say you'll never need the remote control — or have to grab another remote to control things like volume and power. But it's a really cool iteration of both the Fire TV and Echo lines.

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra ($89 at Amazon.)

Roku Ultra vs. the rest

Roku may not be sexy, but it's super popular. It's built in to one out of every four smart TVs, and there's no denying the usefulness of its external offerings. The low-end Roku Streaming Stick is a mere $50. And the high-end Roku Ultra, which we're concentrating on, is less than twice that much.

No, Roku Ultra is the sort of box you'll get someone who doesn't have loyalties to one of the major smart operating systems, and they just want things to work simply — and work well.

Here's how Roku Ultra fares against the other major players:

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra

Roku Ultra was released in October 2017 as the top-of-the-line box from the streaming company. It handles 4K resolution and HDR10, with private listening available through the remote control.

It's the pinnacle of Roku products and provides a simple user interface meant for making streaming video easy, without a lot of cruft getting in the way.


NVIDIA Shield TV ($199 at Amazon.)

NVIDIA Shield vs. the rest

Finally, there's Android TV — Google's answer to the living room operating system. You can find Android TV built in to a few televisions. But for everything else, there's NVIDIA Shield TV, which is the only set-top box we recommend that runs Android TV.

While Shield TV may be getting up there in age — it's going on three years old — it's still super powerful, and a great option for anyone, even those who don't use Android.

Here's how it stands up:

Phil Nickinson